You Are = You Do = Love (or not)

In January I read an article titled “6 Harsh Truths to Make You a Better Person”. It’s written in a style that is deliberately confrontational and provocative, but that’s because it’s meant to jolt readers off their butts and get them to do something. If you can’t get past the tone to the underlying truth of the article, go sit in your room for a couple of years and then try it again when you’re ready. I’ve read it about four times since I discovered it. Continue reading “You Are = You Do = Love (or not)”

A Good Use of Time

As Sunday afternoon wore on, part of me felt frustrated. It complained, “Here’s the whole day gone and I haven’t done anything!”

The other part of me countered, “What I have done is go on a 5½ mile walk with my husband and my dog, stopping in the middle for a charming lunch at a sidewalk café. What I have done is lived.”

Why is it so hard to feel like that is a valid way to spend part of my weekend? Especially when there was nothing else I particularly wanted to get done that day? Continue reading “A Good Use of Time”

Stop the Boredom

The more we rely on external entertainments, the more bored we become. If you would stop being bored, stop trying to entertain yourself.

(Hint: the quickest way to stop being bored is to learn something or make something.)

Here Again

It is completely shocking – and a little embarrassing – that fully 9 months have passed since my last post (in which, I’ve not forgotten, I promised that the November book review was “coming shortly”).

I do have a slightly valid excuse – as far as it goes – in that the dead computer referenced in that post wasn’t replaced until mid-August. My husband and I thought it might be an interesting experiment in anti-materialism, in breaking the nearly universal addiction to the online world, to see how long we could go without replacing it.

Well, it was interesting, all right. I spent just as much time as ever on Facebook, thanks to the advent of my iPhone, but was hindered from many more worthwhile pursuits. It took at least four months for me to get so fed up about not writing that I resorted to pen and paper.

And for that flakiness, I apologize. After all, the first hallmark of a respectable blog is the constant and regular addition of “content,” to use marketing-speak. Not to mention that my one loyal reader was disappointed.

All the same, I wouldn’t say the time was wasted. It occurs to me that the writing of the blog is somewhat incidental to the stated purpose of the blog: “the quest for a life of love, laughter, reason & usefulness.” Love and laughter are arguably best pursued off-line; and a usefulness that is built only on the written word is not more than half-baked. And in the post-less interval I did keep to my goal of reading a non-fiction book most months. I did make some gestures that were, for me, quite generous and thoughtful. I had new experiences, changed some opinions, and embarked on new ventures – all of which will be reflected in the posts of the months to come.

I won’t promise to be here every week, this time. After all, the time specified by the 52/365 Project is long over. And though a blog is a commitment, I’ve never prioritized it above other commitments – chiefly my marriage, my health, and bringing my A-game for the people who pay me – rightly, I think. Still, I will try, and this time I’ve done what I always wanted to do and never quite managed: I have prepared some posts ahead of time for those difficult weeks.

It’s good to be back. And thanks for your patience.

Productivity by Number, Part 2

This is the conclusion of a two-part series on productivity. You can catch up on Part 1 here.

Step 4: Prioritization

Yes, everything I have ever read about productivity and life satisfaction emphasizes priorities. But it’s hard to appreciate their importance and power until you see how completely you lack them.

Two weeks on RescueTime forever changed the way I think about this. For instance, I at first gave email a score of “Very Productive” because part of my job is evaluating marketing opportunities – most of which come through by email. And after all, I reasoned, in the knowledge-worker economy, aren’t people’s jobs based more and more around communication and making decisions? Even if we don’t like it, don’t we have to accept that email has become a huge part of our daily duties?

However, after looking at a week’s worth of data, I realized that much of the email I get really is NOT important compared to other things I could be doing. 87% of people report that they don’t read all the email they receive; well, up until I had this epiphany, I was one of the 13% who did. Not being afraid to delete email that looks uninteresting has freed up a lot of time.

Then Steps 1 & 2 finally sank in. Knowing what needs to be done is good. Knowing what needs to be done next is better. There were two areas where this could be immediately applied:

1. Email Folders

I had folders that divided newsletters into my practice area, “Marketing,” and the company’s industry, “Legal.” But with over 50 different publications flying at me (yes, for the purpose of this blog, I counted), there was no way to keep track of which were the most useful.

Instead, I created four new folders:

  • Committed to Read (for the 2-3 most useful publications that I never miss, and occasionally, things that colleagues send me to read)
  • Would Like to Read (things that are always interesting, but less targeted to my job description or industry)
  • If I Have Time (I never do, but if I ever did, these well-known newsletters would be worth glancing through)
  • Uncategorized

At first, everything got dumped into Uncategorized, and I let them build up for several weeks. Then I grouped by publication and read through each until I could determine which of the other categories it should go into – or if I should simply unsubscribe. It’s still a work in progress, but I spend much less time trying to keep up and get more value out of the time I do spend. I also don’t worry about missing something if I delete emails that have built up in the bottom two categories.

2. Email Flags & Categories

I had set up a system of flags for emails that divided things into “Emails people have sent me that I need to do something about,” “Emails I’ve sent people that I need to follow up on,” and “Emails about projects I need to keep an eye on from time to time.” The obvious problem? I had no idea which were approaching a deadline or which had lagged for long enough.

Those got reworked into “Emails to deal with today,” “Emails to deal with or follow up on this week,” and “Emails with no particular deadline”.

It takes a little time to keep it current, especially if a lot of emails are flying back and forth about a particular subject, but on the whole I find it to be minimal effort for a lot of benefit. The number of follow-up emails I receive has dropped to nearly zero, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s having to be followed up with.

Step 5: Managing Expectations and Delivering on Time

The first time someone demanded I create and deliver something NOW, and I was able to spend 10 seconds glancing through my flags and tasks and tell them, no, you can’t have it now, but you can have it on Tuesday, because these higher-priority things are due on Monday, had them agree to this schedule, and was then able to deliver it slightly ahead of the promised time… well, that was a great feeling.

Like all tools, my system only works if I use it. Years of procrastination make for a hard habit to break, and I still sometimes find myself falling down the rabbit-hole of a not-immediately-important project. And I admit that depending on what comes up in a day I don’t always get to all the emails I’ve flagged to respond to that day. But following the system has made me feel much calmer about my to-do list and much more confident that the important things are getting done, and that in itself frees up attention and time.

Productivity is a different journey for each person, but I hope this has given others who are still searching some ideas they can try. Also, if there’s something that works wonderfully for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Productivity by Number, part 1

That it is possible to look busy without accomplishing much, and that correct prioritization is necessary for true productivity, are ideas which are pretty universally accepted – and, I suspect, nearly as universally confusing.

For years I struggled with the Steven Covey Four-Quadrant system.

If you have 10 urgent things, and some of them need to happen soon so various projects can move forward, but some of them were handed down by your boss, which ones are  1: urgent and important, and which ones are just 3: urgent? Or are they all urgent and important, and in that case, which do you do first? And at what point do the neglected 2: important projects become urgent, even though they have no time deadline attached, simply because they never rank highly enough to get done otherwise?

I spent years trying to use that system and just feeling bewildered.

It probably works very well for some people – evidently it worked for Covey, or he wouldn’t have written a book about it – but what I’ve realized is that no system will work for everyone. It’s only recently that I’ve gotten noticeably closer to finding mine.

Step 1: Getting Things Done

I wrote a post about this one last year. It’s a wonderfully simple and intuitive system (when you want to get organized, the first thing you want to do is figure out everything you have to do, right?), but I found it too overwhelming to keep a running to-do list that started at 50 items and multiplied faster than I could cross them off.

I’ve pretty much abandoned this system – except that I do add every “I’d like to do that someday” idea to my low-priority task list at work.  Because I’m not adding it to the list with any expectation of really getting to it, at least not in the plan-able future, it doesn’t add the sense of pressure that the master list did.

Step 2: The Agile System

About six months ago I discovered the Agile System.

A few of the bits I pulled out and placed in a recurring task:

Monday Vision         On Mondays, simply identify three outcomes – compelling results – you’d like for the week. If you’ve established what your Hot Spots are, use them for input.

Daily Outcomes         At the start of each day, identify three compelling outcomes you want to accomplish. Use your three outcomes for the week from your Monday Vision as input. You may have a laundry list of tasks, but for your Daily Outcomes, identify the three most important things you can accomplish for that day. You use these three outcomes to help you prioritize all of your tasks and focus on results. If you complete your three key outcomes for the day, you can always bite off more. Whenever you ask yourself what’s the next best thing for you to do, your three outcomes should guide your answer.

Focus on outcomes, not activities or tasks. Consider what you can reasonably accomplish and what would be the most valuable. “If this were Friday, what are the three most important results I want to show?” and, “What would be the most pain if it weren’t done by Friday?”

I still use this one – a little bit. The quotes I found particularly compelling live in a recurring task so that it pops up early each morning, and (most days) I take a minute to write down my top priorities for the day.

Again, every system works differently for each person. It took some experimenting to make this one helpful; strangely, I found it overwhelming when the day’s tasks were listed vertically with the week’s goals at the top, but listing them horizontally is fine. And for a while I was more likely to accomplish my priorities if I started by listing only two; perhaps because I’m still getting used to prioritization, three can be distracting.

Step 3: RescueTime

A chance mention on a blog I read put me on the trail of this free/cheap online app. Basically, it plants a cookie on your computer, tracks how much time you spend on whichever window is on top, assigns a score to every program and website you use, and spits out a number that represents your overall Productivity.

You can also create Projects and the system will record time spent on them. This could be useful if, for instance, you wanted to show your boss that a low-level administrative task is taking an inordinate amount of your time and that you need support.

It’s not perfect; I’m not always convinced it calculates properly, and I wish it would be more granular. For instance, you can only assign one productivity score to each program or website as a whole. Well, obviously, some emails are quite productive and can be the main means of completing a project, while others are not as important, or can even be tools of procrastination – but there is no way of differentiating this in the RescueTime system, so two days that were spent on opposite ends of the email productivity spectrum will score exactly the same.

Still, it’s a great tool for auditing and competing with yourself – especially if you’re honest about scoring activities. I’ve also created a Project called “Break” so I know exactly how much work time I’m not spending on work and can improve that.

Continue to part 2.

Enough Rope and the Myth of the Slow Day

A coworker mentioned that things had been slow in their department this week. I nodded in rote sympathy. What you really want is just enough work, not too much, not too little, but too little is arguably the more painful. Not that I remember what that feels like.

But then later on as I was taking one of my head-clearing walks I thought, “But when it’s slow, doesn’t that just mean you have time to do the strategy- and project-work that you’re always meaning to get around to otherwise? Isn’t that just the chance we’re always struggling for to be proactive rather than reactive?” Looked at that way I don’t think there is such a thing as a slow day. Continue reading “Enough Rope and the Myth of the Slow Day”

Ethics, Sleep and Creativity

Lately, I admit, I’ve been fudging the posting timeframe a bit. So, to make some amends, a bonus post with links to some helpful articles I ran across this week.

First, an interview that takes the ethics of everyday decisions to a whole new level:

people have to understand that there’s no latitude, that there’s no such thing as a little bit wrong, like there’s no such thing as a little bit pregnant… if you look at things that way, even a bad attitude is an ethical issue, because it might mean your own work isn’t being done properly, and you’re probably infecting others so their performance suffers, too.

Then two posts that made me feel both better and worse about my productivity levels:

From the Wall Street Journal, why some people can sleep so little and get so much done.

For a small group of people—perhaps just 1% to 3% of the population—sleep is a waste of time. Natural “short sleepers,” as they’re officially known, are night owls and early birds simultaneously. They typically turn in well after midnight, then get up just a few hours later and barrel through the day without needing to take naps or load up on caffeine.

From Rands In Repose, a discussion of how creativity can be harnessed.

Those who do not understand creativity think it has a well-defined and measurable on/off switch, when in reality it’s a walking dial with many labels. One label reads “Morose and apathetic” and another reads “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out”. This dial sports shy, mischievous feet – yes, feet – that allow it to simply walk away the moment you aren’t paying attention, and each time it walks away, it finds a new place to hide.

Finally, a long, beautiful, depressing and inspiring story about an experiment in which a world-famous violinist played for a crowd of commuters.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you?

Work Around

Some days you’re just not inspired. Time drags and being at work seems like a waste of time. Along the same lines as my post a few weeks ago about recharging at home, I thought I’d share some methods that help me push through it that you may be able to use, or may give you some ideas of your own.

Test conventional wisdom.
Since my first foray into coffee-drinking was as part of a 3 pm “Now I’m sitting down to write a white paper/sell sheet/correspondence template” ritual, I immediately noticed the difference in effect when I started drinking it in the morning. Further experimentation confirmed that if I drink coffee early in the day, not only does it not give me the expected kick, it prevents any later cups from doing so, as well.

So even if a long weekend or a random sleepless night turns into a painful workday, I very deliberately hold off on the coffee. Trader Joe’s Sipping Chocolate is a nice alternative for the morning; it’s rich enough to seem like an exciting (and therefore day-brightening) treat, but doesn’t have so much sugar that I crash later.

Find a quick way to recharge.
Depending on the day, I might take two or three walks to the corner and back. One study shows that people who take a 5- or 10-minute walk when they hit the doldrums feel more energy, and are energized longer, than people who eat a piece of candy. Likewise, seeking out something funny during lunch (I Love Lucy reruns for an early lunch, or Top Gear in the afternoon) sends me back to my desk ready to tackle something big.

I also have a Pandora station that does everything: it calms me when I’m tense or upset, energizes me when I’m tired, and gets me so in the “zone” that one friend claims to have done the moonwalk in front of my office without my noticing. And if all else fails, tango music gives a consistent energy boost.

Environment is important.
I have a hard time concentrating, and therefore feel uninspired, when my desk is messy, too many red flags (“I need to act on”) have built up in my inbox, and my task list is cluttered with too many items that are waiting on other people. So I make a point of clearing away everything I’ve used during the day before I leave each night, and as soon as I’ve hit the ball back to a co-worker’s court, I move the task to a tickler file so I can focus on what I need to do.

Have a backup plan.
Some days, unfortunately, you just don’t have the mental wherewithal to handle high-level tasks. On those days, it’s nice to find other ways of being productive – doing things that aren’t high on the priority list, but that keep things running smoothly. For instance, I’ll clear out those pesky flagged items that get so distracting. Or I’ll read some of the industry publications that come through – both ones relating to the company’s work, and ones specifically related to my job. Or get into the database and do data quality checks. There’s nearly always a way to feel that I have done a full day of work and given the company what they’re paying for.

Of course, these are just quick fixes for the occasional “off” day. If all your days are off days, I would suggest that either your job or your living patterns need to change!

Fear = Nothing

I don’t mean it doesn’t have its place when a ruffian is rapidly approaching and brandishing a gun, knife or yo-yo saw. I’m talking about the everyday boundaries we set up in our lives.

Someone once asked me, “What would you do if you were completely fearless?”

What would you do if you were completely fearless?

My guess: be more remarkable. Do more things more worth doing. It’s worth making a list of things you would do if you weren’t somehow, for some reason, afraid of doing them: Take a class. Move to another city/state/country. Introduce yourself to more new people. Whatever it is for you.

And then, once you’ve made your list, ask yourself, seriously, why you’re afraid of doing each one. Sometimes all you turn up are symptoms – for instance, you’re afraid you’ll fail at some new endeavor because you were too nervous to take the necessary risks.

But even if you’ve come up with a rational reason for your fear, does that really make the thing any less worth doing? (Of course, if the thing you’re afraid of might kill you, maybe it does – but again, that’s not what we’re talking about here.) If you’re afraid your relationship will fail because, after all, the odds favor breaking up – does it mean it isn’t worthwhile to have a relationship? If you’re afraid you won’t be hired for your dream job, does that mean it isn’t worthwhile to go on the interview?

What would you do if you were completely fearless?


(As usual, I find that Seth Godin has already said something wonderful on the subject.