I’ve recently started listening to the Audibook version of Abundance. One of the things that was mentioned in the very beginning was this idea that by improving living conditions in one country we’re actually improving them world wide. I’ve always felt this way but I’ve never really thought about, or heard a strong argument in support of it. Listening to that section of the book made me start thinking about how that spreads into other parts of our lives.
For example, one of my many hats involves me acting as CRM tech support to small businesses. It often involves me doing minor tweaks to a system that a client could easily learn to do themselves. These tweaks include changes to emails that are sent out or changing who a task to follow up with a client goes to. In the past I felt that I was doing the client a favor by quickly knocking out these small issues for them. However a few weeks ago I decided to see what would happen if I started making training documents that I would send along with every request. Rather than just replying to emails with some variation of, “No problem, this is all done for you.” I started replying with, “I just completed this for you, and I’ve attached a guide on exactly what I did and how I did it.” Obviously this isn’t always feasible but if I have time I’ll try my best to put something together.
For clients with key staff that I interact with I did something similar, with the added step of making sure the staff had the correct permissions, and if they didn’t forwarding the guide to the person who did.
What I found was pretty remarkable, by helping the clients learn one small piece of the back end of these systems they started to actually want to learn the rest of it. Obviously this won’t work for everyone, but watching people I’ve been communicating with for months suddenly get excited about learning something that they had always asked me to do is pretty remarkable.
Since I’ve started doing this the number of support requests I receive has actually decreased pretty significantly. On top of that I’m finding that some clients are taking a certain degree of ownership over everything that they do. I’ve started applying a similar approach to other areas of my life as well. For example, trying to get close friends on board with a diet or exercise regimen. It may seem like I’m being overly helpful or accommodating to completely change a workout schedule to include someone. But the reality is I’m actually more likely to achieve my goals when their’s are aligned with mine.
If you’re interacting in any world for the long run it makes sense to try and improve it. Whether that’s the planet with a donation to a water charity, or your work world by teaching someone a new skill set. Improving situations for yourself and those around you is almost always easier than it seems.
I’ve been a pretty big advocate of keeping a daily journal in order to track your progress, moods, successes, and failures. However up until this morning I’d always done my daily reviews at the end of the night. A few days ago someone pointed out to me that if you write your review the following morning it allows you to critically think about small mistakes made the day before and keep them in mind so that you don’t repeat them.
Last night The Girlfriend and I went to a delicious mediterranean restaurant where I gorged myself on what was probably the least healthy menu option, rather than an equally amazing but healthy alternative. So this morning my daily review included a small line item about making healthier choices. Now If I had written this the night before I probably would have forgotten all about it by the time I had gotten out of bed, but because I wrote it this morning, the thought sat there, lingering in my head.
A bit later in the day I was presented with a decision that would rival Achilles’ choice to either go into battle, die, and live on in stories for all eternity or to stay behind and live a long life of obscurity. My choice was between a simple, healthy, home made lunch and a slice of pizza. This wasn’t just any pizza though. This pizza was forged by the gods out of pure love and descended straight from the heavens. A single slice so large, that if held vertically, would eclipse a power lifter’s chest. I was stopped in my tracks, and had to make the kind of snap judgement call that usually results in me making a bad decision. Suddenly though, I found myself thinking back to that brief line item about choosing the healthier alternative. I’m saddened to say that my healthy lunch didn’t quite live up to a slice of pizza larger than any living organism should consume. However I’m happy to report that I dodged what would have been my failure in judgement for the day.
In all seriousness though if you’re planning on writing an end of day review tonight try writing it tomorrow morning instead.
Yesterday I briefly touched on the idea that I use time based goals along with a task list which should be completable by the end of each day. I’ve read a lot of blog posts and books about eating frogs and completing your most important or most difficult task first. However I haven’t seen many places talk about ordering your daily tasks based on fixed areas of importance.
Individual tasks might change day to day, but ultimately you’re probably working in pretty much the same areas. For example your primary job function might be customer service, sales, web development, programming, or writing. Maybe you also want to exercise each day, and be sure to do something on your top secret side project. Each of those are pretty vague areas, not a task list, but I bet if you thought about it you could probably figure out what the most important area on that list was. Then you could figure out the second, and so on. Eventually when they’re ordered from top to bottom you can figure out a set amount of time you should spend on each. What I’ve done is organized my days around working through those areas of importance in order.
So as an example let’s look at my area order of importance list:
- Exercise – Probably the most important thing next to eating right. Being first on my list means if I can only find time for one thing in a day it should be this.
- Meditation – Seriously, the benefits are amazing, and well studied. If your day/task requires you to focus while a million small things that are going on I can’t recommend it enough. One study I read had 20 minutes per day as the sweet spot for benefits.
- Writing – I’ve got three projects, all revolve around me hacking furiously away at my keyboard. On top of that I’ve got minor sub goals like keeping a daily journal:
- Secret Project #1 A fiction project
- Secret Project #2 A non-fiction project
- Blog posts
- Publishing – Creating this as it’s own broad area forces me to think about number three a little bit more. If what I write isn’t making it out into the world in some way, shape, or form then what’s the purpose? Additionally it forces me to acknowledge time editing and digging up pictures is not the same as time spent writing. At one point I counted editing/publishing as writing. I don’t do this anymore because I end up procrastinating the creation of new words by slightly rearranging existing ones.
- Spanish – Pimsluer lesson, a few flash cards, something to help me progress.
- Other Learning – I’d love it if I had an hour a day to focus on some of the courses I see on Coursera. Unfortunately this is the task I miss out on the most.
So on a day where I sleep in, I’ll almost never get to number five. That’s okay though, Spanish isn’t my biggest goal right now. It’s okay for the list to rearrange itself over time as well. Maybe I’ll get bored of Spanish and decide I want to spend a few months burning through online courses on ancient history, or maybe I’ll decide that making sure I get my daily spanish fix in is more important than the occasional blog post I don’t hit Publish on. The important thing is that every day I have a blueprint for exactly what areas I should be working on, in what order, and how much time I should spend on each before I move to the next one.
One of the better lessons I’ve taken from Sebastian Marshall‘s blog was the idea that you shouldn’t punish yourself for having an unproductive day. Instead you need to step back and analyze it, diagnosing what caused you to fail. The rate I publish posts onto this blog is a pretty decent barometer of my overall productivity. Posting to this blog is literally the last item on my todo list each day. So any day I didn’t write a post, is a day where I didn’t complete everything on my list.
The list is designed to take a certain amount of time, rather than working with certain outcomes. I’m an extremely efficient worker when I get started, and I recognize the difference between research and creation. Because of this my task list is written each morning and meant to be fully completed by 8pm at night. I recognize that occasionally life comes up, and I won’t get through it, but earlier in the year it’s easy to see I was clearing it daily.
The month of April wasn’t particularly hectic for me. The girlfriend and I went to Coachella with some friends, meaning a few days without internet or work. I gave myself a day to recover and a day to prep but once we came home I never fell back into the groove. I have no excuses prepared, only course corrections. My original goal with this blog was to write a post every day, and publish the best one or two I wrote per week. This morphed into posting daily after I decided only an audience can effectively judge the quality of a post.
I haven’t fully discovered where the roadblock was that contributed to the lack of posting. It seems like it was created by a combination of factors. These included a new project I underestimated the workload on, a change in my sleep schedule, and a decrease in exercise. All of which can probably be attributed to a failure in performing my morning ritual regularly. Today I tried my best to emulate my average day from two months ago, the factors that caused me to be more productive then seem to have worked now. So I think it’s time I acknowledge whatever I’ve been doing lately wasn’t working. I’m going back to my routine from a couple of months ago, I’m recommitting to it. Tonight I’m going to clear my list.
If you’re having problems focusing or you just can’t figure out what the best next action is try these:
- Turn off your monitor, lean back and close your eyes. Breathe deeply, relax, then try and write down everything that you need to get done. Once you have it all written down just looking at the list should give you some guidance.
- Take a 5-10 minute walk. Don’t bring your cell phone.
- Find any other way to disconnect and relax for a moment(at home I’ll usually clean up dirty dishes or take out the trash).
Do Not do these:
- Check your email.
- Open up Twitter.
- Open up Facebook.
- Open up any other social media site.
- Check the news.
- Check the weather.
- Play games.
- Go to any other websites at all.
- Watch TV.
- Google Chat, Skype, mIRC, whatever.
The differences between these lists is that one is a few ways to reframe your mind. The other is a list of potential ways to procrastinate doing the hard work that you need to get done.
For a while there I was waking up everyday just before 6am, doing a light workout, some meditation, then managing to work on my most important projects before breakfast. Eventually I screwed up, started sleeping in, and had what felt like less and less time to get everything done. About a month ago I finally decided to stop screwing around and actually start getting up early again. The problem was, even though I had some time for yoga in the mornings I still wasn’t getting out of bed early enough to get any of my work done. Then about two weeks ago it hit me and I felt like a complete idiot. When I had started waking up early before I had moved my phone/alarm clock to the other side of the room so that I needed to get out of bed to shut it off, a small fix.
What happened was that I forgot about a small variable that made me successful in the past. This was a gentle reminder that I needed to start looking into other small changes I can make in areas that I’m struggling in. Right now I’m building out a few online marketing campaigns for a product that I helped put together. I haven’t run much traffic in the past year so I’m finding it much slower to ramp up than I remember, but the move the alarm clock lesson brought up some ideas. I sat down and created a list of every place I used to buy traffic, what I would use to optimize my old campaigns, what my day looked like, how I analyzed numbers, and ways to increase conversion rates. While a lot of these ideas could be dated, it’s given me a really solid checklist to work off of and opened my eyes to some things that I completely forgot about. Now this week I’m turning the project around. Morale of the story: think about areas you want to improve in, step back, and come up with tiny changes you can make to create large effects. If they’re areas you were successful at in the past, try writing out exactly what you did back then. Find little hinges that swing big doors and all that.
Want to ruin my productivity for a few hours? It’s pretty easy, all you need to do is put me in a room with a few other people and ask me to interact with them. Stop, I know what you’re thinking, and this isn’t a rant about meetings. This is about figuring out what types of activities drain you. I’ve learned that a long phone call, or a drawn out meeting will destroy my productivity for hours after it’s over. I’m not sure why but these types of interactions leave me feeling completely unable to focus. Strangely this is very different from spending an hour or two having a deep conversation with a friend.
Knowing this I’ve started to structure my days differently. I won’t schedule calls or meetings in the mornings and on the days where I need to out of necessity I won’t try to work on bigger projects requiring a lot of thought afterwards. The improvements have been significant to say the least. My ideal day would be a complete communications black out from the time I woke up until Lunch. No talking, texting, E-mails, phone calls, or meetings. Unfortunately, this isn’t entirely realistic.
I want you to think about what you did over the past week. Think about everything you’ve done and what things left you drained and what left you feeling energized. If you really want to drill down into it try using a program like Vitamin-R(Mac Only but I’m sure there’s a windows equivalent) to log your focus after you complete tasks. When you start noticing that focus problems always come after a long phone call or a heavy debugging session you can start trying to rearrange your day based on how likely something is to leave you feeling scattered and exhausted.
- Refresh my email, or reread emails without taking action or responding.*
- Google News
- Google Plus
- Hacker News
If I sit down and think about what I want to be spending my time on, very few of those would actually make the list. In fact if you asked me what my ideal day would be it wouldn’t include any of those except for a little bit of chess. This isn’t from a productivity standpoint either. I just don’t get that much joy out of most of the things on that list. If I wanted to relax I’d be much happier spending that time reading, at the movies, or out with friends.
Try reviewing what you’re actually doing with your time online. Install RescueTime and let it run for a few days. Before you look at your results sit down and think to yourself what your ideal time balance would be. Then be amazed to find out you could easily be doing everything that you wanted to if it weren’t for the distractions that really aren’t that fun to begin with. It’s pretty eye opening.
*I consider email to be an unproductive activity. Not because it is 100% of the time, but because when I push myself, only check my inbox twice, and don’t procrastinate on anything I spend about 1/10th the amount of time on it. So the other 90% is probably wasted time.
The other night I was skimming Google Plus and came across a post I think was by Chris Brogan where he mentioned that if you were really having problems getting writing done that you really don’t have an excuse not to just turn off your WiFi. So, after a week of less than optimal progress towards my writing goals tonight I decided to try it. I’m pretty good about avoiding the internet for long stretches of time, just ask anyone who’s tried to get ahold of me on the weekend. Often I’ll have my phone on silent and won’t even think to look at it all day, especially if I get caught up in a good book. My point here is that there’s no pain of disconnect for me. As long as I have a way to write down the thoughts that I don’t want to forget I’m generally pretty content. However I hadn’t ever tried complete disconnection as a productivity method. Obviously if what you’re working on requires a browser this is a little bit harder but still possible.
So what did I discover while trying to work with no internet? Well first off I reactively Google way too often. Rather than thinking on an issue or word choice I’ll often just hit a few hotkeys and instantly have a browser up with other people’s solutions. That’s not ideal, because after I find the solution I’ll become completely sidetracked. Secondly I’m a much faster writer when I don’t have access to the internet. I’ve actually managed to produce quite a lot of content over the past couple of hours.
For this little experiment I decided to disable the WiFi on my laptop until I was ready to reconnect. However if you want to try a less drastic measure you could use something like RescueTime and with a few clicks disable all sites that you have previously marked as distracting. Which reminds me, now that I’m done writing this, I need to Google whether or not RescueTime can track activity when there’s not internet connection, thankfully I’ll have to turn my internet back on to post this…
Some of the greatest demons to knowledge workers are barriers. You’ll be burning through a day, clearing your email, making progress on something important when suddenly you’re staring at a problem that should be simple but you just can’t find a way around it.
Other times you’ll know exactly what your most important task is but rather than sitting down and doing it you’ll end up checking your email and procrastinating. Maybe it’s an email from a client requiring a lengthy response, or something requiring a skill set just barely out of your comfort zone. You create these mental blocks for yourself, and most of the time you can’t even explain why you do it.
When this happens I’ve found there is only one real way around it. I need to tell myself, for the next 10 minutes I’m working on nothing but this and when that 10 minutes is over I’m done and can walk away. The problem is always starting, and once you do you’ll find that it really wasn’t even worth procrastinating.
Additional Reading: The Pomodoro Technique