Posts in Productivity
How to Get Into the Zone When You Work

Have you ever had one of those days when you were like a stick-shift car?  Back and forth, herky-jerky...

 My first stick-shift was an old pickup truck and a summer job allowed me to deliver engine parts to local garages.  I was a terrible driver and I was lucky that I wasn't fired- it was that bad.

Work can feel like this too- back and forth, tossing and turning from one thing to the next.  The modern workplace is built to chop up our day into small blocks of time.  The problem is that the boundaries of our "blocks" are fuzzy.  Every "got a minute" takes us away from our ability to focus.

When our days are filled with lots of interruptions, it's very hard to get our heads back to a focused state.  It can take several minutes to refocus after being interrupted.  Meetings are much the same, draining our energy and taking up an awful lot of time.  

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Too many interruptions (and/or meetings) can leave your head spinning and your day totally wrecked.  These work-killers are nothing more than "noise", creating a slow hum of displeasure in the day.  With each interruption, you lose your head of steam and become more and more irritated.  By the time you leave, you are frustrated and can feel defeated.

To counteract these pesky bugs, one thing is necessary: deep work.  Deep work is the ability to focus, without interruption, on meaningful and challenging tasks for a prolonged period of time.

Check out this post about how deep work can help clear your head and further expand your ability to do deep work.  The question remains- how much deep work do you need in order for your day to feel good?  After all, most of us can't afford an entire afternoon alone in an office, doing deep work.

An hour without interruption might be satisfying enough.  Imagine a day with just two blocks of uninterrupted time?  As you begin to experience time-focused periods of your day, you'll begin to notice something.

You'll notice that you're not as frustrated when the interruptions do come along.  This is because you know that you've already tasted "the good stuff" (of uninterrupted work) and you desire it even more for the rest of your day or later in the week.  Having a block or two of deep work under your belt helps to "absorb" these interruptions.

Let me share a personal story to help make this point.

I was feeling particularly disjointed a few weeks ago.  I knew that this was the result of not scheduling several hours of focused (i.e. "deep") work.  As a person of faith, I try to see my work as part of my relationship with God.  As such, I turned to prayer in order to recalibrate my day.

My prayer was very, very simple, "Lord, just give me the courage to do deep work, if even for a briefer time than I would like."  I just needed to get into the zone and then all would be well.  No more distractions, just focused and deep work.

This turned out to be exactly what I needed and my day went much better.  I turned off the noise in my head and the noise around me using an app called Self Control.  This forced me to write, to create and to ultimately finish a project that was in need of closure.  When all was said and done, I felt great.

My day was rescued because I was able to dial back the noise, focus and put my head down in order to work.  Can you relate?

For Follow Up
If you look back on the past week, can you name a day when you went home and felt as if you got absolutely nothing done?  As you look forward to the week ahead, where can you schedule blocks of deep work when no one and nothing will be able to interrupt you?  Once you schedule these blocks, you'll be in the zone and feel great about it!

Be Honest- How Much Work Really Gets Done at Work?

A friend of mine recently decided to quit his job in the city.  His office was big.  His title was impressive.  His salary was more than enough for him and his family to live on.

What led to his leaving a cozy job?

It wasn't the money nor the responsibilities he had at work.  Rather, it was the soul-sucking nature of living in the burbs and having to drag his butt into the city each and every day.

He had had enough.  After prayer and more than a few long talks with his wife, he decided he was going to leave and pursue something very different.  

He hasn't looked back since.

Jealous?  I was when I first heard and then, with a smile, I congratulated him and admired his bravery.  If only others had the guts to do the same, I told myself.

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What Steve realized, long before he quit his job, was that he wasn't actually getting getting that much work done when he was at work.  

Be honest- how much work do you get done when you're at work?  I suspect that, if your job is anything like Steve's was, your day is full of any of the following time thieves:

-commuting to and from work (30-90 minutes)
-meetings (30-60 minutes)
-chit-chat (15-30 minutes)
-lunch (30-60 minutes)

A worse-case scenario could rob you of 150 minutes of your day- that's over two hours!  Tack on to the lost time of 150 minutes is the hard-to-measure moments that you lost due to distractions and being interrupted.  

That's not ok.

It's exactly why my friend Steve decided that he had had enough.  He's now doing work that allows him to focus, enjoy fewer meetings and work at his strengths.  Oh, and not having to commute into the city- that's the cherry on top.

If you're tired of these time thieves (as I am!), I suggest the following as an antidote to the problems of the modern workplace:

1. Attend as few meetings as possible.
2. Cultivate time, each day, to think deeply and focus, without interruption.  
3. Find quiet spaces during the day to do work.  
4. Create a personal workspace that you enjoy and look forward to.
5. Have as short a commute as possible.
6. Explore the possibility of working from home, 1-2 days per week.

I'm not saying that it's that simple.  But, it kind of is.  It takes humility to realize that and guts to stick to the simplicity of the whole thing.

Try any one of these six action-steps this coming week and let me know which one makes a difference in your time management and work.  I'd love to hear from you!

Practicing the Art of Productivity

How do you remember to do things?  Do you put a sticky note on the door with a brief reminder? Do you use an app on your smartphone that will ping you?  

Whatever you use, whether an old fashioned sticky note or a string tied around your finger, the mind needs these little tricks in order to remind us to do things.  After all, there are too many things churning around in our heads- you need reminders.

These reminders are what I call Productivity Prompts.  A prompt is a nudge, built into your system, that will remind you of something.  A prompt keeps a project moving.  A prompt can take many different forms, going beyond simple reminders.  It can be any of the following:

  1. A prompt might be a sticky note on your fridge.  
  2. Or, a prompt might be an item on your to-do list.  
  3. A prompt might be an item on your agenda or a prompt might be an email to someone that requires a response from the other person.
  4. A prompt can be an item on your calendar.

Here's what this looks like in my own life.  I am giving a talk this summer and the organization required that I deliver to them a rough draft by a certain date followed by a final outline by another date.  The prompts I used were as follows:

  • On my to-do list: "Create first draft outline of talk" with a date and reminder
  • In my calendar: "Finalized outline and submit to Joe" with a date and a reminder

Between my to-do list and my calendar, I had enough prompts to keep the project moving along and finish my work on time.  A very simple process for a relatively straightforward set of tasks.  Thankfully, both my calendar and my to-do list let me add dates to particular tasks and then remind me when they are due.

Whatever prompts you use, and you probably use many different types, use them often.  Keep your projects moving.  Try to avoid dropping the ball through the use of prompts.  

By building in various prompts into your system, you truly are practicing the "art" of more sophisticated work.  You're becoming much more than someone who accomplishes tasks.  You are becoming an artist.  

The Answer to Decision Fatigue

By some estimates, we make 35,000 decisions per day.  I'm writing this post at 7:42am on a Sunday.  So far, I've had to decide on the following:

1. what time to wake up
2. what to wear
3. what to drink
4. how much coffee creamer to put in my coffee
5. whether to have morning devotions on the porch or in the living room
6. whether to text my wife who just ran an errand
7. whether to use Safari or Chrome for the news
8. whether to draft this post now or save it for later

You get the point.  

I was a skeptic when I first heard the 35,000 statistic.  Then, I was honest with myself and started to inventory the many, many actions I take each day and the decisions that drive them. 

This is exhausting and can ultimately sap your energy and your productivity.  

Asian Efficiency provides the ultimate guide to overcoming decision fatigue.  No need to replicate their good work.  Their companion podcast also does an excellent job in breaking the issue down. 

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Decision fatigue hit me last week.  I arrived home and declared to my wife, "I'm done.  I can't make any more decisions today."  It wasn't anger.  It was exhaustion.  

Can you relate?  Have you had a time when you were just so tired of making decisions that you felt you couldn't make one more?  

The answer, I suspect, and the response to all of this is to do the following:

  • Admit that you've got too much on your plate. As the saying goes, the first step is to admit you've got a problem.  This isn't a moral failure but an acknowledgement that your life is full and maybe spilling over with commitments.
  • Decide today to simplify.  The good news?  Simplifying takes many forms and can be applied to any of the following areas:

-finances: you can decide to go out less often or automate your bills.


-fitness: you can decide to eat smaller portions or use a meal planning process.


-spirituality: you can decide to use the same prayer book each morning instead of searching for one.


-work: you can decide to work on certain things on certain days.


-wardrobe: you can decide you streamline your wardrobe and pair back your options.


-groceries: you can decide to use an Amazon Dash button to make less decisions at the grocery store.

You get the point.  These areas and corresponding actions are easy to read (and actually easy to do) but take courage to act on.  

Take the case of simplifying your wardrobe.  You and I both know that a simpler wardrobe will save time and money.  Yet, if I told you today to go through your closet and write down a few outfits that you absolutely love, that's where the process might fall apart.

Those actions, while not difficult, are hard.  They involve loss and further decisions.  They involve donating things and possibly buying new things.  They take time.

Could your simplifying contribute to decision fatigue?  Perhaps but once you press through, keeping your eye on the goal, you'll overcome it.  These decisions are actually ones that will counteract the others that feed into decision fatigue.

As a homework assignment, make a small decision today to simplify.  

One thing.  

Anything.  

Realize that it can counteract your decision fatigue and bring more peace of mind.  Then, you'll be able to bring your very best self to those you love and ultimately, the whole world.

Simple Ways for Working Smarter Every Day

A friend of mine recently decided to quit his job in the city.  His office was big.  His title was impressive.  His salary was more than enough for him and his family to live on.

What led to his leaving his cozy job?

It wasn't the money nor the responsibilities he had at work.  Rather, it was the soul-sucking nature of living in the burbs and dragging his butt into the city each and every day.

He had had enough.  He hated the commute.  He hated the lack of trees in the city.  He hated the daily obsession with "beating the traffic" to get out of the city.  His workplace was a hotbed of interruption and BS.  After prayer and more than a few long talks with his wife, he decided he was going to leave and pursue something very different.  

He hasn't looked back since.

Jealous?  I was when I first heard and then, with a smile, I congratulated him and admired his bravery.  This guy has guts.

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What Steve realized, long before he quit his job, was that he wasn't actually getting getting that much work done when he was at work.  This led him to resent his job and feel as if there had to be a smarter way to work.

Be honest- how much work do you get done when you're at work?  

I suspect that, if your job is anything like Steve's was, your day is full of any of the following time thieves:

  • commuting to and from work (30-90 minutes)
  • meetings (30-60 minutes)
  • chit-chat (15-30 minutes)
  • lunch (30-60 minutes)

A worse-case scenario could rob you of 150 minutes of your day- that's over two hours!  Add it up and you could be losing over eight hours a week or one full workday- not good.  Tack on to the lost time of 150 minutes is the hard-to-measure moments that evaporated due to distractions and being interrupted.  

That's not ok.

It's exactly why my friend Steve decided that he had had enough.  He's now doing work that allows him to focus, enjoy fewer meetings and work to his strengths.  

If you're tired of these time thieves (as I am!), I suggest the following as an antidote to the problems of the modern workplace:

  1. Attend as few meetings as possible.
  2. Cultivate time, each day, to think deeply and focus, without interruption.  
  3. Find quiet spaces during the day to do work.  
  4. Create a personal workspace that you enjoy and look forward to.
  5. Have as short a commute as possible.
  6. Explore the possibility of working from home, 1-2 days per week.

I'm not saying that it's that simple.  But, it kind of is.  All it takes is a bit of courage and a sense that you're fed up with a work day that keeps you from actually doing your work.

Try any one of these six action-steps this coming week and let me know which one makes a difference in your time management and work.  I'd love to hear from you!

How to Make Lists Work for You
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The most productive people I know use lists to stay organized.  Most people appreciate the value of a good list- for groceries or for Christmas shopping.  

What the uber-productive people know is that the same magic that makes a grocery store list so good can be scaled to other areas of life.  

The result: super productivity and greater peace of mind.

Think of the grocery store list and why it works so well:

  • It matches need to resource.
  • It gives you items to cross off. This feels so good!
  • It takes a store with tens of thousands of items to offer and simplifies it to your needs and wants.

Where a grocery store list can be brought to the next level is when you keep a list going throughout a week.  The milk runs low on Tuesday and "milk" goes on your list. Tortillas show up on Friday and also go on your list.  By the time Sunday rolls around and you're ready for the store, you already have your list.  This is how you can make your lists work for you instead of the dread of having to add things at the last minute.

I use this at work for upcoming cities and travel.  For example, it's unlikely that I'll remember all of the people I want to visit the next time I'm in Boston.  But, I can remember a little at a time and add to my list in the months leading up to my next trip to Beantown.

I currently have lists for:

  • next time in Cincinnati
  • next time in Boston
  • next time in LA
  • next time in Florida

I find these sort of "add as you go" lists work really well around the house.  At a random moment, you might have an idea of something you need for your porch to get finished.  As you already have an "Around the House" list (or better yet, a Finish the Porch project), you can simply add when the muse hits you.  Then, on a Saturday when you have time, you just open your list and get to work.

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This process also works well for gift giving.  My wife is notoriously difficult to shop for so I keep a list just for her birthday and Christmas.  When she drops a hint of something that she might like, I add it to my list like a super-sleuth.  Boy does it make things easier when I then go to purchase a gift!

As a follow up, I suggest looking at your current lists.  This presumes that you're using a digital task manager (like Nozbe which is my favorite or Omnifocus or even a paper planner) to stay on top of your lists.  After a quick scan, identify which of your lists you can "populate" as you go through your week.  You may be surprised by how many of them are ready for you to add items as you go.

Then, and this is the key, have the courage to add to your lists on the fly.  

You'll be tempted to just have a thought and then let it go.  Instead, pause and add to your lists.  Don't let the hectic pace of life sabotage your lists.  You'll feel good about it and your productivity will go to the next level.