Working More Slowly: Preliminary Observations

For the past two weeks, I’ve been experimenting with working more slowly and mindfully. I had been feeling frazzled, pulled in too many directions away from my own strategic life goals, so I decided to re-prioritize my days around maintaining continuity on them.

To get back on track, I put the following old tricks back into daily rotation:

I woke up freakin’ early. Last time I did this, I found that getting all my hard work done by 1030AM really felt great, as the rest of the day is spent relaxed instead of tensed-up.

I went to sleep earlier, too. I like a good 7-8 hours, which means to get up by 6AM I need to be snoozing by 9 or 10PM. As a self-described night owl, I thought this would be tough, but it turns out that I am a night owl because I have a craving for something exciting to happen. It turns out that getting a big hard chunk of work done every day is enough.

I also made the decision to just turn off the computer when I found myself clicking on the same news and social media websites over and over again. This tended to happen later in the day, when I was feeling mentally exhausted and unable to hold my focus on complicated tasks.

I kept a daily journal, and made it the first piece of work of the day for 15 minutes. That first 15 minutes of the day, as I had learned during my Maintaining Momentum 15 Minutes at a Time experiment early this year, is mighty powerful. I used these 15 minutes to maintain clarity for myself, which set the tone of the day by re-establishing the sense of mission from the day before. I’m using Scrivener for the journal, incidentally; I have a file called “Daily Continuity” just for this purpose, where I am now keeping all of my non-blog / non-work writing.

I revisited my goals every morning. I find that maintaining continuity is essential for making progress of any kind. It also helps develop mindfulness by reminding you what you were minding :-) Every morning, I would rewrite my mission statement (which I’ll post about sometime), editing the previous day’s effort and honing it down. It didn’t take long, and it was part of my 15-minute morning ritual. This really helped me stay mindful of my strategic life goals, and I could look for opportunities related to them during the day.

I rewrote my task list every morning too. Copying the previous day’s list and picking one thing to do in the morning ensured that my mind was free of distraction and full of energy. You can get a lot done in 3-4 hours when in this state.

I avoided email and social media until after the first chunk of work was done. Email is a huge distraction. Email brings demands and deadlines, jokes from friends and family, and upcoming responsibilities. Doing creative work requires isolation and directed effort, at least for the kinds of projects that I have. Inspiration is nice, but when sought at the very beginning of the day it seems to actually hurt.

When energy flagged, I practiced a Second Morning. After four hours of coding, writing, or designing, my brain is pretty wiped. Since it’s only around 10-11AM at this point, it’s a great time to do something that is less mentally demanding: grocery shopping, talking to vendors, chatting with people, reading email…this is the time to do it. It gets me out of my head. However, when it’s time to do more work, I needed a way to recover that energy because I was still wiped-out. “I wish I could just start the day again”, I thought…well, why not? Taking a nap (anywhere from 15 to 90 minutes) followed by a revisiting of my journal was enough of a freshener. I was amazed at the difference, and just how long ago the morning was in terms of being mindful about my goals. If I don’t revisit them twice a day, I lose sight of them very easily.

How Did It Go?

The first week was the best, probably because it was a new experiment and I was naturally excited about it.

The second week was tougher, as I went to sleep too late some days, and woke up later as a result. Last week I also completely didn’t go to the gym because I was so tired from all the projects that were going on. Still, it’s enough of a success that I am going to continue doing it this week.

Good Days versus Bad Days

Not every day was great. I kept notes on which days resulted in a good night’s sleep, and which seemed to linger-on unproductively.

The Good Days

When I completed a big task and knocked it off the list, that felt productive. This was usually that first morning task, and it was usually a task that I could pass on to the person who really needed it. Every task after that was a bonus task, adding to the good feeling. I felt free afterwards to spend time talking to people (also essential) and do speculative research on my interests.

My favorite days were without meetings. I could wake up early and spend my 15 minutes writing about my goals, and then launch into some project work without worrying about having to stop and get onto Skype or drive somewhere.

The Bad Days

While I actually enjoy meetings because I get to talk to people about what they’re doing, I found that scheduled meetings were huge productivity killers. They impose constraints on my day, as I have to ensure that I’m back home by a certain time to be ready for Skype, or I have to plan for driving time and parking. In particular, meetings that are early in the day are really bad, because it pushes my productive “me” time back into the day. Meetings also have a tendency to create MORE responsibilities. I am making fewer meeting commitments now; I used to reserve two days a week for meetings, and now I am going to drop that to one. Some morning meetings are unavoidable because of time zone differences between Boston and Europe, but avoiding too many of them in a row will be helpful.

I also didn’t like days when moved deadlines caused me to reshuffle my day. There’s a double-whammy here that is probably a bit irrational: I’ve already expended energy to nail-down a time be nailed-down at the home office, and when the meeting/event doesn’t happen, it feels WASTED. Not only that, but I now have to schedule ANOTHER meeting. This is why I sometimes prefer to work via email communication.

Emergency requests are also productivity killers. Sometimes you can’t avoid them, and life just happens. I’ve learned to make them less stressful by being philosophical about them, but they still result in unproductive days by deferring results or burning-up mental energy.

What Got Forgotten

Here’s a few things that got lost between the cracks:

I didn’t go to the gym at all in the second week. It seems when my schedule gets too tight, then I see the gym as an optional trip. That’s even though I am spending only 15 minutes doing cardio 3 times a week. The results are starting to become tangible, and yet I’m not making the time to go.

I fell way behind on my domestic chores, but I allowed the mess to accumulate without judgment. I am thinking of scheduling a “domestic chores day” to get the big nuggets done in an epic frenzy of cleaning. While I know that “cleaning a little every day” is the prudent way to do it, there are actually some tough problems I need to first solve with storage. For example, I have a huge number of camera, laptop, and book bags that I use on different occasions. I don’t have a good place to keep my mail that is organized. What about my pile of stationery work in-progress and things I want to blog about? Or even a dresser to keep my freshly laundered clothes? The kitchen suffers too, and I need to figure out a way to get more storage space in there.

The amount of blogging I was doing dropped far more than I thought. Between the many meetings and events that were stacked up last week, I just didn’t have the time to blog, and this made me sad. I’m hoping to get back to more of it in the coming weeks, as my schedule isn’t as packed as before.

Next Steps

I’m going to continue this week maintaining the schedule. The mix of projects this week are mostly programming-related for a science education grant, ramping up best practices and selecting development tools. I think maintaining balance that is the focus of the week, though I’m not sure exactly what that is…compromise? If every day isn’t a productive “got something hard done” day, can I get away with every other day? Can I accept the slower pace of development? We shall see!