Supporting Factors for Productivity

A week ago I wrote that writing is my engine, meaning that I’ve realized that the way I get anything started or done is by writing about it. It’s the activity that engages my brain most productively; in fact, writing is the way I focus. You’d think it would be the other way around, that writing is the product of a focused mind, but nooooo…for me it’s backwards. I have little choice but to embrace it.

Despite this epiphany, it’s taken the past week to realize that there are supporting elements for my writing (and by extension: productive) mindset.

Bad Habits

Writing starts me up by making me put thoughts into visible order. However, there are many things that prevent me from writing effectively.

  • When I have a large lunch, my mind becomes fuzzy due as my aging body struggles to deal with the onrush of carbohydrates. For now avoiding sugary and starchy foods in favor of those with a low glycemic index seems to help, but I need to get this debugged by a doctor.

  • My daily routine is not a routine. I wake up, and I wander over to the nearest computer and start checking mail. A few years ago, I was actively waking up early and I had a whole morning routine down, but I haven’t been able to start the habit again. I have been indulging in the joys of staying up late and working a freelance schedule instead. The cost of this, however, is a dangerous falling out of synchronization with the rest of the world, which leads to isolation and a distorted sense of time. It’s far too easy to “just exist” in this bubble.

The combination of mental fuzziness and displacement from the real world isn’t conducive to productivity at all. I’d like to reintroduce a sense of urgency and progression back into my existence, and I believe that I must make a chain of continuous causality for it to feel like productivity. I’m going to think of this as productive continuity.

Time Ratios

In addition to the diet and sleeping habits I mentioned above, I’ve found that where I use the time affects my productive continuity. For example, meetings wreak havoc on my day; the time before and after the meeting is pretty much destroyed. I wrote about this from a creative angle, drawing inspiration from Paul Graham’s observations on Maker and Manager Schedules. However, I can also look at it from the personality dimension; specifically, the introversion-extraversion continuum. I tend toward introversion, which means that my energy is drained by being in the world and surrounded by people. My energy is restored through reflection and alone-time. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy interacting with people, but it does mean that interaction costs energy; to manage this energy, I need to ensure that I have enough “introversion time” to replenish my stores. I don’t think it’s meetings or people alone that causes an energy drain. After monitoring my energy levels for the past few months, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a synchronization cost. Every time that I have to synchronize myself to someone outside of me in some way–like meetings, other people’s processes, driving, being at an event–this drains energy. Since I can’t measure this energy directly, I’ve come up with ratios that I think are roughly accurate.
  • For every hour of synchronization time, I need an hour of veg-out time.
  • For every four hours of exploratory time, I need an hour of outside time.
  • For every eight hours of directed solitary, I need an hour of people time.
These ratios are different if there is an external synchronizing force; that is, if someone or something outside of me is enforcing a schedule. I haven’t figured out what they are yet, but defining my terms might help see the larger pattern:
  • synchronization time covers meetings, driving to meetings, networking, driving back from meetings, the time spent waiting for the meeting time, having to be somewhere for a fixed period of time, working on a deadline…anything that I have to do that involves meeting the expectations of an outside party.

  • veg-out time is alone/unstructured time that has no point other than to not be synchronized. It sometimes results in productive work, but it’s unpredictable. Basically, this is time where my mind “unclenches” from the rigors of being synchronized. I take synchronization pretty seriously, and it burns a lot of energy.

  • exploratory time is directed productive time. When the schedule is adequate enough to explore a few solutions, or if I’m chasing down an interesting topic, or if I’m writing a blog post like this one (stream of consciousness), that’s exploratory time.

  • outside time is non-synchronized time spent in the world. After being inside for a while, I need to go outside but not necessarily talk to anyone. The world, after all, is the source of many of my interests, and if I don’t go outside regularly I deprive myself of the opportunity to think about new things.

  • directed solitary is time spent working on something. I’m actively pacing myself to get something done as quickly and efficiently as possible. This takes energy too, though I have more tolerance of it and don’t get sleepy once I’m in the groove.

  • people time is time spent socializing with close friends. It’s different from “outside time”, which is not necessarily social. I suppose after I spend time figuring something out, I like to have people to tell about it.

With these ratios, I can construct an ideal day or week. I may adapt a version of the Emergent Task Planner to try to figure these ratios in. I suspect everyone has a different tolerance for different tasks. If anyone has some insight on their own ratios, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Environmental Factors

I have three or four places that I work at. The first place is the home office, and then there are three locations around the Nashua area that I tend to work at depending on my mood.
  • The home office is the best equipped, and I try to work here when I need access to printers and larger work surfaces. All my reference books and whiteboards are here too, along with my workstation with high-res flat panel monitors and a decent sound system for blasting tunes.

  • The mobile location work is not too bad either, because I have a Macbook Pro 17″ that duplicates the software setup on my workstation, with all active project files synchronized automatically through DropBox. I don’t have to ever think about moving files, or access them through a slow remote server. To haul all my stuff, I have a ThinkTank Streetwalker HardDrive Backpack that holds an amazing amount of gear, including the 17″ laptop with a little reconfiguring.


p>The seamless workstation-laptop integration is possible because I’ve moved most of my support services off my own computers. My web server (hosted at MediaTemple on a mid-level (dv) box) centralizes all my website management, and I use [Basecamp][bchq] for managing communication with clients. I’m using the no-charge version of Google Apps for Business to handle email for, which makes life much easier due to its excellent spam filtering. Anyway, I think I have the IT side of things handled, but I haven’t figured out the productive continuity I mentioned before.

Back when I used to have a morning ritual, I would fill out an emergent task planner form page to plan my day. I eventually switched to drawing one every day in a Cachet Classic Graph 9×12 Sketchbook, because I liked the large size and the feel of my fountain pen on its thick paper.

Whenever I’m out at Starbucks with my bag, I’ll pull out the notebook and scribble something into it to clarify my thoughts. This is good. However, I’ve realized that when I get home, I often will not take it out and therefore my continuity is lost. I also have a big picture report folder that I first used for the design website redesign, but my “table shrine” gets covered with junk far too easily. It’s too useful as a general storage surface, so stuff naturally piles up on it.

I actually designated part of my office as the official keeper of the backpack. It’s a small stand with a couple of shelves beneath it. From now on, the plan is to always put the backpack on it when it’s not in use. Just underneath the backpack are the various notebooks I use to keep track of stuff. Above the backpack are some decorative wall boxes that I’m now using to store the stuff that I might need on the road: library card, extra business cards, ink for the fountain pens, blank index cards, eye drops and so on. I also reorganized the large shelf nearby, turning it into a staging area for the various things I need. The bottom shelf is filled with bags I occasionally use, and the other shelves contain gear sorted by category into bins (camera gear, blank CDR media, keyboards, etc).

Following Through

Now that I have my backpack shelf set-up, there is a place to keep all my material tracking gear. The backpack is essentially my mobile office, carrying lots of digital production gear in a compact space. I am thinking I need to buy a Kindle to consolidate my books into a more portable form, and that would be amazing, but I digress.

What’s left now is to enforce the continuity habit itself. Before, I kept losing the backpack upstairs when I would shuck it (it’s 25 pounds loaded) and go down to the workstation. As I mentioned, all my files are synchronized behind-the-scenes by Dropbox (disclosure: if you check it out through this link, I get a little extra space for the referral) so I don’t actually need to even use the laptop when I’m at home. That means the all-important planning notebook stays in the bag, too.

Ideally, I’d find something that works as well as paper and lives in the cloud. I haven’t found anything I really like that captures the way I think. There’s EverNote, of course, and various project tracking services (I already am using Basecamp), but nothing that really enforces big strategic goals in the context of managing the zillion things to do. This is something I’d like to develop, once I get the other things rolling.

But that’s a post for another day.