Truly Productive Gift Guide 2015

There are so many gift guides out there this time of year, so I don’t like to add the the noise or piles of choices. The last thing the world needs is one more person pushing products in the spirit of commercial giving.

But this giving season is also an opportunity to offer something simple and thoughtful to someone we want to thank for being awesome, for being helpful, even just for being part of our life. And if we’re honest, sometimes it’s just a good excuse to treat ourselves to something a little special as a reward for our own achievements, or to help us accomplish our goals for the new year.

So in that spirit, and in the tradition of my first Truly Productive Gift Guide post from last year, I bring you a new recommendation for “one thing” that anyone who wants to be more productive should be giving or receiving this year.

My only criteria for this is that the gift be inexpensive, simple to use, and most importantly, that it be a tool that enables productive work. Ideally, it’s also well designed without being overly adorned. I like my tools to be useful and purposeful, with minimal decoration. Something that can develop a unique personality the more it is used.

Drawing on my own experiences over the past year, I’ve looked at all the tools that I have found the most useful on a daily basis, and realized that there was one tool that I’ve been using and loving every day more than anything else. This is something that’s almost been an extension of my brain ever since I picked it up, and I can’t think of a nicer gift for yourself or anyone else this year:

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Made of Soylent

I have consumed Soylent for lunch almost every workday for over a year now, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop. In fact, I think it may be the best lunch solution I’ve ever found.

Because for me, lunch is a problem.

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I realized a long time ago that eating a meal in the middle of the day is really difficult for me. Lunch is the one meal that most often feels like a chore, something I’m obligated to do more than something I want to do.

And it’s not because I don’t care about food—quite the opposite, really. I love to eat, and sandwiches—the archetype form factor of lunchtime fare for almost a century—are one of my favorite kinds of food. If I’m in a more leisurely situation like an outing with co-workers or on vacation with my wife, maybe a Saturday brunch with friends, I enjoy that lunch, too. But in the middle of a busy weekday, or even a weekend filled with errands, the idea of having to stop whatever I’m doing to eat something just causes me stress.

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Do More Less

I had a really unproductive Monday this week. There were a few big things I really needed to get done that day, some important pieces of a project that were my responsibility, and some tasks other people were waiting on me to finish so they could then complete what they had to do.

Yet no matter how many times I attempted to get started on the important tasks of the day, I kept trying to pay attention to too many things at once, getting distracted by unimportant “shiny” stuff, and before I knew it my time for completing work was gone for the day.

Basically, I was terrible at my job on Monday, and it cost me. I lost some reliability points from my teammates, lost some faith in my ability to be disciplined about how I work, and worst of all I lost several hours of productive time I couldn’t really afford to lose.

But I bounced back the next day, and each day after that I got more work done and met all the important deadlines I had. I didn’t become a productivity machine, and I still couldn’t do everything I wanted to in the midst of multiple meetings and random interruptions. But I made up for the time I had wasted on Monday, and all it took was a small change in perspective:

I stopped trying to do more work, and that enabled me to get more done.

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Taking Out the Trash

There are few things more satisfying than being able to identify stuff you don’t need/want/use anymore, gather it all up and get rid of it. All month long I’ve been taking out the trash and let me tell you, it’s been one of the most satisfying projects I’ve worked on all year. The only thing I regret is waiting so long to do it.

You know you’re an adult when an empty 22 x 8 foot, 60-cubic-yard, solid steel waste container being unloaded onto your driveway makes you feel like a kid on Christmas morning. To me, this container wasn’t empty—it was full of possibility.

I was so excited because I knew, at last, we would be getting rid of years worth of old, useless stuff that had been piling up, including a big pile which had been collecting since we first bought our house eight years ago. There was a big pile of wood scraps, old decaying cabinetry, shelves, rusted metal and other scraps from various minor renovations that was somewhat “out of sight, out of mind” in an old decaying potting shed that had been built off the back of our garage by previous owners decades ago, and that shed was itself now decaying and falling to pieces. After generating more scraps for that pile ourselves during a bathroom upgrade at the beginning of the month, we realized the time was right to put an end to all of the madness.

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All Hat and No Rabbit

This is the metaphor that comes to mind for how I’ve felt trying to get back to work after the holiday weekend: I step happily onto the stage in the spotlight, smiling energetically, promising something astonishing as I show my empty top hat. With confident flair, I reach into the hat to pull out a fluffy bunny—but it’s not there. I know it should be, I know it’s been there before, but for some reason this time I can’t find the rabbit no matter how deep I reach.

Still from Pixar's "Presto"“Presto” via Pixar/Disney

Long holiday weekends like the one we just had are always a welcome opportunity for rest, and stepping away from the office to not think about work for a while is healthy. It’s a forced reset of my brain, a chance to let things go for a while. But the downside is that it’s easy to lose momentum on building a routine, as new habits are hard to return to when work resumes.

Only a few days away from it, and suddenly I’ve lost my routine, but I feel the audience out there in the dark, waiting, and I’m holding an impractical hat with no rabbit. I had energy and confidence and felt ready to dive back in. But I’m not just re-acquiring a routine, I’m re-building it. I’ve been adding things, re-configuring the order and accommodating the changes in priorities, and it was working. And now I’m left feeling like the rabbit is just toying with me.

So what else can I do? I know I’ve got some other magic I can rely on, so maybe the best thing to do is forget about pulling a rabbit out of a hat today. Skip that trick, set it aside and come back to it when the confidence is back. Return to the basics, the card tricks I know backward and forward, like the one that’s so simple one of my favorite magicians can do it slogged on painkillers after having his wisdom teeth removed:

So I’ll do that, and prove to myself that I’m not completely lost. And when I’m confident again, and I remember where I left that rabbit, maybe tomorrow, I’ll be able to pull it out of my hat.

Goals Let You Know If You’re Succeeding

Even though Summer is fading, I’m sticking to my #Constructive Summer reading goals. Sometimes projects take longer than you expect, but I’m still learning a lot and that’s what matters.

At this point I’m still working my way through Carson Tate’s Work Simply and here’s what I’ve learned so far: cultivating awareness of what distracts our attention is the only way to avoiding distraction and maintain focus; our ability to remain focused on tasks until they’re completed is the key to making the most of our finite resources of time and attention.

I’m thinking of it like exercising at the gym: cultivating awareness is your strength training, building a set of mental and emotional muscles strong enough to keep the force of distractions at bay; focused attention is your cardio workout, building endurance to keep moving forward at a comfortable pace with enough reserve on hand to sprint when we need to. Our muscles, heart, and lungs all work together, and the stronger they are, the more we can do.

So I’ve taken a look at my distractions, and I’ve begun to improve my ability to focus attention on the tasks at hand. But these are just the foundations to being more productive with our time, because we can have all the control over our attention and focus we want, but if we’re not putting that to a purposeful end, how do we know if we’re succeeding?

There is no measure of success without goals.

In general terms, we think of productivity as the number of tasks completed divided by the amount of time it took to complete them – widgets per hour, stitches per minute, etc. The higher the rate, the more productive we are. If we want to increase our widget productivity, we can set a goal that is a higher number than what we have and make adjustments until our output matches that goal.

But what if you’re not making widgets, but designing websites? What if you’re an editor or producer or photographer or accountant? What if you’re not making anything directly, but managing a whole team of makers? What you have now is project-based work, where the driving factor isn’t quantity but quality, and a deadline for when it should be done.

Here’s where goal setting becomes more complex and stressful for the modern “information worker” because we don’t have easily quantifiable quotas to meet (10 widgets per hour) but just a pile of tasks and projects that we need to complete by a certain time. In fact, that’s not even just how we work, but how we live, because the projects and tasks of our lives at home are structured pretty much the same way: there are always ongoing projects, chores, and needs of others to meet at home just as there are at work.

This is why we’re stressed out about getting stuff done. And this is where the latest lesson I gained from Work Simply gives me hope:

You can’t create an effective plan for getting things done until you know the goals you’re trying to accomplish, and the goals you set should be goals you know you can actually achieve.

In the book, Carson Tate calls these READY goals, because they should follow five basic criteria if you’re going to actually achieve them: they should be Realistic, Exciting, Action-oriented, Directive, and Yours. In other words, these are things you know you can achieve over time, that you’ll be engaged in, that can be broken into tasks, that keep steering you where you want to go, and that you have a personal stake in. These aren’t someone else’s goals for you, and they aren’t vague, unrealistic fantasies.

Defining these goals — actually writing them out on paper — is the first step to understanding the why behind how we’re spending our attention each day. It brings intentionality to our actions, and motivates us more strongly than merely wanting to get stuff done just so it’s done.

Tate recommends setting READY goals for an entire year at a time, right on New Year’s Day if you can. Her four primary categories for goal setting are:

  • Professional (career goals, team goals, improving skills)
  • Personal (strengthening relationships)
  • Health (improving how I feel, exercise, eat, and rest)
  • Spiritual (nurturing inner spiritual needs and values)

Once you have READY goals within each category, your priorities become clear. And that is when you can get to the hands-on work of investing time, building habits and scheduling your days to reach these goals.

That’s the next big step I’ve hit as I keep making my way through this book, and the part that I probably need the most. At the rate I’m going, it looks like that will be my big goal for September.

What’s yours?

Focus is Trending

I thought I was done thinking and writing about the importance of focus after my last post, but over the past week I kept seeing echoes of the topic in new things I was reading that were in most ways unrelated. A blog post here, a magazine article there, all had something to say about focus and productivity that jumped out to me.

Being aware of our how well we focus our attention on a task at hand, and stay focused without distraction or interruption, is the most important skill to learn if we want to be more productive with our time. But no matter how skilled we become, we’ll never be able to actually create more time.
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