Rescuing life from productivity

And so we get to the crux of our human predicament — the underbelly of our anxiety about every unanswered email, every unfinished project, and every unbegun dream: Our capacities are limited, our time is finite, and we have no control over how it will unfold or when it will run out. Beyond the lucky fact of being born, life is one great sweep of uncertainty, bookended by the only other lucky certainty we have. It is hardly any wonder that the sweep is dusted with so much worry and we respond with so much obsessive planning, compulsive productivity, and other touching illusions of control.

~ Maria Popova from, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/12/20/four-thousand-weeks-oliver-burkeman/

For years I’ve been finding myself judging my day, each evening as I go to sleep. I lie down, and try as I might, my thoughts go beyond simply reviewing. I tried to stop doing the judging part, to no avail.

There’s a Steve Jobs quote about asking himself a question each morning, and that’s great, (but not something I do.) I realized that I’m asking myself that question at the end of each day after closing my eyes to beckon sleep:

If that was the last day of my life, am I satisfied with what I did?

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12% battery remaining

Productivity hacks are fun, but they don’t always produce the greatest returns on your time. If you care about productivity, be sure to invest in your energy levels.

~ Chris Bailey from, https://alifeofproductivity.com/dont-forget-the-basics-of-productivity/

I don’t do productivity “hacks.” I do productivity. My aversion to “hacking” anything runs deep. All of my productivity comes from doing things which return, the way compound interest returns. Whenever I can, I try to do the hard work up front. I am literally trying to pass gifts, (of time, energy, money, sanity,) to my future self.

It’s wise to occasionally erase the whiteboard to see what something could be like if built from scratch. It never ceases to amaze me when absolutely nothing happens nor changes when I entirely stop doing things. I recently removed an entire project—no one has even noticed. I recently was completely unreachable, (by everyone other than my wife,) for four days—no one noticed. If you started from a clean slate today, what would you choose to do?

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Screens and screen time

I read and hear a lot about how excessive “screen time” is bad. But there’s a distinction that has to be made: Is the “screen time” tool-use to accomplish something meaningful? …because tool-use is not bad for you. We don’t begrudge the time a mechanic spends wielding his tools; we call that “working.”

Today I spent nearly every waking minute in front of one of four different computer screens. For reasons of sanity and physical health, sometimes I was sitting, sometimes standing, sometimes indoors and outdoors for long stretches too. I also take intentional “vision breaks” to allow my eye muscles to relax—literally relax to infinite focusing distance, which they would otherwise never do facing a screen, or anywhere indoors.

What did I do? I did an enormous number of things. Here are a few examples from today: I submitted a presenter application for an in-person event in September. I worked on my presentation notes for a different, in-person event in 2 weeks. I researched and experimented with exporting the contents of a WordPress site, and then read and interpreted the massive data which was output, to verify that I could later write a program to parse it. I then planned out the work needed to disassemble the project, of which that WordPress site is but one piece. I estimate I spent three hours reading text articles I’d previously queued up to read later. I helped a member of a community sort out a problem they were having.

I, truly, don’t know about you. I however, am an excellent mechanic, with the finest tools, and there remain far more things worth doing than I can ever get done. My problem is not, “screen time.”

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Time spent organizing my time

Something organized people don’t often talk about is how much time they spend organizing their time.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/11/03/spend-more-time-managing-your-time/

Guilty as charged, Your Honor! So today, something a little lighter than usual—I think?—with a few snapshots of how much time I spend organizing my time.

It is an exceedingly rare morning that I don’t spend about half an hour planning out the day. This little block of time begins with “surfacing:” Ducking into all the many online mediums where I am present, and—this is very hard—not engaging, but skimming over things to see what rises to a level of getting my attention today. Many productivity sources and guides suggest doing this at night, at the end of your day, but that does not work for me.

Every Monday I take an “administrative day”—the entire day. I stuff the day full of all the random things of life. Any errands to run, laundry, lawn mowing if I can, bookkeeping (literal banking and accounting and such). I do my best to resist doing any real work. I do anything like changing the bed linen, or high dusting the house, or stacking firewood, or changing a flat tire on my bike, …anything that I would consider “not important” …except of course if I never got around to doing it, then it’s a critical disaster …that’s “administrative day” stuff. This isn’t exactly time spent on organizing, but still.

I use sophisticated planning/project-tracking software, called OmniFocus, to manage a lot of stuff. (Things from recurring daily things, to true projects that have many steps and milestones and due dates.) Every two weeks—on an Admin Day!—I spend about an hour just going through every nook and cranny of my OmniFocus. (If you’ve read Getting Things Done, this is part of the review process.) I tend to ruthlessly delete stuff in an effort to combat my incessant tendency to take new things on.

At least once a month—again, on an Admin Day—I do the same sort of “look through every nook and cranny” review of the Basecamp system that is used for one of the companies I’m part of. Sometimes I can do that in 5 minutes, sometimes I’ll spend hours on it.

At the least organized end of the spectrum, (yes, my time spent managing my time comes in a spectrum of how organized it is,) I often—maybe twice per month this happens—will go off, (as in “off the deep end,”) and outline some project that I’m considering doing. I’ll whip out my favorite outliner, OmniOutliner, and do a brain dump of some project. This can take from 5 minutes to an hour or more depending on what I’m thinking about. Quite often, I’ll then simply set aside some awesome idea that I don’t have the time to execute, or the resources to have it done under my direction. I used to think this was wasted time, but it is the only way I can get things off my mind: When it pops up later, I either think, “I already did all the thinking,” or I go back to the outline and tinker some more. (What remains, forever, is just to squash the recurring lizard-brain fear of missing out by not executing the project.)

So let’s see, how much time is all of that combined? I’m awake 16 hours a day, but realistically, only half that time could ever be used to some specific end. So 8 hours a day of “self-directable life”. 1 out of 7 days is an Admin Day… 1/7 ~ 0.1428… The rest of that stuff might—maaaaaaybe, but probably not—eat a second day’s worth of each week . . . 2/7 ~ 0.2857…

So in response to how much time do I spend managing my time? I’ll say:

15 to 30% of my entire available life.

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Start where you are

If you’re trying to get to the beautiful lake or beach and you’re caught in the weeds, ignoring the weeds and their constraints will produce nothing but desperation and angst. You first need to know what weeds you’re in, and how to get unhooked from them.

~ David Allen from, https://gettingthingsdone.com/2018/06/starting-with-where-you-are-not-where-you-should-be/

Of course this insight is blindingly obvious once you see it.

…and I distinctly remember what it was like when I hadn’t yet seen it. I can’t quite put my finger on an exact year, but I remember a feeling—or rather a few feelings and things which kept happening to me:

I was often late.
I was often tired.
I was often bored
…and then suddenly realized I’d forgotten to do something that I had felt was important.
Chaos.
Disorder.

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Closed loops

The point of life is not to get things done. But life is better if you are able—at your own pace, if and when you want—to get things done.

Aside: In addition, other people will like you if you are also consistent and reliable.

The point of reviewing what I’ve captured is two-fold. Get everything done, (some of which I may have freshly captured yesterday.) But also to not do things. Yes, it’s delightful to finish something; it’s delightful to close a loop. But it’s also delightful to simply not do something. I have countless ideas, and the vast majority of them get captured… and then summarily deleted to be not done.

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Open loops

Jot down every loop that opens; whether it comes via email, or a phone call, or a Zoom meeting, or Slack. Because these loops might emerge rapidly, use a minimalist tool with incredibly low friction. I recommended a simple plain text file on your computer in which you can record incoming obligations at the speed of typing (a strategy I elaborate in this vintage post).

Then, at the beginning of each day, before the next onslaught begins, process these tasks into your permanent system. In doing so, as David Allen recommends, clarify them: what exactly is the “next action” this task requires? Stare at this collection before getting started with your work.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/07/23/on-confronting-the-productivity-dragon-take-2/

This two part process is the backbone of how I get things done. When I find I have too many ideas rattling in my head it’s time to do a bunch of “capture.” One’s mind is for having ideas not for holding them. I prefer to write things down rather than using a digital device. Yes, my phone [at least] is very often at hand—but I’m a digital import, not a native, so thumb-typing is torture.

Everyone agrees that capturing everything—whether digital or analog, notes, meeting minutes, thoughts, doodles, lists, everything… Capturing everything is important and useful.

But almost everyone has not fully apprehended that second part: Process that collection from yesterday. Every day review all the “captured” stuff and brutally assess it. Can I just ignore it/cross it off as done? Can I put that onto some other list (groceries, errands, etc.)? Why did I capture this? …is it a dream, a flaming urgency, something I want to think more about?

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Mindful communication

With few exceptions, e-mail use arose organically within organizations, with little thought applied to how digital communication might best serve the relevant objectives.

~ Cal Newport from, https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2015/06/18/the-e-mail-productivity-curve/

As usual, this is an interesting article from Newport. He proposes a productivity curve for email—how productive we are without, with-some, with-more, with-too-much—which explains perfectly why some people love email and some people hate it.

The key point about email is to use it intentionally. Not simply one’s own use; not simply, “I only check my email twice a day,” or, “I’m always at ‘inbox zero.'” The key is to deploy email wisely, in a way which increases productivity of a team, (family, community, whatever.) If adding email into the mix is going to increase productivity, then do so. Then zoom out and look at all your other communication tools, and perform the same calculus. Email is simply one example of a tool which initially [hopefully] increases productivity, but too-soon becomes a detriment.

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ANTI-productive

These distractions aren’t just unproductive, they’re anti-productive. They create more work than they replace.

~ Mark Manson from, https://markmanson.net/attention-diet

I wish I had learned much sooner the idea that distractions aren’t just wasting the time spent on the distraction, but are in fact decreasing the value of the time I do try to spend on anything focused and productive. Alas, it took me decades of experimenting to deeply understand it for myself before I could truly learn the lesson. Manson’s article is, as usual, irreverent and explicit—but it has some terrific points in it about how to go about crafting an attention “diet” to take back your mind.

My mind does need a lot of down-time and relaxation. But none of that looks like distraction. I deeply love sitting down to some great science-fiction movie with popcorn. I also deeply love me some burly physical work where my mind can press the “body: do things” button and then wander out of the control room for a snooze on the terrace. (I imagine Homer Simpson’s sipping-bird left in the control room; but mine’s pressing the, “continue hard labor,” button rather than his nuclear reactor alarm reset.)

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2020

My touch-phrase for 2019 was, “no.” In terms of self-imposed stress and crippling depression, 2019 was the worst year ever; I’ve more than 10 years of journals and I’ve checked. 2018 was bad, but 2019—the year I set out specifically to reduce the problems—was definitely and significantly worse than 2018.

I remain convinced that it is not possible to optimize one’s way out of burn-out. If I have 500 things I want to get done and I’m burnt-out, the solution is to reduce the number of things, not get better at getting things done. I’m speaking from personal experience, not from theory.

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

In 2019, the “no” touch-phrase was meant to guide me to developing the habit of saying no to things coming towards me. A huge amount of ideas and opportunities come at me, and I’ve gotten much better at saying, “no.” (I’m not quite ready to say I’ve gotten “good” at it; but I’ve definitely gotten better.) I’ve gotten better at evaluating Big Asks from the world, and saying, “no.” A textbook example of that is people/groups which reach out to me, asking for my input or participation.

“No, I do not have the time to do that well.”

“No, I cannot to do that the way it deserves to be done.”

…and so on. Note particularly the absence of the societal lubrication, (a.k.a., the usual lie,) “I’m sorry, but…” Because, I’m not sorry. I’m defending myself, and I’ve reached the point where if my candid, timely, and honest response feels like a wack on the head… Bummer. Life’s hard; get a helmet.

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

In a previous post I mentioned the idea of leverage; positing that I should focus on asking myself, “how much leverage does this opportunity afford me?” This still doesn’t feel quite the right fit for 2020 because leverage per se isn’t a value I’m interested in maximizing.

So that leaves me where?

2020 has to be the year of getting less done.

GLD — Get less done.

Maybe that’s the touch-phrase for 2020?

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