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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My HighEdWeb Tribe

How great would it be if we could be in two different places at the same time? If there was a time/space loophole that allowed you to be at work and stay on top of all the projects and tasks you need to get done, while at the same time another part of you got to be somewhere else, learning and exploring and growing, and hanging out with friends?

If I had the ability to be in two different places at the same time, one of me could still be in my office all of next week focused on one of the half-dozen major projects that have to get done; my other self would be flying to Milwaukee to learn and hang out with some of my favorite humans at the HighEdWeb Annual Conference.

I seem to long for a clone of myself like this every couple of years, those in-between years when the budget isn’t available for me to attend major conferences and I can only participate from afar by watching the back channels on Twitter and catching up on presentation slides after the conference is over. Which is still useful, and frankly it’s often the only option for hundreds of people who never get the time or budget to attend these events in person.

Part of the wonderful thing about conferences these days, especially those for and about people working in web and social media, is that they naturally bleed over into the virtual spaces where a hashtag like #heweb15 is all you need to catch up on what’s happening practically in real time (and good luck keeping up!)

But still, nothing beats actually being there and immersing yourself in the conference. I remember how energizing it feels to be able to focus on new ideas from presenters you may have never seen before, meeting people in real life you’ve only ever known online, absorbing the ideas and happy vibes of those around you.

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Pocket Watch photo by Veri Ivanova via Unsplash.com

Tempus Fugit

I don’t want to bury the lede here: we cannot stop time, so we better learn how to make the most of it.

Never mind theoretical models of time—our experience of it as humans in the dimensional space we share is linear in a single direction, which means we only get to use each second of our day once before it’s gone forever, but there is an infinite amount of it ahead of us. The past may be recorded, but we cannot return to it or change it; the future may be predicted, but never completely known.

This may sound somewhat somber and fatalistic, but I think the opposite is true: recognizing the present is a limited resource, but that there will always be more time ahead of us, and really embracing that, is a positive, motivating force for life. It’s a burden lifted from our shoulders to recognize that there are rules to this universe we cannot change, and therefore one less thing we need to worry about.

So what do we worry about instead? How to make the most of those precious minutes and hours of each new day. Time is fleeting – tempus fugit – and our awareness of that fact is a big part of what motivates us, and a major part of what we stress out over when it comes to the day-to-day needs of working and living as humans.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I’ve been thinking about this more lately, especially when it comes to the struggle of trying to decide what’s important and worth spending time on. In fact, this blog exists because of a talk I gave exploring my struggles of trying to be a productive human at work, and trying to offer ways to get through that. And there are thousands of others like me writing about these same topics, publishing books, building apps and services and companies and entire industries that revolve around helping people figure out how to get done what they need to get done everyday. And these are valuable, they are helpful, and they can improve how we spend out time resource. I hope to continue adding my voice to that and helping others navigate it as much as I can.

But before I go any further with talking or writing or giving presentations about improving productivity and work/life balance and building better habits, I think it’s important that we all come to understand and embrace this one fundamental truth:

You are not perfect, and neither am I. And that’s okay. Make the best choices you can, and be ready for what’s next.

Perfection is a concept, an ideal notion. It’s a goal for some, a representation of something that may exist in an abstract, frictionless world. But it is the absence of perfection that makes life worth living, and what makes whatever work we do each day worthy of the time we spend doing it.

We can employ all the fancy methods and apps and tools and habits we want; we can learn to eliminate distractions and strive to get things done; we can make charts and set goals and measure performance; we can take as many actions as we want to organize how we use our time, but we will never actually be able to control time.

Just like there are fundamental laws of motion and gravity for our physical universe, I think there are fundamental laws of productivity that are impossible to defy. In fact, there may be only one Fundamental Law of Productivity from which all others corellate:

“Every time you say yes to someone or something, you are saying no to someone or something else.”

Boom. That’s it right there.

In fact, that exact phrasing comes from Carson Tate in the middle of page 81 of Work Simply – not highlighted or bold typed, but just mid-paragraph. Yet it is central to what everything else in her book, and so many other people’s books and blogs and talks and sermons and stories and songs, are really talking about.

We can live more rewarding lives by making better choices about what we say yes to, and what we say no to, but we will never eliminate the fact that we have to choose.

Some choices we make ourselves, some choices are made for us, but our lives are our own. And while time may be infinite, our lives are not, so we have to decide as individuals how to make the most of the time we have.

Thankfully, we are not alone. We are all humans, and we all get to help each other figure out how to be the best humans we can be. And that will always be a productive use of our time.

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.

Aspirations of Productivity

I’m a morning person, which means I’m up before dawn at this time of year and I get to watch the world outside awaken through the windows overlooking my backyard as I write. It’s not uncommon to see a few deer emerge from the woods and saunter by on their way to wherever it is they go, and while I generally think of all deer as road hazards and yard pests at this point (don’t get me started on how much landscaping I can’t have because of them), there are mornings when I watch them passing by and feel a little bit of envy.

I imagine that the deer, along with all the squirrels and rabbits and birds inhabiting my yard, all seem to live such an uncomplicated life. No possessions, no expectations. The only goals they have each day are to eat, rest, avoid danger and disease, and procreate if possible. Generally just stay alive, and roam where and when they want in the meantime.


There is no expectation that these creatures must somehow leave their mark in the world, no pressure to be productive with their lives other than to live. Just by looking after their own basic needs they are playing their role in the ecosystem they inhabit and that’s all that is needed of them.

So why isn’t that enough for us humans? Why do I feel myself caught up in a growing awareness of “productivity” as a thing that matters; that it’s important to make my life count for something by doing or making things with my time to somehow prove I am contributing to the world?

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Finding Focus

It’s only been a week since my last post about paying attention and my attention has already drifted. But in a good way. That is to say, as my #ConstructiveSummer reading of Work Simply has continued, I’ve moved from being more focused on my attention, to paying more attention to my focus.

I was focused on my attention; now I’m paying more attention to my focus.

There’s a lot of subtle detail in that shift. Attention and focus seem to go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin, but the more I read and observe about myself at work and through my daily routines, the more I realize the difference in scope that attention has compared to focus. Mainly that I can “pay attention” to a lot of different things and still be distracted and unproductive, but when I am really focused on a task I don’t distract easily and will find it hard to do anything else until what I’m working on is done.

I’ve known for years now that my biggest daily challenge is with keeping focused on a task. Call it “monkey mind” or just A.D.D., staying focused on a task that isn’t naturally engaging often takes extraordinary effort for me, and it’s something I’ve struggled with since elementary school. My parents could tell you stories…

Over the years I have invented all kinds of tactics for coping with this, and for the most part I improved. But recently, moving into a new career brought out my weaknesses in ways I haven’t had to deal with in a long time. I started falling behind, losing track of deadlines, and failing to complete important tasks. Frankly, it was embarrassing, and depressing.

But I have found some improvement from medication over the past few years, despite my initial resistance. Taking a pill has such a strong stigma for me, something associated with being sick or broken, as if it was a crutch; something for short-term assistance until it can be overcome by willpower and discipline. But in the past couple of years I’ve worked with my doctor and found a formula and dosage that is consistently beneficial and sustainable. It’s not a crutch anymore, but more like eyeglasses for my brain: I can see and operate in the world without them, but everything is much more clear with them on, and my natural forces of resistance are drastically diminished. In a word, I feel more normal.

Of course, there is no magic pill to solve the larger problem of getting things done. I’m glad to have found that extra tool that helps, but there’s no point in having focus if it’s not being put to good use. Focus is how we burn the fuel of attention, and we pay for all that attention with time.

Focus is how we burn the fuel of attention, and we pay  for that attention with time.

Time is a finite commodity we are spending every minute of every day. How we choose to spend that resource, especially as it applies to our natural desire to be productive, requires attention and focus. And, more importantly, it requires understanding our goals in all aspects of our life. Without understanding what is really important to us, even if that evolves and changes, we are just losing time.

Those goals are what I plan to focus on next.

“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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Putting It Together

I’m exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep if I tried.

I did try, but I haven’t had my usual uninterrupted night of sleep in a couple of weeks at least. I’ve been constantly distracted at work by notifications and messages and reminders of something else that needs my attention, and I’ve had to figure out how to the share responsibility for looking after a multi-limbed thing that, like a quantum theory cat, seems to only behave predictably until you observe it, then it veers somewhere else you didn’t expect.

This is part of what is has been like for me as a co-chair of the HighEdWeb NY Regional Conference that we’re hosting here in Ithaca today. It all feels so familiar, working with people and organizations I’ve known for years. But there’s also an alternate-dimension feeling to it all, being on the other side of where I normally am, where people I usually find myself traveling to see have now traveled to see us and each other.

Planning this conference has been like putting on a wedding, a variety show, and a trade expo all in the same space on the same day. There are guests who have traveled hundreds of miles and paid us money to be part of something exciting and helpful; our presenters have put in hours of their own to create a show of new ideas they’re excited to share; we have sponsors and vendors who want to introduce themselves to potential new client; it’s exhausting even writing about it, never mind keeping track of it.

I couldn’t be happier.

A few hours from now we’ll have officially kicked off our conference, and I’ll be bouncing from one presentation room to another, and on my phone from one Slack channel to another, looking after a bunch of amazing volunteers that have helped us get things together and making sure everyone who is there feels that everything is awesome. I’m so excited to see what we’re going to learn today, so amazed that we’ve got 130 people here to learn and discuss new ways to do our jobs better, and I’m so proud to be part of the team that is making this happen.

I love being part of HighEdWeb and maybe someday I’ll do this again. Just give me a few days to catch up on my sleep first…

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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