Greetings from Wailuki, Maui, Hawai’i. I am very fortunate to have been passing through Hawai’i when the travel restrictions went into effect, and to be welcomed to stay with friends, from whose house I can watch the whales snorting, sniffing the rain, flapping their tails, and jumping around everywhere.
I am using this retreat to write a book about artisan economics and to reflect on how best I can be of service. I have some ideas… Today’s is to share my insights from 20 years of working at home on how to do that. It’s relevant both to folks who are doing their usual job at home and to those unable to work who are and are abruptly faced with the rather uncomfortable opportunity to move forward on your dream projects.
With all the uncertainty we face, it’s even more important to spend our days with a sense of precious purpose.
Especially in the current situation of global crisis, your most important productivity tip is to take time out from the apocalypse. In fact, this means taking time away from personal email and social media, because pretty much every conversation is going to spin it up again. I also hide all browser tabs unrelated to the task I’m working on, and forbid myself doing any unrelated searches. I strongly recommend taking 3/4 of your waking hours away from the crisis. In the remaining 1/4, focus on your friends and family. Do your best to spend more energy on imagination than fear.
Working effectively independently requires more self-awareness and discipline than working in an office. It also creates the opportunity to trust yourself, improvise, and be more intuitive. A lot of these are things I figured out for myself and recently found confirmed by Silicon Valley innovators, productivity coaches, etc.
To work effectively at home, you need to understand your own biorhythms. Everyone experiences points of higher or lower energy during the day. In an office, we just try to ignore these. But at home you can actually work with your rhythms instead of fighting them.
- If you get really sleepy, you can take a nap. However, you need to get the nap length right. If you find the right length (for me it’s about 20 minutes), you’ll get up with energy and enthusiasm to get back to work. You may find that if you sleep too long you remain drowsy afterward.
- At home you also have more food options: you can eat more often and more easily access cooked food. Make some experiments during this experience, which may help you when you go back to the office.
- You can also experiment with work timing durations. You may find you work better with three 3-hour chunks of work with one hour breaks between. Or you may find you get up earlier and do most of the hard work from 0600-1100.
- A desk may not be the best place for you. We have bad associations with desks and they cause all sorts of bad posture. For me the best place to work is on a bed or sideways on a couch where I can extend my legs, keep my hands at level of my hips, and also lean back. This causes less physical stress in my body. Don’t make any assumptions about what a desk or office have to be. Jimmy Iovine locked himself in the bathroom while building Interscope Records. (Watch his biography in HBO’s 2017 series The Defiant Ones.)
- Lastly, you have the chance to experiment with different kinds of breaks … cooking, exercise, contemplation, play. Pay attention to which kinds of breaks cause you to have new ideas and perspectives. Just watch out for the break activities that might suck you in and never let you back to work. For most people the dangers are entertainment media, video games, and housecleaning. (Now it’s easy to get sucked into the viruscrisis spectacle through social media, and even when checking whatsap, so I recommend keeping even personal messaging shut down until you feel you’ve made enough progress on your work and projects.)
This is an unpopular topic… I see discipline as the thing that sets me free. I know that some people impose discipline in fear of laziness. For me discipline is about finding out what works and then sticking to that even when I don’t feel like it. For example, yoga always uplifts my body, mind, and emotions. So I’m disciplined about doing 30 minutes of yoga every day even when I’m feeling sick, tired, or not in the mood.
How to find self-discipline in a new circumstance:
- Don’t be arbitrary, be visionary! Instead of locking yourself to your new home-desk from 0900-1700, think about your ideal working hours, and be disciplined about those. If you’ve always wanted to start meditating, put that as your first appointment.
- A little is so much more than none. This is one of the most important productivity tools I know. When you feel tired or overwhelmed or alienated from something you need to do, tell yourself “I only have to do __ minutes.” Choose a number that seems really definitely easily doable. 10 is a fine number. Those minutes, no matter how few, will move the project along, which will not happen if you avoid it all day and do 0 minutes. You will often find that you get sucked in to the work and do much more. But even if you don’t do more than 10 minues, you’ve got the project active in your brain and you’ll start to orient yourself to it. The smaller you make your tasks, the more chance you are going to do them and feel good about your day. This gives you energy to continue.
- Just take one step. Especially when we are working on projects that intimidate us, we delay or avoid because they feel too hard or too big. To get going, just ask yourself to take the first (or next) step. After every step, the project is in a different place, and you are in a different relation to it. For example, let’s say you want to clean out that closet. Start by getting four boxes and labelling them “active”, “storage”, “donate to charity”, and “trash”. Let’s say you want to write that book. Start by creating the document and choosing the font. No matter how small the step, it changes everything.
- Prioritize. The very first thing you need to do every day (before opening your computer or phone!) is identify your top priorities for the day. Write down no more than 3 must-do items. The very best practice is to keep all inbound information (email, social media, news media, etc.) blocked until you have finished the hardest item on the to-do list. If you need to check work email, try to isolate that from other inbound distractions. Keep a separate list of other tasks that come up, but leave them until later. Avoid doing tasks that aren’t the big three just becuase they are “easy” or “quick”. Some people talk about “warming up” with easier tasks, or checking email. But I find that this almost always eats up most of my high-energy morning. If you have trouble with distractions, try shutting down email and social media and turning off notifications before going to sleep so you won’t be tempted when you open your computer in the morning.
- Finally, be disciplined about experimenting. If the schedule you’re trying to stick to doesn’t work, write a new one and be disciplined about trying it. If you were too tired after exercising on your break, then try reading tomorrow. If you let the inbound in after doing priority 1 and never got to 2 and 3, then try doing all 3 before allowing inbound.
Improvisation and Intuition
The great benefit to working in your own space and time is that you get to decide what’s important. Especially during a frightening global crisis, it is important to reach out to friends, and to make time for your own feelings.
I promise you that the shortest path to getting the big horrible work project done is to respect your intuition when it tells you that you need to go for a walk to the beach this morning or you need to call that friend. The reason is that you are one person. It’s all integrated. When your body gets the air and light and wind it craves, your capacities for the big project change. If you stand up for yourself about that thing that happened the other day, you won’t be distracted by the anger any more. When you feel more peaceful because you’ve connected with a friend, your concentration improves. And in any of these cases you may very likely also get a new idea that improves the quality your work.
Once you get to work, when you’re on your own schedule you may start in a different place than you would in the office. You might go backwards. Trust your own intelligence and process as you are drawn to do your work differently than prescribed in your workplace.
In the workplace, we may not feel free to appear idle. But contemplation can be the most productive time of the day, when you consider problems and solutions from different perspectives. Especially if you are using this time to do your own projects, do not underestimate the necessity of contemplation. A few tools for creating contemplation timespace:
- No inbound data. Music is ok for some people, but no data-bearing media or notifications. Better to leave your devices out of reach so you also can’t send messages.
- Two pieces of paper and a pen. One piece of paper is for big ideas (on any subject!), the other is for nagging tasks that come to mind which you don’t want to forget. Do not jump up and go do these! Entrust them to the list. They can wait.
- Serene and inspiring circumstances. I always contemplate facing the best view available to me. If there isn’t an outdoor view, I’ll choose the most beautiful vista inside the house. I prefer blank walls to clutter. Be in a place that is comfortable, so your whole being is happy to be there, and there aren’t some bodyparts saying “hey when is this going to be over?”
- If you are new to contemplation, protect the time by setting a minimum time. I don’t use a timer, but my morning contemplation is defined by drinking two cups of coffee (slowly).
- Use this time to do more and other than circle around the places where you are stuck. If you are feeling afraid or blocked ask yourself “what do I WANT this to become?” Don’t worry about how far-out your answer may be, you well may find a way in that direction later in the project or later in the day.