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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“Attention Must Be Paid”

As I have continued to pursue my Summer School reading of Work Simply over the past few weeks, three things have become very clear:

  1. This book is full of simple, practical tips and exercises rather than just advice and theory, which is just what I was looking for. But that also means it’s not a book that can be read through quickly if one is to make the most of it.
  2. Finding time during the workweek to prioritize self-development “homework” amidst all my other daily tasks has not been as easy as I thought it would be.
  3. Finding time to follow-up on that reading and put my thoughts and feelings about it into a blog post feels almost impossible.

I had been hoping to get through about 20 pages a day in this book, which is a pretty modest goal; I often read as much as 50 pages a day for a book I’m really into. But I didn’t take into account the difference between merely reading a book vs. studying a book. The whole point of this project is to be learning and improving, taking notes from the text and applying ideas, which actually makes Work Simply a great place to start.

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Summer School

When I was younger and school had closed for the summer months, any kind of textbook would be the last thing I wanted to read. Give me a stack of recreational reading—adventure novels, compelling histories, or a good biography—and a shady, insect-free spot to read outdoors and I’d be good from July through September. Summer school? That was for kids who were behind or had problems learning.

That spirit still tugs at me each summer, but now that I’m comfortably into my forties I also see how great the idea devoting time in summer to extra learning can really be. As someone who works in higher education, the break in the academic calendar offers a natural downtime worth taking advantage of.

So this year I’m devoting myself to the idea of a constructive summer, and planned my own little summer school course in personal productivity with a few books that I’ve had sitting in a small pile just waiting for me. To make it more like being in a class, I’ll be writing about each book here on my blog as I make my way through them week by week, reporting on my progress and what I’m learning as I go. I outlined the full syllabus, such as it is, in my latest 100% Human newsletter if you would like to take part in this course with me and read along. Continue reading →

Aphorisms of Discipline

uncluttered desk with macbook computer

To be at the office and to be at work are not always the same thing.

As the prostitute once said, “It’s not the work, it’s the stairs.”

Discipline is the sum of habits multiplied by time. The stronger the habits, the less time one needs.

There are tasks and projects we do, and then there is our work. There is no harmony without all of these notes being sung together.

“You are the song you are learning to sing.”

A tool that makes work is no longer a tool.

Use your tools; don’t let your tools use you.

There will never be productivity tools or tactics that can actually put your ass in the chair and make you get something done.[*]

Self-discipline is the ultimate killer app.

Do not put off repetitive tasks; embrace the opportunity for mindful reflection.

Do it yourself, or delegate it. You can’t do both.

Sometimes the one you must delegate to is yourself in the future.

“Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Baby steps. One day at a time. Bird by bird.

Discipline is a life habit, not a life hack.

Freedom is completing the thing long avoided.

Good discipline requires practice; good practice requires discipline.

When the time comes, you should be there.

Discipline knows the color of the empty inbox.

Discipline is the sound of one hand clapping the laptop shut at the end of the day.


*(If there ever is, it probably means that humanity has lost the fight against the rise of the machines, and I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.)

Finishing the Shark

The most productive part of the last Wednesday of February may have been the two hours at the end of the afternoon I spent outside of the office with a few first-year students, carving a great white shark out of a pile of snow.

SnowShark-Instagram

I’ve been working with most of the students involved throughout the academic year as part of the First-Year Residential Experience program at our college. Teamed up with an RA in one particular residence hall, I help create special events and activities about once a month for students, generally around a core-curricular theme of “Inquiry, Innovation, and Imagination.”

This particular day, I was challenging them to bring innovation and imagination to snow sculpting, because we’ve had a couple feet of the stuff lying around campus for weeks. I supplied hot chocolate and hot cider. It was a sunny day, making it feel a lot warmer than the 14 F degrees it probably was.

We had fun. And these students kind of blew my mind. I mean, of all the things I could have expected to see sculpted in the snow by the end of this activity, a great white shark rising up out of the ground would have never occurred to me.

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How Nice People Leave

sunset_road

We’re losing a valuable member of our team at the office today, and it sucks.

Well, it sucks for us anyway – not for her. She’s leaving to get married, returning to her home state with her new husband, and returning to the job she left when she came to work with us. That’s right–she’s so good at what she does that her old employer was happy to make room for her to return. In other words, she’s going to miss us too, but she’s not going to be hurting for career opportunities.

We’re all very happy for her, obviously. It’s exciting to see a talented person embark on a new chapter of their life, seizing an opportunity and going for it. And it’s not all that unusual, really. Staffing turnovers are just another part of the landscape even in higher ed marketing offices like ours. I can think of a dozen people who have left our team for one reason or another during the nearly five years I’ve been in my job. And we’ve had just as many new people join the team in that time, including the one who’s leaving today.

But her departure stands out to me because she is going out with the most awesome courtesy and professionalism anyone could have hoped for, going above and beyond anything I’ve seen before to be absolutely sure we know as much as possible about how she did her job and that we’ll have the tools and resources we need to help us continue the work she started.

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Know When to Doldrum

Let’s face it: February is exhausting. Every year I seem to hear people joking that this is the shortest month because if it was any longer we’d go crazy. In fact, people seem to have felt that way about February for almost as long as the month has existed.

Snow Mountain Right now the town where I live and work is smothered in piles of snow that keep growing and won’t melt away. Woveling snow off my driveway is my new part-time job. Our cars are coated with ice and snow, their climate controls left constantly turned to high heat and defrost; black, crusty chunks of road spray freeze into wedges in the wheelwells that we kick off into parking lots and driveways, only to see them reappear like a snow fungus with each drive we take.

All day and night, an endless mass of freezing air and wind sits upon us like an invisible, empty sea. We don’t walk as much as scurry from building to building, inhaling deeply to brace ourselves before we exit, then plunging into it with our armor of hats and scarves and gloves and puffy coats. Each arrival back in the warmth of a destination is announced with a short dance of stomping boots and exhaled huffs of relief.

By mid-February, a day above 35F degrees is a joy. You feel confined by the elements, your movements limited, and efforts doubled. You may have a primal urge to stay indoors and burrow deep into a soft nest, envious of all the small mammals you sense curled into a state of torpor or hibernation somewhere in the dark. Everything seems to slow down, stagnate, as if Mother Nature has hit the pause button at the worst time, leaving us in a snowy limbo until she decides to let the seasons advance once more and set us free.

Welcome to The Doldrums.

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Sick, Dude

I had my first severe cold in a while last weekend, strong enough that I’m still recovering from it a week later. It hit me last Friday at the end of a stressful week; I slogged through Saturday weak and drained (mostly through my nose). By Sunday evening I was miserable and it was clear I would have to take a sick day on Monday to stay at home and rest.

feverBut even as I was emailing my boss and others to let them know I wouldn’t be in the next day, there was a small part of me feeling selfish and indulgent about choosing myself over work people were relying on me to do. I was going to bed with a 101.1 degree fever, but still anxious about what it would mean for my productivity.

I’m an idiot sometimes.

Of course, taking that sick day was exactly what I needed to do, and a more productive use of my time and energy than if I had tried to go to the office in that condition. In fact, being out sick for a day may have made me better at my job this week than I was all of the past month. Continue reading →

Deflated

Super Bowl game balls waiting to be laced and inflated

Via NFL on Instagram

I’ve been finding it really hard to get my productivity mojo going this month, and it’s affecting me more than usual. Maybe it’s just all the gossip about underinflated footballs in the news right now, but the current buzzword certainly sums up my mood this week: I feel deflated.

I know that I had things down, I was moving along pretty well right before the holiday break, and I had even planned out where I would pick things up again in the new year. But I had lost more than I realized when I came back to work, forgotten a lot of the nuances of projects I was working on, and what was important and what could wait. And I forgot about how easy it is to get interrupted or distracted by the needs of others.

It’s as if somewhere during those ten days off, all the projects I had been working on left my head, and all my work day routines went with them–woosh! Great for my vacation time, but not so great when I’m back at work and trying to get stuff done. Continue reading →

Coat. Hat. Gloves. Repeat.

Being really cold in winter is nothing new to me. I’ve lived in the Northeast of the U.S. of all my life, and January to February of every year seems to have at least one solid week of single-digit to below-zero temperatures we must endure, intermingled by “mild” days where it may get up to 40 degrees. Good times.

The challenge of winter then is in trying to be prepared on any given day for not just how cold or wet it is when I leave the house, but also how that may change during the day.

I’ve lived in Ithaca, NY for more than a decade, where the topography of steep hills carved by gorges overlooking a lake makes for some stunning scenery, but also creates a microclimate that can change our weather dramatically from one hour to the next depending where you are. It’s not uncommon to see it snowing ferociously over the campus where I work on the slope of South Hill, while only a light flurry falls on the flats of downtown half a mile below. Weather forecasts really are more of a guideline, which means taking precautions.

In winter, I’ve learned that there are only three important items I need in to be warm and comfortable no matter how cold it gets: the right coat, a warm hat, and warm gloves. I’ve also learned over the years that a warm hat and gloves are two of the easiest things to misplace or forget in the hubbub of getting to and from home and work.

But that’s not a problem any more because I’ve got a nearly foolproof method to be sure I’m never without the accessories I need to stay warm in any situation… Continue reading →