rejuvenation

Thoughts on my Imminent Vacation

What are the emotions at play that make us want to stay connected to work and our normal everyday routine when we're supposed to be on vacation? Why do we seem to be unable to separate ourselves from this often stress-inducing expectation to operate as we always do while on vacation? Why do we feel the urge to check in with email, Slack, Twitter, and the other tools of our normal day-to-day life when we've explicitly traveled to another location ostensibly to remove ourselves from our day-to-day reality?

Part of it is that we like this stuff. At least, I know I do. A notification represents a positive (even a microscopically positive) change in my equilibrium. Somebody likes a thing I did, somebody posted an article I'm interested in reading, there's a nice photo, here's a new opportunity, there's a positive update on a project. We are all buried under an avalanche of nearly imperceptibly positive inanity.

That's not to say there aren't overtly negative aspects to our biggest online time wasters, too. In my own life, though, these are far outweighed by the positive (and if they weren't then I probably wouldn't have as hard a time as I do shutting them off). Does this onslaught of mildly positive affect dilute us or maybe distract us from something worth experiencing?

I think so.

An unrelenting haze of micro-positive interruptions and outlets may take the place of boredom, curiosity, and the uninterrupted time they used to come out and play together – with potentially powerful results. I wonder if my vaguely positive but usually entirely dull digital life prevents me from having insights, ideas, and emotions that never get to see the light of day? What areas of my life requires a recipe more refined than unrelenting mild positivity, interruption, and constant stimulus? What might be hiding under the warm and admittedly comfortable blanket of my mundane usage of modern technology?

Self-awareness? Creativity? Deeper relationships? Mental clarity? A willingness to dive deeper into a single subject or experience?

I don't have any answers but I do often wonder I might be giving up to support my addiction to the steady stream of retweets, text messages, listicles, faves, likes, gifs, and faux antique digital photos I allow into nearly every moment of my waking life. Why not use this vacation to peel back that familiar layer of my life and poke around beneath it?

When I wake up Monday morning to get on the train that will take me to the bus that will take me to the plane that will take me to a beach across the country I will be trying to live by a couple rules:

  • No email. I am not an important enough person doing important enough work for anything to break, blow up, or die if I don't respond to email for a week (most of us aren't -- we just like to think we are). 
  • No Slack. See above. The world will go on without me.
  • No Twitter. Twitter is both a pleasant distraction and a useful work tool. I need neither of these during my vacation. Tweetbot (along with Mailbox and Slack) will be removed from my first page of apps and all notifications will be turned off.
  • No Facebook. No Instagram. I will be in the midst of my own relaxing and rejuvenating experience. I don't need to see others' good times'. I will try to take some pictures but they will be for my own creative expression.
  • No RSS feeds. RSS is a normal part of my work day routine. I have no interest in propagating my normal work day routine to my vacation location. All the interesting articles will be waiting for me when I return.
  • No podcasts. While I have nothing against podcasts I view them almost as audio candy. They are nice to ingest during the busy times of a typical work week but I'm looking to make this vacation a rejuvenation experience. I have no room for candy in this rejuvenation attempt.
  • The same logic applies to what I have saved in Instapaper. This vacation is a time for me to dive into something longer and meatier – not blast through a series of articles about tech, psychology, and everything else I read and write about everyday.
  • Needless to say, no Mendeley or Evernote or Things or anything else that helps me run my hectic and productive life. Hectic and productive are not my buzzwords for this vacation.

That's a whole lot of things that I'm NOT going to do. Almost makes you wonder what I AM going to be doing, right?

  • Reading on my Kindle. I'm not sure what, yet, but I will be reading copiously. I'll probably read some kind of fiction because that's what I'd be most likely not to do during my everyday life.
  • Writing in Day One. Each day (or whenever the mood strikes me) I want to pull out my iPad and write in Day One. This won't be a log of what I'm doing but simply a place for me to do any stream of consciousness writing that seems appropriate.
  • Listening to an audiobook.
  • Nothing. About three days in to this weeklong vacation I will probably hit a point where the first twinges of boredom will arrive. My hope is that I'm successfully able to do nothing instead of looking for some mental stimulus in the form of one of my no-nos from above.
  • Walking/wandering.
  • Conversing with loved ones, strangers, sea gulls – who knows.
  • Taking pictures.
  • Writing in my analog notebook whenever writing in Day One doesn't seem appealing.
  • Thinking.
  • Simply being outside as much as possible.
  • Meditating.

Hopefully I come back rejuvenated and ready to conquer another couple months of doing meaningful and challenging work. At the very least, I know I'll at least have a tan and an overflowing inbox. 

I'm okay with both.

Photo by espos.de

How to Leverage Success Intelligently

It feels awesome to accomplish something audacious. After weeks, months, or even years of hard work and it all finally comes together into a successful product or event you are probably riding a seriously intense wave of adrenaline and excitement. Assuming it went well, you'll probably feel like you're on top of the world, the bee's knees, or the cat's pajamas. I applaud you, I congratulate you, and I want to shake your hand.

What I don't want you to do, however, is start making plans for your next project.

Maybe it feels like a waste to not utilize this surge of motivation and excitement. What better time to plan than when you're already feeling great about yourself and your abilities? And to that I answer, "Almost any other time."

Making decisions about your future when you're on an emotional high is a good way to set yourself up for unattainable expectations and burnout. It also sets you up to neglect other areas of your life that probably need attention after the period of intense focus and dedication your current accomplishment required. Instead of launching right into the planning process of something new, I encourage you to do one, or more, of the following:

  1. Reflect: Before blindly blundering into a new project give yourself some time to reflect. Let a little bit of time lapse so you can look back at the entire process with a somewhat more objective view. What went well? What challenges were faced and how were they handled? What would you do differently next time? Give yourself time to sit and observe these reflections so you can incorporate them into future projects and endeavors. Everything you do, successful or otherwise, provides data that can be used to improve the way you go about future work.
  2. Refocus: In the weeks and days leading up to a major accomplishment you often have to narrow your focus. When the first TEDx conference I organized was getting very close to happening I had to put a lot of other normal concerns on the back burner in order to give it my full attention. I delayed hanging out with friends that I'd normally see more often. I called my family less. I put forth the minimum amount of effort to get by in my classes. The end result was that the conference was a great success and everything went well but I had to make some sacrifices in the process. It was important for me to relax afterward and identify the conscious and subconscious decisions I had made in the weeks leading up to it regarding my other commitments. I had to reach out to friends, to family, and re-dedicate myself to my academic work. In a word, I had to refocus and regain some balance to my life.
  3. Recharge: Accomplishing major projects and milestones can be exhausting. While that exhaustion is often masked by the adrenaline and euphoria of accomplishment, eventually you'll come down from that high and the true state of your mental and physical health will hit you. That's why it's important to embrace rejuvenation immediately after a major success instead of immediately launching into a new endeavor.

This basic concept should be applied to both ends of the emotional spectrum. Just as it's a bad idea to make major decisions when you're emotionally high, making decisions when you're feeling abnormally low is also a recipe for disaster. That's not to say there's anything wrong with feeling particularly positive or particularly negative -- it's a fact of being human that you will vascillate between emotional states over time. However, because these are transient states they don't necessarily provide the surest foundation for important decisions. Making a decision when you're emotionally high is likely to result in unrealistic expectations while making a major decision when you're emotionally low is likely to result in overly pessimistic and negative expectations.

Embrace your success but don't let it set you up for failure. Embrace your sadness but don't let it hold you back. Find your center and use it to make realistic, optimistic, and attainable goals for your future.

Photo by jimmiehomeschoolmom

Time Management or Energy Management

In a couple weeks I'll be leading a workshop for incoming graduate students at my university. I've been trying to articulate the biggest lesson I've learned in the past year. What do I wish I had understood better when I started graduate school? I think the main change in my perspective has been this: managing your energy is exponentially more important than managing your time.

GO HARD OR GO HOME?

It's easy to think that the best students give 100% to everything they do. It obviously makes sense, right? Those who achieve the most are obviously doing everything at the very highest level they possibly can at all times. That's what I used to believe but now I realize I don't think that's true. For the first couple of weeks, some students are able to give 100% to everything and they momentarily appear as if they are all-stars. Within a couple weeks though, they can no longer keep up that pace. It's impossible to give everything you do 100% as a graduate student.

At first, I felt badly about this. I felt like I was somehow cheating myself out of the true graduate school experience by not staying up until 3 AM every morning and talking about how little sleep I get. I thought the measure of a good graduate student was how much time I spent with my studies and how long I was able to seclude myself in the library each week.

I quickly realized this was stupid.

DO EVERYTHING WELL, DO NOTHING WELL?

Your impact in graduate school is measured in a very different way. You obviously have to do well in your classes and stay up to speed with what's going on. That's a given. But that doesn't require you to put 100% of your energy into class assignments. In fact, if you're putting yourself into your classes 100% you're probably missing out on opportunities to make a true impact. In graduate school it's expected to do well in classes so when you do well, nobody cares. Instead, people (i.e. professors) care about the other things you get involved with. They care about your involvement in a research lab. They care about your assistance in a grant they're writing. They care about your efforts to start a business or start your own research or generally just do something other than do well in their class.

TIME FOR SOME STRATEGIC SLACKING

Looking back on this realization, I think it applies to non-students as well. You can't go through life giving 100% of your effort to everything. It's a recipe for burnout and frustration. Instead, the truly high level operators get very good at figuring out where they can scale back their effort in order to save themselves for the opportunities and activities that have a much larger impact. For example, is it really worth staying absolutely on top of your email if it takes you hours everyday and results in you losing an opportunity to work on an exciting project with a colleague? Or, is it worth taking hours and hours to fill out a routine report absolutely perfectly if nobody is actually going to read it in-depth and it's just going to get instantly filed away? If doing something routine leaves you too drained to really pour yourself into something that matters, what's the point?

At a certain level, I feel a little dirty even writing this. I was raised to do things well no matter what. I was always told the true test of character is what you do when nobody is looking. I believe that's the case when it comes to issues of morality but when it comes to doing great work, you have to cut corners on the work that doesn't matter so you can focus on what does. Figuring out the proper balance of full effort and partial effort is what often separates people who do and don't make an impact in your field.

The important thing to remember with all of this, though, is that saving your energy does you absolutely no good if you don't fully engage with those activities that really matter. If you cut corners just for the sake of cutting corners then you're missing the point. I wrap up a class paper even though I know with a couple more hours of work I could make it 5% better so I can spend those hours on something that actually matters, like a grant proposal. Getting 95% on a paper instead of 90% is not worth the couple of hours I could spend doing something that could help catapult my career forward far more than an A over an A- on a single paper could.

FIND HIGH IMPACT ACTIVITIES AND DOMINATE THEM

Getting good at this requires you to shift your thinking from managing time to managing effort. We all get the same amount of time in a day. However, we all get to allocate our energy uniquely. I much prefer to give the majority of my energy to the activities that will give me the largest return. Figuring out which activities those are -- that's the hard part. And that only comes with experience and experimentation. My message to the incoming students, then, is to not measure themselves based on how much time they spend in the library as compared to the rest of their cohort, but to work hard figuring out where they can work less hard. Take the energy saved by working less hard and apply it to something that matters, something difficult, something in which they can make an impact.

Where can you allocate your energy better? What is taking up a disproportionate amount of your energy as compared to the returns you get from it? How can you fix it?