Productivity

On Sight, Blindness, and Stretched Metaphors

Today’s snippet is brought to you by this article from CGP Grey, Daredevil, and a long walk.

Daredevil is a blind hero. After being blinded in an accident as a child his other senses grew to sensational levels of sensitivity. He could no longer see but he could hear heartbeats from hundreds of feet away, know someone’s emotional state by the way they smelled, and could move through his environment as deftly on his non-sight senses as he ever could with vision. What initially seemed like a handicap promoted him to grow in new ways.

I’m looking for a little of my own Daredevil-ness. I’ve decided to “blind” myself from easy distraction by unfollowing everyone I used to follow on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I erased my RSS reader and moved Apple News to the back of a folder. I unsubscribed from every podcast I used to listen to. My hope is that the energy that used to go into these activities will be productively rerouted into other outlets, namely the creation of awesome stuff.

Drastic measures? Probably. Although, it feels like it’s necessary to take drastic measures if I want to make a drastic impact on the world. Working in a start-up and finishing a PhD at the same time isn’t something that can be considered doable under “business as usual.” It requires honesty with myself. If I want do what matters I can’t do it all.

Silly metaphor? Certainly. Hypocritical to follow nobody on social media when I want others to follow me? Yep. Do I feel like extremely uncomfortable that I’ll somehow miss something important? You bet.

After cleaning out all the accounts I mentioned above I went for a walk. I noticed and felt things that I haven’t in a long time. Parts of my brain that used to be preoccupied by the low din of constant connection started wandering to new places. My other “senses” (creativity, motivation, discipline, and diligence) started to feel more energized.

My powers won’t let me beat up bad guys or be awesome at martial arts, but they just might help me do something awesome in my own areas of interest. At the very least, it’s worth a shot, right?

The World Is Your Hard Drive

Today’s snippet is brought to you by the thoughts stimulated by episode 244 of the excellent podcast, Back to Work and the concept of stigmergy.

The world around us contains tons of information, some of which we placed into it and some of which we didn’t. I don’t mean newspapers or websites. I’m talking about a more basic type of information. The light is red so you stop, the sidewalk is crumbled so you step around it, and the sky looks cloudy so you grab an umbrella. Simple and obvious stuff, right?

These are all examples of things that happen to us and then prompt some kind of action. However, that’s not the only way the environment can prompt action. There’s no reason we can’t be the one who puts something into the world to prompt us to take a certain action later. We all do it already, actually. When you set an alarm to remind yourself the coffee is done brewing you’re taking action because of something you did to your environment in the past (setting a timer). You didn’t sit around and fret about when those three minutes were up. Once you set that alarm you were able to continue moving through your day without any extra psychological weight.

You can take this to an even higher level, though. This is when we start to get into the realm of Getting Things Done and #lifehacks. We can deliberately offload certain responsibilities and reminders into our environment in order to lift that burden from our already information overload ravaged and besieged brains. The classic trick of putting something you absolutely positively must not forget in the morning on top of your car keys falls firmly in this category. By doing this you’ve removed the constant tug of, “Don’t forget this, don’t forget this, don’t forget this…” and placed the only reminder you need into the physical world. You’ve offloaded your psychic worry into the physical world.

Looking back to the micro-transitions I discussed yesterday, does your environment support or hinder the action you want yourself to take? As Merlin says in Back to Work, do you “make the right thing the easy thing”? Here are some examples I’ve tried or am trying from my own life:

  • I’ve installed a “lightweight distraction blocker” into my world by moving distracting apps on my phone to a folder instead of keeping them front and center.
  • I’ve installed a “motivation booster” into my world by starting every work session with a specific playlist I always listen to while working.
  • I’ve installed a “morning routine aid” by making sure everything I need to make coffee the way I like it is clean and ready to go every night.
  • I’ve installed a “reminder app” by putting every idea I have regarding anything I’m working on into a trusted bucket (my Things inbox).
  • I’ve literally installed a shared task management product into my world (Trello) so I don’t have to try to keep track of what my coworkers are working on.

On a basic level what I’m trying to do, and where I think I’m only just scratching the surface, is to leave imprints on my environment from when I’m feeling intelligent and inspired that I can follow later when I’m feeling tired or overwhelmed. The more I can craft my environment to nudge me in the “right” direction the more willpower and attention I can save for things that matter (like solving difficult problems and thinking creatively).

Clean up your working drive (i.e. brain) by trusting more of it to the gigantic external hard drive that surrounds you every day (i.e. the rest of the world).

On Micro-Transitions and a Sense of Momentum

Today’s snippet comes from my desire to figure out how I work best.

A micro-transition is any time during my day when I’m shifting from one state to another. For example, the transition from waking up to starting my morning routine or the transition between finishing lunch and getting back to work. There are a handful of these transitions that happen throughout the day that when handled correctly often have an inordinately huge impact on how productive I feel.

Focusing on these micro-transitions makes it less daunting to try improving larger aspects of my life. Instead of feeling like I have to nail the 4–5 aspects of my morning routine everyday I’ve learned that if I simply focus on the micro-transition of minimizing the time between my eyes opening and me standing in front of my coffee maker everything else tends to take care of itself. Once I’ve got the coffee process going I know the rest of the morning is going to be okay. If I wake up and then fiddle around with my phone in bed then I know I’ve messed up.

Another micro-transition I’ve been practicing is how I spend the first ten minutes after lunch. My inclination is to open Twitter or Reddit and find something to read. However, if I instead take those ten minutes getting organized or writing the rest of the day tends to go much better. It’s when I get sucked into a mindless browsing spiral immediately after lunch that I get frustrated with myself.

I may have buried the lede here but I think this concept can be extrapolated to organizations and teams, too. Obviously, each person in an organization has to deal with micro-transitions similar to the ones I described earlier but there’s a version of these that collectives experience. How does a team manage the transition from being in a meeting to getting back to work? How does a team manage the transition from the end of the weekend to Monday morning? Or from the end of a workshop to the first day after a workshop? There’s a line that needs to be traversed between celebrating feelings of progress (“That was a great meeting,” or “We crushed phase one of this project”) and keeping the momentum going over time. The most successful projects I’ve worked on have a steadily increasing level of momentum (often with a final spike right at the end) whereas the worst projects experienced extreme variations in momentum with often a final burst of panic at the end. Teams who manage their micro-transitions keep momentum building whereas teams who do a poor job optimizing transitions don’t.

We can experiment with creating structure in our environment or developing habits within our own minds to take the actions we know we need to take. The key is to focus on the micro-transition (just open our eyes and get to the coffee) and not the overall intention (have a killer morning routine). It may take some time to land on the behavior that unlocks this shift but it doesn’t have to be a mystery — it just needs to be uncovered through experimentation and self-reflection.

On Being Less Persnickety

Photo by Szoki Adams

My strengths can sometimes manifest as crippling weakness. 

I have strong opinions about things. Many things. Things like the freshness of the coffee I'm drinking and the method in which it was brewed (roasted no more than two weeks ago and brewed via Aeropress or Chemex, please), what I listen to while working (an instrumental playlist I've been curating for years), what I want my work environment to be like vis-a-vis the type of work I'm trying to do, the location I'm working vis-a-vis my current mood, the software I use to complete my work (I've researched everything I use to death), the pens and notebooks I use (Black Pilot G2 .07 and a hardcover Moleskine), and so on. I think you get the point.

I like this about myself. I think being discerning about the areas of your life that affect important things, like how well you're able to work, is a good idea. I know all my tools inside and out. I know I like everything I use and this helps flatten the runway to getting good work done.

On the other hand... damn, I'm persnickety. 

When do "being optimally discerning" and "being debilitatingly persnickety" start to overlap?

There's another way of working and being that appeals to me and it's the complete opposite of everything I wrote above. It's the idea of being completely unflappable regardless of what's going on around me. Of being able to use anything to do great work because my ability to do great work has transcended the quality of the tools available at my disposal. That my ability to sit down and concentrate is equally likely in a secluded writing nook as it is in a bustling café. The idea that I need nothing except my brain and the crudest of tools to get my work done.

The situation I want to avoid is needing a pristine environment and tools to get meaningful work done. I don't want to let less than ideal situations become an excuse to doing great things. 

I need to take some steps in the opposite direction so here are some ideas I'm going to start baking into my work routine more often to make sure I'm not letting my persnickety-ness take over:

Deliberately practicing working in distracting situations. Going to the café to work without my headphones. Sitting in the noisier part of the library. Working in a different location than I'm used to. 

Taking breaks from coffee. Drinking tea instead. Or maybe nothing. Or maybe just water. Show myself that I don't need a specific beverage to be awesome.

Deliberately break my morning and evening routines. Getting up late! Going to bed late! Getting up absurdly early! Going to bed absurdly early! Not to bed at all! It's time to get (occasionally) crazy with how I conduct my daily routines. Working in my pajamas. Working in a tuxedo. Working naked (that'll have to be a work from home day, I think).

Using less than ideal tools. Only working from my iPad for a few days! Using a public computer! Writing an article in long hand on the back of scrap paper with crayons! Writing an article in Microsoft Word! Using first party apps only!

Setting some process goals. Committing myself to a specific goal like writing 1,000 words per day and sticking to it no matter what. My personal feelings of inspiration and motivation become irrelevant if my commitment is to create a certain number of words every single day.

Man, even writing some of these out is giving me the heebie jeebies (which is probably proof that I need to do it). 

The key balance I need to learn to strike is that it's not bad to have standards or preferences for how I do things but it is kind of bad to confuse preferences with requirements. Uncovering preferences is fun and often quite meaningful but confusing them with requirements is a quick way to stop making progress on the projects and goals that matter the most to you.

Where do you stand on this equilibrium? Could you benefit from figuring out some preferences that will support the way you like to work or are you like me and perhaps need to take a step back and re-calibrate your persnickety ways?

The Emotions of Meaningful Productivity #2: Fear

In the first article of this Emotions of Meaningful Productivity series we took a look at the idea of whether "being a productive person" was a personality trait outside the realm of our control or more like a skill that can be learned by everyone. Now, I'd like to move into the realm of fear.

Fear and its various incarnations could probably be a series of articles in itself. For our purposes I'm going to focus on three primary types of fear that we often have to wrestle with when deciding to get organized or try to become more productive. There are certainly many other types (and they may make an appearance in this series later).

Last time we talked about the desire to do meaningful work broadly whereas this time I'd like to focus on the feelings of fear that can emerge when implementing some kind of productivity system like Getting Things Done. The specific system doesn't matter. What I'm talking about is the desire and effort to get a complete handle on everything going on in your life -- responsibilities, commitments, goals, aspirations, and day-to-day minutiae. Systems like GTD are great for that but they require us to come face to face with some pretty intense fears.

Fear of Completion

A huge component of GTD is getting your mind to 100% empty and relying on your external system to hold reminders of everything that's going on in your life. For many people, this imperative to get to 100% complete is extremely daunting. Not only is the sheer amount of information often intense but the emotional component of seeing the entirety of your life on paper can be unexpected. For some, looking at a complete record of everything going on in their life evokes feelings of, "Oh my God, how am I ever going to do all of this in one lifetime?" It's utterly overwhelming. However, some people often have the exact opposite reaction. They see the representation of all their responsibilities, commitments, and goals in front of them and think, "That's it? My entire existence has been reduced to a few pieces of paper?"

If you've ever experienced resistance to getting to 100% complete with any kind of productivity system then you might be wrestling with this type of fear.

Fear of Routine

GTD has always caught flak from a certain type of creative professional who argues it's incompatible with their type of work because it's too structured. People fear systematizing the various components of their life because they think it'll cause them to lose the spontaneity and serendipity they think they rely on to be effective professionals.

If you've ever felt this fear when contemplating some kind of overhaul around how you think about and organize your work I encourage you to dig a little deeper. Are you using this fear as a crutch for why you're surrounded by discord? Is it possible that there are better ways to nurturing and developing your creative career than by letting administrative details and other "boring" parts of your work and life fall through the cracks?

In fact, is it possible that when you have a complete organizational system or approach to running your life you'll free up attention, energy, and space to do truly creative work? Does having a handle on everything going in your life truly lock you into a soulless routine or does it potentially allow the mental space for more spontaneity and creativity?

Fear of Being in the Moment

A byproduct of being truly organized and on top of your game means you can give your attention to one task or activity at a time. With less chaos floating around in the background of your mind and environment there are fewer and fewer excuses for not diving deep into what you're trying to do. It becomes easier to truly be in the moment with whatever you're doing. Whether that's writing a report, hanging out with your spouse, or paying the bills.

Being in the moment can be a vulnerable experience. It can be mentally taxing. It can rile up emotions that are normally tamped down by layers of mental and emotional detritus. A lack of organization can result in a reality where you're comfortably numb with everything you're doing. You don't necessarily feel great about it but you certainly don't feel too badly about it either. Being in the moment can be like moving from the bland middle bit of the emotional continuum and toward the poles. That's not to say you'll swing from mania to depression but that what you're feeling will be clearer and more intense. Like cleaning a dirty lens or removing a filter between you and the world. Scary, eh?

It's not my goal to psychoanalyze you via the written word or give exceedingly general advice that may or may not apply to anyone reading this piece. The process for working through each of these fears looks very different and chances are not all three apply to every single person. Therefore, all I can say at this point is to try to spend some time in quiet reflection if you've ever had trouble "getting organized" and see if any of these three fears resonates with what you've experienced. If so, how did it manifest? What did it feel like? What might be a first step to overcoming that fear?


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Photo by Alyssa L. Miller

Workologism #10: Start from a Place of Strength

If you're trying to "get organized" or declutter an area of your life, instead of tackling the gnarliest possible project, start with something super easy. Find one area of your life where you're already very organized and build out from there. For example, try starting with one of your hobbies.

Let's say you enjoy fishing. Presumably, if you enjoy fishing you keep your equipment in a relatively orderly state. Now, what is another area of your life that slightly intersects with this hobby and needs some attention? Maybe your car (I'm guessing you drive to wherever you go fishing)? Now your fishing gear and your car are in good shape. What's next? Garage? The dresser where you keep your fishing clothes? Keep radiating outwards until you encompass more and more of your life.

Once you get a handle on these physical spaces it may be easier to begin wrapping your arms around the more ephemeral aspects of your life (work commitments, goals, aspirations, responsibilities, etc.).

Photo by tunnelarmr

The List #23

Welcome to the 23rd edition of The List featuring three articles and a relatively short video. As usual I hope you kick back with these on Saturday morning or on a lazy Sunday afternoon and enjoy.

Top MLB prospect lives by his own rules -- in a van -- ESPN

It unsettled him in those first months to see so many zeros on his bank account balance -- "Who am I to deserve that?" he wondered. "What have I really done?" -- so he hired financial advisers and asked them to stash the money in conservative investments where Norris wouldn't have to think about it. His advisers deposit $800 a month into his checking account -- or about half as much as he would earn working full time for minimum wage. It's enough to live in a van, but just barely. "I'm actually more comfortable being kind of poor," he says, because not having money maintains his lifestyle and limits the temptation to conform.

A Brewing Problem - The Atlantic

This is really interesting to me because we actually use Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (now Keurig Green Mountain) as a case study in one of the classes I help teach as an example of appreciative inquiry and corporate social responsibility. Maybe it's time to update the case study?

Meet the Makers: Ableton Developers at Work (14:04)

I love seeing videos of how companies go about getting their work done. The culture at Ableton seems like a great place for the creative and the curious. Anyone have more videos like this? Share them with me on Twitter, eh?

How Steinbeck Used the Diary as a Tool of Discipline, a Hedge Against Self-Doubt, and a Pacemaker for the Heartbeat of Creative Work - Brain Pickings

This is so, so great. I'd say the vast majority of my entries in Day One are things I've written while agonizing over the fact that I need to get to work or don't have any ideas for things to write about. Looks like Steinbeck did a similar thing with his diary while writing The Grapes of Wrath. The other thing that's kind of cool is to see that even an absolute titan of the literary world was plagued by self-doubt -- even while writing a book that ended up earning him a Pulitzer Prize. It's a nice reminder that you aren't doing anything wrong if work is hard.

Photo by Alex Alonso

The Emotions of Meaningful Productivity #1: "I'm Just Not That Type of Person"

I'm kicking off a new series I'm calling The Emotions of Meaningful Productivity. Much of the productivity writing I and others have done focuses on the implementation and tactical levels (easy to digest tools, tips, and "hacks") which means we often miss the mark of what's going on at a more foundational level. Anybody who has tried to "get organized" or "be more productive" is wrestling with more than a need for a hot new tool or a pithy line of advice (even if we think that's all we need). Usually we are wrestling with some pretty heavy emotional hangups and barriers that require more careful consideration. I want to explore these deeper emotional challenges that often get in the way of doing more meaningful work. This means we'll touch on aspects of productivity, personal organization, focus, and generally being effective and happy human beings in a world where work and human emotion come into contact on a regular basis.

Let's step to it, eh?

"I'm just not an organized/productive/diligent person."

On more than one occasion I've spoken to someone who notices I have a strange (to them) approach toward being productive. After briefly explaining the main points of my system more often than not I hear something like, "Oh, that must be great. I'm just not that type of person."

Hogwash! Poppycock! Hammermittens! (I think I made that last one up).

Antiquated exclamations aside, I do understand the feeling. I'm sure there must be some genetic variation in terms of whether or not you're attracted to the process of organizing things or thinking systematically about being more productive. God knows not every little kid thought organizing and re-organizing his hockey cards for hours on end or playing with calendars and planners was a fun time (hi Mom!). Looking around at people who seem to have their lives in order often uncovers other feelings that spread beyond a desire for a little more organization and productivity. It can make you think something is wrong with you. It feels crappy when someone else makes something you want and find difficult look so incredibly easy. Not only do you start to feel frustrated with your own lack of being on top of things, you may even start hating the raw material that's creating all this discord in your life -- i.e. the decisions, responsibilities, and components of your career and life. That's heavy stuff.

Putting our natural inclinations to be interested in organization and productivity aside, does that mean "meaningful productivity" is something for only a select few? You either get it or you don't? And if you don't, you're doomed to an existence of stress and chaos?

I don't think it's much of a surprise that I argue it's not.

"Getting organized" or "being productive" are a series of behaviors that when enacted result in a more controlled and orderly work (or personal) life. These are behaviors that are concrete, discrete, and extremely learnable. Like learning to ride a bike or drive a car or even tie your shoes -- they consist of steps that build upon one another and can be practiced discretely. Eventually you're able to start stringing together these steps together and before you know it you're riding a bike, driving a car, tying your shoes, or doing more meaningful work with less stress.

The problem arises when we see the distance between where we are right now (some combination of a disorganized, harried, busy, and overwhelmed mess) and where we want to be (a Zen-like master of everything) as a huge gulf instead of a series of steps. Would you rather try to scale a sheer cliff or walk up a staircase? I don't blame anybody for walking away from even trying to climb a cliff with no apparent handholds. But, there's a stairway just over here. I'm not saying it'll be quick but anybody can walk up some stairs, right?

Instead of trying to adopt some kind of wholesale, wide-ranging, and all-inclusive organizational system (like GTD), try a series of smaller changes first. These could be almost anything, but I would err on the side of simplicity and ease. By building some success with smaller steps that momentum can be banked and utilized for larger changes later.

  1. If you currently write ideas in more than one place try consolidating down to one notebook or location (or at least fewer than you're currently using). Behavior being learned: Ubiquitous capture and trust in your inbox(es).

  2. Spend 5 minutes at the beginning/end of each day thinking about what you intend to do today/tomorrow. Behavior being learned: Front-end decision making and planning.

  3. Go through your email inbox and unsubscribe from everything that isn't giving you value. Behavior being learned: Attention management.

  4. Install Rescue Time and let it run for a week or two. Figure out where you're currently using your time. Behavior being learned: Attention and time management.

  5. Go through your desk (or just one drawer if it's a true disaster zone) and get ride of unneeded stuff. Old pens, broken electronics, pieces of useless paper, etc. Behavior being learned: Respect for your workspace and creation of space for doing better work.

These steps may seem silly easy but when you're dealing with a deep seated belief that you're just not the type of person to get organized and be productive then you need to do things to prove yourself wrong. Instead of conceptualizing this ability to be organized and get work done as a personality trait that you sadly don't have you can begin building the very real skills and behaviors that every "productive person" uses on a daily basis. Like anything else that's tricky it will take time to practice the requisite steps but that isn't evidence that you're incapable of doing it -- it's simply evidence that you're learning a new way to interact with the world.

Next time we'll dive into another emotional roadblock to developing meaningful productivity -- fear.


Have a thought? Connect with me via Twitter, email, or join the Mailing List to receive a free copy of Work Better.

Photo by Peter Thoeny

How to Build More Flow Into Your Work Day

As I mentioned a few weeks ago with my How to Take Control of Your Indie Work Career article and video, I was asked to record some material for the now defunct en*theos Academy. The second lecture I recorded is called How To Build More Flow Into Your Work Day. You can see my 10 main ideas below and I expand upon those ideas in the video which you can watch here if it's not showing up for you.

[youtube=://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZT5lfaKUuJM&w=854&h=480]

Introduction

Think about the last time you were doing something that was incredibly engrossing, utterly immersive, and at the complete peak of your abilities. This state is something that psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.” Flow is awesome. When you’re in flow you’re highly focused, highly productive, and completely engaged with the task at hand. Time seems to fly and you look back on the experience as positive and worth doing again.

Obviously, it can be pretty easy to find flow during leisure activities like mountain climbing or playing a video game. Luckily, flow is not reserved just for “fun” activities like that. Work is a great environment to find flow and with a little bit of effort you can find more flow in everything you do.

I’m going to share ten basic ideas that will help you find more flow in your work on a daily basis. The Top 10 Big Ideas

1. Set Clear Goals

A key component to finding flow in anything you’re doing is having a clear goal you’re working toward. If you can make the goal personally meaningful then you’re in an even better position. Without a goal the task will lack structure and direction.

Action tip: Set a daily goal before you start work in the morning and keep it in your field of vision throughout the day (I like putting mine on an index card that I keep clipped to a notebook).

2. Combat Boredom

Csikszentmihalyi argues that flow emerges when we do a task that is challenging and we have the required skills to successfully complete the task. If the challenge of the task is too low and your skills far outpace it then you’re likely to become bored. If you find yourself in that situation, one way you can be more likely to find flow is to figure out a way to make the task more challenging, thus requiring more of your skills to finish it.

Action tip: Try turning a boring part of your job into a game. Give yourself some kind of restriction or challenge that makes it more difficult. I like to check my email using only keyboard shortcuts and seeing how quickly I can get in and out of my inbox.

3. Eliminate Distractions

One nice component of being in flow is that some low level distractions will never even reach your consciousness. People in flow sometimes forget to eat or don’t realize they’re sitting in an uncomfortable position until they leave the flow state and realize their foot is asleep and they’re super hungry. Where you need to be aware of distractions is when you’re first trying to get into flow. A continuous stream of notifications will make it difficult to get deep enough into any task to find flow.

Action tip: Eliminate the vast majority of notifications on your phone and computer. Even better, when sitting down to work on something try turning your phone off or leaving it in another room.

4. Develop Your Ability to Concentrate

At its core, being in flow is a matter of regulating your attention. When you’re in flow you’re using your full attention on the task at hand without letting it spill into other concerns or activities (which is why a lack of distraction is so important). Since flow is so reliant on your ability to concentrate, doing anything to strengthen that ability is a great idea. In my own experience, my meditation practice has helped develop my mind to the point where I can more easily become engaged with the task at hand and find flow in what I’m doing.

Action tip: Try starting a meditation practice. Start with just a few minutes a day and work your way up. A great guide is Mindfulness in Plain English (plus, it’s free!).

5. Build in More Opportunities to Do What You’re Good At

Remember, finding flow requires a balance of challenge and skill. Take stock of what you’re already good at and see if you can get involved with projects that let you use those skills. While flow can be found doing nearly anything, it’s easier when you’re doing something you’re already good at and enjoy doing.

Action tip: Take stock of your strengths with the Gallup StrengthsFinder 2.0 or the VIA Institute on Character Survey. Once you know your strengths, brainstorm ways to use them in your work more often.

6. Seek Challenging Projects

Csikszentmihalyi makes the point that flow requires higher than average skill and ability. You might think that having low skill and low challenge in an activity would also result in flow since the ratio is 1:1. However, Csikszentmihalyi calls this zone “apathy” and it won’t be nearly as engaging as flow. Similarly, doing something in which you have high skill but are presented with low challenge results in “relaxation,” not flow. For flow you need high skill and high challenge.

Action tip: Volunteer for a project that seems just slightly outside your comfort zone. You’ll be forced to develop your skill to keep up and you’ll be much more likely to find flow.

7. Find a Supportive Group

Being in a group of other people can sometimes help you enter the flow state more easily. In my personal experience, this is why I love sharing workspaces with other people who are working intently on things they care about. When I’m around other people there seems to be a sense of “positive peer pressure” that pushes me toward working more diligently and deeply.

Action tip: If you normally work alone, try going to a local coworking space or finding likeminded people to share a workspace with.

8. Be on the Lookout for Anxiety

If you’re feeling anxious about something you’re working on it means the level of challenge is exceeding your level of skill in that domain. In order to move from anxiety into flow you’ll either have to lower the challenge or raise your skill (or a combination of both).

Action tip: Try lowering the challenge by getting additional help from a knowledgeable coworker or relieving external pressures when possible (by getting an extension on a looming deadline, for example). To increase your skill, utilize the vast world of great learning resources on the Internet like iTunesU, Lynda, or en*theos!

9. Have a Plan

A key component of finding flow in anything you do is having a sense of where you’re going and whether you’re headed in the right direction. That’s not to say you need to plot out every single point along the journey, but it does help to have an overall plan. A mountain climber doesn’t pre-plan every single movement while he’s on the mountain, but he also doesn’t just “wing it” with no preparation at all.

Action tip: Spend some time at the beginning of a project thinking about the end goal and figuring out what success might look like. I even like to do this on a daily basis by spending a few minutes planning my day in the morning and thinking about the criteria I’ll use to decide whether or not I’ve had a successful day.

10. Seek Feedback from the Work Itself

To know whether you’re making progress you need to get feedback on what you’re doing. Feedback can take the form of information you get from the task itself. For example, when practicing a musical instrument you can tell if you’re doing well by noticing if you’re hitting the right notes. A mountain climber receives feedback in the form of “not falling off the mountain.” At work it’s probably not quite as obvious as hitting a wrong note or falling off a mountain but you can still get feedback from the task at hand. Is the work flowing smoothly? Excellent! If it’s not, ask yourself what seems to be causing the blockage and figure out ways to work around or eliminate whatever is clogging things up.

Action tip: Check in with yourself every couple of hours and take note of what’s going well and what isn’t going well. Perhaps you keep thinking about something else you should be working on. Take steps to get that anxiety out of your head before going back to work on the original task to make flow more likely in the future.

Call to Action

I think learning about flow and striving to find it in our work is one of the best uses of our time as human beings. When we look back at the end of our lives what we’ll be looking at is the sum total of how we used our limited attention throughout the years. Seeking flow in your work (and beyond) is a commitment to use your attention as wisely as possible.

A Relentless Drive Toward Completion

I want to be someone who gets impressive things done quickly. I see classmates who finish their theses and dissertations early. People draft a new book over a month and a half of focused writing sessions. Someone sits down and creates a new product or website or article in less time than anyone expects. These people fascinate me and I want to be one of them. Obviously, these people have developed the ability to focus. But I think there's another force beyond the ability to focus that's at play here. I think people who get things done in a timely manner have cultivated what I've been calling a "relentless drive toward completion".

A relentless drive toward completion means that you sit down for a work session and ask yourself, "What can I finish?" and not, "What will I work on?" By breaking a project into finishable sections and then driving themselves toward the completion of those sections the highly productive person builds momentum in a way that just "working on" a project never can.

Focusing the mind on what can be finished in the short term ensures that progress is being made in a quantitative and qualitative way. Not only are words appearing on the page or pages accumulating or paintings starting to pile up or whatever your primary output is -- but there is a feeling of progress when you can check actual items off your list instead of looking at the never-changing and ambiguous "Finish thesis," or, "Finish book."

I'm still working to develop this relentless drive toward completion myself so here are some things I've tried and are currently trying in my own work:

Ignore how long things are "supposed" to take

Accepted wisdom is usually an average of how long things have taken people in the past and actually has very little to do with what you're setting out to do. Just because I have a year and a half to complete my thesis doesn't mean I have to take a year and a half.

Make sure each work session has a goal

Never sit down to just "work on" something. Create a finish line for yourself to cross. If you're writing a book perhaps the goal of the session is to finish outlining the chapter, or drafting a page, or simply revising the next paragraph. Give yourself something to accomplish and as you start to accumulate those wins you'll be developing a momentum that can push you to the ultimate finish line quicker than you'd ever expect.

Eliminate or defer as much as possible so you can dive deep on one thing

I'm learning that I can't have a relentless drive toward completion on every single thing I'm working on at all times. I have to pick and choose my spots. Pushing myself to finish something faster than anyone expects means I need to create the space in my life that allows me to focus deeply on it. I have to defer everything I can, do the minimum required in other places, or, ideally, completely remove something from my plate. Whatever route I end up taking the end result is the same -- I need to do less in order to do better.

I'm convinced developing this mindset, this craving for completion, is what sets apart people who seem to get more done than seems physically possible and everyone else. I've been in the "everyone else" category for long enough. It's time to get things done.

Photo by Amara U

Workologism #9: Batch

If you're not batching together simple, quick, and/or boring tasks then you're likely fracturing your attention and ruining the level of attention and care you can bring to your work that actually matters -- and that sucks.

Batching is simply saving a bunch of small things to do all at once instead of doing them as they show up. Here are a few of the things I regularly batch:

  1. Responding to emails (usually once daily).
  2. Checking email (a handful of times daily).
  3. Processing my snail mail (weekly).
  4. Paying bills (once every couple weeks).
  5. Processing notes out of my notebook and into Things or Evernote (once every couple days).

What could you start batching today?

Photo by Satoshi KAYA

Workologism #8: Use Your Workspace as a Tool

Actual photo of my workspace as it exists in November 2014. 

When you look around your workspace what do you see? I think our workspaces should not simply be a space where we get our work done, but a tool to help support us in actually doing our work. Everyone's space is a unique extension of themselves and I would never argue that we should all have the same type of space. I do think, however, that there are a few things that should characterize every knowledge worker's workspace.

If you're a knowledge worker I think you should be able to look around your space and easily see:

  1. The plan for what you're going to do this week.
  2. The plan for what you're going to do today.
  3. Your "hard landscape"
  4. Some projects that aren't active but you want to "percolate."
  5. And at least one thing that inspires or motivates you.

For me, this looks like:

  • A whiteboard that has a list of the projects I'm working on this week, any upcoming due dates, all my "hard landscape" items for this week, and a short list of "percolating" projects I want my subconscious to work on even though I'm not going to actively work on them this week.
  • An index card that has my daily plan written on it and it is clipped to the front of the notebook that sits on my desk.
  • A picture of my four younger brothers, which motivates me to work hard and be a good role model.
  • A meaningful quote either written on the whiteboard or written on an index card and stuck to the wall.

Photo by me

On Building Positive Structure and Getting Better Every Day

I'm a huge proponent of helping independent workers build what I've started calling "positive structure" into their work life. In all the interviews and research I've done on independent work one conversation keeps happening:

Me: "What didn't you like about your 9-to-5 job? Why did you start this independent job?" Them: "I hated the structure! I hated having to always do things the way someone else told me!" Me: "What's tough about working on your own now? Is there anything difficult about being an independent worker?" Them: "I have no structure!" Me: "Hm."

The independent workers I've talked to who seem the most satisfied in their work are the ones who have thought about the type and extent of structure they want to exist in their working life. The ones who struggle have never sat down and asked themselves how they actually want to work.

What follows is a list of questions that might help you build some more positive structure into your day. I'm not saying you need to go through all of these and have an in-depth response for each. I'm saying that if you feel like your day-to-day is lacking some structure these are the questions I think you should start answering.

And really, the vast majority of these are relevant to everyone, not just independent workers.

  • When do you wake up? How do you wake up? Why?
  • What is the first thing you do when you wake up? Why?
  • How do you spend the first fifteen minutes of your work day? Why?
  • How often do you take breaks? Why?
  • When do you do the different types of work that make up your job? Do you tend to do certain types of work on certain days or during certain times? Why?
  • When do you feel like you're "at your best" during the day?
  • When do you take a lunch? What do you do during lunch? What do you tend to eat? Where do you go? Why?
  • Do you take naps? When?
  • What do you do when you come back from lunch? Why?
  • What do you do when you're feeling drained in the afternoon? Why?
  • When do you stop working for the day? How do you know when you're done for the day?
  • What is your end of day routine?
  • Do you allow yourself to do "work stuff" after the end of the day? Why or why not?
  • What do you do before bed?
  • What is your sleeping routine like?
  • What do you wear when you work? Why?
  • How do you plan out your weeks?
  • Do you work anywhere else other than your house? Where? Why?
  • How do you connect to other people in your field?
  • When do you step back from the day-to-day and make big, strategic plans?
  • Do you like the tools you use on a daily basis? Do you understand how to use your tools to their fullest extent?
  • Is your desk set up to be optimally ergonomic and comfortable?
  • Is your working environment enjoyable? Do you listen to music while you work? Do you have natural sunlight? Do those things matter to you?
  • When do you take vacations? What are they like? Do you work during them?
  • Do you do all your work at your desk? Are there certain things you do that could be done more optimally somewhere else? Even somewhere else in your house?
  • How do you make sure your skills are kept up to date? What do you do for professional development? When do you do it?
  • Do you have a routine for getting yourself "in the zone"?
  • What are the most frequent distractions or interruptions you face on a daily basis? Can you do anything to eliminate or reduce them?
  • Do the things you do for leisure actually rejuvenate you?
  • Do you try to hold yourself to a normal working schedule or are you more flexible about when you work? Or does it change on a daily basis? How do you decide this?
  • How do you schedule meetings? Does that process work well for you?
  • When do you like to have meetings? When do you like to do your "hard" work?
  • What do you hate to do? What can you do to make it a little less distasteful?
  • Do you ever reward yourself? How? When?

I don't think any of these questions have an obvious or even "right" answer. I think the unique way each of us answers these is what's beautiful about work. We each have the space and the ability to bring our own preferences and proclivities to the way we carry ourselves through our days.

The one bit of advice I would give, however, is that each of the answers to these questions should be played and experimented with. If you found yourself answering, "I don't know" to any of these then you should try something. It really doesn't matter what. Do whatever sounds good, do what a friend does, do what you think you "should" do, or do the opposite of what you think you "should" do. Like I said, it doesn't matter. What matters is that you start playing with decisions and the reality that end up comprising your life. Learn what works for you. Learn what doesn't work for you. Get in there, make a mess, learn something about yourself, and maybe bring a little more of your best work into the world.

We all benefit from each of us getting better.

Photo by Herr Olsen

Workologism #7: Get Serious About Ubiquitous Capture

That awesome idea you just had? You aren't going to remember it in 10 minutes. I promise you. Get it out of your head and onto something a little more stable than the jelly-like organ that's working hard to keep you alive and not just remember your seemingly incredible ideas.

  1. Your smartphone has a reminders or notes function. Use it. Bonus points for learning how to voice activate it. I can say "Remind me to do X," to my phone and it will automatically add it to my Things inbox.

  2. Small notebook, back pocket. Small pen, front left pocket. This may only work for the fellas but it's relatively easy to carry a small notebook (Field Notes or Moleskine are good) in your back pocket and a small pen (like a Space pen) clipped to the inside of a front pocket.

  3. Use some kind of software on your computer that makes it easy to quickly record an idea. I use Things which allows me to hit CTRL + OPT + SPACEBAR to bring up a quick entry box that will immediately put whatever I type into it in my Things inbox. This plus muscle memory will allow you to record every good idea without overly distracting you from the task at hand.

Photo by photophilde

The Recipe for the Perfect Weekly Plan

For whatever reason a week seems to be the perfect amount of time when thinking about planning your upcoming work. Planning once a week gives you enough time to actually get work done but going much longer than a week makes it hard to forecast what exactly you need to do and your plans are likely to devolve to the point of being useless. I've written about how to do Weekly Reviews before, but this time around I wanted to focus specifically on how to figure out what you're going to work on over the next seven days.

Making a Weekly Plan helps you achieve a sense of completion and progress in the work you're doing. Without it you don't really have much criteria as to whether or not you had a successful week. By having a plan you can measure what you actually accomplished against what you planned to finish and you can either pat yourself on the back for fulfilling the plan or figure out why it didn't work out quite the way you hoped. It also adds useful structure to your days so you can focus on actually finishing the work instead of figuring it out each and every day (or multiple times every day). Finally, it helps you break away from the tyranny of the "latest and loudest." Without a plan it's easy to get sucked into your email inbox or just generally working in a reactive instead of proactive state which is a recipe for not getting your most meaningful work done.

For all these reasons you need a Weekly Plan. The plan simply consists of:

  • A complete picture of where you need to be at specific times this week
  • A complete picture of what you intend to work on each day this week
  • A complete picture of what you're choosing NOT to do this week

By this point hopefully you're on board with the idea that systematically creating a Weekly Plan is a good idea. Let's get into the nitty gritty of how to make one and like any good recipe you can take it and make it your own once you understand the basics.

Required Materials

  • A full list of your Hard Landscape (appointments, meetings, places to be at specific times, etc.) for the week
  • A complete Project List (things to do that will take more than one Next Action to complete)
  • A complete Next Action List (the next step you need to take on all of your projects)
  • A clear list of upcoming deadlines
  • A clear sense of your medium & long term goals.

Instructions

Put all the Hard Landscape activities on your calendar and make sure the start and end times are accurate (if you have to guess, err on the side of blocking out too much time on your calendar for an activity). Remember, these are not aspirational in any way. These are phone calls that have to be made at a certain time, meetings that need to be attended, appointments, and other time and location specific activities.

Now that you know what has to happen this week you can spend some time figuring out how you're going to use the rest of the time available to you. This is where you look at your complete Project List and set some intentions about what you're going to work on each day.

Relevant Criteria For Deciding What Makes the Cut

Once you have your Hard Landscape figured out how do you decide what to include in the Weekly Plan? Try using some of the following criteria and limitations when thinking about what you want to try to get done.

Upcoming Deadlines

If there's an imminent deadline then obviously you need to work on a project to finish it on time. It helps to look a couple weeks in advance to make sure nothing sneaks up on you. I like to keep a list of upcoming due dates on my whiteboard up to a couple months out so I make sure that doesn't happen. Remember, sometimes Hard Landscape activities have actions that need to be taken before they happen (e.g. prep for a meeting, print out a ticket, review some information, etc.). Other examples from my own life include; weekly articles for my website, monthly newsletters, submission deadlines on papers, weekly consulting gig requirements and prepping for meetings I lead. All of these have deadlines attached to them so if one of them is coming up (or is a recurring deadline like writing a weekly article for my site) I need to make sure there's room in my Weekly Plan to get that done.

Importance to Goals

It's important not to let the "latest and loudest" guide your decisions about what you're going to accomplish in any given week. Once you've figured out the work you need to get finished to meet any upcoming deadlines you need to look at the most meaningful work relevant to your medium and long term goals. Some of your meaningful work has deadlines and is therefore considered in the previous step, but some of it likely has only self-imposed deadlines, if any at all. That type of work is easy to let slide if you don't deliberately set some time aside throughout the week to work on it. In my life, this work often includes working on a book proposal, doing business development activities, working on courses, and doing my PhD work.

Other Considerations

Deadlines and Importance to Goals are the primary criteria you should consider when deciding what to work on, but there are other things such as, how much time is your Hard Landscape going to take up this week?, how much energy are you likely to have this week?, what is weighing on your mind the most this week? All of these questions have an impact on what you'll schedule for yourself in terms of work.

If your Hard Landscape is going to take up a huge percentage of your week then being super ambitious with scheduling other work is probably a bad idea. If last week was insane then you should try to schedule yourself some easier tasks. If there's a particular project or Area of Responsibility that's weighing on you for some reason then I'll try to schedule some time during the week to make some meaningful progress on that.

For example, in some ways I feel like I've been letting my PhD advisor down over the past few weeks so I scheduled lots of time to work on my lab duties and other PhD work this week because I knew making progress there would do the most for alleviating my own anxiety.

Finally, even though I mentioned taking into consideration how much time your Hard Landscape is going to take up it's important to keep in mind not over scheduling yourself in general. You need to leave space for the unexpected and for taking care of administrative details. On a normal Hard Landscape day for me (1-3 appointments/meetings taking up about 2-3 hours) I will schedule 2-3 things to work on for the rest of the day. A handy rule of thumb is that if you can't fit the entirety of your daily plan on a single index card you've probably over scheduled yourself.

With these raw ingredients and the simple criteria I listed above you can make sit down and make a logical and realistic plan for your upcoming week.

Photo by Graham Ballantyne