Fall

Fall is here, and the ground is awash in the colors of decline. I admire something like a tree that can create such a glow at its tips not by pushing energy outward, but only by withdrawing, extracting strength from the outside in.

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Fall

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But the bright colors of fall are not a building up, they are an unveiling of what was already there, the lifting of a curtain from the latest masterpiece. They are the final light before the dimming of winter, the applause at the end of the act. They are the cue for intermission.

This is the blank space on the page after the end of a chapter, the place we insert our bookmark before closing the cover, satisfied that the hero is safe for now, that the lovers have finally found each other, and we can pause before the final chapters begin.

It’s time for the slow fade to winter, as we follow the lead of the trees and pull inward, reel in the energy we were pushing out, and focus on strengthening our inner reserves, preparing the baffles and layers of down for our winter burrows.

Fall is the end of the summer rave, the final song at the after-party when we start trying to remember where we left our shoes a midst the crumbs and confetti scattered on the floor. It’s the time when we look up at the clock and realize how late it is already, and all the rest of our obligations come flooding back to our minds with a flare of color just like the trees outside our window.

Fall is here. Time to get moving.

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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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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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.

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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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?