(last updated on April 29, 2014)
This past week I’ve been tinkering with “ideally apportioning” my day into the following six main activity types:
- 4 hours of revenue generation (either client work or marketing my own products and services)
- 2 hours of revenue for tomorrow (developing my own products for sale)
- 2 hours of socializing / household work (helps me get out of my own head)
- 4 hours of exploring (self-assessment, writing, impromptu design and research)
- 4 hours of goofing off (cooking, eating, shopping, facebooking, playing games)
- 8 hours of sleep (anchoring the day by always being 10PM to 6AM)
I’d noticed recently that I experience swings of elation at getting stuff done, followed by anxiety that I have somehow neglected something else that is important. I also know I have a limited amount of energy and attention. I came up with this list of constraining factors:
- Thoughts that make me feel productive (good), stressed or anxious (bad, bad).
- Discovering the sources of these feelings, and noting what I can do to trigger/defang them.
- Acknowledgement that I need more alone time than I do social time (I’m an introvert. Sue me).
- Long-standing patterns in my behavior (For example, I am naturally curious about how things work. Can’t turn it off)
- Constant assessment of my mental “readiness” throughout the day (I’m highly reflective).
- Awareness of the differences between different types of “mental fuzziness”, and noting what seems to trigger them.
I spent the last week trying to achieve balance through the stack of hours. I also used this opportunity to re-institute some habits that I wanted to maintain, like getting up early. My hope was that I would be more focused and more productive without having to strain so much; by using a realistic model of my work day based on my existing proclivities, perhaps this would be possible.
Notes follow. This is quite a long post.
What Has Worked So Far
I’ve suspected that I needed to get back to the regular sleeping schedule for a while. While going to sleep whenever I want feels independent and awesome, it’s not conducive to socializing. Also, it cuts down on the amount of daylight that I get. Sun beams make me happy…who knew? I’ve found that I need a minimum quantity of both socializing and sunlight every day to feel grounded as a human being. While I can theoretically do the socializing any time of day–one of the advantages of being a freelancer–I find that these unplanned social junkets very disrupting to my “work” mindset. Starting work late in the day also makes the work seem “late”; this is some kind of association I have with procrastination, and I end up feeling really lame. That’s not a state of mind that is conducive to high achievement.
So let me flip this around a bit and make this assumption: the great advantage of working at night is the feeling of quiet solitude coupled with the sense that there’s lots of time. The problem is that sleeping during the day reduces the window for social interaction (not to mention grocery shopping). There’s another way of getting that that feeling of quiet solitude, which is to wake up before everyone else does. Personally, I’ve found that starting work around 630AM means I get the bulk of my work done before 1030AM, which is a really awesome feeling. It also leaves the entire rest of the day for random socializing and socially-linked work like replying to emails, having client meetings, etc., without the pressure that comes from feeling you need to get back to work.
“Geting up early” is awesome, but the better way to describe this as a goal is to—and you can imagine Samuel L. Jackson reading this to you—GO THE &!@#! TO SLEEP earlier. Since I know I need a solid eight hours of sleep for maximum mental clarity on waking, that means I should be in bed by 10PM.
PROS: Early Rise harnesses Morning Solitude instead of Midnight Solitude. Early Rise gives more options for Social Interaction and Sunlight Absorption, which are necessary for me to feel Human.
CONS: Miss out on the feeling of being alone in the dark, music blasting, crunching out the code. Loss of “extreme coder” credibility. Fewer reasons to drink highly-caffeinated sodas.
I don’t take well to rigid structure (“organization” is a different kind of animal). However, I have come to embrace a certain amount of structure in the morning to get me away from the productivity sapping distractions of the Internet. The basic strategy is to GET THE &!@#! OUT OF THE HOUSE as soon as possible. If I don’t get out of the house as soon as possible, the momentum of the day is lost to a dozen tiny distractions.
The key conditions that must be met to get out of the house:
- Body showered, dressed
- Body fed with protein-rich breakfast
- No computer access
The main reason I get stuck in house is the Internet. I’d developed a nasty habit of turning on the computer when I first wake up, which invariably leads down a multitude of interesting rabbit holes. The onslaught of email, Facebook, news, blogs, and blogs creates an enormous mental muddle right away. Any clarity and peace you may have had, which I would describe as a pleasant quietness of mind, is completely obliterated.
My theory here is that this clear morning state can be harnessed to do some useful work. I’ve been paying attention to the kinds of mental muddle I’ve experienced in the morning; they break down roughly like this:
- Sleep Muddle: the brain and body are too tired. It feels like a light pressure along the sides of my head and eye, with coherent thoughts lasting about 3 seconds before they wink out of existence. Movement can be productive in focusing the mind if I’m not too tired. Can be countered somewhat by protein and caffeine.
Dehydration Muddle: This manifests in me as a dryness of the tongue (if I imagine water tasting good, I am probably pretty dehydrated). A slight feeling of deflatedness in my limbs also is felt, but the mind itself is fairly clear.
Low Blood Sugar Muddle: Evidenced by sleepiness and a mental resistance to moving my arms and legs. They’re not paralyzed; they just seem to pay less attention to my desire to get up off the couch or bed, like really lazy cats. Eating something tends to do away with it.
High Insulin Muddle: If I eat too much, or eat sugar, then the mind clouds up. Sleepiness is likely. The feeling of pressure feels like it is inside my skull, evenly spread throughout my consciousness. It’s like there’s a light fog; high resolution thinking is very difficult. Surfing the net is possible until I fall asleep. It can be avoided if I eat stuff that doesn’t spike my insulin levels, and eat a reasonable amount of food at one sitting. If I blow it, though, then sleeping through it is the only recourse. Interestingly, I can sort of detect my blood sugar level by assessing how hot my feet feel. If they’re feeling warm, blood sugar is high. If they’re cold, it’s low. I’m not sure how accurate this is, though.
Body Inactivity Muddle: When I was going to the gym regularly and my body was tuned, every part of my body felt good. Sweating seemed to have something to do with it; if I worked out enough to have a good sweat, it was like the “rancid energy”—like unharvested fruit ordinarily left to rot and stink on the orchard ground—was purged from my body. When the body is in good shape, it contributes to a clarity of mind that I didn’t know existed. Everything seems a little more possible. The urge to move and act is greater.
Anxiety Muddle: This comes from being concerned about something you need to take care of, lest something bad happen to you. It is highly distracting. It creates tension in the head and aches in the belly. The way out of this muddle is to have a plan based on having a REAL GOOD LUCK at what is on your plate and having confidence that what you’ve decided to do will work. It’s a lot easier when you don’t have the other muddles to contend with.
There are other muddles, but these are the ones that apply to me. Anyway, it takes about 30 minutes to quickly shower and cook some eggs and sausage. I sometimes allow myself a piece of toast (I love toast), though the carbs in it can induce sleepiness in my borderline-diabetic body (high blood sugar muddle). Once fed, I grab my portable kit (laptop, camera, notebook) and get in the car to drive to the nearest Starbucks for my morning coffee. The morning drive is often filled with birdsong, which is a nice way to start the day.
Starbucks MorningThe nearest Starbucks is just 5 minutes away. Starbucks gives me a little burst of social energy. I’ve been coming to this one long enough that many of the barristas know my name. I also love to just see people come in on their way to work, lost in their own world as they go through their own morning ritual. This helps connect me with humanity just a little more, which is important when you work at home by yourself most of the time. And sometimes, I see someone I know, or have a brief conversation. It is just enough social stimulation.
Getting to Work: First StageIn the past, the first thing I’d do is grab my planning notebook and try to figure out what to do. I have made a change: If I’ve got paying work and a focused task, I do that first instead of bothering with email and project management. The advantage to this, I find, is that my mind is empty of the clutter I would have absorbed had I looked at my email or surfed Boing Boing. I didn’t look at it at home, and I still haven’t looked at it by the time I start work. That blankness of mind is highly malleable will stick to the first thing I look at; if I wait until after I check mail, the moment is lost. It can only be recaptured by taking a good long nap (or perhaps meditation…I should try that). A second change I’ve made is to reduce expectations of myself by allocating just 15 minutes of work to meet my quota. I’ve found that this is enough time to actually get something done. For some reason, this is very reassuring. And practically speaking, 15 minutes is enough to get the mind going such that it carries through on its own momentum. You can do a hell of a lot in 15 focused minutes. Even though I allocate only 15 minutes, they usually turn into 60 or 90 minutes of work before I think of checking the time. This form of time blocking works for me because I don’t like dealing with tasks where either process or outcome are unpredictable. For me, projects that require illustration or creative interactive design are the most difficult to start because my mind balks and doesn’t want to do work unless it knows what is expected. This is a quirk of my personality I’ve only recently become aware of. Interestingly, it’s not the case with pure analysis or functional system design, possibly because I think of that as discovery or documentation work; I’ve been doing that in one form or another since I was in the 3rd grade. But what of email? Isn’t there a lot of important client communication I could be missing? Well, maybe. But remember: it’s around 630AM my time. Any client who sends email after 9PM and expects a response before 9AM is, as far as I’m concerned, being unreasonable. PEOPLE HAVE LIVES. I can safely ignore email first-thing in the morning. There are exceptions to this rule, of course: a product launch in a different time zone, or an intense crunch-mode sprint to the finish line. But these are not, I would hope, every-day occurrences except in poorly-managed companies. Which I generally do not work with. The reason I started doing this was not (as some may surmise) to be a jerk. The main reason is that I want to set my own priorities. If you are constantly putting other people’s priorities over your own, you will never grow. The small agency that never works on their own projects never wins those awards or attracts the fun creative work they crave. So…I ignore email, my to-do lists, and everything related to organization and communication. I do write in my process blogs (or Basecamp) as I work, keeping track of what I’m trying and what is working. This creates a running monologue of activity that keeps me focused. As a bonus, I end up documenting my thought process. After the 15-minutes to two hours, it’s still only 830AM. This is a perfectly fine time to start reading email for me, now that I’ve gotten that big chunk of important work done. But first: planning.
Getting to Work: Second StageHaving got a chunk of work done, I feel I can spend some time planning. This is when I pull out my notebook, a 9×12 quadrille-ruled hardbound journal that I happen to like a lot. I turn to a blank page, and write down the date, immediately followed by what’s on my mind. I also write out what I think I need to do for today; this is when I pull out my laptop and login. There are four places I need to check:
- Wunderlist – The list of current ongoing projects (organized by folder). This is the canonical repository of all ongoing tasks and projects. Many of them are speculative, used to keep track of ideas. I use the main inbox for “priority” tasks. If the task isn’t listed here, it doesn’t exist.
Google Calendar – Used only for scheduling places I need to be, per GTD rules. This calendar is synched to my iPod Touch. I also have on my private web page of useful links, which all of my computers use as the default home page. The rule is that if it isn’t on Google Calendar, it isn’t happening.
Basecamp – I used 37 Signal’s Basecamp for collecting client communications, invoices, and deliverables in one place. This makes it much easier for me to switch between projects. Client work requests must be posted in Basecamp (or sent via email) or it doesn’t exist. I maintain long development monologues here.
Google Mail – I scan the email list for tagged messages in the “priority inbox”, which are the emails that I need to take some action on. I get new client requests here too, which spawn new tasks and meetings.
The entire sweep takes about 15 minutes. Before I started creating the morning procedure, I has thought it would take much longer than that. Nope! After doing the 15-minute sweep, I spend another five minutes figuring out what needs to happen today, and draw up a version of the Emergent Task Planner in my notebook. I identify the three main things I want to get done, and allocate (you should see this coming) just 15 minutes to each one. By now, I can check off at least one task, because I have just put in a chunk of time on it. It’s important to note that I’m fine if the task itself hasn’t been completed yet, because I’ve given myself permission. Why beat myself up? It’ll get done, so long as I keep it top-of-mind. Between Wunderlist and my notebook, this is pretty likely to happen. At this point, it’s around 830 or 900AM, and I have moved into “clarity from knowledge”:
- I have just processed my list, and know exactly what’s on my plate. Because I trust my tools implicitly, I don’t wonder if I missed anything.
Since I have already gotten a chunk of work done, the rest of the day feels like a bonus round for extra credit. Doing one or two 15-minute chunks on the two other is a good way to get things moving, and it isn’t a big unbounded commitment in time. There is a problem I’ve discovered with this, however, when it comes to open-ended creative tasks…more on that later.
p>At this point, I do check mail, but only handle pressing items. I’ll update clients and respond to emails. I usually check my blog and social media presence as well, to see what new information has come in in the past 12 hours. This may affect my plans for the day; for example, new client inquiries may have arrived, or there is a surge of incoming traffic from a popular website.
After processing the email, I move onto a work chunk, which lasts from 15 minutes to 2 hours. During this time, I try not to check mail (it can be tough, especially if you have to communicate with people as part of the work chunk).
At this point, it’s around 11AM, and the hard part of my work day is theoretically done. I’ve gotten at least two chunks of work done, and I feel I have some leeway in selecting the next thing to do. Having made progress on my tasks, it’s time to start talking to people in depth.
I’ll send longer emails to people apprising them of progress made. I answer emails in greater depth. I’ll surf social media and make comments, tweak my blog, and bookmark cool stuff on Pinterest. I will eat lunch if I’m feeling hungry; the protein-rich breakfast tends to keep me from feeling too hungry.
If I’m still at Starbucks, I’ll consider going back home or coworking at my friend Sid’s studio.
Back Home / Coworking
Around 1:00PM I’m thinking about heading either to my friend Sid’s studio for some impromptu co-working, fulfilling the social aspect of my day. Or, if it’s really hot outside, I’ll go back home and putter for a bit. At this point, the main decision to make is whether to do another chunk of work, or engage in personal exploration / R&D.
It’s important for me to remember to look at my notebook, wunderlist, and basecamp to remember what’s on my plate. I often forget to look at it. This helps keep me grounded in priorities AND continuity. Maintaining conscious awareness of those tasks that are still in-progress creates continuity in my head, so I know what the next steps are going to be and when they need to be made. This is the tiebreaker between doing the personal development projects and continuing to do other work. Remember, I am trying to set my own priorities here so I can be moving forward on my goals; this means looking at my “speculative projects” (in Wunderlist) to see what looks doable TODAY. If I do anything off this, then I am making purposeful progress toward my goals while still retaining flexibility in how I get there.
Low Level Tasking
So, 1:00PM to 5:00PM is the 4-hour block of time where I can get some additional stuff done. What gets done depends, to some extent, on the balance I want to maintain. So, if I end up doing something not immediately productive like researching the manufacturer of hot air ballons, I try not to beat myself up over it.
Again, since I’ve gotten the hard stuff done in the morning, the afternoon can be more multi-tasked in nature: more emails, research and development, shopping, running errands and whatever else might pop up. In other words, it’s more like the way my day USED to be before starting this new approach, except this time the puttering is contained. I don’t expect to be as productive during this time as I was in the morning. However, if I am feeling particularly compelled to continue a chunk of work I started earlier in the day, that’s OK too.
By the time 5:00PM rolls around, I’m mentally tired and thinking of dinner. Trying to squeeze more work out the day is a bad idea. It took me a while to recognize this, because it takes several days of post-5PM work to build into resentment. It doesn’t matter if I’ve goofed off the entire day beforehand…after 5PM work always feels like a chore. I want to avoid it if possible. I guess it’s social conditioning…5PM to 9PM is time you spend with family.
There’s one thing that I try to do as part of the “GO TO SLEEP” ritual: review my notebook ONE LAST TIME and write down one thing that I should do first-thing in the morning. That allows my brain to shut up and relax.
I haven’t quite gotten the “asleep by 10” thing down, but I’ve been trying melatonin to see if it helps. The first night I took it resulted in a deeply satisfying, though still short, sleep. My mind felt very static-free when I awoke, and I noticed my senses seemed heightened. I didn’t realize how much static there is in my head; it’s apparently there all the time. It’s still too early for me to tell if the melatonin is making a real difference or not (my feeling of well being could be a placebo effect). I don’t know that much about it.
What Got Done Last Week
I implemented the schedule as described during the last week of July 2011, and I experienced both high productivity (as measured in “things that got done on purpose, by design”) and the feeling of productivity (“hey, I’m not lost, fuzzy-headed, or falling behind while I surf the net!”). For reference here’s what I consider the notable achievements of the week:
- REVENUE: custom WordPress post format template work for client
- REVENUE: logotype design for client
- REVENUE: internet consulting for friend/client
- PRO BONO: Started Desktop Wallpaper illustration job * REVENUE TOMORROW: Gun Safety Poster redesigned for full-bleed 11×8.5, copy rewritten and expanded, press-ready files created.
- REVENUE TOMORROW: Packaging supplies researched and purchased for shipping Gun Safety Poster.
- REVENUE TOMORROW: Sent order for first-run Gun Safety Poster, for trial marketing.
- SOCIAL / HOUSEHOLD: Helped design, set up standing desk at Sid’s studio
- SOCIAL / HOUSEHOLD: IKEA run for home standing table components with Sid and Sara
- SOCIAL: Saw BFF Erin during her Boston layover; she’s become a sailor with her own small sailboat in the past year, which is very inspiring.
- EXPLORATION: Seah Micro Logo, Seah idealized Schedule, and two accompanying blog posts
- Melatonin acquired to help with sleep
- EXPLORATION: Researched new camera, structural pipe, pay-as-you-go cell phone plans
- EXPLORATION: Read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers
- GOOFING: Saw Cowboys and Aliens
- EXPLORATION: Maintained daily journaling of process, so I could even see what I did here.
- GOOFING: Cooked dinner every night, vacuumed
- GOOFING: Rose 5 ranks in Star Trek Online for new character.
- GOOFING: Added a few more pins to my Pinterest boards.
Overhead tasks like project management, looking at finances, and stuff like that is all tucked in between these six main threads. Also unseen in this list is the constant journaling in my various sub blogs. Thousands and thousands of words are logged there, all of them helping keep me focused and on-task.
What Didn’t Work
There’s one unexpected problem I had, which was dealing with the Pro Bono design work. This is the design of a piece of desktop wallpaper based on a provided quote. I didn’t think it would take that long, but I had forgotten to take something very important into account: It’s iterative design work of a creative nature. That means it’s unpredictable and requires a lot of creative hops. Unlike my more analytical design work, there’s no way for me to know when an illustration “works” or not. And this is illustration. I love illustration, but it’s not something that I have practiced a lot. I have to learn how to draw everything I draw, and it is a laborious process.
I’d scheduled exactly two mornings to do the desktop work. The first day went well, I thought, until I realized at the end of it that I had to draw a bunch of things I wasn’t sure would really work. By the end of the second day, I looked at the pieces I’d made and knew that they weren’t working. It wasn’t a good piece of design work, so I had to admit defeat and suck up the feeling of failure.
In the past, I would have stayed up all night and devoted 12-hour days to a project like this. However, there is a heavy cost to this: complete unproductivity afterwards. That’s the insight that is behind the Seah Four/3 documentation; if I work out of balance, the system collapses. What I want to achieve is sustainable productivity.
Rescheduling the desktop wallpaper design, I’m thinking that I need to allocate enough creative hops. My gut feeling is that it will take 3 to 9 creative hops to converge to a solution. This is based on a few things I know about myself:
- I know it takes me between 15 minutes and two hours to get something drawn so it looks right. There may be a couple of re-dos included.
- A minimum of 3 such elements are required to make a compelling piece of design. We’re up to 3 hops. Add three more hops for re-dos and false directions (total of 6 hops now) and then three hops for composition and finishing if it’s working.
- I also need to have enough time between each hop so I have time to reflect on what I’ve done, get some reactions from people, and just let the work rest.
That means that a creative design project like this should have about two weeks of calendar time allocated to it (!), if I do things the way I’m doing. It could be compressed into about 3-4 days of intense work, but during that time nothing else would get done, and the 3-4 days AFTERWARDS would be very low-energy as I recovered. That is a whole week of deferring my own / other project work, and feeling like crap.
The Week Ahead
This week, I allocated Monday as a get head clear day, as I was feeling pretty unmotivated and unsure of what to start when I woke up (this is detailed on my SOC process journal). It took 2.75 hours to write this post as a first draft, and another 1.75 hours to produce the second draft, which I will now post. What I have gained from this writing is a more solid sense of what my ideal day is, as far as feeling productive goes.
There is always a voice in the back of my head that wonders if I’m just incredibly slow at doing the work. If I have to spend 4.5 hours writing a blog post to figure out if I’m being productive or not, isn’t that counterproductive? I don’t know. I think the easy conclusion to jump to is, “you could have been doing WORK for 2.75 hours, you dumbass!” I wouldn’t entirely disagree with you. However, there is an aspect of myself that needs to process experience, through writing, into words. This seems to be an essential part of my process. I believe the work I do should be beautiful, and the process to achieve that does not lend itself to mindless mechanization. I think it’s more likely to stem from the kind of awareness I’m trying to create in myself, and practicing as much mindfulness and time-on-task as possible. Hence, this blog post; it helps with the mindfulness.