“oh man, I can’t wait to work from home – this is going to be GREAT.”
7:00am: *wake up*
7:05am: *check phone/calendar – see nothing*
7:30-9:30am: *drink a full pot of coffee*
10:30am: *talk about what I’m going to do today with caffeine induced confidence*
12:00-7:00pm: *eat, eat, then eat some more*
7:30pm: *realize how little I accomplished*
8:00pm: *talk about how much I’m going to get done tomorrow*
10:30pm: *go to bed*
2020: The Year of Chaos
Lately it has seemed as though my days have followed a similar pattern to the one above with only a few minor deviations. This has in turn, led to the ever so standard conversation filler “What did you do today?”, to becoming one of my most feared questions to answer. The monotony of the last couple months have blended days together like a high school summer break, where incorrectly answering what day of the week it is has become commonplace. Being abnormally compulsive over feeling the need to be productive (frequently to a fault), I have begun to over-exaggerate the most mundane tasks in order to convince myself that I am accomplishing more than what is probably true.
“Oh hey man long time-no see, what’ve you been up to?”
“Ay good to see you! You know, yesterday I actually jotted down a crazy long list of different foods, then I walked outside my house towards my car, opened the door and sat in the driver’s seat. Once I turned the engine on I used the gas pedal and steering wheel to propel my car towards the store which, once I arrived, I grabbed a cart and walked inside. As I was pushing my cart down the aisl…”
“Hey bro not to interrupt, but are you just trying to tell me you went to the store..?”
“Oh, uhm yeah dude I did, but some people were actually wearing masks and gloves, then again some others weren’t. It was a pretty crazy day yesterday.”
For me personally, it truly feels like capacity for work is at an all-time low – yet knowing that most everyone is in the exact same shoes as myself has offered solace towards my drop in productivity. Having gone from a rigid, unwavering 9-5 schedule for more than the last half year, into a stay-at-home-or-die, quarantine conundrum – it was without question that there would be new obstacles facing me on the path to productivity. Now, as I try to justify my own strategic laziness in the paragraphs that follow, remember to always heed caution from whom you take advice from. (Here I sit after being laid-off from work: writing a blog post that will surely be read by hundreds of thousands of individuals – many of whom are likely to create the cure for COVID-19…sarcasm: it’s a beautiful thing).
Quarantine has personally reacquainted me with an old friend that the sane among us are at least somewhat familiar with, a friend that I came to know very well during four years of finals weeks. *insert distracting gif *
However, what I have in my favor this time around is that I am no stranger to jobs in without any type of regimented schedule. In my first job out of school, I worked from home for a start-up company with a total of 3 employees (excluding myself), and as you can imagine there was not much structure to a company of that size. I found out quickly that with the great freedom this gave me, I wasn’t quite ready for the great responsibility that came with it. In a not-so-logical next step, I moved into the service industry which was even more of a shakeup to any type of ‘normalcy’ that most schedules provide – working weekends and nights a majority of the time. In both positions it is now very apparent that my days were overflowing with distractions, and that it requires little to no effort, wasting days away by ‘staying busy’.
We all have the freedom to pick from any number of vices in which to delay the projects we know deserve our attention, but we will instead choose to neglect. Some favorites for me as of late have been: sleeping, looking up recipes I will probably never cook, miscellaneous work around the house, and reading far more books than I will retain. Attempting to differentiate busy work vs productivity is no easy feat, and there is certainly a massive grey area between the two (no Steve, the grass doesn’t need mowed again for the fourth time this week). I would insist that productivity is an activity that will impact life long-term, while staying busy is completing trivial short-term tasks. Yes, it makes me feel accomplished in the short-term rearranging the garage or deep cleaning the grill (and both probably need to be completed sooner or later), but there comes a point when it seems vital to effectively dissect and prioritize tasks at hand.
Learning from wasted time in past, here is a short list of different tools I’ve been trying to implement in order to stay somewhat productive at home:
A fairly straightforward way to organize projects/tasks/etc, is by using the Eisenhower Matrix. Inspired by (you guessed it) a Dwight D Eisenhower quote, the matrix can help you automate decisions on challenges that confront you throughout a day. Flat tire on the highway? Important and Urgent –> DO NOW
Personal examples and which quadrant they would fit into:
Quadrant 1: Finding a job after being laid off
Quadrant 2: Family time, FaceTime/phone calls
Quadrant 3: Staying updated with current news
Quadrant 4: Readjusting a hammock to ensure proper alignment to the 1:00pm sun when the UV rays are strongest to ensure optimal tanning angles
Takeaway: Help yourself make quick and certain decisions by using pre-set guidelines.
“In ten hours a day you have time to fall twice as far behind your commitments as in five hours a day.”
Work will expand to fill the time you allow it. Set structured time for work, when you are working – make sure to work. When you’re not working – make sure not to work. This is not to say that you can complete a senior thesis in under one minute, but rather: the more time allowed for a task – the more time it will take.
A modern translation of Parkinson’s Law. Have you ever noticed that no matter the storage size of your new phone or computer – 8gb, 64gb or 128gb, we seem to have the incredible capacity to fill any storage to the max with unnecessary apps, photos and videos for no reason other than we have the storage to do so?
Takeaway: Be intentional with your time. Rather than a ten-hour workday in which only three of those hours are productive, use a disciplined approach to become more efficient in working to free more time.
“Don’t look at the entire staircase, just take the first step“
The graphic below provides an illustration of the Pomodoro technique, broken up into a cycle that can be repeated throughout the day. While the time suggestions below may work for some, there is no blanket statement that will make anyone an efficient learner, writer, teacher overnight. The essence of the idea is that, rather than looking at the entirety of what may be four hours that you have to work before lunch, look at just the minutes directly in front of you. Maybe you’d rather do ten minute or one hour increments – just try not to be too rigid in following along. Tailor the concept to what works best for you.
Another way to look at it, an effective lesson utilized in relationships daily: Play hard to get. Don’t burn yourself out on a specific task. Come back after a break feeling more refreshed and more capable of producing more work.
Takeaway: Avoid the dreaded “palate fatigue” in which our brains become numb to a constant stream of identical sensory information by strategically taking breaks and/or switching tasks
Rewarding/Quantifying The Process
After creating systems and utilizing techniques to create an effective routine, after a day or two it is easy to slip back into old habits. In order to continue forward with more constructive ways of going about my day, I constantly wonder how I can ensure that the micro-actions taken throughout a day are worthwhile in the long term.
In an email thread with Nike Master Trainer, Joe Holder I was able to propose a question that I frequently struggle with myself – and in response I received great advice in how to make sure that the short term sacrifices (fighting off procrastination) are rewarded and for long term success (applying efficient machines/processes). The question and response were both heavily centered on Ray Dalio’s book – Principles.
In your journey to self-improvement it seems inevitable that you’ve had to make sacrifices that are suboptimal in the short term. That being said, how do you try and quantify/reward the small wins day-to-day that seem monotonous and ‘boring’? Have you set up any processes or machines to automate routines that help move the needle long term?
This is a very good question and thank you for reaching out. The small wins day to day are hard to quantify because it then just becomes part of life. From a private life example though I try to ensure I engage in self care practices (meditating, calling loved ones, etc) that allow me to function well. I have a list for this which allows me to automate that in a sense.
In short term, thinking and brainstorming has the least amount of payoff. You never know if you will come up with a good idea and it can be time consuming. In the back of your head you know that you can instead just get caught up in tasks, that while may not have long term value, allow you to feel achieved in short term because you are getting stuff done.
I’ve essentially outsourced a lot of task based work that either comes from my brainstorms or stops me from being able to get important long term projects started/done.
It goes back to if you are an entrepreneur to have a team that allows you to do what you do best. For me, that is thinking and bringing ideas to life through relationships. The micro work that needs to be done on the day to day is self-admittedly not my strong suit.
Hope this helps in a sense.
While the aforementioned tools have been particularly useful to me as of late, there are many hundreds of thousands of other tactics that may work better for you. For those of you who have made it this far – I would love to hear any additional advice/thoughts/comments that have helped progress you through a time in which we are unable to drink away our sorrows on the rooftop of Kid Rocks bar on Broadway in Nashville.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some ever-so important (pants-less) Skype/Zoom/FaceTime interviews to attend to.
A Parting Quote
“Time and attention are very different things. They’re your most precious resources moving forward. You work through your attention, it’s the medium of your work. While people often say there’s not enough time, remember that you’ll always have less attention than time.” — Jason Fried