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

The List #20

This week's The List is all about making things. For some reason I stumbled across several great videos over the past week that feature people in the act of creation. I'm always fascinated by watching people in their element and each of these videos do a great job of scratching that itch.

Omega Speedmaster Watchmaking Demonstration

Ok, actually, this video is more about someone taking something apart. But still, it's worth checking out. The amount of practice and memorization it must take to deconstruct and construct something this complicated is absolutely mind-blowing.

8 Videos About the Making of Monument Valley

Monument Valley is one of the best iOS games I've played in a long time. It's like an interactive piece of art. A new expansion pack just came out and these are some videos from various members of the team talking about different aspects of creating the game. This behind the scenes video is nice and short and fascinating.

The Birth of a Tool. Part III. Damascus steel knife making

Beautiful video. Fascinating process. I want to make a knife.

Aaron Draplin Takes on a Logo Design Challenge

This is what knowing your tools looks like. Mr. Draplin cranks out some pretty awesome logo ideas over the course of 16 minutes and talks about his mental process the entire time. So, so interesting.


What's the best stuff you read or saw this week? Shoot me a link on Twitter (@samspurlin) or leave a comment below!

Photo by Cindee Snider Re

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

Workologism #6: Keep a Shipped List

Cultivating a sense of progress is important when you work in a highly autonomous job. Without progress you don't know if you're heading in the right direction and feeling directionless is a one way ticket to frustration and burnout. Help create a sense of progress by keeping a "shipped list." As you finish medium to large projects add them to the list and keep the list somewhere relatively visible. It's nice to have an artifact that shows you are indeed doing something (and if you notice you haven't added anything to it in awhile then you have some useful data about whether you're spending your time as well as you could be).

Photo by ana campos

Ego, Personal Development, and Being a Beginner

Once upon a time I was a relatively elite hockey player. Some of those guys who play in the NHL? They were teammates and opponents. I was also 13 years old when this was true.

Once upon a time I ran a half marathon. 13.1 miles through the streets of Detroit, into Canada, and back into Detroit on a frosty November morning. This happened over four years ago.

Once upon a time I lifted weights very consistently and put on 15 pounds of muscle while elevating all of my lifts to fairly respectable levels. That was nearly two years ago.

Since that time, I've adjusted my priorities to focus on school and my business while letting my physical fitness slide. For the past several years I've somehow convinced myself that I'm still a high level athlete although the only athletic thing I've done with any regularity is play a weekly recreational hockey game.

All of this is to say that I had a realization last week as I once again committed myself to taking my physical health seriously -- I'm not an advanced athlete who just needs a couple weeks to get back in shape. I'm not the elite youth hockey player. I'm not the guy who ran a half marathon any more. And I can't continue creating fitness plans that make that assumption. I'm not a guy who just needs to shake off the rust and unleash the high-level athlete he used to be. I'm a beginner.

And that's okay.

I've been not okay with being a beginner for a long time and it has doomed every effort I've made to build my level of physical fitness back up to a respectable level. I would create running plans or lifting plans that would only be reasonable for someone who was in much better shape than I was. I couldn't admit to myself that I really needed to start back with the basics if I was going to make any kind of actual lasting change.

"The basics? Are you kidding me? I played AAA hockey! I played club hockey in college! I ran a half marathon! I lifted weights! I don't need no basics! I'm in good shape -- I just need to get back in the habit!" These are the thoughts of a delusional man who consistently failed to rebuild a fitness routine time and time again over the past two years.

This got me thinking more generally about the role of the ego in attempted behavior change. How often are we shooting ourselves in the foot before we even get started because we're too proud to admit that we should start at an extreme beginner level? How many novels have burned out after a week of unsustainable writing? How many marathon training plans have been abandoned after an overuse injury in the first couple of days? How many efforts to eat better have been left by the wayside after a week of hyper clean eating?

Failed habit change is not driven by a lack of knowledge, a lack of information, or a lack of will. I'm becoming more and more convinced that failed habit change falls at the feet of our own unwillingness to recognize a.) how much of a beginner we actually are and b.) how patient we will have to be to create actual sustainable change. When either of these are forgotten or ignored and we let our ego influence our decisions I think the chances of success plummet.

For that reason I recently started the C25K (Couch to 5K) program. Sure, I was a decent athlete in the past but I can't let that version of myself influence what the current version of myself needs. This version has spent the last two years on the proverbial couch (more like the desk chair, actually) and needs to do much more than shake off the rust. He needs to shake off the rust and then build up the structural components that have withered away.

I'm becoming more and more okay with that every time I finish a run and feel myself getting a little bit stronger and a little bit faster. Habit change is a marathon, not a sprint -- even if, scratch that, especially, since I'm nowhere close to being able to run an actual marathon.

Photo by Giovanni

The List #19

I hope all the American readers out there had a great Thanksgiving and all the non-American readers out there had a great end of November. I come to you bearing a gift for your weekend relaxation -- The List #19!

I Was Looking Forward to Gummy Bears - The File Drawer

Shameless self-promotion. Episode three of my podcast with classmate/BFF Eric Middleton is out. Pretty good episode minus our newb status with getting our microphones setup correctly. We just recorded episode four today and I think we've finally ironed out all our mic issues. Now you can say you listened to us back when we were clueless, or something.

The Habits of Highly Productive Writers - The Chronicle of Higher Education

I aspire to be a highly productive writer and this article is better than many I've read recently offering advice for being just that. It's tailored toward academics but I think mostly applies to anyone trying to do something with the written word.

This 15 Minute-Activity Will Make You More Successful at Work - Business Insider

I'll save you the suspense and tell you the 15 minute activity is writing at the end of the workday. I'm working on a chapter along with some classmates about metacognition (thinking about thinking) and leadership development. As part of my research for the chapter I came across a study that showed students who kept a learning journal over the course of a semester learned more than their classmates who did not. I think this is probably a similar thing that's going on here.

Zen and the Art of Cubicle Living - The Atlantic

Interesting to see what organizations are doing to push forward the art and science of workspace design. I think it's fairly obvious there is no best design and the best workplaces of the future will have a variety of different types of spaces available for the various types of work to be done and then personalities of the people doing that work.

Photo by Mario Acosta Garcia

Workologism #5: Make a Daily Index Card

This is my hard landscape for the day. Everything else I want to accomplish this day will be added below these items.

Start your day by writing down the things you're already committed to doing such as meetings, time sensitive phone calls, appointments, etc. (the stuff David Allen calls the hard landscape) on an index card. Now, add 1-3 other things you want to get accomplished today. If you can't fit what you need/want to do on one side of an index card you're probably biting off more than you can chew.*

* A normal sized index card -- not one of those 5x7 monstrosities.

Preparing Yourself for the Organization of the Future

I recently wrote an article about some of the organizational structures of the future and I thought a good follow-up might focus on what you can do to prepare yourself for this upcoming reality. If the organizations of the future (and many of them now) are going to rely on self-organization, holacracy, and other (non)structures that result in high autonomy then what is the optimal employee of the future going to look like?

To thrive in this kind of environment it’s going to take deliberate effort.

Let’s get even more specific:

1. Get comfy with the idea that you aren’t always going to have a clear idea of what the future looks like.

The world moves quickly. Companies form and dissolve. Teams coalesce and break apart as needed. What you did last week is unlikely to be exactly what you'll be doing this week. In a bygone era stability was a key characteristic of a good job. Now, not so much. The only thing that's going to be stable is (hopefully) your ability to deal with instability. Let go of your carefully laid career plans and cultivate the ability to see opportunities for development and advancement because they are likely to emerge when you least expect it.

2. Which means you’ll have to get good at defining your work on a regular basis.

The key task of the knowledge worker is figuring out what the actual work is to be done. You can't just show up to work and expect a pile of widgets waiting to be cranked. For you and everyone else working in the knowledge economy the first task is to figure out what your "widgets" are today and what "cranking" even looks like. Merlin Mann once described email as a place you go to help you figure out who you're supposed to be today. Until you get good at clearly cutting through the vast tsunami of information hitting you at all times it'll be hard to figure out what you're even supposed to be doing to get your job done, let alone doing your job to an exemplary level.

3. Train yourself to shut out distractions even when your environment isn’t conducive to focusing.

Open offices are all the rage and I don't see them disappearing any time soon. That kind of arrangement can be great for team coordination but it also makes it much harder to shut out the world and truly focus on what needs to get done. I firmly believe the ability to focus is slowly being eradicated from our society -- meaning those who do develop their ability to focus are going to become a rarer and thus more valuable asset to any team they are part of. Start a mindfulness practice, start practicing single-tasking while working, do whatever you need to do to master your mind in all environments, but particularly distracting ones.

4. Relish the opportunity to do difficult things because it’s the only way to become indispensable.

The way to become indispensable is to do things a.) nobody else can do, and b.) nobody else wants to do. To do the things nobody else can do you have to be better at something (ideally something important) than most of the other people in your organization. For that to happen, you need to develop your skills and abilities. That happens by consistently seeking opportunities that push you slightly outside your comfort zone. A truly stress-free work life is also a growth-free work life. In a world where the employer/employee contract is more like a short term alignment of interests and not the 40+ years of dedication of yesteryear it behooves you to make sure your skills and abilities are on a constant upward trajectory.

5. Learn how to take care of yourself outside of work because the lines between work and vacation, the workday and the weekend, “on” and “off” will become blurrier.

This problem already exists and like the rise of open offices I don't see it changing any time soon. Obviously, expectations around making yourself available outside of normal business hours varies by organization. However, in even the most progressive companies many people fall to an internal desire to never truly relax and to always keep one foot in the office. This is a recipe for burnout. You have to be at the top of your game every day to not be left behind by the rapid changes your industry, company, and team are facing. True rejuvenation and recovery (mental and physical) are up to you to do well.


The organizational structures of the future value autonomy but with autonomy comes great responsibility. When external structure is removed by the organization the onus is on you to create your own internal structures that allow you to thrive. What's that going to look like?

Photo by Peyri Herrera

The List #18

This special weekday edition of The List is brought to you by relaxation, rejuvenation, the letter R, and the complete lack of will to do anything remotely looking like work over the weekend.

Why You Should be Paid For Commitment, Not Hours or Results - 99U

This strikes me as terrible. Am I wrong? I'm much more interested in being compensated for what I can do and what I produce -- not how committed I am to an organization. Yuck.

The Cult of Busy - Medium

Busy busy busy busy.

I've made it a personal point to not respond with the word "busy" when people ask me how I'm doing. It's a cop out answer and it shuts down a conversation.

Why We're Building All Tomorrows - Medium

I've done a little bit of consulting with this company and they are working on some great stuff. They just released an app called Emojiary which is a nice mix of quirky emoji-based journal writing and experience sampling method/Quantified Self personal development. You should definitely check it out.

How to Build More Flow into Your Work Day - Entheos

This is my second entheos class and this time it's all about how to tweak the way you work and think to help you experience greater flow during your work day.

Photo by honbliss

Workologism #4: Write Emails Outside of Your Email Client

Email is a junction where information comes in and information goes out. It is not a café where you just hang out all day and see what happens.

I'll often keep a list of the emails I need to write in my task management system so I can open a text editor and just crank out my responses without having to look at what's already in my inbox or what might come in while I'm writing. When I'm done drafting all the emails in my text editor I'll open up my email client and copy/paste the messages over and send them on their way.

Photo by Ryan Blanding

The Key to Self-Leadership: Don't Break Promises

You can probably think of a leader who inspired you in some way. For many it's a great boss, a teacher, or maybe a coach. In the world of work, working for a great leader can make a potentially boring or thankless job into something more meaningful (and a bad leader can take something that should be awesome and just absolutely ruin it).

As an independent worker, there are fewer ways for good (or bad) leadership to impact your work life. Obviously you don't have a boss, supervisor, or some kind of inspiring CEO to give meaning to your work. Instead, leadership of you falls into your own lap. You are simultaneously a leader and a follower and at that point, you have to ask yourself, "Do I find myself an inspiring leader? Am I a leader that I should/would follow?"

I've been thinking a lot about questions like this because I've recently been so focused on school and work I've let my physical and mental health (i.e. meditation) slide for several months. I'm certainly working hard and getting some great stuff finished but in the back of the mind I find myself being disappointed in myself. By not doing the things I know I need to do to feel like I'm living my life driven by my values I feel like I'm letting myself down. I'm definitely not inspiring myself to something greater, that's for sure. At the end of the day I want to be able to look at the sum total of my decisions in all realms of my life and be able to admire myself. When I'm consistently breaking commitments to myself to get into better shape or take my meditation practice more seriously it's hard to take myself seriously.

How do you be the type of person you would follow?

It probably varies from person to person just as every leader and follower are unique individuals. For me, I know the main thing I need to be doing on a regular basis in order to be the type of person I would happily follow is:

"Don't break promises."

Obviously, breaking promises and commitments to other people is a bad thing and nobody who regularly does that is going to be a credible leader. However, I'm more interested in the idea of not breaking promises to myself. This is the metric that is more important than whether or not I keep my word to other people because at a certain level there is a social expectation to not screw other people over which helps keep me (and really, everyone) somewhat in line. Crass but true. When it comes to keeping promises to myself, however, nobody but me knows whether or not I do it. It's between me and myself and that's it.

When I'm not keeping promises to myself it means I'm not making smart decisions about how I exercise, about how I eat, about meditation and keeping up my hobbies and other interests. I know the types of things I need to do to feel healthy and happy. When I don't do them even when I have every intention of doing so I'm sending the message to myself that I can't be trusted. I think that lack of trust chips away at the sense that I know what's best for me and that I should work hard to meet the goals I set for myself. 

Why should I follow a guy who can't even keep promises to himself?

For that reason I'm going to try a little weeklong experiment where I focus on doing all my *non-work* habits extremely consistently (for the purpose of this experiment that means daily exercise, daily meditation, and daily journaling). My hypothesis is that by putting more attention on these intentions I have for myself that help support my self-identity as a physically fit, mindful, and deliberately conscious person will spillover into my effectiveness when it comes to writing, coaching, and everything else that makes up my work life. Taking care of these commitments is a signal to myself that I can be relied upon to do the things that I know I need to do to be healthy and happy.

In a nutshell, the foundation of leadership is respect and the foundation of self-leadership is self-respect.

Photo by GrowWear

 

 

The List #17

This week I'm sharing a few of my favorite new podcasts and websites that I've added to my information rotation. It's pretty rare for me to actually add (and keep) a new podcast into my listening routine and it's almost as rare for me to add a new website to my RSS reader so I figured the fact that these have made the cut is worth a mention.

Dive into these over the weekend and I don't think you'll be disappointed.

1. Hello Internet

Not only has this podcast broke into the ranks of my regularly listened to shows, it has cracked the top 3 in terms of my all-time favorite shows. The "two dudes talking" genre of podcast is quickly becoming my favorite style and the two dudes talking in this podcast don't disappoint. They're both professional YouTubers (they make videos for a living -- not something root-related) and have great rapport. It helps that one of the guy, CGP Grey, appears to be my personality doppelgänger in a disturbing number of ways.

2. Slate's Working

It has been a big couple of weeks for new and excellent podcasts. This one features an interview with someone from a different profession every week about the details of what they do all day. I absolutely love hearing about the daily routines and habits of people in professions that I know nothing about. Start with the episode about the pastor -- it's great stuff.

3. ISO50

Tycho creates some of my favorite electronic music and it's safe to say his tunes have driven much of my work over the past couple of years. This is his music and design blog where I've stumbled across more visually and auditory beautiful pieces of art than I can believe. Throw this in your RSS reader and you'll be dripped enough great instrumental electronic music over time to keep all your productivity playlists fresh and interesting. Case in point, I've listened to this song obsessively since first seeing it on this blog.

4. 5 Intriguing Things

I unsubscribe from 95% of the email newsletters I subscribe to. This one has made the cut. Basically Alexis Madrigal emails you a list of 5 links with short summaries on an incredibly broad set of topics. The underlying feature is that they are somehow intriguing. I would say I probably add 1-2 items to my Instapaper queue from this newsletter every day. Not a bad hit rate, really.


I'm not bold enough to place this in the actual list, but I've recently started a podcast called The File Drawer and if you like psychology and/or the "two dudes talking" genre of podcast then I'd love if you checked it out. The first episode is published and we are going to be releasing on a weekly schedule.

Photo by Nicholas Lundgaard

Announcing The File Drawer: A Podcast

Just a quick update to announce the release of a podcast I'm co-hosting called The File Drawer. It's largely the brainchild of my classmate/colleague, Eric Middleton. We're both psychology Ph.D students and we thought getting together and having a weekly conversation revolving (loosely) around our shared interest in human behavior would be a good idea.

While it's not exclusively about the topics I write about at The Workologist discussions about meaningful work, productivity, and my other interests will definitely make an appearance. For example, in the first episode we spend some time talking about my research on self-leadership and independent workers, the power of having a certain type of mindset, and what "the self" actually is. 

The first episode is recorded, published, and you should be able to find it in iTunes or your podcast player of choice right now. You can follow along at thefiledrawer.audio as well.

I'm excited to learn more about how to more effectively share my ideas in this new medium and I hope you'll give us a shot in joining your roster of podcasts.

The Role of the Individual in the Organization of the Future

I was recently introduced to the work of Undercurrent, an organizational design consulting firm that is really pushing against the edges of how we think about optimally functioning organizations. I’m going to do my best to summarize some of their overarching thoughts, but if you’re really interested you should go straight to the sources.

Organizational Structure for a New Era

In a nutshell, Undercurrent is a proponent of the idea that the most responsive and nimble organizations also tend to be the most effective. Given the speed and power of technology and communication in the world today organizational structures that dominated in the 70’s and 80’s are not the same types of structures that will dominate today and in the future. Instead of creating tall hierarchical structures with clear chains of command and the titles and job responsibilities that accompany a hierarchy, many successful companies are choosing a much “flatter" and in many ways, complex, structure.

Holacracy, agile squads, and self-organizing teams are all the rage and many would argue it's for good reason. With these structures (or really, the lack thereof) companies can be quicker to respond to economic pressures and opportunities. It’s easy to see how this would work for Silicon Valley tech startups but Undercurrent would argue that even well-established companies in less high-tech industries could benefit from moving toward less hierarchy, less structure, and more self-organization.

All of this is fascinating.

Independent Work and Workers

I’ve taken organizational theory and organizational development classes in my PhD coursework and I’ve enjoyed all of them. This talk of structure and overall organizational decision making is incredibly interesting to me and I know quite a bit about it — but it’s also not my bread and butter.

My bread and butter actually has almost nothing to do with people who work in organizations and yet, I think my research interests align incredibly well with the organizational structure movement Undercurrent is promoting. There are questions pounding away at my head as I think about this changing nature of work and organizational life are: What implications does all this have at an individual level? How do you develop (or hire) people who thrive (not just survive) in highly autonomous, uncertain, and ambiguous work situations?

As many of you already know, my research is currently focused on independent workers — freelancers, micro-entrepreneurs, and contract workers. People who start their own thing and keep it deliberately small (for a myriad of reasons). At this moment, I’m particularly interested in the developable skills of self-leadership and self-management for this group of people. Being able to self-lead and self-manage when you work on your own are utterly vital skills to have. Given a lot of the economic indicators and statistics that I’ve seen, I think the growth of independent work is inevitable and already a movement that has been very much set in motion. However, I know that the future of work is never going to be everybody running their own freelance careers or starting independent businesses. Organizations aren’t going away — but I think the way that we’ve thought of organizations for a long time, is.

The Collision of Independent Work & New Organizational Structures

Working in one of these holocratic or highly responsive organizations is going to become more and more like being an independent worker. Autonomy is rampant. Ambiguity about job roles and tasks is a given. A general lack of structure about the how of work is substituted for a focus on the what. As life in organizations becomes more like independent work the skills I’ve begun to identify as being absolutely vital to independent workers, tolerance for ambiguity, self-leadership, self-management, self-awareness, growth mindset, “integrated personal development,” to name a few, are also the skills that anyone working in an organization of the future will need.

How do you develop the people you already have within your organization to be a better fit for this more dynamic, fluid, and uncertain environment? What can be done at the organization level to upgrade the skills of your people? To upgrade the frameworks they use to think about their role in the organization and what it means to do good work on a moment-to-moment basis? Looking outside the organization, how do you make sure you hire people who will be a good fit for this type of environment? How can you make sure you select the people with the highest probability to thrive in an environment that looks more and more like a buzzing and roiling ant hill than an orderly and logical military unit?

I have some ideas about answers to these questions and luckily they spur even more questions within me that seem ripe for empirical investigation. When I originally stepped down this path of indie work research I was a little bit worried that I was setting myself up for failure by focusing on too small a niche. Sure, there are a lot of independent workers in the world and the number seems to be growing, but more people work in organizations. What impact could I really hope to have when I was focusing on a minority of the working population? The work of Undercurrent (and I’m sure other organizations that I’m not aware of yet) has assuaged that fear for me. I now realize that to understand independent workers is to better understand highly autonomous workers regardless of whether they work for themselves, a start-up, or a Fortune 500 company just beginning to experiment with new ways of organizing.

Organizational structures are changing in such a way that requires you to get better. Is there anything more exciting?

Photo by John

The List #16

You're not here to read my excuses but I'm gonna lay some on you anyway. Crunch time on preparing a presentation and then delivering a presentation at the International Leadership Association last weekend, crunch time on getting my thesis proposal signed off, getting hired to do some teaching in the spring... yadda yadda. End result, sparse writing. Another end result, a new The List today because, let's face it, writing these are easy and makes me feel somewhat productive.

Onward!

1. The Printing Press, Literacy, and the Creation of a Secret Society of Adults

A really interesting theory about how television is essentially erasing the differences between adults and children. Probably overstated, but an interesting article nonetheless.

2. Elon Musk's Secret Weapon: A Beginner's Guide to First Principles

The idea of reasoning from first principles instead of analogy or basically boiling down everything to its most fundamental components and then going from there. In many ways, I think this is why I found (and still find) minimalism an interesting philosophy to explore. I've got the beginnings of an article written about applying first principles to our lives that I'm hoping to push out sometime next week.

3. The Art of the Finish: How to Go From Busy to Accomplished

If you're a subscriber to The Workologist Newsletter then you likely saw the article I wrote this month about how being really, really good at GTD can make it easy to do "fake work" most of the time. I've adopted the methodology in this article as of a couple weeks ago and so far it is working really well.

4. How to Be Excellent

This was a relatively crazy/surprising find. Bobby Robins is a professional hockey player who plays for the Boston Bruins (boo!) and is also a really, really good writer. His story is pretty interesting considering he made his NHL debut this year at the age of 32.


With my thesis proposal signed off I now need to start collecting data in the very near future. To aid in that effort, I'm creating a list of people who are potentially interested in participating. In the near future that would mean taking a short survey or two, possibly doing an interview if you're interested, and/or participating in a training program (again, only if you're interested). If you want to be kept in the loop with opportunities to participate in my research you can sign up here.

Photo by Edsel Little

Workologism #3: Use an End of Day Shutdown Routine

Fewer and fewer jobs have clear signals about when work is done for the day. For most of us, the work never really ends. For that reason I think it's really important to create some kind of routine that signals to yourself that the end of your day has happened and you can transition into non-work mode. Some ideas for inclusion in this routine include:

  • Spend a few minutes planning for tomorrow.
  • Clear off your desk and put all work materials away.
  • Spend a few minutes writing in your journal about the day.
  • Turn off your computer.
  • Do something to help you transition from work mentality to home mentality (read something unrelated to work, play a short video game, listen to some music, etc.)

The details don't matter as long as it helps you feel like you're making a transition from one part of your day (productive/work) to another part (not work/relaxing/home).

Photo by Nir.

Relaxation in Work

I recently received some flash cards that contain short quotes about GTD. I've been selecting one at random each week and posting it on the wall near my desk. A couple weeks ago I came across a card that read, “Your ability to generate power is directly proportional to your ability to relax.” GTD aficionados will recognize this concept from David Allen talking about martial arts and the ability of seemingly physically slight people to accomplish impressive feats of strength. This quote came to me at the right time because it seemed like my work life was quickly spiraling out of control to the point of pretty serious imbalance. I was feeling burnt out, run down, and generally exhausted from trying to move forward many projects and meet all the responsibilities I had accepted into my life.

The first time I read the quote it made me think about the importance of taking breaks and allowing myself to rejuvenate. This is important on both a micro and more macro scale. Small breaks throughout the day that allow me to recharge (ala Tony Schwarz and The Power of Full Engagement), having clearly delineated starting and ending points to my day, and even stepping away from work for days or weeks at a time. I was missing all of these components.

The more I reflected on the quote, however, the more I realized that it's actually about more than just taking time away from work to relax and recharge. It's also about the ability to relax while doing work. The state of mental relaxation doesn't have to be separate from the experience of actually being productive. In fact, true productivity may be inextricably connected to approaching work with a relaxed mindset.

I thought about what I'm like when I'm at my best and I realized I never feel like I'm rushing to complete tasks or even feeling heavily emotionally invested in what I'm doing. In fact, my biggest battles with procrastination usually take place when I care about the work I'm doing to such an extent that I can't bring myself to even begin because I care so much about the outcome. However, when I approach my work with a relaxed mindset I'm able to see the experience for what it is -- usually just sitting in a climate controlled room and moving my fingers across a keyboard. When I'm relaxed I can separate myself from the longer-term outcomes of a project and instead focus on the experience of just completing this next task.

For example, I'm currently writing a thesis proposal that is 30+ pages of highly researched and extremely academic writing. I've been working on it for nine months and it has gone through greater than 10 revisions. I care deeply about the subject I'm writing about and I want nothing more than for my advisor to be impressed with the caliber of my thinking and writing and for the research project to be successful. However, sometimes I can get stuck in a rut of not being able to bring myself to read through the next round of comments I receive from my advisor for weeks on end. I get too wound up in both thinking about how much time I've already spent on it and how much more time I have yet to spend. I'm not relaxed and thus I'm generating no power.

Ever since contemplating the quote that opened this article I've been trying to adjust the way I approach giant projects like this. I've been focused on 30-45 minutes blocks of work that in and of themselves do not seem terribly important. Instead of sitting down to "work on my thesis" and wrestling with all the feelings that evokes I sit down to work on "revising the first paragraph of the Introduction" or "rethink the logic supporting hypothesis 1." I don't get all hyped up when I break off a discrete chunk of a project -- I'm able to bring a relaxed mindset to what I'm doing and am thus able to generate more power (i.e. get more done) than I would otherwise.

It's a given that we could all probably use more time away from work, more true relaxation in our lives. While we're working toward that, let's see how much relaxation we can build into our working lives as well.

Photo by Retrofresh!