Right now I'm waiting to start a video interview. I called in early, but my friend who is doing the interview wasn't ready, so I've got five or ten minutes to kill before we get started. My first inclination was to catch up on email. I only had a couple to write, so I finished them quickly. Still some time to kill. I took a look at a SETT bug that's high priority, but the solution wasn't the obvious one that I thought it might be. I'll have to take a deeper look when I have more time. Still have a few minutes before we start. May as well write a blog post.
I think that there are two basic modes that a productive person's mind can be in. There's that mode where you're going to get your work done, but you'll fight yourself every step of the way. When you're in that mode, your reticular activation system, the part of your brain that is constantly scanning, looks for non-work things to do. Ooh, five minutes before the call-- why don't you browse Facebook? I call this the distraction-first mode.
I've been in distraction-first mode plenty of times, probably spent most of my life there, but today I'm not, so when I have a few minutes of downtime, my default is to find something productive to do. Email, SETT, blog post. Productivity-first mode. It's not that I force myself to fill these minutes with something productive, it's that it's what I actually want to do. That's the magic of it.
Being in productivity-first mode is beautiful. It's like living your life in a flow state, executing task after task without the mental toll of having to cheerlead yourself into doing. Emails finished, open up my code editor with no hesistation and start poring through the source code. Determine that it needs more time than I have, and before I can even think, I'm two sentences into this blog post.
It's important to stay in productivity-first mode, not only for the added tasks you get done all day in stolen minutes, but mostly because it allows you to push the limits of your productivity without stressing yourself out. When I'm in this mode I can work for 10-14 hours per day feeling more and more energized as I go. When I'm in distraction-first mode, I slog through the day, feeling like it's an uphill battle. If I work ten or more hours, I'm exhausted. Ironically, the mental struggle I experience when giving in to distractions negates the positive feelings associated with the distraction. It's sort of like eating a tub of ice cream-- sounds appealing, but you're not really glad you did it afterwards.
How do you stay in the productivity-first mode? The key is to avoid the first distraction, the original sin. Distraction lurks around every corner, and once you give into that first one, your brain is emboldened and starts looking for the next distraction. Give into that next one, and now the next is easier. Before you know it, you're scrolling through Reddit, thinking, "What the hell am I even doing? I'm supposed to be working!" but you're near powerless to stop yourself.
You have to remember that the first distraction, no matter how benign it's appearance, is your enemy. Give in to that one tiny indulgence and you risk your entire day. This is hyperbole, of course, but if you can really believe it in your head, it takes away a lot of the shiny appeal of that first distraction. If I give in to the first distraction, usually because I didn't even consciously realize I was doing it, I reprimand myself internally and say, "Look, now you've made it really hard on yourself. Whatever you do, don't give in to the next distraction." I still give in sometimes, but it's very rare now because I've become so aware of just how harmful it is. Maybe one in twenty days.
There's a time for work and there's a time to relax. Most of the time is for work, if you ask me, but you can make your own decision on that. One thing that I'd suggest you keep absolute, though, is that whatever time you do set aside for work, keep it pure. Don't allow distraction to creep in and poison it.
Photo is from the Bellagio Garden, which is probably my favorite thing in all of Vegas (besides the free tourist money at the poker table).
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While posting this might qualify as a distraction I will proceed.
Thanks Tynan, I needed this. I have gotten sloppy with my task managing system, including broad topics rather than specific next actions. I need to get back to the GTD style. Will be reviewing all of my projects and tasks tonight.
Having a list of specific actions is half the battle, IMO. Without one, it is far easier to indulge yourself in a quick distraction.
There always seems to be a lot of bullshit flying around. It seems self-generating. Thanks again for some great words to munch on.
Great post! - ironically followed by an invitation to join a newsletter, adding more distraction to people's life :D
But of course how to handle your inbox is another matter.
In the spirit of the post I like to share a quick tip on what I did recently to prevent first distraction:
"Removing the bookmark bar from the open browser tab!"
Sounds like a small thing, but I think it makes a big difference in regard of that first distraction.
Some background: Over the years my bookmark bar has become crowded with so many links to sites I want to open quickly, that I started using abbreviations a long time ago (like HN for HackerNews or GM for Gmail).
This of course made my bookmark bar into an ever present "one click to endless procrastination" tool ("Hey let's check HN real quick.. *click*") and I am sure it is for most people.
So a week ago I had this epiphany to remove the bar completely :D Now while it's of course still possible to nearly just as quickly type in the url, by removing the bookmark bar I a) don't have the icon in my view which stops my reticular activation system from noticing the existence of that site and thus b) prevent myself from clicking on the link without even thinking about it consciously.
So far I like it a lot and with Google Chrome there's even the advanced version of only removing the bookmark bar from the current tab, but still displaying in new tabs! So when I start Chrome or hit Alt-T /Alt-N, is still get all my beloved links and can quickly check my mails, but it disappears once I selected a link or typed in an url :)
Currently I'm experimenting with other modes of distraction free environments like Writeroom for writing (where I'm just typing this comment), Readability + Chrome Presentation Mode for reading and of course Readability's "send to device" to send it to my beloved Kindle for when I stumble on a nice post and decide to read it later when I'm on the road.
I'm curious what others think of that and what your distraction free environments look like.
Being in work–first mode, I was loathe to even read this post, but once I did, I had to comment, for it was relevant. I have two papers to write, and I'm just now getting ready to go to the college to (re)check out a couple of books where I need some specific page numbers. In history writing, one is held to exacting standards of proof.
There. It only took a couple of minutes to read the post, and just about as many to write this. So it is possible to just handle a "distraction" really fast...
Er, not that I think reading your great posts and commenting is much of a distraction. Maintaining one's communication lines IS important.
(But speaking of bugs(?), I notice that though I first arrived at the site, the icon to the left is showed me as a "guest," though I was logged in, and my post did not go through, so I logged out and logged back in again. Then my avatar was the usual one. Testing...)
I really want to be productive. True productivity comes from your heart, though, like you were saying. You make the decision to make productivity a priority. It's not your task-managing system - it's your mode. It's your decision, your mental direction. There's some other, more poetic way to say it, but my brain's too scrambled to realize it...
Love that. I am in that mode today too. Synchronized. Love your thoughts, Tynan. Read a bunch of your MaxDiet stuff yesterday and it got my psyched. Just started hot yoga and am loving this whole productive, staying with my body, sweaty self love gig. It's great. Still haven't given up meat yet but definitely an interesting read.
I have a big project I'm working on (secret for now, haven't decided if I should write about it yet or not), and I've been seriously procrastinating.
It's not that I don't want to do it. It's something I arrived at myself, is very inline with my Life Nomadic goals, and will be very exciting to complete. It's my perfect project.
I'd been working on it for a week, though, and had been getting very little work done. To use a rough estimate, I had done maybe 5% of the work in a week. Twenty weeks until completion is way too long.
Well, this is embarrassing. Day Two of my "Most Productive 90 Days Ever" was off the rails. I'll share why it happened to the best of my understanding, along with some best practices on what to do during bad days (some of which I abided, some I broke).
Here was my "the night before" plan for yesterday --
Wake around noon Morning routine, modafinil, etc. Write observations from yesterday on blog
1PM: Prepare questions I'm trying to learn and things I want to understand about the nonprofit space. Go through my email, reply call or write to everyone who responded, call people who were out of Beijing when introduced. Ask questions and/or invite to lunch next week.