Baby Steps

This was the first personal productivity method that ever stuck with me, and it came from Richard Dreyfuss:

“Baby steps?”
“It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself, one day at a time. One tiny step at a time… For instance, when you leave this office, don’t think about everything you have to do to get out of the building, just think about what you must do to get out of this room. And when you get to the hall, deal with that hall, and so forth. You see?”

Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfuss) describes his book Baby Steps to Bob Wiley (Bill Murray).

That’s what Dreyfuss (as Dr. Leo Marvin) offers as a path to curing the severe phobias of Bill Murray (as Bob Wiley) in the 1991 film What About Bob? (you can watch a clip of the scene here), which of course leads to increasingly wacky situations (and one of my favorite Bill Murray performances).

It’s a made-up conceit for the movie, but… there’s something very real and familiar about the idea that has always stuck with me. It’s simple enough for anyone to understand how it works, and it’s easy to remember and try for yourself. In fact, part of why it works so well for comedy is because it seems obvious and simplistic enough to be plausible, so there’s no way it could actually work, right? But it does, and it’s not a new idea.

The “Baby Steps” method is about learning to focus, but it’s also about learning to let go of the fear and anxiety that prevents us from finding that focus. Bob Wiley lives in constant anxiety about hundreds of ways he could get hurt or fail out in the world, and those phobias prevent him from being able to function. But focusing on one small, simple goal means putting aside all other fears. With all the resources of his mind focused on doing one thing, and all other anxieties on hold, Bob is able to finally able to venture out into the world.

Actually, “Baby Steps” isn’t about actions at all—it’s about making decisions. It’s about letting go of thinking of all the things you have to do, and deciding on one small, manageable task you can do right now.

Decide what you can do right now that will be useful, something you have to get done today, and give your full attention to doing that one thing. When you’re done, reward yourself with a little break, then decide to do another thing, and do that. Repeat.

It may not be easy or practical to apply this to your entire day. There will always be interruptions and things beyond our control, but we can find the smaller steps within those moments too if we need them. It may not be a complete solution to all your problems, but if you want a simple method for making better decisions about how you spend your time, “Baby Steps” is a step in the right direction.

Truly Productive Gift Guide 2016

I love giving gifts just as much as I love receiving them, so each December I like to share my own Gift Giving Guide For Productive Humans. There have been a number of distractions this season that put me behind schedule on all of my gift giving preparations (more about that in future posts), so this entry comes a lot later than usual—too late to be useful, perhaps—but I still think it’s worth sharing with you. And since the most productive gift anyone can give is more time, I will keep it short.

As with previous years, my gift list consists of only one thing, and the only criteria for this is that the gift be inexpensive ($50 or less), simple to use, and most importantly, it is useful and enables or supports productive work. It has to be a tool that you want to use, not a tool that gets in the way. If it’s also well designed and well made, then even better.

So without further introduction, my Truly Productive Gift for 2016 is…

The Amazon Echo Dot *

Maybe not what you were expecting from this list, and honestly I wasn’t either. But I looked back on the past year and thought about what tools I find myself relying on every day, tools that improved or even changed how I work. That usually means a tool that helps reduce my cognitive load, something to get tasks or ideas out of my head so I can focus on doing high-value work instead, or help me keep better track of how I spend my time and energy. The Echo Dot is something that can do all of those things in some ways, and yet in other ways it does more than I ever thought I would need.

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Work on Vacation

I am technically on vacation as I write this. I’m not supposed to be checking email, or doing anything related to work. I’m not supposed to be updating documents or spreadsheets or doing research. And yet I have done all of those things every day of my vacation within view of the ocean.

And you know what? It’s been an amazing vacation, and it truly has been restful and relaxing the whole time. So why am I “on vacation” but still doing “work” at the beach?

Because I’m only doing work I really want to do, and only for two or three hours in the morning. The rest of the day is devoted to being on vacation with my wife, playing epic games of miniature golf and skeeball, reading novels on the beach, and consuming copious amounts of fried and freshly shucked seafood and soft-serve ice cream. You know – vacation stuff.

Because the point of vacation isn’t simply about about “not doing work”—it’s about taking a break from the things you have to do and focusing instead on only doing things you want to do, and doing it all in as relaxed and leisurely a manner as possible. I asked myself, What is it I am taking a vacation from? and whatever the answer, those are the things I should not be doing.

Or to think of it another way: I choose to use my vacation time, “me” time, to finally indulge my energy and attention on all the things that I feel I’d rather be doing when I’m stuck doing work. What I’m taking a vacation from is the obligations to others, and focusing instead on just hanging out with my wife, being as leisurely as possible.

Did I bring a lot of material related to my work with me? Yes, because it’s stuff I really want to work on for myself. Lots books and notes to review for my upcoming conference presentations, but also my own beach reading material for kicking back on the sand under an umbrella.

Vacations for us mean leisurely mornings with few plans. Coincidentally, mornings are a peak time of energy and attention for me, a time when I’m most able to do productive work. By taking two or three hours every morning of leisure time doing some of the work I want to get done for myself, I am able to relax and use all my remaining energy and attention fully to enjoy the rest of the day free of distraction.

By allowing myself to indulge in doing the work I truly want to get done for myself, I am able to get rid of the nagging feelings of things left undone. It’s amazing how much even just a single productive hour can make on the rest of my day, all while still sleeping late and relaxing and enjoying the sights and sounds and cool breezes of Cape Cod in September.

So I won’t feel guilty about checking email or updating spreadsheets while I’m on vacation, as long as I’m honest with myself about doing it because it’s something I genuinely want to do, and will enjoy having done. The key is to keep it to a short, set amount of time, and then letting go of it for the rest of the day.

Scheduling a little time for productive work during vacation can be a wonderful thing as long as you’re smart and honest about it. Don’t work just to work, and don’t engage with anything you don’t feel drawn to. Vacation time is you time, and that’s what’s most important.

I’m happy I found this balance, and I’ve had a wonderful week because of it. In fact, thanks to fewer distractions on my mind during the day, I think my miniature golf game has improved – I’m almost making par for every course.

More importantly, I’m having a great time because I made time to work on vacation.

Chaos Practice

I feel bad for chaos. It’s such an important part of the universe, yet nobody seems to want it around. We live in a world that values order, or at the very least, predictability. Whenever the systems or environments we rely on behave differently, and chaos starts to emerge, we feel we must exert our will to make it stop, to impose a sense of order once more. But we can never actually be rid of chaos, and I’m glad for that.

Chaos may be messy and unpredictable, but that’s also what makes it reliable. It’s what makes me grateful for chaos—I know I can rely on it to keep me from getting too comfortable.

In the core mathematical concept of chaos theory lies a simple, observable phenomenon: that small changes in the position or composition of a chaotic system make a big difference over time. That’s a pretty good explanation for what happened to me over the past six weeks or so, as I made slight deviations from my normal routines and habits to focus on big project deadlines and a conference presentation; suddenly a little pile of lower priority work I couldn’t give attention to has grown into digital and physical mounds of information like something out of a “Hoarders” television special.

There are piles and lists and notes and folders and sketches to be sorted, magazines and books and stacks of reports to be read. In a nutshell, my office is a mess, and all my productive habits have fallen apart. As of this writing, I have 2,026 unprocessed work emails in my account—unprocessed meaning they are either in my inbox or in one of a few different “action” folders waiting to have actions performed that have not yet been performed. Among these messages, 456 are marked un-read and 83 are flagged as important. And that’s just my work email. I’m afraid to even look at the numbers in my personal email accounts right now. Continue reading →

Get Ur Mise On

I’ve been working from home for the last four out of five days this week while a small swarm of contractors, clad in combinations of denim workshirts and white Tyvek coveralls, have been shuttling back and forth above and below me into attic and crawlspace, upgrading our modest 1950s home into an more energy-efficient, climate controlled living space. It’s fantastic to finally see all this much-needed work happening around me and observe how these practiced trade crews approach their jobs.

It’s also been a huge distraction.

In the abstract, working from home for most of the week seemed like it would be rather easy to do: I filled my sweet heavy-duty HighEdWeb tote bag with all the paperwork and files I thought I might need and brought it home. All that plus my laptop and wifi and I could do all the work I need to do from the comfort of my kitchen table. Or so I thought.

I did okay for the first day, catching up on email, and even participating in a meeting via phone. But by day two I was losing serious ground, and going a bit stir crazy. There was something about the change in environment I wasn’t used to at all, and it became almost physically difficult for me to stay focused on work for more than 10-15 minutes at a time.

Sure, part of it was due to the fact that there were workmen noisily installing ductwork in the space below me for much of the day, coming in and out of the house with tools and listening to rock radio at a modest volume—nothing I couldn’t block out with my own headphones, and hey, whatever they need to do their best work I’m not going to tell them to change.

And if that had really been the core of what was distracting me, it would have made me anxious or agitated, but instead my lack of focus was more like a listlessness, an inability to move from one task to the other without getting up to rummage for snacks. I got really good at that part.

start-being-more-productive

It wasn’t until midway through Day Three that I realized what was missing, the one thing I have in my office that didn’t and couldn’t pack in my tote bag to work from home: my mise-en-place.

If you’re familiar with my “Human At Work” talk  you know that this was a concept I learned from chefs; mise-en-place is French for “put in place” and in professional kitchens (where it’s often just referred to as mise) that means to having a workstation that is clean and organized, with all your tools within reach, and all the ingredients you need prepared and ready to use. NPR did a great exploration of this a while back if you want to learn more, but the takeaways for me have always been the importance of optimizing your workstation for the work at hand, and then cleaning as you go.

I have really good mise at my office. I had zero mise working at home, and it took me too long to realize it, but once I was able to set that up I found my workflow moved so much better. Suddenly I didn’t have to keep getting up to look for something, which inevitably led to distraction chain reactions. Instead I got all my pens and pencils and charging cables where I needed them; set up my notebook and folders in the right spot to review while I typed. Coffee mug on my right for fueling through my database building, Rubik’s cube and deck of cards on my left for deep thinking.

And the “clean as you go” part of mise-en-place can’t be forgotten either. Part of what really makes the whole philosophy work is to be continuously cleaning up your workspace between tasks. Now, working electronically may make that seem less important, but I like to think of it not so much about cleaning away debris as it is about resetting the workspace for what’s next. Sometimes just taking a few extra breaths, a quick stretch, walking to the kitchen for a coffee refill, makes doing what’s next easier and more efficient over time.

And that’s the real goal: not neatness, but efficiency. In fact, mise-en-place doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to mean your entire working environment is organized. You can have a really messy office or desk, but your “workstation” will still run really efficiently if you make the prep part of your routine and set yourself up to get stuff done in the way that works best for you.

Since I got my mise on at home, the work is getting done again. I’m lucky enough to have a job where I can actually do my work from home with just a laptop and an internet connection, no matter how many workmen in heavy boots are clamoring above my head removing old insulation. Okay, it helps to have headphones, too.

Doing any job well takes focus on the task at hand, but it also takes having the right tools at hand as well. Just like the men working in my house can pull the exact screwdriver or pliers they need from their toolbelt behind their back without looking. There is far less distraction when you get your mise on.

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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