Category Archives: Productivity

Unpausing

Who is this for? Anyone interested in the recent changes in my world, the impact they’ve had on my personal projects and the approach I’m considering getting those personal projects back on track.

Pausing a project is easy. There’s often a significant amount of thought that goes into deciding what you will and will not continue to do, but the actual final act itself couldn’t be simpler: decide to stop doing something and then stop doing it. If you use software for project management, hit pause or put the project on hold and—like magic—watch it drop off your list and off your mind.

Over the past few months, I’ve had to hit pause on more than a few projects. I even killed some. Since January, I’ve been working on projects for my job that took significant mental bandwidth. For months, I aided in the due diligence process as we sold our family business. Immediately after we closed, I transitioned myself out of the company in order to go work for our new parent company. I closed the book on a 13 year career and watched what has always been our family business no longer be our family business.

This is all good news. I’d been seriously thinking of making a professional change for some time, and I happen to really like the company that did the acquiring. But these are big, emotional changes, and when I added them to a significant increase in actual workload, something had to give.

For months, things I care about have gone by the wayside. This site hasn’t received the attention I would have liked. Relationships that mean the world to me have been malnourished. I haven’t worked on the second draft of my book. This might sound bad, or at least unproductive, but the decision to pause these things is paying off.

For the first time in a long time, I feel like I’m finding professional flow. The decision to focus on my career is helping me to make the most of my new opportunity. I’m challenged by the work. I like the team. And I’m interested to see where things go.

I’ve also benefited from the space I gave myself to emotionally settle the sale. This “exit” is something to celebrate, but I’d be lying—to you and to myself—if I didn’t need some time to accept the reality that what my grandfather created and my father built is not something I will ever be able to pass along to my children. I’m happy with how things turned out, but I’m also glad I’m not ignoring the significance of that truth.

Professionally and emotionally, I feel like things are on track. On the other hand, my personal projects are kind of a mess. When things were getting hectic I gave myself permission to take a step back, to ease off and give major life changes the attention they deserve. Now that the dust is starting to settle, I have to decide what to do about them. I have to figure out what to unpause and I have to decide if there’s any more that I have to kill.

I’ve tried to unpause it all as if no time had passed, the results have been poor and rife with procrastination. The reality is that I have to redevelop habits and muscles that have atrophied over the past few months. I don’t write as much as I used to. I don’t find my mind wandering to these personal projects as often as it used to. I could chalk that up to my being ready to move on, but that’s not really it. I’m just out of practice and these projects have been out of sight.

I really need to start revisiting these projects and will need to rebuild my habits. I need to prioritize the unpausing. I need to build back up some of my muscles. And once I’ve gained some momentum, I need to reassess what continues and what ends.

I’d love to make that decision now. I’d love to know exactly what I plan to unpause and accomplish over the next few months, but I’m just not there, yet. I have a good sense about what I’m doing professionally. Now I just need to dedicate some of the newfound time and emotional bandwidth towards figuring out what it is that I really want to do with my spare time. And then I need to dedicate myself to doing it.

In the meantime, things will continue to come a little slower than I’d like, here and on other personal projects. I need to get back on track, but I also need to be okay with the fact that it’s going to take some time to get back into a creative routine and to figure this all out. Pausing might be easy, but unpausing … it’s proving to be a lot harder than I imagined. That said, it’s time to start getting back to work. Acknowledging the hard time I’m having with that seemed as good a first step as any.

Productive Counterpoints

Who is this for? Those who struggle to strike a balance of working on how they work and actually doing their work.

No matter what it is that you care about, it’s important to seek out those who disagree with what you believe to be true. When attempting to put your passions and beliefs in perspective, it’s helpful to find voices you respect, yet often fundamentally disagree with.

When it comes to the ideas of productivity and workflow – two concepts that struggle to maintain their meaning, yet matter greatly to me – Matt Alexander is that voice.

We’ve had our disagreements – both in writing and on the podcast – but Matt continues to be a grounding force as I refine my thinking.

While I believe in the importance of examining and refining the way we work, Matt does not. It would be easy to dismiss his ideas, to focus in on where he goes too far. Yet when I look past the hyperbole, he often has a point.

On this week’s Bionic podcast, Matt once again shares his frustration with the obsessive nature of the self-help and productivity genres as well as the authority that many within it bestow upon themselves. While I believe he goes too far, it’s difficult to ignore what he’s saying.

If you’re struggling to strike a balance between working on the way you work and actually doing your work, you’re going to want to give the first segment of this episode a listen. If you have a sense of humor and appreciation for the absurd, you’re also going to want to stick around for the very unrelated second half of the episode (be warned, it is very NSFW).

Like most things in life, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Those who struggle to meet there goals should think about and experiment with the way that they work, but we also have to be careful. It’s easy to get lost when attempting to improve. It’s easier to optimize your skills than it is to use them.

Until you find that balance for yourself, keep experimenting, but be sure to seek out a few people like Matt to keep you honest.

Give this week’s Bionic a listen. It’s equal parts eloquence and absurdity. And if, like me, you’re prone to overdoing it with your attempts to improve, it offers a healthy dose of skepticism.

What Does Your Personality Say About Your Productivity?

Who is this for? Those looking to better understand how their personality impacts their work habits.

One of the more useful takeaways from this year’s World Domination Summit was a framework for personality types provided by Gretchen Rubin (of The Happiness Project fame). While no framework is perfect, the following four categories accounted for a surprising majority of the room:

Upholders respond to both inner and outer rules
Questioners question all rules, but can follow rules they endorse (effectively making all rules into inner rules)
Rebels resist all rules
Obligers respond to outer rules but not to inner rules

I suggest you learn more about how this personality framework applies to you. I’d also recommend checking out Brooks Duncan’s insights into how they impact the way you approach your work and your goals.

Where Should You Start When You’re Struggling To Improve?

Who is this for? Those who want to improve, yet have no idea where to start.

My friends over at Asian Efficiency recently shared their 7 Truths About Productivity. They make several sound points, but I can’t help but feel as if they underemphasized what I believe to be an essential truth and a potential starting point for those looking to improve.

They examine self management, perfect systems, the importance of sex, time constraints, diet, technology and psychology. Throughout the piece they allude to what I believe to be the single most important truth: this isn’t about better understanding aspects of productivity, it’s about better understanding yourself.

When I first got serious about getting my act together, I put a fair amount of energy into discovering the tactics that might help, the tools I might try, the life changes I might make. I went to sites exactly like the one you’re reading now in hopes of discovering the secrets that would make all of the difference. These early experiments helped, some even made an impact, but they didn’t really make a difference.

The Problem With Premature Progress

As we look to improve, we crave progress. This usually implies forward motion. Our desire to forge ahead leads us to overlook our present struggles and motivations and causes us to overlook many of our current strengths.

My advice, forgo some of your productivity progress in favor of enhancing your understanding of current strengths, weaknesses, patterns and desires. Get to know yourself as well as you get to know the options that are available to you.

Don’t crack open Getting Things Done. Don’t download yet another app. Don’t try a new hack. Take out some paper or start a new text file and have at yourself. Really consider and clarify the way that you work. List out what’s working and force yourself to face what isn’t. Question your choices. Do you even want to get better at the thing you’re doing? Take the time to seriously examine who you are, what you’re doing how you’re currently doing things and what might be causing you to feel as if you need to improve. If it’s as simple as difficulty managing your volume of email, you’ll find no shortage of solutions. But it usually isn’t.

I’m not suggesting you start reading every self-help book out there, I’m not really even suggesting you stop considering your options. I’m just suggesting that you spend as much of your energy improving your self-awareness as your workflow. Much like that better workflow you’re looking to create, self-awareness takes time to cultivate. If you start by making self-awareness a priority, it will become a force multiplier.

The time I’ve spent enhancing this understanding certainly slowed my initial efforts, but it exponentially enhanced my long-term progress. A better understanding keeps me from trying things that would most likely be a bad fit. It lets me tweak what works for others to work for me. It has helped me to separate a critical issue that needs addressing from an interest that will soak up my attention, but do little to improve my creative output. It allows me to better observe my patterns and to catch myself when I’m falling back into old and unhelpful habits.

The Problem With Sites Like This

So many sites, including this one, encourage you to experiment, improve and evolve your personal productivity system. We suggest tools, tactics and life changes that can help you overcome whatever ails you. These are great resources as you progress, but their daily offerings are often a poor starting point.

As my friends over at Asian Efficiency later point out:

Technology is not the primary solution to your productivity issues.

You are.

[…]

Technology is a catalyst, not a fix.

Your knowledge, skills and insights are far more important than any app.

I think this speaks to far more than just technology and apps. It’s equally true of the tactics we attempt to adopt and tweaks to our psychology or physiology. We are always at the center of our challenges, and until we better understand them, we’re likely building around a core that is unstable.

My guess is that this isn’t your first visit to a site like this, and my guess is that whatever the other site suggested didn’t really fix the real problem. If it did, you wouldn’t bother reading a post about where to get started. So here’s what I suggest you try if everything you’ve been reading and everything you’ve attempted hasn’t worked: stop looking out and start looking in.

Don’t rush, don’t think of this as a box to check off. Consider attempting a larger mission. Make self-awareness an integral part of your attempts to do better. You aren’t just looking to improve your productivity, you’re looking to improve as a person.

Personalizing Someone Else’s Productivity System

Who is this for? While targeted at online entrepreneurs, this video can also help just about anyone looking to apply a basic, yet tactical approach to better handling their daily work.

I was recently invited by Chase Reeves to check out Fizzle, a community for online entrepreneurs that centers around carefully-created training videos. After watching his Productivity Essentials course – a great starting point for entrepreneurs struggling with their workload – I suggested that we have a “productivity throwdown”.

While I agreed with the big ideas and concepts of the course, I handle many of the smaller details differently. The overarching concepts he shares apply to almost anyone, yet I believe the details of how they should be implemented will vary from person-to-person.

Chase felt that a full-blown throwdown was excessive, but thought a conversation was in order. He even added the 35 minute discussion that followed to his Productivity Essential course on Fizzle.

It costs $1 to check this out (this also gives you full access the site for one month). If you’re struggling with your workload and are yet to dive too deeply into the world of productivity, Chase’s advice is well worth your time. As is our follow-up conversation on making it work better for you.

Note: This is not an affiliate link, I just like the approach and philosophy behind Fizzle (as well as Chase’s willingness to have someone “disagree” with him).

Podcast – Road Warriors

Who is this for? Those who spend a fair amount of time traveling or expect to increase their current travel.

This week Mike Vardy and I fly solo on the Mikes on Mics podcast to discuss our approach to, and struggles with, travel.

While I tend to travel a fair amount for work, it was Vardy’s recent multi-week travel schedule that inspired us to take time to examine how we handle all aspects of life on the road.

Stay tuned at the end of the episode for additional thoughts on how Dave Caolo, Jason Rehmus, Nick Wynja and Sven Fechner make their own travel experiences more manageable.

Agreeing With The Essence While Disagreeing With The Details

It’s a difficult thing when someone you respect speaks out against something you’ve been seriously considering.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out two things: how to move forward with the work I’ve been doing online and what to do about the work I’ve already created. Just when I finally felt like I figured things out, Shawn Blanc had to go and make some truly excellent points about attempting to evolve your future work by eliminating your current project.

As he puts it:

Recently I was talking with a friend who was considering deleting his weblog and starting all over. Tossing his archives into the trash, changing the domain, and re-focusing on the sort of writing that he most wants to do.

His premise was that a new domain and new “brand” would help set the tone for the new voice he wants to write with. And that by trashing his archives of the work he’s written so far, there will be nothing on his new site which he’s embarrassed about. Nothing juvenile or off topic.

I told him he was being silly and then linked him to this article by Zeldman where he writes: “If your old work doesn’t shame you, you’re not growing.”

Now this is a damn fine point and one that gave me pause. While embarrassment isn’t really the issue here, there are plenty of parallels between what Shawn describes and my current situation. Essentially I’ve been planning to move on from a current project in order to focus on a similar one. Before reading this, I was not only ready, but actively preparing to completely shutter a multi-year project in order to focus on something new. But what do I do now that someone whose advice and instincts I trust has suggested the exact opposite?

Consider What Others Are Saying, But Don’t Always Follow The Exact Advice

All too often, we read blogs, listen to podcasts, and seek out books and advice to find answers. We’re not sure what to do and we hope that someone we respect will know what’s best. There’s nothing wrong with this, but occasionally we let our respect for others (and our own fears) replace, rather than inform, our own opinions and instincts. This is never the writer’s intent; it’s just a common reaction to a well thought-out point. There’s no harm in seeking inspiration, but it can be dangerous to take the advice of others as gospel.

Here’s an alternative approach that I’ve always found useful. Use advice that contradicts your current course of action or line of thinking to first challenge and then strengthen your own thoughts. There’s a temptation to either embrace everything they’ve said or dismiss it. Don’t. Take a step back, think about what they’ve said and then consider if they are right. If you still feel like they aren’t, don’t just move on. Try to figure out what gave you pause and what they may be right about or hinting at that caused you to question your current approach.

Ignore the details that do not fit, but question how the essence might help improve your own thinking.

In my case, I’ve created a situation where I have two sites—A Better Mess and Workflowing—yet have come to the realization that I only have the bandwidth to effectively create for one. Shawn’s advice and conventional wisdom would probably lead me to keep A Better Mess, a site I’ve spent years building, while backing down from the newer project. Upon reading his thoughts, I found it easy to build a case to refine what’s already working rather than reinventing it. But even as I found myself agreeing with what Shawn was saying, I still felt that the better course of action would be to shelve something I’ve spent years creating to focus on a project that I believe is a better fit for my future.

As much as I agreed with much of what he said, the advice wasn’t an exact fit (it wasn’t aimed at my exact situation, after all). Embarrassment isn’t what’s causing me to want to make this move. Don’t get me wrong, A Better Mess has plenty of pieces I’m embarrassed by, but it’s also a project I love, and I am extremely proud of the work as a whole. But it has come to feel limiting. It was a project I created to help myself. I wanted to capture my struggle to get things done and chronicle my attempt to improve. It’s a very real struggle and one I continue to face, but it’s not the site I want to be writing right now.

As it says on the site:

A Better Mess serves as a journal or record of one ADHD-addled mess (that’s me!) to find the best way to do the best possible work.

As I’ve grown, my interest in the the way we work has moved beyond my own difficulties, and my focus has shifted away from the first part of that previous mission. Today I’m far more focused on finding the best way to do the best possible work.

Now could I evolve this site to meet that mission? You bet. But everything in me tells me I’m better off doing that on a platform that is better suited to the mission. One that wasn’t created to achieve a similar, yet different goal.

So, What Happens Next?

This will be the last post on A Better Mess.

Over the next few days, I will be rolling over the site’s feed to Workflowing. If you like what I’ve written here, you’ll like what I write there. If not, it’s very easy to unsubscribe. Unlike A Better Mess, Workflowing will look to share and create work that looks to help others to do better, not just me.

Even though I will be moving on, Shawn’s right. I shouldn’t dismiss my old work by destroying what I’ve built here. There’s nothing to be embarrassed of, even the embarrassing stuff. I need to figure out what I’ll do with this site and the work I’ve created for it (even if that is just leaving it up and leaving it alone), but it will live on in some way, warts and all.

That said, I still plan to focus on Workflowing. I want to give my future work what I believe to be the best possible chance for success. A Better Mess means the world to me, but from a personal standpoint, it’s also run its course. In the same way that attempting to erase previous “embarrassing” work will hold you back, so will clinging to the work you’ve outgrown.

I cannot thank those of you enough who have been kind enough to spend your time and attention here. I also hope you’ll follow along or at least stick around to see what comes next.