Further Adventures in Dave’s Work Life Balance

Further Adventures in Dave’s Work Life Balance

SUMMARY: The recent insights I’ve had regarding the productive mindset have resulted in a set of procedures that are helping me manage my behaviors for what feels like improved productivity. For example, when I wake up I have a series of steps I follow to ensure I get out of the house quickly so I plan the day first thing in the morning. I also have been allowing myself to be a more selfish creative for part of the day, because I need to run interference against my own customer relationship standards. I’m not presenting a complete solution by any means, but my ongoing experiences may be interesting to those of you working out your own personal productivity rituals.

[etp]:http://davidseah.com/pceo/etp I’ve been spending the last couple of weeks refining my daily routine, part of my quest for work-life balance. There seems to be a few common hurdles that I overcome anew every day, from just getting up in the morning to clearing my mind of distracting responsibilities. Here’s what I’ve discovered so far.

1. Getting Started, Out of the House

I’ve been looking for a way to kick-start my day properly for years. It wasn’t such a problem when I worked for a company, but as a freelancer the habit has been hit-or-miss. Most recently I’ve been trying to consistently wake up early, and for a while the sheer novelty of the morning was enough to get me going. Over time, however, the effectiveness of the morning has waned because I started cluttering it up with bad habits. It turns out that while waking up early is nice, my main precondition for starting a productive day is just getting out of the house as quickly as possible whenever I happen to wake up. There is a very specific order of steps that I have to follow:

  • On waking up, I have to open my eyes and focus on something for at least 100 seconds, counting out loud. If I stop before 100 I have to start again. The light and effort of emitting noise make the rest of my brain and body start working. If I have gotten less than 8 hours of sleep and find that I’m actually still kind of sleepy than I just go to sleep again…no sense in fighting it.
  • Once up, I immediately go and drink a glass of water and eat something, because if I don’t eat something I have a tendency to lack the energy to move. I keep a few Jolly Ranchers near the bed for those days where the energy is completely gone. The drink of water also tends to kick-start of the digestive system, which gets other things moving if you know what I mean.
  • The very next step is to stumble blindly into the shower, then put in my contact lenses. The reason for the contact lens step is to make sure I don’t put on my glasses; the prescription is out of date, and the resulting headache can send me spiraling back into bed or onto the couch.
  • Now clean and able to see, I have to focus on getting out to the car (or scooter) in the next 15 minutes. Preparation the previous night is important. If it takes me too long to find socks, I’m pretty much doomed to wander the house in a pre-coffee stupor. If I can’t find my notebook or other necessary gear, that robs me of momentum as well that will get me to that important first cup of coffee out in the sun.

There is a overriding directive that is in effect during the morning preparation: do not read email, project or social media websites. This always results in distracting me to the point where I don’t leave the house for another hour as I get sucked into the vortex of Facebooking, emailing, and calendar updating. Email can wait half an hour until I get my head clear and priorities straight.

2. Formulating The Day Plan Away from the Computer

There’s something about going somewhere that frames the day properly for me, and my destination of choice continues to be Starbucks. The one I go to is a bustling place where I can greet people I know without getting pulled into long conversations. This kind of casual socialization is an incredibly important source of social energy, reminding me that I’m part of a community and have a place in it.

I generally leave the computer at home, but on the days I do bring it with me it stays in the bag until I’m done with my planning, which is done with a fountain pen (currently, my yellow Lamy Safari loaded with black cartridge ink). I do all my planning in a special notebook that I love for its sturdy construction, a 9×12″ Cachet Wirebound Quad-ruled Sketch Note. After I get my coffee, I open up the notebook and sketch a daily [Emergent Task Planner][etp] form comprised of a number of “main tasks” to do, a day grid for scheduling, and a few notes on what is bugging me at the moment. This gives me enough of an anchor to start more sophisticated thought processes going. After about 15-30 minutes I’ll have an idea of what I want to get done for the day and when I can do it. The physical notebook provides me with daily context and continuity at a high level; without this I would feel like I was starting over again every day. For example, I can review the previous day’s pages to get an idea of where I left off. I try to use the notebook during the day to refer to what I had planned, though it often doesn’t work out like that. I tend to transition to the computer and email for the moment-to-moment task tracking; perhaps it’s enough that I am at least keeping big-picture context in the notebook.

While the daily notebook habit helps maintain the continuity for ongoing tasks and scheduled events, it doesn’t work quite as well for unscheduled and speculative projects that are nevertheless important for the development of my social, creative, and business aspirations. For that I review my growing collection of Index Task Cards. These have become my favorite way of remembering all my backburnered projects that are (or were) important to me, though I am still developing the system vocabulary. However, I already know that I like the cards for their physical persistence: they are highly intuitive when it comes to grouping and sequencing tasks with simple handling.

All Cards As you can see, each card has become rather unique, each a tangible representation of a future result, its value similar to that of a treasury bond backed by my ability to do the work. The familiarity of each card’s unique markings, which arose naturally because of their hand-drawn nature, helps make the task feel less abstract. And since I use each index card as a mini project todo, they also maintain context and continuity for my work in a way that feels far more personalized than a cumbersome computer-based to-do list. For example, I can sit outside with friends and coworkers and go through the cards with them, using them as physical props in our conversation…so long as it doesn’t rain, anyway.

On a side note, I’ve found that the cards tend to group into the following types of tasks:

  • “Would be Cool” projects, producing new opportunities that would be good for my reputation or capabilities
  • Current for-pay projects and next-action reminders, which keep projects moving forward
  • Habit reminders and chores, which help ensure that my taxes get filed and sufficiency of clean underwear is available.
  • To-do, To-Schedule, or To-Go errands, which are distracting must-get-done tasks have to happen
  • Business development, which produce the conditions for acquiring new design clients
  • Website/blog improvements and features, which increases the ability for visitors on the Internet to determine that they need to bookmark the site or contact me for some reason.
  • Collaboration, networking, and social, which ensures that I’m happy and sharing time with people.
  • Collective projects, which are shared business and creative projects with local people that create more opportunity for everyone.
  • Investigative reminders, which involves finding the answers to questions that are of interest to me for one reason or another.

These possibly are my elements of work-life balance. I’ve taken to grouping the cards using Italian paperclips and picking one “main item” from each category to keep on my mind:

Card groups It’s too early for me to tell if this is an effective way of visualizing my daily work-life balance efforts, but I’m continuing to work with it. I probably don’t manipulate the card deck frequently enough, and I haven’t made a commitment to completing tasks that are queued in the deck in a systematic fashion. So, in the meantime the cards work primarily as secondary memory, storing “important tasks” that nevertheless aren’t pressing enough to take care of immediately.

3. Shifting from Management to Making

So far I’ve really only talked about the managerial aspect of my work-life balance. It seems to work fairly well in that I’ve relaxed quite a bit regarding “how productive” I am every day while keeping track of the stuff that I think are part of my future success. However, what really matters when it comes to being productive is actually making and finishing stuff. This is where I have tended to get stuck in the past, beset by thoughts of perfectionism and baffling procrastination. I’ve just started to make some headway against this from reading Paul Graham’s Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule article, which has led to the realization that I can reframe of my creative processes. All I need to do, I think, is turn off the manager brain so I can get into the irresponsible-but-productive maker’s mindset. As it turns out, you need to shut out all that managerial thinking to actually produce something. When you’re a freelancer with high standards for customer service that is used to self-managing, this insight is difficult to achieve by yourself.

The insight is pretty simple: even with the best management practices, nothing gets done unless people are making things. When I’m on top of my projects from a management perspective I can feel good about having the big picture and keeping everyone in the loop, but I don’t feel productive. This invariably leads to me feeling like crap. To address this, I need to remember that the management role has two halves:

  • The first half is about managing worry, verification, and expectation through measurement. When these kinds of thoughts are crowding your brain, trying to juggle a dozen mental variables to synthesize a new and wonderful new creation is pretty impossible. Although well-intentioned, the management mindset amounts to a kind of pestering that is super distracting and annoying, but since it’s YOU that’s doing it for responsible reasons, you don’t notice that you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Interrupting yourself with thoughts of efficiency and quality seems responsible, but what you should really be doing is putting your mind deep into that which you are making.

  • The enlightened manager knows that making stuff is difficult, respects this, and and spends his/her time running interference for the creative team so they can actually have a sustained period of time in which they can transform fragile possibility into reality. That’s the second half of management. So, I now grant myself permission to NOT have all those responsible managerial thoughts to keep stakeholders in-the-loop and apprised of progress. There will be time enough later, after I’ve created something useful and cool, to worry about all that stuff. Creative time is unabashedly time for ME to spend time with THE CHALLENGE, undisturbed.


p>This insight is very new so I would take what I just said with a grain of salt; however, it does seem like I’m on the right path. The past couple of weeks I’ve been making significant headway on my personal projects, just by keeping the managerial side separate. The next challenge is to do less management; I tend to spend a lot of time organizing and coordinating things, when I really should be doing more making.

4. Making a Difference with What You Make

The final piece of the work-life-balancing challenge is to validate my efforts, so it feels that what I’m doing is worthwhile. Part of the challenge of beating procrastination is learning that what you did, no matter how incremental, will result in tangible progress. The sense of accomplishment could come from self-knowledge of having done a good job, but for me I need to show people what I’ve done so I can see their reaction. Nothing else seems quite as real. Therefore…I must show what I make. To anyone, really.

There are several important side benefits. I often am not aware of the full ramifications of what I’ve made until I’ve seen it through the eyes of someone else. Everyone has a different set of expectations and life experiences, and from this all kind of possibilities emerge. This is incredibly exciting, and can accelerate the design process tremendously through spirited dialogue.

Additionally, the mere act of showing and telling my work helps me build a sense of continuity between my project work and people who are important to me. I’ve enhanced the experience by drawing upon the interest of members in my “Collective” of creative peers. Each person becomes a kind of informal project manager. I just tell them what I’m making, and relate it to something that they are also interested in. This not only gives me a reason to talk to them later, but it also binds our interests together. This has had amazing ramifications, not the least of which has been figuring out how to work with the kind of people I like. I have often written on this blog that my working goal is to be around self-empowered, inspired, conscientious and kind people, but I had assumed that I would have to join a company or assemble my own team. As it turns out, just sharing what you’re doing with people like that is plenty good by itself. I have never been so happy about the direction my work is moving in.

5. Controlling Expansion, End-of-Day Cooldown

After a big day of being productive, I am often exhausted and excited. This has the drawback of creating the conditions where I’m likely to stay up too late looking stuff up on the Internet. When I stay up too late, the next day can become a problem because I lose some ability to stay synchronized with things like scheduled social events, regular meals, and usable (i.e. 4 hour) chunks of creative time while the all-important sun is up. I love the sun, I’ve come to realize, so it’s important for me to stay synchronized with it.

It’s difficult for me to justify NOT exploring things on the Internet, but I’ve figured out a rule-of-thumb that helps me determine what is acceptable late night research: if the research task results in contracting the number of questions I have, that’s OK. However, if the research task expands the number of questions, then shelve it for tomorrow. For example, looking up the opening hours for a local music store is a contracting research task, whereas shopping for ATA-certified keyboard cases that can handle a Kurzweil SP88X stage piano is an expanding research task. As it is with making the distinction between “maker schedules” and “manager schedules”, there’s a time and place for it. Late at night, when it’s time for me to start winding down, is not the time for expanding the realm of possibilities. Instead, I try to converge on finalizing thoughts that put a nice fat period at the end of my day.

A related challenge is the need to have “decompression time”. When I am out with people for a period of time, I need some time afterward to just be by myself. This tends to take a couple of hours, so I have to be mindful of not staying out beyond a certain hour. I’m finding this to be more of a challenge than I expected, so I may have to design a go-to-sleep ritual that mirrors my wake-up procedure. Prayer, perhaps? Day recap? Watching Madmen?


  1. Lynn O'Connor 10 years ago

    I am often going through precisely the same problems, dilemmas, as those you write about. My mornings too often end up with me working in my “bed office” without really getting up. (I have a true desk set up essentially, with files immediately accessible—I just gave in to this life-long habit of working in bed, and made it my half, very personal, office. My home office in the next room is for everyone, my clients and students come to see me there, but the bed-office is personal.

    I am fine continuing with this arrangement but I want to GET UP before I settle back down in either office. I am again maneuvering around a morning, step by step, ritual to get the ball rolling more effectively. I would love to go to my local Starbucks, leisurely, to be in a social environment early, but I can’t take the time. Clients/students will be coming in the afternoon, my research assistant will be arriving to help with some tasks I’ve delegated. Nevertheless the principle of what you are describing hits home.

    Likewise the “managerial” vs “creator” kinds of activities. I learned something useful from Meg Edwards, a GTD coach (http://www.davidco.com/coaches_corner/Meg_Edwards/article45.html).
    She told me that there are two kinds of work happening, by necessity. First is “defining work” which includes all that planning, list making,emptying my inboxes, reviewing the lists, checking my calendar for hard edged appointments,  mapping out the day on an Emergent Task Planner,http://davidseah.com/blog/comments/emergent-task-planner-free-version-updates/,etc.

    Then there is the “doing” kind of work. Meg convinced me that defining my work was legitimate and helpful and made me far more effective in “doing” my work. Now my “doing” includes things I do for a paycheck (from teaching),for fees (clients), and then for my academic pursuits (writing and publishing). Academics don’t get paid securely for all those book chapters and articles we publish, for all that research that goes into the article. Currently, I am finally being paid from a research grant, but this is far more open-ended than teaching, chairing dissertations, and seeing patients/clients for psychotherapy, or counseling, or executive/life coaching, whatever someone needs. Organizing it all falls into the “defining my work” category, and I think correlates with your “manager” mindset.

    It is very helpful to me when you lay out your process, each and every time. The idea of space—larger blocks of time uninterrupted—for “creating” (meaning writing, reading relevant to my writing, conducting research etc)is sitting well with me,its useful.

    Thanks as always for being so candid; it is a gift to those of us who work in similar circumstances and who seem to have similar temperaments.


  2. William of Urbana 10 years ago

    Since looking things up on the Internet is so fun, I keep paper nearby to write down things to look up later when they occur to me, so that that doesn’t distract me while I am trying to shift from manager-time to maker-time.

    Provides a ready stock of rewards for tasks, too!

  3. William Seville 10 years ago

    End of day spin-down is a major problem for me:  too tired to do anything useful; too hyped to lay in bed.  And too silly to turn the #$%$% computer off.

    My wife nods off to sleep an hour or two before me and I have been struggling for some weeks on how to make that hour useful, yet calming.

    It is a bad sign when all of today’s emails are suddenly marked as having arrived “yesterday” .

    The only worse thing I can do is sit in front of the box and start watching some obscure, subtitled movie that I really, really don’t need to watch.

  4. CricketB 10 years ago

    I find many of the things I enjoy actually keep me up awake and wired long after I put them down. Knitting, especially “grunge knitting” is one of them. It entrains my brain into the rhythm of knitting, not the rhythm of sleeping. Same with video games. I see red and green outlines on the insides of my eyelids. After being out with people, I seem to instinctively know I need downtime before bed, usually a snack and mindless TV or a bit of reading, but nothing interesting enough to make me want to finish it right then and there.

    My current trick is to trust the list I’ve made, and just do the next on the list. I have about five lists, based on frequency. Most are recurring tasks: When I reach the bottom of each, I go back to the top, unless it’s not time to repeat them again. I also don’t use “not enough time” as an excuse. It’s amazing how many things I used to let slip due to not having a solid block to do them in can actually be done in smaller increments.

    Planning the day is counter-productive for me. I get caught up in the planning. If I do it the night before, I lie awake looking forward to the accomplishments (and then lie awake frustrated that I’ll be too tired). Sometimes, my tired days are the most productive. I’m more likely to trust the list and work down it than think I can do better than the list. So long as I don’t turn on the internet until noon, I do okay.