One Change at a Time? Not so Fast.

Among those in the business of telling you how to change your life, it is universally contended that the best method is to choose the most important change you can make, make it, and then move on to the next one. Continue reading “One Change at a Time? Not so Fast.”


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”

The Danger of a Slow Start

Last night we had a guest to whom we gave the master bedroom, which meant that we slept in the front bedroom and endured the constant parade of cars driving in and out of the driveway, people walking past, a cavalcade of wailing sirens, and the rattling coming and going of our neighbor’s shopping cart early this morning. (The first time I saw her, I thought there was a homeless woman in our driveway. I’ve since realized that she does live there, but her contribution to the family’s income seems to be collecting bottles and cans for recycling.) Needless to say, I did not sleep as well as I would have liked.

On such days, waking tired and grumpy, I am tempted to start the day slowly. Have a leisurely breakfast and a few cups of tea or – the sign of a truly desperate morning – coffee; read whatever book I’m working on at the moment; catch up on emails and Facebook and articles; and just generally work up to the strains of the day.

This is false interpretation of the lessons to be learned from Days That Seem Like They’re Going To Be Impossible To Get Through, But End Up Not Being So Bad.

These are the days that begin exactly as today did, but which don’t have the option of a slow start. There’s a meeting first thing in the morning, or there’s a big project to work on, or an appointment before your usual quitting time that means you need to start early. You suck it up and slog through and maybe have an extra dose of your caffeine of choice, and somewhere in mid-afternoon you suddenly realize you feel just fine. You’ve been focusing, your body has compensated, you’ve been productive. Sweet!

The lesson here is obviously: get on with it. Do what needs to be done, and everything will sort itself out.

What I usually hear is: I’ll feel better later. I just need to distract myself from how bad I feel until I get to that place.

And almost inevitably, the Slow Start continues to a Slow Middle and then, more often than I care to think about, to a Slow End.

I was pretty pleased that I woke up/got up just slightly before 8.  Less so when half an hour passed before I could be bothered to get a bowl of cereal. Kind of horrified when it was fully 11 and the nice cool fog had burned off before we even got ourselves out the door for a walk. Now it’s 1:30 and yes, I’m writing a blog post and that’s great, but none of the important and urgent things I intended and needed to do today are one jot further along than they were yesterday. Oops.

I’ve been reading a book about brain plasticity that spends a lot of time talking about how we often wire very bad habits into our brain by simply trying to avoid feeling bad. “I’m tired, so I’ll put off working,” is a perfect example. Pretty soon you’re convinced you can’t work when you feel that degree of tiredness. Then, of course, you feel still worse because some part of you realizes you’re not doing what you need to and could do and you feel bad about it. Because you now feel worse, you feel even less capable of doing whatever it is you’re avoiding – and before you know it you’re stuck in a negative, frustrating spiral.

Yes indeed, the slow start is an insidious and dangerous idea. Much better, when I hit these days, to throw myself in the shower first thing and race through the morning. After all, tired me can’t keep up with that kind of pace and soon falls completely out of the picture.

Trying Not to be Selfish

Let’s face it: marriage is disastrous for blogging. When I resumed in September I didn’t say it was a 52-week project or that I would post every week, but such was, of course, my intention. Then miss two weeks, post one (at the absolute deadline), miss – what? Two weeks? Three weeks?

But when you have a husband who is at school two days a week and often studying until 7 on the other nights, dinners must be cooked and dishes must be washed and at some point the laundry must not be allowed to remain in its state of filth. And afterwards, in spite of our best intentions and repeated resolutions, we often find ourselves too tired or too headachy to do anything but sit down to a nice episode on Hulu.

And I find myself resenting it all.

Yes, of course I had chores when I was single, but aside from keeping some semblance of friendly roommate relations, there was no reason to do them if I had something more “important” to do. Now, no matter how much I want to accomplish something for myself, I always seem to end up doing the chores instead because it will relieve that much pressure from my husband.

To be clear, it’s not that he doesn’t do his share. I feel bad plenty of times that he didn’t get as much homework done as he wanted to because he was running errands for the household: taking the recycling, doing the grocery shopping, dropping off my shoes at the repairman because he’s going to be on that side of town anyway.

And it’s not that I feel particularly “guilty” about not blogging. If I’m going to feel guilty about anything it’s about not exercising and being more targeted about my diet – the idea being that those things would create more energy (and therefore more usable time) where none currently exists.

No, it’s just that I miss the reading and writing that go into blogging. There’s a book I’m desperate to read that I’ve checked out from the library twice. Twice, because I maxed out the renewals the first time before making meaningful progress through it. Tomorrow I’ll max out the renewals again. And I’m maybe 10 pages further along than I was when I returned it the first time.

15 weeks to read 60 pages. It’s no wonder I feel like my brain is slowly shriveling up and dying of starvation.

For now, I’m not sure what else I can do than continue what I’m doing. Only one thing is clear: if this low level of selflessness is beyond me, I am so, SO not ready for children.

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”

Intersections of Responsibility

Read someone like Seth Godin regularly and you quickly become a convert to the idea that you should always bring your A-game to your work and your life and your “art”, that you should never give less than your full allowance of passion and energy, that you should never just show up and think you’ve done your duty.
Great. Agreed: that is ideal.
But what about those days when your A-game just isn’t going to happen? The flip-side of the above ideas is that if you aren’t having one of those “Unexpectedly totally cranking it out” days (to quote the Rands article from my last post), you shouldn’t bother showing up at all. And that’s obviously not practical. It’s also a slippery slope that gives you permission to say, “Well, I don’t feel like working today, so…”
The last few weeks my posts haven’t been finished on time. I caught myself saying, “But it’s not my fault! I couldn’t do it that day because there were internet problems/I ended up having dinner plans/I was really tired/etc!” Hold on a minute here. I’m not writing a daily blog, I’m writing a weekly one. Sure there might be very valid reasons why I could not post in the final 24 hours… but what about the rest of the week?!
I’m down to the wire again this week and, looking back, I have some extremely valid excuses. Leaving aside Monday, which I don’t even remember:
Sunday: unexpectedly spent the entire day with visiting family, then finished it with a crippling headache that lasted until bedtime.
Tuesday: I got proposed to (yes!) – obviously derailing the rest of the plans for the evening.
Wednesday: surprise dinner with the new in-laws-to-be.
Thursday: drinks with a friend, which I planned three weeks ago and forgot about because I’ve been so busy and so tired. And also two hours of overtime.
The thing is, very valid though all those excuses may be, I still had to make those choices. I set my priorities as family > sleep > blog (also dishes and tackling the pile of papers that is growing on my desk… apologies to my roommate).
Mom’s mantra is, “You can only do what you can do.” This is helpful to a perfectionist like me, especially one who happens to live in a world where everyone seems to think they can or should have it all. You can’t, and there’s no need to feel bad about that.
But that brings me back around full circle. Are there really truly times when the best you can do is less than your best, or times when some commitments have to slide? And how do you know when it’s one of those times and when you’re just being lazy and/or making excuses? I wish I knew.

C’est La Vie

There is no “real” post this week. True, it is not at all “eschewing easy” to give myself too many (any?) passes on that, but this week there were enough extenuating circumstances, including the night my print job needed to be picked up as soon as it was done, at 11 p.m., and working over 16 hours yesterday, including driving to and from San Diego, and also needing to leave the house by 9 a.m. tomorrow, that I don’t feel too bad about it this week. And then, too, I find that one of the hardest things to do in life is to balance effort and upholding commitments with not killing oneself. So here’s my stab at doing that this week.

But I Don’t Want To!

The wail sounds often and wordlessly in my head. “But I don’t want to call the HMO/ get up in the cold pre-dawn to go for a walk/ write my blog/ etc!” Usually, the presented alternative is not even some other useful thing, but to take it easy, to relax, to take whatever “reward” or indulgence I tell myself I’ve earned.
I suppose this is normal or even nearly universal. The problem is giving in to it too often; the frustration comes from reflecting on how many people have overcome it. If they can, why can’t I? No reason at all, so the question becomes, why won’t I?
For the last few months I’ve been locked in an endlessly revolving struggle with this: seeing something that should be done, not doing it, arguing and insisting that it should be done while countering with all the reasons it is impossible to do just at the moment, finally becoming so exhausted that the thing (so I tell myself) legitimately can’t be done, and so granting a reprieve, which usually lasts far longer than it was supposed to, sparking the cycle again.
After a while, it becomes obvious how much energy would be saved if the thing were done in the beginning and all this were skipped. How much more would get done! How satisfying! But of course, the cycle exists because I won’t do that. And around we go again. “Just do it” must be the most deceptively simple advice in the world (if closely followed by “Just relax and be yourself!”).
There absolutely must be a way of sidestepping this.
What was it Einstein said? “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result”? Aha!
Fighting over failure never works. (Remember the Sylvan Learning commercials? Parents fighting with and punishing unhappy teenagers for bad grades before finally seeing the light and getting them help?) And now that you mention it, haven’t studies shown that better results come from saying, “I’d like you to do this, please,” instead of “You must not do that”?
If I “must not” procrastinate, then what would I like myself to do? What is this progress I would like to make?
I made a list. Just writing it out, I felt a surge of inspiration. Yes, if I could hold on to that, it would be much more effective than nagging and trying to force myself to do things I don’t want to do. I’m reminded of an excellent article I have quoted before about how to effect change:

Doctors had been trying to motivate patients mainly with the fear of death, he says, and that simply wasn’t working. For a few weeks after a heart attack, patients were scared enough to do whatever their doctors said. But death was just too frightening to think about, so their denial would return, and they’d go back to their old ways….So instead of trying to motivate them with the “fear of dying,” Ornish reframes the issue. He inspires a new vision of the “joy of living” — convincing them they can feel better, not just live longer. That means enjoying the things that make daily life pleasurable, like making love or even taking long walks without the pain caused by their disease.

Calling a phone tree to do battle with a careless bureaucracy is enough to bring out the procrastinator in anyone. But thinking of it as taking care of an outstanding bill to remove one more source of stress, or taking steps to find out how to resolve a nagging health issue, makes it a bit more alluring.
(Of course, this also taps into the old wisdom about the power of specific goals and defined steps for getting there; “Relax and be yourself” may be useless as advice, but makes a decent goal, which “take three deep breaths and tell yourself a joke” might actually help you to reach.)
Next time I start to complain, “But I don’t want to!” I’ll find a way to turn it into, “Yes, but I do want to…” and I’ll let you know how it goes.