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Posts Tagged ‘Productivity’

The 52-week guide to becoming an entrepreneur – Week 4

July 5th, 2013 No comments

IMG_2436 - Version 2This is the fourth post in my epic journey of going from lawyer to entrepreneur.  You can read the previous entry here, and next week’s entry here.

This week’s lesson was that it is way more fun to focus on giving rather than getting.

A huge part of my business is that it expands on the basis of referrals.  There’s no substitute for word of mouth.  I could put up advertising, but people that find their way to working with coaches rarely do so through billboards or ads in the phonebook.  They ask their friends, they ask their co-workers, and they get recommendations.

I can ask people for those, and I do, because it’s important to share who we are, what we do, and what support people can provide us.  But at the end of the day, asking people for something is way less fun than just providing them with a service.

When I shift my focus to being of service, it makes everything else lighter and easier.  It’s hard to ask for things.  That doesn’t means that we shouldn’t – but I can acknowledge the fact that it’s not my favourite thing to do.

Giving a service to someone is a gift.  It’s fun giving gifts.  They don’t have to accept it, but it feels good either way.  I also don’t have to be attached to someone accepting or rejecting a gift.  Sure, I’m surprised when someone isn’t interested, but that’s all it needs to be.

The challenge I face is the story playing on repeat in my head.  It goes something like this:

  • “You didn’t do enough today.  You should have done more.”
  • “Who cares if you coached five people today and wrote a blog post?  Your inbox isn’t empty.  You should have that empty before you end your day.”
  • “Why are you taking a break to play video games?  You should be working more.”

In some ways, my boss is an epic dick.

As you can imagine, the real challenge for me is accepting that that is just a story.  I’m doing more than enough, but you can see how that story would conflict with focusing on giving instead of getting.

Being of service means giving to people without any expectation of return.  It means providing a service to people with the understanding that that alone will build my brand, reputation, and credibility.  For someone like me that is so results driven, there is a direct conflict with the fact that you do not receive anything immediate when you give to people.

And so that’s what I’ve been grappling with this week.  Getting really comfortable with that story. Realizing that it’s been the thing that has gotten me to where I am, and allowed me to do things like graduate from law school and coach training at the same time, and build a coaching practice while working as a lawyer.

That way of being has helped me do a lot.  It’s just starting to get in the way of what’s next, because if I let that voice take over, my job stops being fun, there’s no longer room for mid-day bocce games, and I start to dump my own performance pressure onto everyone around me.

No one wins that game.

 

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The 52-week guide to becoming an entrepreneur – Week 3

June 28th, 2013 No comments

IMG_2394 - Version 2This is the third post in my epic journey of going from lawyer to entrepreneur.  You can read the previous entry here, and next week’s entry here.

This week’s lessons were that I am precious, as is my time, and support is abundant, provided I ask for it.

Two weeks ago, I spoke with my friend Lisa Peake.  She has been a mentor and an encouraging ear ever since I first reached out to her after seeing her post something about coaching on Skype.

Having just started my transition (or finished, if you like), Lisa gave me a piece of advice: “You’ll probably look at your schedule and think to yourself ‘How can I book my time?’.  Don’t.  Instead, relate to it as precious.  Where and to whom do you want to give your precious time?”.

This is great advice.  I promptly ignored it.  This is probably familiar right?  You give great advice to your friends all the time, and if only they would follow it, the bulk of their problems would be solved.

I reached out to everyone.  Made coffee dates all over the place.  Asked people if they wanted some free coaching (many people said no – I find this astonishing).

By the end of my third week, my schedule was packed, and I had days that started at 8:30AM and ended at 8:30PM.

How did this happen?  I thought that I had decided to focus on one thing specifically so that I could create the life I wanted – not work even more hours than previous.

It happened because I have not been holding my time as precious.  What I notice is that I’ve been relating to my time as though it will become precious once I’ve done enough.  “Time can be precious when I don’t have to build my business.”  If we go even deeper, I just distinguished with a colleague that I’m not holding myself as precious.  Like I can take it all on myself, and then save myself once the world is handled.

It’s insidious, this stuff.  Working with my coach, I set aside two hour blocks of time every day that were dedicated “free time”.  Nothing is to be scheduled during those blocks.  I can spend them doing work, if I choose, but the point is that there is some spontaneity and freedom built into my day.

I also realized that planning more than four “hard” appointments in my calendar would probably be too much, so I committed to booking a maximum of four appointments (coaching or otherwise) in a given day.

I immediately broke this commitment.  Why?  I know why it is important.  Why would I break that commitment so quickly?

Because I’m holding on to that same old fear.  I’m scared that I’m not doing enough and that I will fail as a result.

Guys.  Let me say it again.  It’s insidious, this stuff.  That’s how slippery it is.  This is the nature of our resistance.  This is why a coach needs a coach, just as much as anyone else.

On the flip side, I’ve experienced the inspiration and joy that connecting with other people brings me.  This morning I had an inspiring call with Robby Slaughter, a coach in Austin, Texas today, simply connecting with him and discussing our work.  Until this morning, we knew each other only from one blog post.  I linked to him, he wrote back to me, and we connected via phone.  I have consistently been present to how gracious and generous people are with their time, when you simply reach out and ask for it.  Connecting with people like Robby and Lisa makes a world of difference.  It means that I don’t have to win alone.

So, again, this week’s lessons are that I am precious, and if I actually want to create the life I truly want, I must start relating to myself that way.  Second, there is an abundance of support available, and all that I need to do is ask for and allow it.  Connect with people, and trust myself as a gift.

Want to play?  I really want to create an impact with my writing.  You can support that by following this blog and our Evergrowth Blog, and sharing it with people.  Retweet my posts, share them on Google+ and Facebook, e-mail posts to people, and tell people about what I’m up to.  Even if you only do it once, you have helped me on my journey.

(But if you do it twice, you’ve helped me twice as much as that jerk that only did it once).

GTD’ing with Reminders and Quicksilver

April 3rd, 2013 2 comments

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 10.21.20 AM

A quick post today on integrating iOS and OS X’s reminders app into your GTD workflow, with the help of our friend Quicksilver.

GTD relies heavily on the concept of the “tickler”.  A folder that serves as a place for you to put everything that you need to do in the future.  If you want more details on the tickler, you can read about them here.  The intent here is to take Reminders and have it act as a digital substitute for your tickler.

First, if you haven’t installed Quicksilver, do so.  It is fantastic, and will save you time even if the only thing you ever use it for is to launch programs.

Second is the easiest step – setting up Reminders as a tickler.  While I have used apps like Remember the Milk to create complicated solutions to my tickler in the past, I have found that they’ve fallen by the wayside because of the overhead they require.  For our purposes, we want Reminders to be as lightweight as possible.  Here are the rules that we follow to create that:

  • create a reminder (with a day and time) for everything that needs to be done this month.  Any hard appointments (requiring a specific time and date – ie, a calendar appointment) should be in your calendar, and not your tickler;
  • for everything that is to be completed in one of the following months, create a reminder for the first day of that month; and
  • at the start of each month, review each reminder for that month and reschedule with a day and time.

Simple right?  That’s our game.

Third, we want to be able to add reminders efficiently, and with a minimal number of clicks.  To do so, we start by adding a Quicksilver script.  Download it here.  Save the unzipped file in ~/Library/Application Support/Quicksilver/Actions/.

If you are unable to find this directory in Finder, you may need to change your settings. You can do so by launching Terminal and entering the command:

chflags nohidden ~/Library/

Once you’ve done this, you can close Terminal.  The folder should show up in your Finder window right away.  If you want to hide the folder again afterwards, simply open Terminal again and enter the command:

chflags hidden ~/Library

Before we restart Quicksilver, there’s one final change we need to make.  First, identify the name of your list in Reminders.  You can do this by opening up Reminders and checking the left side of the app.  My list is called TODO.  Yours might be called something else.

Fourth, we need to update the script with your list’s name.  Navigate to the script you just put in to ~/Library/Application Support/Quicksilver/Actions/ and edit it using either Textedit or Applescript Editor.  Right toward the top of the script is a line that says:

showlistlistname

Where listname will be the default list name.  Change this to whatever the name of your list is (mine now says showlist “TODO”).  Save the script and exit (you don’t need to compile it).

Now, restart Quicksilver.  At this point, you should be able to load up Quicksilver (using command-space, or whatever hotkey combination you set), and enter natural text reminders, such as “Remind me on may 4th at 9am to call julie”.  The complete workflow now looks like this:

  • command-space to bring up Quicksilver;
  • Type “.” to begin typing in text
  • “remind me to call julie on may 4 at 9am”
  • [Tab]
  • Type “Reminder”
  • [Enter]

Boom, new reminder added, from anywhere on your computer, regardless of what you’re currently doing.

Lastly, I find Reminders integration with Mail.app to be super useful.  Whenever I have an e-mail that requires some kind of action in the future, I drag that e-mail onto Reminders’ app icon in the Dock.  It will create a reminder for me which includes a link to the original e-mail.  I can fill out the rest of the details and then archive the e-mail, knowing that it sits in my trusted system.

Good luck with all your GTD’ing needs, and feel free to post if you have questions.  Follow me at @adamquiney and @evergrowthadam, and my professional blog at evergrowthcoaching.com for productivity tips beyond the realm of tools.  Lastly, a big thank you to @LoveQuicksilver for providing this handy Reminders script.

Evolution abhors your comfort

November 6th, 2011 2 comments

I’ve just gotten back from spending some time today at a mingler with the folks putting on @TEDxVictoria.  This event promises to be an inspiring one, with a number of very interesting speakers attending.  I’m volunteering on the day of the event, and am looking forward to touching base and meeting a ton of new people.  I’ll be working the registration desk, so please stop by and say hi if you’re attending the event.

The theme for the event is “Cultivating Evolution”.  I had hoped to get my act together and submit a talk for the event, but had a number of other commitments that were more pressing and, to be fair, more important as well.

However, this theme is very near and dear to my heart.  Growth is an integral component of who I am, and it’s the reason my clients seek out my coaching services.  I help people find where and how they want to grow, and I enable and accelerate that growth.  Evolution, to my mind, means growth with purpose.

Does growth require a purpose?

No.  But, I believe that growth without any purpose is often cancerous.  It doesn’t lead in any particular direction and often results in imbalance, burn-out and resources being strained or devoted to the wrong things.

When house plants grow, they do so with the purpose of maximizing their exposure to sunlight.  Their purpose is to harness and utilize the available resources as efficiently as possible.  You’ll note that your plants often grow towards the source of sunlight in your home.  Growing in every direction without any purpose would be inefficient.  The plant would need to devote more energy to supporting the parts of itself that aren’t collecting sunlight.

Humans are the same way.  We need to ensure that our growth happens in a purposeful manner.  Optimally, we want to design our growth so that we move and grow in directions that are consistent with what matters most to us.  Growth that is in alignment with our values and our purpose will be growth that is maximally beneficial to ourselves.

Take a moment and think of someone in your network that has achieved great things, but is miserable.  Most of us know at least a few people that meet this description – many of us meet the description ourselves.  With the intense pressure put on young adults graduating from high school to enter university, get a degree and start working “in the real world”, there are ever greater numbers of people that have grown in ways that are simply irrelevant to their values and drive.  Aside from the intrinsic value gained from education itself, what good is an engineering degree if all you have ever wanted to be was a professional actor?

Where does comfort fit into this?

Let’s get back on track  — what does comfort have to do with evolution?

The answer is: Nothing.  Comfort is what will kill your evolution.

The thing is, growth doesn’t occur when we’re comfortable; it occurs when we are pushing outside of our comfort zone.  Comfort represents a number of things.  To name just a few:

  • Security
  • Safety
  • Inertia
  • The known
  • Being at peace with our surroundings

Most of these things are good.  Security and safety are important in our lives, and provide us with a sense of predictability and rationality in a world that doesn’t always behave that way.  Being at peace with our surroundings allows us to let our guard down, giving us the opportunity to rest.

When I was 19, I worked at McDonalds.  I made very little money, but it was enough to pay my rent, buy groceries and liquor, and go out to the bar with friends multiple times a week.  It was comfortable.  In fact, I could have stayed in that place for the next ten years without making any changes (and there were certainly some people that did just that).

But I demand growth from myself, and I think that you should too.  Evolution along our own values is something that we, as humans, intrinsically seek.  You may not even be aware of this drive, but you can feel it every time you experience a sense of discontent, or hear yourself saying “I feel like I’m better than this”.

There’s no growth in comfort

This is my key point.  Really juicy growth occurs when we are pushed out of our comfort zone and forced to adapt to circumstances that we have not previously encountered.

Our minds are rational.  It’s the way we’ve evolved to think.  We seek out patterns, we make predictable results based on those patterns, and then we assume that the same result will flow from that pattern the next time we encounter it.  When we’re exposed to new patterns or situations, the likes of which we have not before seen, we experience discomfort.  How do we know what result will come from this new situation?  We’ve lost our predictability; we’ve lost our rationality.

For the first ten years of my life as a dancer, I practiced my technique in front of a mirror, and it became very refined as a result.  But for those long years, I never felt like I was really progressing at the rate that I wanted to.  What had happened to the leaps and bounds that I’d been experiencing when I first started?  Simple — I was now only operating within my comfort zone.  When you allow yourself to remain in this realm, the best you can hope to do is refine what you already know.

Don’t get me wrong, refining our existing knowledge is its own form of growth and has its own value.  It’s just that it isn’t the same kind of growth, and it won’t generate those big rewards that you remember getting when you first started learning something new.

When I went to Vancouver and was put in a position where I had to dance in the middle of a circle of my friends, I was thrust right back in to that awkward, uncomfortable place.  And you know what?  My growth was incredible!  It felt discomforting and a little bit terrifying.  But those things are healthy.  They let us know that we’re doing something new.  We’re being exposed to something that is currently outside of our existing knowledge base.

If you want to grow, you need to be willing to expose yourself to something new

And so here’s the call of action to you, my readers.  Determine some areas in your life where you would like to see some growth.  Perhaps it’s meeting some new people.  Perhaps it’s quitting a habit that you’ve been carrying with you for quite some time.  Perhaps it’s pursuing a dream that you’ve let sit on the back burner for far too long.

Figure out where your first point of discomfort is with respect to this change you would like to make.  If you’re aim is to meet new people and become better at talking to strangers, perhaps that first point of discomfort comes merely from the thought of taking that action.

“What will I say after I say hello to them?”

“What if they just look at me strangely?”

“What if they don’t like me?”

These are all questions that represent that first point of discomfort.  See that point of discomfort for what it truly is: a milestone indicating an opportunity to grow.  Recognize that it doesn’t represent a failing on your part that you feel uncomfortable about it, and treat as a challenge, rather than a barrier.

Then, attack that point of discomfort.  Commit yourself to feeling uncomfortable for a period of four weeks, and then…

Dive head first.

Just do it.  It’s that simple.  The real meat of true growth is rarely about long planning sessions, strategy and identifying points of possible failure.  It ultimately comes down to your willingness to experience the discomfort associated with being in an unfamiliar situation.

Remind yourself, it gets easier every time, and that’s because you’re growing.  The first time you say “Hi” to a stranger will feel awkward and silly.  It’s outside of your comfort zone.  It’s not who you currently are.  But you’re doing it because you want to get better at it, right?  The second time you do it, it won’t feel quite as uncomfortable.  You’ve already done it once before, and you have an inkling of what to expect.  And so the cycle continues.

So what’s standing in your way?

We’ve all got complaints that go like this: “If only for X, I would be able to do Y”.

And make no mistake, X is entirely real to each of us, regardless of what it happens to be.  Maybe it’s money.  Maybe it’s the fact that you aren’t supported by your spouse.  Maybe it’s that you didn’t do something when you were younger, and so you don’t think you can achieve Y now.

But it doesn’t matter how real X is to you, because I have the real answer.

What’s predominantly standing in the way of your own growth isn’t X (or A, B or C either).  It’s fear.

Fear is what stops most of us from growing.  What do those fears look like?  Here are some:

  • Fear that we won’t be supported by our partner

This is something worth delving into a little more deeply, but if Y is something you truly want to achieve, why would your partner want to stand in the way of that?

(Probably because of their own fears).

  • Fear that you won’t be able to afford to do Y

There are always creative ways to achieve what you want.  Maybe you can’t do Y full-time until you’ve established yourself, but that’s not to say that you can’t start do a little bit of Y until you’ve made more of a name for yourself.

  • Fear that you don’t have the time to do Y

Is Y important to you?  Where are you spending your time?  Is everything that currently occupies your time more important than Y, or are there some things that could be dropped off to make more time for Y?

Again, most of these really amount to assuming that our current context, that is to say, what we are currently comfortable with, is the only possibility that there ever could be.  But there’s no validity to this assumption.  Although you’re probably quite comfortable with the way you’re spending time, if it’s stopping you from growing toward something that is truly important to you, maybe it’s time to experience some discomfort.

Embrace discomfort

Here’s your take-away point for today.  Take note of when you are experiencing discomfort, and rather than simply reacting to it, ask yourself why you are feeling that way.  What’s causing that sensation?  What is it that you are uncomfortable with?

Then, embrace it.  Recognize it as an opportunity for growth and let yourself sit with that uncomfortable feeling.

Let’s close it out

Here’s your summary for today:

  • Evolution is ultimately, in the personal sense, purposeful growth
  • While it is good to feel comfortable at times, true growth does not lie in feeling comfortable
  • In order to grow, you need to experience discomfort.  In fact, discomfort and growth are often mutually inclusive
  • Identify some areas in your life where you want to see some real growth, then find the first point of discomfort.  Once you’ve done that, attack that point head-on.  Dive in to the discomfort and let yourself sit with it.
  • Don’t simply react to discomfort.  Understand that it represents a challenge and an opportunity to grow, and treat it as such.

Productivity as a vice

July 28th, 2011 9 comments

Vancouver on Canada DayFor a long time, my writing has been heavily focused on productivity.  I love being productive, and it provides me with a sense of purpose and of balance.  When I’ve accomplished things during the day, I feel like I’ve actually made the world a better place through my own industry.

In the first part of my life as an adult, I spent a lot of time learning how to maximize my productivity.  This, in effect, was a way for me to get as much as I could out of life.  The logic went that the more I can do, the more enriching my life is.

However, in recent years, that focus has started to shift.  It’s not that I no longer value productivity — it’s that I value something else above it: balance.

We can spend so much of our time focused on productivity that we lose sight of the present.  If we are no longer able to appreciate the moment at hand, what’s the point?  Without an ability to appreciate what’s going on around us, it doesn’t matter how much we accomplish.  Everyone else may gain from my productivity, but how fulfilling can I really say my own life has been if I’ve been unable to enjoy it?

We have become so focused on productivity.  We’re always looking for new ways to squeeze more efficiency out of our employees, ways to accomplish more during our commute, ways to do more things every day and tools to help us manage everything that we’ve chosen to taken on.  How often do we stop to ask if we’re doing what’s most important to us?

Productivity without balance is a vice, not a virtue.

If we don’t check ourselves and seek out balance by setting our own boundaries, how do we determine when enough is enough?

I know many people that are either unaware, unable or unwilling to set boundaries for themselves and allow the drive to be productive rule their day.  The result?  Their bodies set and create the boundaries for them when they won’t.  Stress, illness fatigue and burnout are all ways that our body provides an indication that we need to re-prioritize balance in our lives.

Tragically, our working culture has evolved to the point that you can often overhear people boasting about how late they’ve been staying at the office, as though it is a badge of honour.  It isn’t; it’s a sign of an unhealthy working culture.  Employers should be seeking to imbue in people an appreciation and respect for balance.  It means that they’ll get more out of their employees, hold better retention rates and have more satisfied workers.

Productivity without balance is a cancerous pursuit.  Without taking the time to check in with yourself and prioritize the other things in your life, your own industry will be coming from a less meaningful place.  Productivity that does not have a purpose behind it is like growth for the sake of growth.  This kind of unhealthy focus on productivity can develop its own vicious cycle.  The more out of balance you become, the easier it becomes to take on more stuff.  With a myopic focus on productivity, you lose an awareness of the other demands on your time.  Without a sense of balance, it becomes easier not to say no.

By making the effort to prioritize balance in your life, you will ensure that you remain productive in the greater sense.  Think about it – if you’re living your life out of balance, worn out and tired, who’s really gaining from your productivity?

By prioritizing balance, you maximize your productivity

By striking a balance in your life, you’ll actually ensure you are maximally productive by attending to all of your needs, rather than just a few.  These needs include things like:

  • Sleep
  • Nutrition
  • Fitness
  • Your relationship/Marriage
  • Friends
  • Family
  • Fun

The more out of balance you become, the greater your body and mind will subconsciously pull you back toward your centre.  Your ability to sustain productivity, when done at the expense of balance, will suffer from diminishing returns.

Many of us respond to this reduction in productivity by attempting to push ourselves harder, staving off the inexorable return to balance as long as possible.  We don’t realize that the longer we remain in a productive state, the longer we need to recharge our batteries.  This isn’t a failing on our part (though we often treat is as such) — it’s simply a fact of life.

Imagine yourself as an elastic band.  Our natural, balanced state is the when the elastic band is left at rest.  When we push ourselves to be productive, we are tugging the elastic band from two ends.  The longer we push ourselves to be productive, the greater this elastic band is stretched.  We can attempt to squeeze more productivity out of our heads, but this requires stretching the elastic band even further.  The longer we hold ourselves from a state of balance, the more effort it requires to stretch that band further.  Hold yourself to a state of productivity for too long and the band snaps.  Your body will eventually take over and forcefully undertake the return to balance.  If you’ve pushed yourself too hard, that will often be via crashing into sleep, illness, or worse (Eg, your head could explode).

Summary

Here’s what we’ve covered:

  • Productivity, when pursued to the detriment of balance, is not a virtue — it’s a vice
  • A tunnel-vision-like focus on productivity is cancerous and self-perpetuating
  • When you prioritize balance in your life, you actually maximize your ability to be productive
    • If you think you can actually get more accomplished by cutting back on the other important parts of your life, you’re only fooling yourself
Take care of yourself, and seek out balance.  The next time you consider taking on something new, ask yourself whether that coincides with what you need to do to stay balanced.

Retreat to get ahead.

July 1st, 2011 1 comment

Ahhhh...A lot has happened since I last posted.  I included a link to one of my articles detailing my weekly review process over at GTD Times, and got over 100 daily visits across the span of about 5 days (without doubt a record for this humble site).

Unfortunately, that timing coincided with an assignment in one class and writing a take-home exam in my administrative law class.  As such, I effectively invited a bunch of people into my home and then fell into a coma for the duration of their visit.  Not the best way to increase traffic or treat people that are interested in what I have to say.

Administrative law was a challenging course, though only inasmuch as the subject matter was very dry, and it was a large-credit course condensed into half the time.  I was spending 8 hours a week in class, and additional time reading.  The challenge was to stay motivated and engaged throughout.  Nevertheless, things have started to settle down a little bit, and as I travel over to Vancouver for the weekend, I’m given the familiar gift of a dedicated 1.5 hours in which to put thoughts to keyboard.

Today I want to talk a little bit about the importance of retreating.  If you don’t need convincing and only want the strategy, you can skip to it here.

 

..from what?

From everything.

What I’m hoping to convince you is that there is value in having the self-discipline and awareness to take a step back from time to time and pull away from whatever you are currently focused on.

 

Why?

There are many good reasons to purposefully retreat from your current task or project.  First and foremost is the need to combat diminishing returns.  Although this is generally an economic theory, it is applicable to much of our daily lives.

Can you think of a time when you were banging your head against the metaphorical wall for hours, trying to solve a problem, only to go for a walk, return and immediately conceive of the solution?  These experiences are not uncommon, and are illustrative of the value of retreating.

When a problem is receiving all of our focus, we can develop mental tunnel vision.  Our mind’s become focused to the extent that we are unable to synthesize or incorporate any additional information from outside of our particular area of focus.  It is not until we step back that the blinders on our mind are removed and we are free to think of a solution in terms that exist outside of the confines of the box we were operating in.

Do you take breaks at work?

If you answered no, you probably thought to yourself “I’m way too busy to take a break, I can’t afford the time”.  The fact is, you can’t afford not to take breaks.

Without taking time to retreat and reconnect with yourself, the efficiency with which you are able to apply yourself to your work will diminish over time.  This is not an uncommon process amongst law students.  A-type personalities have an aggressive bent and love throwing themselves at a task.  Failure in achieving that task within expectations is met with zeal and resentment, and a redoubling of effort.  Many a weary face have I seen turning in assignments in the morning, telling fables of seeing dragons at 5 in the morning, shortly before they awoke in a pile of drool in time to hand in their completed paper.

I’m using hyperbole here because it’s more fun, but you can probably relate to this state of mind.  Most of us would benefit from procrastinating less (also here) and taking more frequent breaks.

 

I can’t afford to!

Actually, you can’t afford not to.

This is a good statement to trigger your self-awareness and alert you that maybe you need to take a step back.  With unbelievably few exceptions, taking 15 minutes away from a task you are working on is not going to result in failure.

Retreating from your tasks and projects is important, but this philosophy should be applied not just to work, but to life in general.

For the first two years of classes, I’ve been a part of the co-op program.  This means that I take classes for four months, then work at a legal job for four months, and back again.  A lot of my friends planned their work so that they finished on a Friday, and then started school again on a Monday.  When I told them that I had two weeks off, they exclaimed disbelief: “You’re so lucky!”.

Luck has nothing to do with it.  You have to actively make time for your retreats.  No one else is going to do it for you (and the same applies for your breaks at work).  Are you thinking that you can’t afford the time off?  Why not?  The benefit you will gain from taking two weeks off to process your own thoughts and reconnect with yourself will far outweigh the material costs of missing out on the paycheque.

 

But I go on vacation..

Vacations are awesome.  For many people they are a form of retreat.  It takes them away from their context, frees their minds up to relax and focus on what they want to achieve when they get back home, and spend time with the person that they love.  For some people, this is all that they need, although I must admit that the people I know that take the most vacations are often the ones that are the most stressed out on a daily basis.  They should probably be retreating more on a daily basis, and less on a monthly or annual one.

When you go on a vacation, are you doing a lot of planning?  Are you stressed out at all about the cost, either during the vacation or when you get back home?  Do you go on vacation to let your mind sit idle for hours on a beach, or to be exposed to culture different from your own?  None of these are cause for judgment, simply different approaches to vacation.  I love being exposed to new cultures when I travel, and so this type of vacation really isn’t much of a retreat for me — it’s time I spend actively engaging and expanding my mind.

 

It’s about balance — remember?

Regardless of the approach you take, the bottom line is balance is a quality that we must seek to imbue in our lives on a continual basis.  This balance must be sought at the microscopic level (on an hourly or daily basis) and on a macroscopic level (annual vacations, etc.).  If you never make the time to be at peace with your thoughts, you’ll never have the time.

 

Some strategies

Okay, you’re convinced.  Here are some of my own strategies to help adopt the habit of retreating:

  • Remember the trigger phrase
    • If you catch yourself saying something like “I can’t afford to take a break right now”, it’s probably the time when you most need one.
  • Question your assertions
    • If you’re telling yourself that you can’t afford the time away from your task or away from work, question how accurate this is.  Why can’t you afford to take that break?  Will the benefit you gain from taking a break really be that detrimental in the long run?  Looking back, would you have more regret for not taking the break, or for having taken it?
  • Ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t have the option of turning down the break
    • I always ask my wife this question when she refuses to take a sick day (in spite of being dreadfully snotty and sick).  What if she wasn’t given the option — would her entire project fail?  Would she get fired?  Would the world end?  Ask yourself what would happen if your power went out for 15 minutes and you couldn’t continue working during that period.  (If you’re thinking about how you really need to start saving your work more often, you’re missing the point).  The consequences of taking a break are not that bad.
  • Specifically schedule time in your work calendar for breaks.
    • Label them “appointment” or something sufficiently vague.  Doing this for 15 minute breaks may become onerous, but I know more than a few people that would benefit from booking time like this for a couple of hours during the day — if only to ensure that they have a few hours of undisturbed time.
  • Whenever your situation is undergoing change (new job, moving homes, etc.), give yourself more time than you think you need
    • Don’t assume that the weekend will be enough time — specifically leave a little bit of extra room between the end of one job and the start of the next one.  A few days off will not break your bank (and if it is, perhaps you should be focusing some attention on living within a tighter budget).  Taking the extra time will allow you to adjust and accept the change at a reasonable pace.
  • If you need more encouragement, think of all of the things you wish you had time to accomplish but never do
    • The simple act of contemplating what you might use the added time off for will help you focus on the value that retreating may provide, rather than just the costs

Head up — Breathe — Head down.

May 26th, 2011 No comments

.Breathe.They say that one of the most important things in swimming is learning to breathe correctly.  In a sport that is ultimately based on streamlining and moving yourself as efficiently as possible, the extra drag that is created every time you take a breath can be the difference between winning and losing a close race.

However, if you don’t take breaths often enough, you won’t be feeding your muscles and body the oxygen that it requires to be as efficient as possible, in which case you may be as streamlined as possible, but your engine won’t be functioning efficiently.  (Or you’ll just drown and die.  And also lose the race.)

 

(It’s a metaphor)

 

When technology first started to improve our efficiency, it allowed us to shift our focus to spending more time in leisure and with friends and family (formerly only the privilege of royalty).  However, as time has progressed, our focus has slowly drifted away from the notion of technology enabling us to do less, to enabling us to take on ever-increasing amounts of work.

These days, the increasing emphasis placed upon productivity is reaching epidemic levels.  This is in part due to the fact that productivity and efficiency have become ingrained in the fabric of the modern working world.  Operating at the subconscious level, most of us aren’t even aware of how much pressure we put on ourselves to produce.

I am by no means suggesting that being productive and efficient are bad things, all else considered equal.  But when an emphasis and priority are placed on these two concepts to the exclusion or detriment of the rest of our lives, things start to fall apart.  You need look no further than places like Japan’s working culture and our more demanding professional careers like lawyers and doctors to see that efficiency and productivity without balance are detrimental in the long run.  (see my friend Michi’s blog for an insider’s perspective on Japanese working culture).

Recognizing the importance of balance is one thing, but understanding how to actually affect changes in your life that allow for it is another altogether.  Many of us get caught up in feedback loops that lead to a lack of balance simply because we don’t know any better.  All we know is that working hard got us to where we are, so presumably working even harder will take us even further.

But we know that this approach is fallacious in swimming, and so too is it in life.  So what should you do?  Simple:

 

Stop.  Breathe.  Repeat.


Literally.  Just breathe.  Don’t think about what to do next.  Don’t think about what you aren’t doing while you’re taking time out to breathe.  Don’t think about your deadlines, or what you need to do next, or where you’re going to be tomorrow.

Just breathe.  Physically.

Put down what you’re doing, close your laptop, put your phone on vibrate, and just breathe for five minutes.

It’s not a huge commitment – but it is a commitment.  Five minutes may feel like eternity to you if you’re not used to taking time out from your own productivity.  Commit to those five minutes (set a timer if you need to), and turn your focus toward breathing.

You need to make sure that you’re kicking and stroking with your arms as you swim, but you also need to actively increase your drag (temporarily) so that you can take the time to provide your body with the nourishment that it requires.

 

Practicing What I Preach

 

I’ve got a lot on my plate right now.  It’s easy to tangled up by all of the strings pulling at me, and if I’m not careful, I can find myself with days that are booked up from 9 in the morning to 9 at night.  This does not leave much time for reflection or relaxation, let alone spending time with my wife.

I find it especially challenging to maintain balance when I have multiple projects or commitments demanding my time, as they are not always willing to play nice, and the only commonality between them is myself.  This kind of situation makes breathing that much more important.

When things are really busy, it’s all I can do to try to follow my own advice.  Bring up my head and breathe.  Take a look around, see what the rest of the world is doing, and get a handle on what I’m currently undertaking.

The reason that granting yourself moments of breathing and clarity is so valuable is that when our heads are down, we’re unable to get a feel for what we actually have on the go.  Our attention is focused on the immediate task at hand.  Every intrusion feels overwhelming and like a whole new emergency requiring our attention, regardless of what the distraction may be (Eg, e-mail, a new piece of reading, a meeting request, a phone call, etc.).  All we can tell is that it is not what we are currently focused on, it is another thing to be added to our plate, and good grief, don’t we have enough stuff on our plate already?

 

Lift your head up and breathe

 

Find time to pull yourself up from what you are currently focused on and assess what you’ve got on the go.  What are the things that are currently demanding your attention?  What are your immediate priorities?  What do you need to do, but can be left until later?  (If you’re having trouble figuring it out, a braindump may be a good way to go).

I generally find that most people prefer not to seek the answers to the questions I’ve asked above — they’re worried that knowing will only add to their stress.  The reality is that there are few things that generate as much fear and anxiety as the unknown.  If you know what the demands on your time are, you can at least take active steps to prioritize what needs to be done, and alert the appropriate people if a deadline is going to slip.

Awareness will free you from the burden of knowing only that you have an undefined number of other things you need to do.  (This is a common concept in GTD, and much of the methodology is based around addressing the open loops that are tugging at your mind, thereby freeing it up to focus).

You’ll be amazed at the relief and clarity that can be brought by the simple action of taking ten minutes out to assess where you stand and what needs to be done.  I can attest that I am regularly surprised whenever I conduct this exercise, generally discovering that I actually have a lot less that needs to be dealt with immediately than it felt like I did ten minutes ago.

Above all, try to remember that the way that you feel about the demands on your time does not necessarily reflect reality.

 

The larger context

 

In the larger context, making the time to take a deep breath is analogous to making time to perform weekly reviews, or setting aside time during your day to meditate.  Both of these activities simply represent other ways to pull your head up and assess where you stand and where you’re going.

If these suggestions sound simple, that’s good.  Life doesn’t need to be as complicated as we make it.  Taking steps to simplify your life may be exactly what you need.

 

TLDR

 

As always, here’s the summary of the keypoints:

  • While taking time to stop what you’re doing may cost a little in the short term, it will benefit you greatly in the long
    • (Remember, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re swimming if you’re dead)
  • The unknown will generate more stress than anything else.  Taking stock of where you are and what demands are on your time will give you clarity and relax you
  • Learning the skill of retreating to centre yourself (this is what we’ve been talking about) will continue to serve you as you get better at it
    • Meditation, weekly reviews, and other techniques are all just different implementations of this simple concept

A new way of budgeting your time and productivity

May 10th, 2011 No comments

Time budgetSchool started proper again yesterday, and that means that the makeup of my days will change radically from that of the previous four months.  Although I’m writing today, the frequency of my posts will decrease drastically once work really gets underway.

I made the decision to take on a fair number of items this term, including:

  • Continue to be a good husband (yes, continue);
  • Continue to do well in school;
  • Devote a non-trivial amount of time to an application I’m working on with some colleagues; and
  • Teach weekly dance classes with my friend Jesse at a studio we’re renting in town

All of these items require substantial amounts of my time, and inconsistently to boot (meaning that I won’t get to choose when one of these items will need more attention – there will be peaks and troughs for all of them).  I believe that I’ve got the skills and ability to meet all four of these goals while maintaining my own sanity.  However, it will require planning to ensure that I’m ready when the storms start to strike.

This is a pretty short post, but if you’d like to jump to the summary, you can do so here.

A new way of looking at my available productivity

Because of these competing demands, it’s very important that I figure out the best way to maximize my productivity.  If I waste my opportunity to be productive, things will start to get backed up, and I’ll quickly find myself with too many things to do and not enough time to do them in.  Something will necessarily fall by the wayside (and if I’m being honest, I suspect it will be item #1 – it’s often easiest to let things slide with the person around which we’re the most comfortable).

Rather than try to plan everything down to the hour, I took a new approach to scheduling my productivity this term.  To start, here are my assumptions:

  • I can achieve what I’m setting out to do.

This is the most important assumption because it’s the starting point for everything else.  If I don’t believe this, then I should return to my list above and remove one of the items.  (If you don’t get this, ask yourself why you are planning to try and accomplish something that you don’t actually believe you are capable of achieving?)

  • I was apathetic the previous term and often felt myself wasting time playing video games instead of studying.

While I found the feeling of apathy generated stress, my grades did not suffer and I exceeded the standards I had set for myself.  This suggests to me that I had additional spare time that could be put to better uses.

  • I don’t want to spend any time this term feeling bored.

That is an indication to me that I currently have too much spare time.  Relaxing and just cooling out is one thing, but sitting around literally feeling bored is off the books.  If I find myself feeling this way, I should be looking to engage myself with a different pursuit.

  • I can be more efficient if I’m able to divide my time across multiple tasks.

Like most of us (all of us?), I experience diminishing returns the longer I spend working on any one particular task.  If I can divide my time across a number of tasks related to the different projects I’ve set out for myself above, I should be able to avoid the fall off that results from working on only one task for too long.

  • I have, roughly, between 3 and 5 good bouts of productivity in a day.

On really good days, I can get my process started first thing in the morning, and also find a second wind after the post-lunch tiredness.  On a bad day, I can’t seem to get the gears turning until 11AM, take a break for lunch, and only just manage to accomplish things by the time 5PM rolls around.

  • My bouts of productivity cannot easily be divided up into “clean” blocks of time.

Just like I don’t know what kind of day I will have until I find myself at the end of it (or mid-way through at least), I don’t know beforehand how long I will be able to stay in my flow for, nor how long it will take to read a particular set of readings.

Creating a workable system

So, with the above assumptions in mind, I set aside a couple of hours on the weekend to devise the system by which I would plan out my time and stay on track this term.  That system is based on the concept of productivity units (PUs from here on in).  PUs are what I call the blocks of productive work that I am talking about above in items 5 and 6.

Based on my assumption in #6, I don’t think that it’s a worthwhile exercise to try and map a PU to a specific amount of time.  In fact, it’s clear that I don’t usually think that’s possible.

Taking my range from item #5, I estimate that on any given day, I can probably accomplish about 4 PU worth of work in any given day, with no other demands on my time.

What does this actually mean?

So, what does it actually mean to accomplish one PU worth of work, if you can’t map the block reliably to an amount of time?

Here are some examples of what I would consider a PU worth of work:

  • Complete a set of readings for one of my classes
  • Spend some time writing out a few pages of a paper
  • Sit down and clear out my inbox, processing everything there and responding to any necessary e-mail
  • Spend some time working on my development team’s wiki, organizing everything and ensuring that all of our recent thoughts have been captured and stored somewhere for later reference
  • Attend one class

It is important to understand that these are the benchmarks I have drawn for myself.  Based on what you see above, you could probably estimate that one of my PUs probably roughly translates to 1 to 2 hours worth of work.  This is reasonable.  However, this will not always be the case, and there are times when it will take two PUs to finish a set of readings, or only half of my available energy to complete something.

The important part of my system is that it is adaptive, flexible, and dynamic, as these are all characteristics that I wish to imbue in the work that I do.  If my system does not embody the same traits that I myself wish to, there’s going to be conflict (which generally leads to the system being discarded and returning to old ways).

Your mileage may vary – you may find that you prefer to work in smaller chunks, but fit more of them into a day.  Whatever works for you is what you should do.  For me, this provides a clean and lightweight way in which I can rapidly estimate how much work I can accomplish each day.

This approach also provides me with a metric by which I can determine whether or not I should really be feeling upset that I’m not being maximally productive.  Let me explain.

I have no classes on Tuesday, which means that this is a wide-open day.  However, I have no shortage of work, and so ideally, I’d like to get 4 PUs in on Tuesday.  If I’ve finished one PUs worth of work, it’s currently 3PM, and I’m sitting on the couch playing video games, things probably aren’t going too well.  I should be kicking myself back into work.  But, if I find myself in the same situation, having completed 3 PUs worth of work, I’m actually doing pretty good.

Why is this distinction meaningful to draw – isn’t this pretty obvious and intuitive?

No – it isn’t.

These kind of separations are always obvious to us when we’re external to them, having them explained to us or reading about them on someone’s blog.  It’s easy to divide everything into bright clean lines when you don’t have anything at stake and you’re not in the middle of all of the chaos and demands placed on your time.  However, when you do find yourself in the middle of everything that’s when you will most need to be able to determine if the way you are feeling is due to something legitimate or simply a pressure external to yourself that actually doesn’t matter.

Thinking in these terms provides a quick “escape ladder” that can be used if I need to pull my head up from the mess and figure out if the way I’m feeling is really something that requires my concern.

The honest truth is that sometimes you’re going to feel guilty for taking some much needed time to recharge.  It doesn’t matter that that is the best thing you could do – your psychology will play games with you and tell you that you could not possibly take the time off from working on that paper!

Dividing my time up into these kind of chunks is a convenient way for me to check the way I’m feeling and determine if I really need to get the gears turning again, or can relax knowing that the break I’m taking is well-deserved (and will actually make me more efficient on the whole).

The view from my desk

Here’s the example that I’ve created, to provide you with some context.  My class schedule roughly looks like this:

  • Monday: 3 classes
  • Tuesday: 0 classes
  • Wednesday: 2 classes
  • Thursday: 1 class
  • Friday: 1 class

On Monday, I also run a dance jam down at Centenniel Square in Victoria, which eats up a decent chunk of time.  In short, I don’t have any additional PUs available for Monday.

Tuesday is wide open, and so I can aim for my maximal goal: 4 PUs.  The plan going forward will be to divide this time between reading/studying and the necessary time required for me to continue PMing the project I’m working on.  I have my time loosely divided in half between the two, but I can be flexible and if needed, I can devote all 4 separate PUs to studying (though I would rather not, as that will increase the diminishing returns that I experience).

Wednesday I have two classes, which means I have about 2 PUs remaining.  Likewise, Thursday and Friday each have one class, so I have 3 PUs for both of those days.  Just at a glance, this way of looking at my spare time gives me a rough idea of how much time I will have available to devote to the demands on my time.

If things get panicky or packed in tight, I may need to adjust my schedule, or attempt to squeeze an extra PU out of my day.  While this may be possible for brief bursts of time, I’m skeptical that that would be a sustainable practice.  Being productive for 10 of my 16 waking hours, on an extended basis, intuitively feels like I would be pushing the limits of my mental, emotional and physical health, not to mention my marriage.

Rehash

That’s all I’ve got for today.  In general, writing a blog post is probably about 1 or 2 PUs worth of work.  It requires writing (a task unto itself), then polishing and editing before publishing.  I’ve finished three sessions worth of reading, and completing this entry makes a total of four PUs.  That means that I can now devote the rest of my day to relaxing and pursuing hobbies that are less intensive, and ignore any guilt that may pop up from time to time trying to tell me I should actually be working harder.  Not only should I not be working harder, I’m not convinced that my yield would be worth the extra effort.

Here’s the summary of what we’ve covered:

  • To maximize your productivity, break your time up so that you can focus your energy on multiple things throughout the day;
  • Breaking your time up into productive units, or PUs, can provide a convenient way to get a loose handle on what you can realistically accomplish in any given day;
  • Your PUs may be different than mine, and that’s fine – do what works for you;
  • If you’re feeling lazy or like you should be doing more work, check in to see what you’ve accomplished in terms of your PUs, and ground the way you feel based on that.  Sometimes you need to kick your ass back into gear.  Sometimes, you need to relax.  Both of these things will be equally hard to accomplish at different times;
  • A system doesn’t need to schedule or track every last available minute you have for it to work for you; and
  • Check in with yourself from time to time to see if the way that you’re feeling is a reaction to your circumstances, or something external (eg, unrealistic societal pressure that you can or should be productive for every single minute that you’re at work).

Productivity quickie: Use RTM tags to keep your errands distinct from other tasks

April 29th, 2011 2 comments

Most of us know that life can’t all be hard work and no play, but few of us realize that it’s our own responsibility to ensure that this is the case.

 

Some of my @RTM ListsI’ve just completed an incredible term working in Vancouver.  I’m in the middle of a retrospective that I want to post, but I’m suffering from mild writer’s block in that department.  Rather than hammer my head against the wall, I wanted to publish something and keep the creative flow going.

Accordingly, instead of a retrospective, today I’m going to show you how to I use Remember the Milk’s tagging functionality to keep my errands and tasks distinct.

Are they actually distinct?

Where you draw the line between an errand and any other kind of task will be subjective.  For me, an errand is any task that requires me to be out of the house, and generally with some degree of transportation available to me (bus, bike, car).  Sometimes that transportation is specific to the errand (to get groceries, I usually -but not always- need a car).

While I assign a time estimate to every task that I enter (it sounds cumbersome but once you make it part of your process, you stop noticing it), I don’t usually bother doing so with an errand.  This is because errands generally happen when I’m doing other things at the same time (I try to do errands in batches).  There’s also a lot that I can’t account for: traffic, running into acquaintances, getting held up somewhere, etc.

Also, because of the nature of errands, there’s no sense in me having them clutter up my attention when I’m planning to spend the next four hours getting work done at home.  At that point, they are simply noise, getting in the way of my signal, and increasing my risk of information overload.

RTM?  Tagging?

If you’ve gotten lost, let me refer you back to my original post discussing what Getting Things Done (GTD) and Remember the Milk (RTM) can do for you and how to leverage them here.

However, here is a brief summary:

Remember the Milk is an application that allows you to manage any number of lists, and is very flexible.  When you combine that with the GTD methodology for managing all of your stuff (information, todo items, chores, etc. – everything that is on your plate, every day), you have a pretty good system for avoiding information overload and staying on top of life.

Tagging in Remember the Milk

Everytime I enter an item into my GTD list, I record the following things:

  1. Due date (when do I want it to start showing up on my TODO list)
  2. Time estimate (5 mins, 10 mins, 1 hour, 1 day, etc.)
  3. Any relevant #tags

Tagging is a skill in itself, and the more you practice it, the better you’ll get (subtext: don’t get discouraged because it seems overwhelming.  Just do it and allow your system to evolve around you).  I have two kinds of tags:

  1. Those based around a context
  2. All other tags

Tags that are based around a context are tags that let me know, at a glance, what kind of environment I need to have around me in order to complete a task.  For example, if I need to follow-up with someone about a task at work, that will generally require email.  So, for that task, I would include #@email as a context tag.  Assuming that that task also requires that I email Bob specifically, I would include #@Bob as a tag too.

All of the other tags are simply keywords that apply to the task.  If you want to start out simple, you can ignore this part for now and just focus on including a context.  If you are ready for more, this is the place to build from.

The only rule for these tags is that you generally don’t want them to represent context – those tags get a ‘@‘ in front of them.  Your other tags don’t.  That’s all.

Some examples would be:

  • #boring
    • It sounds silly to record this information, but if that’s what pops into your head as you’re entering the task, include it as a tag.  It’s better to have too many tags than too few (I think), and maybe you’ll notice that you accumulate a lot of #boring tasks that don’t get done.  (It’s always good to have a place to focus your improvement).
  • #chore
    • Many of these tasks might also be tagged with #@home – many chores need to be at home to accomplish.
  • #vacation
    • If you have a lot of tasks that relate to your vacation, this is a very convenient way to enter them and be able to find them quickly later on.  You can even create a quicksearch to get all posts tagged with vacation (“tag:vacation”).
  • #fun
    • Most of us know that life can’t all be hard work and no play, but few of us realize that it’s our own responsibility to ensure that this is the case.  Tagging items with fun is a good way to divide up your tasks wisely.  With this approach, you can make sure that you do something that is enjoyable in between the lame stuff.  Think of it as a reward for completing the boring tasks.
      • Example: Bay and I have always had fun grocery shopping together.  So, even though it’s an #@errand, it’s also #fun.

Putting it all together

So, the only other step in putting tagging to use for you is to create and save some searches.  Based on the two lists I mentioned at the start, we’re going to want to create two lists:

  1. One list displays all tasks that are tagged with #@errand
    • Search is: tag:@errand
    • (Each of these tasks requires the errand context to be completed)
  2. One list displays all tasks that are NOT tagged with #@errand
    • Search is: NOT tag:@errand
    • (None of these tasks requires the errand context to be completed)

Once you’ve performed your search, you can save it by clicking on the save tab in the upper right corner of the web interface and naming it:

Saving an RTM search

It’s up to you what you call the smart list.  I try to choose names that are as intuitive as possible, to save myself time later trying to figure out the clever naming scheme I’d come up with.

I find the most intuitive thing to do in this case is to the corresponding context tag as the name.

Thus, our first list is @Errand, and our second list is @NoErrand.  (Note that this second name is not an actual tag that we’ve created.  Just the name of our list.  I find this makes the most sense to me, but if you find it confusing, by all means try out a different naming scheme).

Now that you’ve completed that, you’re set.  With just a glance at your system, you can now determine what errands you can do while you’re heading in to town.  Or, if you’re stuck at home for the next two hours, you can determine what chores you may be able to take on (without having to wade through the mental clutter of all your errands).

My Errand List in RTMMy No errands list in RTM

Note that my lists also contain a bunch of other search criteria – this is specific to my system and will likely not be relevant to your own.

Let’s be real

Don’t be discouraged if this stuff sounds complicated.  Find one thing to try and improve upon in your routine, and focus on that until you are satisfied.  The less you can succumb to information overload, the better you’ll be able to devote yourself to your own progress (that blog idea just got added to RTM, tagged with #blogidea and #listitem).

As I mentioned earlier, I’m feeling a little bit of writer’s block trying to capture the massive bowl of thoughts that the past four months represents in my head.  I’ve absorbed so much that I’m having trouble dispensing it in any articulable fashion.

Having said that, I have another week off before classes start up proper, so I have a line in the sand within which I plan to complete the task.  Once classes begin, I anticipate being extremely busy.  I am currently working on an application with two other very capable people and we’re seeing a lot of synergy and dynamism that is very exciting.

In addition to that, I’m also renting a studio with a very good friend and will be teaching dance classes there on a weekly basis.  I am very much looking forward to this development and am very excited to see how it continues to progress (I will post more information here soon – we’re meeting to pound out details this weekend).

With all of these items on my plate, my posting frequency will necessarily slow down – it gets difficult to write creatively when I spend all of my days studying and writing papers.  However, I will post when I have the time, and as usual, my posting frequency will increase again in four months, once my next workterm starts.  You can bet that I will have a lot to report after the coming four months.

Hang in there and stay tuned.  Life is an exciting journey, and if you’ve been reading these entries, hopefully you’re experiencing some of what that looks like through my eyes.

Effectively managing your energy

April 10th, 2011 5 comments

This coming week will be my last in Vancouver this co-op work term.  A reflection on the last four months will be forthcoming – stay tuned to hear what I’ve been learning!

Until then, let me start with a story:

I was making coffee in our office’s lunchroom a few weeks back and struck up conversation with the co-worker that was waiting for the kettle with me.  Well, waiting isn’t quite the right word.  It was more like she was mentally somewhere in Thailand while her body patiently awaited her return.  We talked briefly and turned our thoughts briefly to what she referred to as “energy management”.  I liked the term so much that I’ve been using it since, and maybe you will too.  Let’s dig in to the concept a little deeper.

(Want all of the wisdom but without the narrative?  Skip to the TLDR section here.)

The set-up

Many of us go through our day vested with the expectation that we should expect 100% efficiency from ourselves, without ever stopping to consider the magnitude of that expectation.

I lay part of the blame at the feet of the modern world in which we work.  If you’re a professional, the expectation is that you come in to work everyday, sit at your desk at 9AM, and work through solidly until 5PM.  Of course, anyone that has ever worked a day in their lives knows that this kind of expectation is completely unreasonable, and yet we persist in mentally holding ourselves accountable to this kind of energy expenditure.

We are not robots – we’re inefficient humans, with quirks, emotions, digestive systems, and energy that correspondingly waxes and wanes throughout the day.  These are some of my own tips for maximizing the benefits and minimizing the negatives that arise from this fact.

Recognize that you cannot be 100% productive

This is basically what I’ve just finished writing.  However, for many of us, it will be the most difficult hurdle to overcome.  The subtle expectations that bombard us on a daily basis are legion – from the way our modern workday (and week) is structured to the desire to be a member of the group rather than not, there are plenty of subtle forces that tug at our psychology.  Before you know it, we’ll slowly but surely start to beat ourselves up over the fact that we’ve sat at our desks for over an hour without managing to get a single thing done.  Even an innocuous comment from a supervisor, such as “Hey, how’s the work coming on the Penske file?” can regress us right back to this mindset.

Recognizing that you’re not perfect and you shouldn’t expect yourself to be will be an empowering experience.  Being aware of who you are and what your limitations are can free your mind up to work around those limitations and give yourself permission to be imperfect.  Until you are able to let go of the fantasy that you can be productive all of the time, you will be hindered in your ability to maximize your potential.

I want to reiterate this last point, because it’s important:

An integral aspect of maximizing your potential is being aware of your own limitations.

If you aren’t cognizant to your own strengths and weakness, you may waste precious resources (time, energy, willpower, money, etc.) seeking to accomplish something unrealistic or beyond the scope of what you really desire.  (..and  most likely, something that you don’t actually care about).

I’m not advocating that you give up on a particular dream you may have, or that anything in particular  you desire is out of your reach.  However, if you’re forty-years old and dividing your energy between managing a career, a family, and trying to make it big in the NBA, you may benefit from understanding what your limitations are and applying the energy that you have available accordingly.

Be present to your energy at any given moment

Most of our time working, our self-awareness operates on  auto-pilot.  It’s rare that we’re actually present to how we’re thinking and feeling, because we’re focused on our work.  If we’re not being particularly productive, we’re probably focused on our web browser and whatever YouTube video has currently gone viral.

Getting in tune with how you’re feeling and how much energy you have available is a process.  It’s not a skill that you can develop over night, because most of us have become so good at setting aside the way we feel in order to get our work done.  After all, that’s the expectation that comes with endless school assignments and 9 to 5 work, right?  It doesn’t matter how you feel, because the time to work is from 9 to 5.  You think about how you feel outside of those hours.

People that have made a positive change to their physical routine for the better will have an analogy to which they can draw.  At first, you start exercising and your whole body aches.  But over time, you start to get a feel for  that type of pain, and eventually, you’re no longer simply feeling “back pain”.

Now you’re  able to identify things like “hmm, my lower back is quite sore, and that feels like muscle pain… that’s probably because I’ve played four squash games this week”.

Getting mentally in tune with yourself is the same thing.  When you are feeling frustrated at work because you can’t seem to get anything done, take a moment to check in with yourself and ask where your energy level currently sits.  NB: Even if all you can do at first is recognize that you are feeling frustrated, you’re making progress.

Over time, you’ll get better at picking up on the cues your body naturally provides you with.  The more you try to check in with yourself, the sooner you’ll be able to pick up on the fact that you may be sitting in an energy funk and address it.

Use your downtime effectively

Okay – hopefully you’re starting to gain a better awareness of your energy level and how it’s affecting your work.  If you’re not yet able to make use of the previous tip, you’re not ready to move on to this one – the next question is what do you actually do once you’ve identified that fact.

Being a law student, I’m no stranger to people that take the attitude that they will hammer the work through no matter what.  In some people, recognizing that they are low on energy almost presents a challenge that makes them feel defiant.  “Low energy?  Nice try, we’re finishing this tonight”.

On the surface, this may appear to work for some people, but I personally do not feel that this is the habit or coping method that I want to develop.  Is this approach to your body’s physical cue a sustainable practice?  If not, ask yourself why you are continuing to behave in this manner.

How can you effectively make use of your periods of low energy?  Simple:

Do something that doesn’t require much focus or energy

My own solution is to spend the time where my energy and focus are low to go on walks and pursue other distractions (browsing the web, tweeting, drafting blog entries, etc.).

By mentally giving yourself permission to take breaks, you will have scored a double-victory.  First, you’re acknowledging your own limitations and working within them.  Sometimes, you’re simply not going to be able to crank out high quality work – that’s okay!

Second, you’re allowing yourself a break from the exercise of your willpower.  We know that we have a finite amount of willpower (see also here); as a result we can only exercise it so much in a day (like almost every other type of psychic energy, it would seem).  Applying your focus to a task and ignoring distractions that may pop up is a small but constant strain on your willpower.

I can’t speak to your own mental state, but my brain seems to be constantly attempting to sabotage my efforts to focus by taking those moments to think up things that I haven’t yet read on Wikipedia (“Hey, I wonder what critics thought of Mortal Kombat?”).  By making time for these kind of breaks (NB: this is different from having time), you give yourself a reprieve from the application of willpower and take your break at the most opportune time.

Maximize the way you use your periods of high energy

The Yin to the previous section’s Yang..  As the metaphor suggests, if you’re not balancing your application of this principle with the previous one, it may be worth taking some time to recalibrate.  Balance is the harmony within which I strive to live.

Maximizing your periods of high energy is often best accomplished by simply allowing yourself to focus on what you’re there to do.  Many of us have experienced moments of mode known as flow.  Time falls away from your awareness and you hold a wonderful focus that allows you to plough through your work like it ain’t no thang.

While having a decent amount of energy is necessary to get into a zone, it is not sufficient.  Meaning: you will not be able to enter flow every time you are experiencing the upper part of your energy levels.  You will also need to sit, focus and work without distractions for a period of time.

Logically, it follows that our path to maximizing periods of high energy should be spent free of distractions, focused on the task at hand.  As before, if you are able to recognize the cues that your body and mind are sending you, you will better be able to position yourself to take advantage of these periods of high energy.  Regardless of what you want to do, your head and the people around you may not be willing to co-operate.

While there is not too much you can do to deal with co-workers (closing your office door is quite effective, though I’m generally not a big fan of closed office doors), I have two strategies you can employ to try and keep your brain in check.

The first is to employ a way to address the thoughts that pop up into your head without actually pursuing them.  My way of achieving this is to write down on a piece of paper anything that is a distracting thought and holding my mind hostage.

If I’m trying to get myself into the zone and thoughts about Mortal Kombat pop into my head, I pick up my pencil and write “Mortal Kombat” on my note pad.  I’m not actually pursuing this distracting thought, but I have addressed it in a way that allows my mind to go “okay, I’ve dealt with that – back to the work”.

If this sounds cheesy to you, think of it like another tool you can put in your toolbox.  You don’t have to use it now, but if you’re sitting there feeling like you’ve tried everything and can’t break out of your habit, give this a go.  It is simple and will not introduce a lot of overhead to your existing process (have a pencil and paper next to your workspace).  The results can be quite surprising.

The second approach that I take is based on a recommendation that Seth Godin made on his blog (an excellent resource that I certainly suggest checking out).

Find some means to offload all of your distractions to something other than your main computer.  Those of us that work on computers generally use the machines both for our productive work and our distractions.  We like to think that we’re pretty good at dividing the two up (though most of us recognize that we’re not as good as we’d like to be).

Example: use a tablet computer as your dedicated “distractions device”.

Don’t allow yourself to use your computer for anything other than work.  If you don’t have a tablet, try using your smartphone.  No smartphone?  Start reading instead of browsing websites for a break.  (Believe it or not, we took breaks even before the Internet existed!)

This change too will have a rather profound result.  Framing your computer mentally as the device that you sit in front of when it is time to do work will cause your psychology to naturally align itself within the context of this frame.  When it’s time to work and you position yourself in front of your computer, your subconscious will take note and click you into a productive frame of mind.  If you don’t believe me, prove me wrong by giving it a go.  (The results surprised me when I did the same.)

TLDR? (Too long, didn’t read?)

That’s okay – you probably wanted to get back to being productive!  (You can click any of the summaries here to be linked back to the corresponding content). Here’s the summary:

  • Learn to accept the fact that you can’t be 100% productive.  You’re not a robot; you’re not perfectly efficient, and; that’s just fine
  • Try to get more in tune with your energy levels throughout the day
  • Make good use of your periods of low energy
    • (and give yourself breaks from exercising your willpower)
  • Make the most of your periods of high energy
    • (by reducing distractions and allowing yourself to focus)
  • Two tricks to help yourself focus:
    1. Write down any mental distractions as they come to mind, then let them go (keep a pencil and paper near you)
    2. Offload distractions to something other than your computer, and let your computer be a machine that is devoted purely to productive work

As a parting shot..

If you like my writing and would like to see more, I ask that you show support however you can – leave a comment if something that I’ve said turns some gears with you, or help me out by mentioning this site to anyone else that you think might be interested in the same topics.  If an article I wrote was especially meaningful to you, share it on Twitter or Google Reader.

Eventually, I would like to take these articles and compile a book (and release it open source, no less!), but in order to achieve that goal, I need the inspiration that comes from speaking to an audience and feeling some support.  I love doing the hard work – you just have to help me out from time to time by telling like-minded individuals and communicating back.  We all benefit in the long run.  Thanks for the support and keep reading!