How do you keep focused doing the things that matter even when they’re a grind?
Reader Alan N. just recently asked me this question and it’s an excellent one.
Most of the time, the things that matter are a grind. Why is that? It seems unfair that the most important work is often mundane and difficult. Not to mention that usually the most important work is not even due today.
But that’s the truth of it. We have to define the things that matter and then seek them out and act on them. If we want to do the things that matter, we have to show up every day and do them.
The topic of meaningful productivity is central to The Focus Course. And since I’m almost done building the course, I could talk about this stuff for hours and hours — it’s all right at the top of my mind right now.
In short, at the end of the day, meaningful productivity is about consistently doing the things that matter. Contrary to popular belief, real productivity has very little to do with how many emails we can reply to and then archive in less than 60 seconds.
That said, the way we keep focused on the things that matter even when they’re a grind, is two-fold: (1) Make doing the most important work part of your routine; and (2) celebrate your daily progress.
On the other side of that coin is overcoming two of the greatest areas of resistance to doing meaningful work every day: Inbox Addiction and Urgency Addiction.
Make Doing the Most Important Work Part of Your Routine
I write for a living. And I’ve found that having a common time, common place, and even the same theme music for my writing has made a profound impact on my ability to show up every day and write.
When you look at it from the outside, it sounds silly or boring. But in practice it’s a bit cathartic, and it’s the time of my day I most look forward to. When I know when and where I’ll be writing, and what I’ll be writing about, I can’t wait to get to work.
It wasn’t until just three months ago that Iactually set a routine in place for when and where I would write:
Every morning I write for at least 30 minutes no matter what. That’s my commitment: 30 minutes. This writing time is the first thing I do each morning when I start my work day. And though I’m committed to write for at least just 30 minutes, I usually end up writing for about 2.5 hours. Once I’ve pressed through that initial half-hour, I find a flow and just keep going.
I play the same music every morning during my 30 minutes of writing time. It’s the Monument Valley soundtrack. On repeat. I put on my headphones and hit play on that album. I probably listen to it 3 or 4 times every day. The advantage is that it just becomes like white noise — because it’s familiar it’s not distracting. And because I’m always listening to this music when I’m writing, the music itself now has a Pavlovian effect that helps me focus in on “writing mode”.
Additionally, I do not check any statistics or inboxes until at least 9:00 am. Since I start my work day at 7:30am, I have a minimum of 90 minutes where my only goal is to write, think, or plan.
Thus, not only do I have a commitment to do the work, but also a commitment to not give in to any potential distractions while I’m doing the work. As I’m sure you know, it’s one thing to show up and another thing altogether to actually create something in the time you’ve given yourself.
Since I began this morning writing routine three months ago, I’ve written somewhere in the ballpark of 90,000 words. This includes my Fight Spot newsletters, podcast scripts and talking points, 31 days (so far) of my 40-day Focus Course, and the first draft of a top-secret new ebook we will be publishing through The Sweet Setup in a few months.
Having this routine in place does more than just create the space for me to do my most important work. It also reserves my willpower and creative energy for that which matters most: doing the actual work.
When I start writing in the morning, I already know what I’m going to write about (because I choose each day’s writing assignment the day before). I also already know how long I’m going to write for (at least 30 minutes), and that I’m not going to do anything else.
There is literally nothing for me to think about other than moving the that big blue blinking cursor from left to right.
It’s most difficult at the beginning
The hardest part of turning our most important work into part of our routine is at the beginning. As we implement a new daily habit, the most energy required is at the outset.
They say it takes 21 days to form a new habit. But that’s the minimum. For most people it is more like 66 days — about two months. But, once you’ve done something for two months then the discipline required to keep doing it is greatly reduced.
So, for example, writing 1,000 words every day can be extremely challenging for the first week. Then a bit less challenging the week after. Until, after about 8 weeks, you’re practically on autopilot. If you can muster the discipline and diligence to stick with it for a couple of months, then pretty soon the routine of it takes over.
Choose to do something every day until eventually it chooses you back.
Celebrate Your Progress
At the end of every day, I open up my Day One journal and write down the highlights of what I accomplished that day. It usually includes the topic I wrote about and how many words I put down, any meaningful connections or conversations I had, and any other miscellaneous thoughts.
By recognizing and rewarding these small wins each day, it builds up an intrinsic motivation that makes me want to keep doing the important work.
Celebrating progress strengthens our emotional and motivated state. Which means we are happier and more motivated at work and are therefore more likely to be productive and creative. It keeps the cycle going.
We may know what our most important work is. And we may know that we should be spending time on it every day. But oftentimes that head knowledge is not heart knowledge. We don’t feel the value in what we’re doing.
When we feel like cogs in a machine (even cogs who know they’re doing something they think is important) then we slowly lose our desire to be productive and efficient. We don’t care about coming up with creative solutions or fresh ideas. We just do what’s required of us in order to get our paycheck so we can go home to our television and unwind.
By cataloging and celebrating our small wins each day then we can be reminded that we are making meaningful progress. And, in truth, it’s the small wins which all add up to actually complete the big projects and big goals.
Note: I was recently interviewed for an episode of the Fizzle show where Chase Reeves discussed how to use a productivity journal. It’s an excellent podcast episode — tightly edited and constructed, like an episode 99pi or something you’d hear on NPR.
Inbox Addiction (“The Just Checks”)
Here’s how I define Inbox Addiction:
Inbox Addiction is an urge to continuously check one’s news feeds, social feeds, and message inboxes despite undesirable and even negative consequences or a desire to stop.
Inbox addiction poses a serious threat to doing our best creative work and staying on focus with our essential tasks. The addiction of checking and refreshing our inboxes, timelines, and stats robs us of our ability to focus as well as our ability to do substantial, meaningful work. It’s a drain on our time as well as a drain on our creative energy.
Last fall I wrote about some alternatives to The Just Checks. In short, when I’m in line at the store or have a moment of down time, instead of habitually checking Twitter or email or Instagram, I try to instead scroll through my Day One timeline (the Day One Today extension for iOS 8 that shows two random photos is great for this, btw) or send an encouraging text message to a friend.
Urgency Addiction in a Nutshell
In his book, First Things First, Stephen Covey defines Urgency Addiction as this:
Urgency addiction is a self-destructive behavior that temporarily fills the void created by unmet needs. And instead of meeting these needs, the tools and approaches of time management often feed the addiction. They keep us focused on daily prioritization of the urgent. […]
It’s important to realize that urgency itself is not the problem. The problem is that when urgency is the dominant factor in our lives, importance isn’t.
The reason urgency addiction robs us of doing our most important work is because essential work is often mundane.
One reason we love to give our energy and attention to doing what is urgent is because it feels exciting. There is a natural momentum and adrenaline that accompanies things which are urgent.
Contrast that against doing what is essential.
Back to the writing example: suppose you are writing a book. The essential work is that you must put words down. And yet, that is so often the very task we neglect and avoid. Because it’s difficult, boring, tedious, mundane. We instead let our days get filled with many other more pressing (“urgent”) matters, and never get to the foundational and important work of writing.
When something is essential, it is absolutely necessary. Essential is the very definition of what’s truly important
Urgent is relative, but essential is absolute. While urgency is usually defined by external factors, essentialness is fundamentally important to a project or goal, regardless of external factors.
Urgency in and of itself is not a problem. The problem is when we find ourselves craving projects, work environments, and scenarios where there is a fire to put out. And thus we never have the time to do the important task which doesn’t have to be done today.
Urgency addiction is when we allow our time to be taken over by whatever is most urgent in the moment. When that happens, we give no consideration to what’s down the road and no priority to the long-term goals. Moreover, it leaves no space for us to walk out our daily habits and lifestyle practices — they get set aside, sacrificed for the sake of yet another urgent crisis or pressing matter.
How often do you feel frustrated at the end of the day because your most important tasks are still not done? How often do you blame the rush and press of external things for your failure to do the work you know to be most important? How often do you find yourself giving up quality time with important people so that you can finish a project or respond to a crisis?
To let our lives be taken over by what is only urgent is to live like a child — caring only about what seems important right now with no regard for the future and without even knowing what is actually important today.
So long as our attention is focused on the urgent and the incoming, we won’t be able to do our best work. We won’t make any meaningful progress toward our goals because we will be dealing only with the tasks and situations which are urgent while we neglect the ones which are essential.
* * *
The newness of a project brings an energy that motivates us to get started. And the urgency of a deadline brings an energy that motivates us to finish. But what about in-between? How do we keep on doing the work in-between starting something new and finishing it? Because the vast majority of our life is lived in that “in-between state”.
Joy in the Journey
The best musicians in the world practice every single day. For hours a day. And they don’t just practice their favorite songs and coolest licks — they practice the techniques and scales and fills that they’re bad at.
I studied martial arts for over a decade, and we did the same stretches and basic moves at the start of every class every time. Even after I received my black belt, we were still practicing basic front stance and middle punch.
You write a book by writing it. Thinking about it, outlining it, researching for it, yeah you’ve got to do these. But you’ve also got to sit down and write it. Even if you can write 1,000 words every day, you’re looking at a couple of months to write the first draft.
Something the best musicians, the martial artists, and writers all have in common is more than just commitment and fortitude. More than just routine. They have a joy in the journey.
And while the musician, martial artist, and writer all have goals they’re working toward, the goal is not the primary motivation. When we delight in the journey, then the daily grind becomes what we get to do. Not something we have to do.
In his book, Mastery, George Leonard writes that “love of your work, willingness to stay with it even in the absence of extrinsic reward, is good food and drink.”
When we’re doing work that matters there is no finally moment. The tension and the difficulty never go away. The distractions and excuses will always be around. Hard work will always be hard work. The goal is not to eliminate the tension but to thrive in the midst of it.
P.S. I’m building a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. If you’d like to be notified when The Focus Course comes out, sign up here.
You’ll get my weekly emails regarding creativity, focus, and risk. And, you’ll get my 40-page PDF, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, for free.
Let’s take two quotes, mash their ideas together, and see what we get:
“Perpetual devotion to what a man calls his business, is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” — Robert Louis Stevenson
“If I were to let my life be taken over by what is urgent, I might very well never get around to what is essential.” — Henri Nouwen
I’ve been working from home and working for myself for over 4 years. One of the most empowering lessons I have learned over these past 4 years has been regarding my own limitations. Not merely my limitations of time, but also of energy.
In any given day I usually have 3 hours of good writing time in me. A couple hours of reading. Hopefully an hour or two of researching, thinking, or decision making. And maybe an hour of admin and other busywork.
If I push my day to include more than that, the returns on that extra energy is very little. Though the workaholic in me wants to squeeze in a few more tasks, there is a point when the responsible and productive thing for me to do is leave my office and stop working altogether.
Honestly, at times it can be difficult to let myself quit while I’m ahead for the day and go upstairs to be with my family, or go run errands, or just lie down and stare at the ceiling while I listen to what is going on in my imagination.
Albert Einstein once said: “Although I have a regular work schedule, I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on inside my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualize what goes on in my imagination.”
Over my years of working from home, I feel that too much focus on the “act of productivity” is to miss the forest for the trees.
Being “efficient” is not what’s ultimately important. I want to do my best creative work and I want to have thriving relationships. Meaningful productivity means showing up to do the important work on a regular basis.
Time management, task management, focus, diligence — these can help keep me on track, but they are not the end goal in and of themselves. I want to focus first on the important work itself.
Have I written today? Have I daydreamed? Have I been contemplative? Have I had an inspiring and encouraging conversation? Have I helped somebody? These activities are far more important than the checkmarks I make on my to-do list.
When you work for yourself, there is an oceanic undercurrent that pulls you into the details of your job. The thousand responsibilities of administration and communication and infrastructure. These are important, to be sure, because without them your business would cease to be. But (at least in my case) these are the support structures at best. The foundation of my business is not the ancillary administration; it is the muse.
“You can do anything, but not everything.” — David Allen
I am in the fortunate position that I don’t have to deal with email to do my job. In fact, the inverse that is closer to the truth: the less time I spend doing email the better I can do my job.
There are a few types of emails that I always pay attention to, and a handful of people whom I try to always correspond with in a timely manner. But I have rules and flags set up for those so that they are always sure to get my attention in my inbox.
For the rest of my emails, chances are I won’t ever reply to them. The reason I’m such a poor email correspondent to most people is that I just choose not to spend much time in email. Instead, I choose to spend my time doing other things such as writing, reading, managing the the administrative and financial logistics that accompany working for yourself, and spending as much time with my family as possible.
I could easily spend 3-4 hours every day reading to and replying to the messages in my inbox. But it’s not just the time and correspondence aspects of email that I chose to say no to — I’m also preemptively avoiding the decision-making and judgment-making requests that incoming emails ask of me.
Many of the emails I get are requests for my time, in one way or another. Either a request for an interview, an app review, to be a beta tester, etc. I would love to give my time and attention to these things if I could — I know I’m missing some great opportunities and relationships. But that’s just the way I’m letting it be — it’s an unfortunate consequence of my choice to be “poor” at email.
But if I were focus on all the incoming emails, and pursue all the opportunities that those messages presented, then I’d have no time, energy, or focus left for what is my most important work.
My friend Chris Bowler wrote about this. Saying: “Can we all agree to just let go? To stop caring that we might miss something big, something important? Reality is, we are all missing something important in front of us every day, while we carefully scan our feeds, missing the suffering, the joy, the simple state of being all around us. Our families and friends, our neighbours, our complete strangers.”
If I said yes to all the requests and opportunities and potential new relationships coming to my inbox then I’d have another full-time job, and I wouldn’t be able to write anymore.
My approach to email is not unlike the approach with one of the co-founders of Google has. David Shin, a former Google employee, shared this story:
When I worked at Google in 2006/2007, Larry and Sergey held a Q&A session, and this exact question was asked of them. One of them answered (I don’t remember which) with the following humorous response (paraphrased):*
”When I open up my email, I start at the top and work my way down, and go as far as I feel like. Anything I don’t get to will never be read. Some people end up amazed that they get an email response from a founder of Google in just 5 minutes. Others simply get what they expected (no reply).”*
I spend about 20-30 minutes a day in my email, and whatever I get to I get to. And whatever I don’t, unfortunately, goes unanswered. Because for me, Inbox Zero is actually all about the outbox. Inbox Zero means I choose to focus my time, energy, and attention on creating something worthwhile instead of feeding some unhealthy addiction to constantly check my inboxes. It means I care more about this moment than I do about my narcissistic tendencies of knowing who’s talking to me on Twitter. It means I care more about doing my best creative work than about keeping up with the real-time web and being instantly accessible via email.
By “pre-deciding” that the majority of requests for my time and attention over email just go unanswered, it gives me a fighting chance at doing my best creative work every day. Not only does it give me more time to focus on that which is important, but it gives me more creative energy to do my best work during that time.
In The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, there’s this great line: “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject…”
Mann’s line carries the same truth as the earlier quote by Robert Louis Stevenson. Our devotion to a subject can only be sustained by the neglect of many others. Our devotion to that which is important can only be sustained by the neglect of that which is non-essential.
Your story doesn’t have to be about email. I bet you a cup of coffee there is something you can decide to be poor at so you can be better at something else.
Finding something we want to do is the easy part. Now we must decide what we will neglect, and then we have to grow comfortable with being in that state of “perpetual neglect”. Something not easily done in a culture that tells us we can and should have it all and do it all.
But what happens when we try to do it all? In his book, Essentialism, Greg McKeown has an excellent diagram comparing the difference between our efforts when we have many pursuits versus focusing in on just one thing.
When we are spending a little bit of time on a million different projects, areas of responsibilities, tasks, and activities, then we make very little progress on any of them. And our efforts are stretched thin. However, if we focus our energy on only the most important things — that which is essential — then we make meaningful progress. Not to mention, it just feels more rewarding to focus on one important thing and do it with excellence.
When we take a moment to consider what our most important work is, we tend to think mostly about what we want to accomplish and do and be.
But why not also think about what we will not do? What tasks and pursuits will we give up or entrust to others? What areas of our time, energy, and attention will we simplify in order to create the space and the margin to do what we want?
We can do anything we want, but we can’t do everything. Which means that for every “yes” there are 1,000 “no”s.
P.S. I’m building a guided, online course about doing our best creative work and living a focused life. If you’d like to be notified when it comes out, sign up for here.
You’ll get my weekly emails regarding creativity, focus, and risk. And, you’ll get my 40-page PDF, The Procrastinator’s Guide to Progress, for free.
It was February of 2011 when I announced I was quitting my job and would be going full-time with shawnblanc.net. At the time I’d been writing here for just shy of four years.
Now, it has been another four. As I sit here this morning, writing these words, my heart is filled with gratitude. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to pull back the curtain and share from my heart this morning.
Looking back at the launch of my membership, in some ways, it seems like I did it all wrong. I “launched a product” four years ago without an email list, without any forewarning, and I probably totally undersold my value and left money on the table.
Literally all I did was publish a blog post telling everyone I was quitting my job and asked them to pitch in $3/month to support me. Oh, and I made a super dorky video using the iSight Camera on my MacBook Pro.
By today’s standards, there’s no way that should have worked.
But it did. By golly, it actually did work.
I’m sure I could have done things better. But at the same time, maybe not. There are a few reasons I think it did work, and if I take out any one of those dynamics who knows but the whole thing might have failed.
For one, I’d already been writing my site consistently for almost 4 years. This is something you, as a maker and an artist, can’t get away from. A maker makes. And I’d proved myself — both to you, the reader, and also to my own self — that I was in it for the long run. It wasn’t about an end goal — it was about the journey. And it still is. I’m not looking for an exit, I’m looking for a lifestyle and a community.
The consistency I had built up was an invaluable foundation upon which I was able to ask people to support my work. The whole pitch of the membership drive was along the lines of: “if you like the writing I’ve been doing here already, then pitch in a few bucks per month and I’ll be able to keep writing and write more frequently.”
If I hadn’t already been writing consistently for years, then there’s no way I could have asked people for their support.
My site archives served as the portfolio. My consistency was my résumé. And my new employer, the readers, decided to hire me.
But consistency is the obvious part, right. We all know that, part, right? We know we’ve got to show up every day if we want to build an audience or whatever. But there is more to it than that.
If you’re an artist and you are showing up every day as a means to an end, it will blow up in your face.
You get back what you give out. You reap what you sow.
So yes, consistency is the foundation. But it’s not the solution in and of itself.
There are a thousand million other websites out there, all publishing something every day. But there is one thing that separates them from you. That one thing is you. YOU!
Once you show up, it’s time to be honest. To bleed. To have fun. Roll your sleeves up and put your hands in the dirt. Smile. Laugh. Cry. Be genuine.
For eight years now I’ve been writing for shawnblanc.net, and I still get nervous every time I’m about to hit publish. At first, I thought the fear was just my novice-ness showing through. I assumed that once I got more experience under my belt, I’d be less afraid to publish. But I know now that’s not the case.
That edge of fear is what keeps me on track. If I’m afraid, then chances are I’m publishing something worthwhile. If I’m working on a project and constantly asking myself if it’s even going to work, then it means I’m probably making something of value.
If I pause for a moment before hitting “publish”, then it means there is probably someone who will find value in what I’ve just written. And so I hope to never get comfortable and never stop taking risks. From the small, daily risks of publishing an article, to the big crazy risks of starting a new website, trusting my team, writing a book, or creating a massive online course that I hope will literally change people’s lives.
* * *
Let me wrap this up by saying two things.
To the fellow makers, writers, podcasters, designers, and artists, out there: Thank you for making what you make. Keep showing up. And, most of all, keep being genuine. Keep dancing with that fear.
And to you, dear readers: A million, billion thanks. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you for your support over these years. I’m having more fun writing now than I ever have. It’s hard as hell, but that’s the point. In some ways I feel like we’re just getting started.
- April 1, 2011 was a Friday. I took a 3 day weekend to give myself some breathing room after quitting my job the day before, and didn’t publish my first article as a full-time, indie blogger until April 4, 2011. Details.↵
Below is a transcript from today’s episode of my podcast, The Weekly Briefly. You can listen to the episode here.
* * *
On my weekly newsletter, The Fight Spot, I ask people what their biggest challenge is related to focus and doing their best creative work.
One very common issue is the issue of having more ideas than time. People have so many interesting, exciting, or important projects they are working on that they don’t know where to start. They feel overwhelmed by options. They have too much to do. And so one very common question is “How do I get it all done?”
Last summer, I was in San Francisco for WWDC, and I was talking about this issue with a friend. He’s an iPhone app developer and he literally has dozens of apps and web services out there. I ask him how he juggles his focus and priorities.
For me, at times I feel stretched thin with “just” my 3 websites and podcast. I know that I do my best work when I am head down and focused on just one project and it’s all I think about until I’m done.
But sometimes that’s not an option (or is it?).
My friend said that to have multiple projects you have to be okay with letting one or more of them be neglected for a time while you work on the others. And, in his experience, coming back to an app and working hard to ship a big update, he often wouldn’t even see a big spike in new sales. So the update wasn’t even worth it all that much in terms of the short term, only.
* * *
Let me start by saying that I don’t know the answer, here. There isn’t one universal rule here. You have to trust your gut and know your situation to make the call if you’re going to keep juggling many projects or if you’re going to let some go to focus on one.
That said, for those of us who have several projects and ideas all going at the same time, how do we juggle them?
Here are some suggestions:
Identify your roles and goals: you need balance in your life, so step back and identify your roles (parent, boss, employee, self-improver, etc.) And make sure that you’re not spending the vast majority of your time in just one of those roles.
Reduce the scope: consider scaling back what “1.0” looks like, so it’s something that is attainable. And consider lowering your bar of perfectionism — my friend Sean McCabe says we ought to aim for 90% complete (instead of 99%).
Reduce your project load: do you have to be doing all the projects right now? Can one or more of them be put on pause? Instead of doing three projects all simultaneously, can you do one at a time? Even on a week-to-week basis?
Get help: consider delegating and/or hiring others to help you.
Learn to say no to your own ideas: In The Focus Course, there is a day dedicated to ideation and strengthening our creative imagination. One of the benefits to this exercise is that you learn you have more ideas than time, and you don’t have to be a slave to your good ideas. We all will have ideas that we want to do, but the existence of them doesn’t mean we are now obligated to flesh them out.
Spend less time on counterfeit rest: things like television, video games, social media, mindless internet surfing — these things can be time sinks. Moreover, they don’t leave us feeling refreshed, motivated, or recharged. You most definitely need breaks and time to rest, but there are some great ways to do it other than zoning out.
Plan ahead: your productive tomorrow starts today. What is one thing you can do now that will improve life for your future self? Go to bed on time, set out your clothes for tomorrow, write down the first thing you’re going to do when you sit down to work in the morning, etc. This will give you a head start on your projects.
“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life’s made of.”
– Benjamin Franklin
* * *
Protip: There are four ways to help yourself avoid squandering time:
- Plan ahead (make a schedule)
- Awareness of how you tend to spend your time
- Don’t be dumb
Regarding (1): There are a lot of resources available to help you improve how you spend your time. Heck, I’m building an entire course to help you be more focused and do more meaningful work (and then some).
Regarding (4): well, that’s up to you.
Regarding (2) and (3): There’s an online service called Rescue Time that I think is pretty awesome.
* * *
In the past 8 weeks, I’ve logged more than 400 hours of my time using Rescue Time. They say hindsight is 20/20, and the Rescue Time service is a way to see how you’re actually spending your time. Its insight and data can help you make better decisions about what you do with your day.
In a nut, Rescue Time is an online service that tracks and categorizes how you spend your time. It’s ideal for folks who spend most of their time working from a computer.
You start by signing up on their website. Then you download and install the app to your Mac (they’ve a PC version as well), and then you register the app with your online account.
Once your computer is connected, you create your profile. Rescue Time asks you what your top three most distracting activities are and what your top three most productive activities are.
I put (a) Social Networking, (b) News & Opinion, and (c) Shopping as my top three most distracting activities.
Then I put (a) Reference & Learning, (b) Design & Composition, and (c) Business as my top three most productive activities.
I also asked Rescue Time to prompt me for time spent away from my computer. This way, when I return to my Mac after taking a lunch break, reading break, or going for a run, the Rescue Time app will prompt me to ask what I was doing while I was away.
Once your Rescue Time profile is created, you’ll have some default preferences set up for you. The two goals Rescue time starts you with are:
- More than 2 hours spent daily on your first-listed, most productive activity.
- Less than 2 hours spent on all of your most-distracting activities combined.
I changed my first goal to be 2 hours spent on writing each day. I feel like all the things which fall into my top 3 categories would easily be accomplished in 2 hours and then some. I wanted to try and have 2 hours focused just on writing itself. This is, for me, my most important thing every day.
Unfortunately, after my first week, I didn’t hit my goal. [Shakes fist in the air.] But it turns out Rescue Time was set to average my goal of 2 hours of writing across a 24/7 schedule. Since I take Saturday and Sunday off, that was messing with my average. So I adjusted the goal to be 2 hours/day between Monday-Friday 6am-8pm. And boom.
For the first week I tried to log all of my offline time including sleep and personal time in the mornings before sitting down at my desk. That proved to be tedious. So I just stopped logging sleeping hours. I’m not going to try and let Rescue Time keep tabs on all 168 hours of my week, just the ones when I’m at the computer.
It’s been 8 weeks now, and twice I’ve gone in to my Rescue Time dashboard to fine tune the categories and productivity score (between 1-5) of my activities. For example, I do a lot of basic note taking and writing in Simplenote (I’m doing my initial notes for this Rescue Time review right now, in Simplenote). But Rescue Time defaulted to seeing Simplenote as being a Business-related activity, not a writing-related one. Well, I want Simplenote to count toward my 2 hour goal of writing.
This is easily changed when viewing the activity page for Simplenote: I just Edited it and changed what activity category it should fall under. I also changed its level of productivity (on a scale of 1-5 from very distracting to very productive).
The productivity level of each activity contributes to the overall “productivity score” that you receive at the end of the week. Right now for the 8 weeks I’ve been using Rescue Time, my overall productivity score is 79. Which I think is pretty good.
I know there is some margin of error in there. For example, not all the time I spend on Twitter is distracting. But sometimes it is. I suppose that to keep a clear distinction between “productive Twitter” and “distracting Twitter” I could set the twitter.com website as distracting and Tweetbot as productive. But that’s easier said than done when it comes to keeping yourself on track. So I just let Twitter be distracting and try not to be too productive on there lest I feel cheated.
For the paid, Pro level of Rescue Time you can choose to have certain websites blocked. This is called “Get Focused”.
So far as I can tell, when you “Get Focused” it only blocks websites. Which means you can still launch certain apps. So, for instance, twitter.com would be blocked but Tweetbot still works.
(Matt Gemmell has an article about this, and shares about some certain apps that run on your computer and full-on block websites and APIs and apps and more.)
The slight conundrum about Rescue Time’s Get Focused tab is that things like checking Twitter and email are a mixed bag. I often use Twitter for productive work, but also it can be a time sink. So it’s not this one-to-one direct ratio where Twitter equals unproductive every time. But it can be unproductive. And I think having at least a little bit of understanding about how much time I tend to spend on Twitter can be helpful to keep myself on track.
When you’ve met a goal you can get an alert, or when you’ve spent too much time on “distracting” activities, you can get an alert. I’ve gotten pretty good at hitting my daily goal of writing for 2 hours, so I don’t get an alert for that. But I get an alert if I spend more than one hour on distracting activities.
Also, Rescue time works with Zapier. I haven’t figured out just how I’m going to exploit this, but it’s awesome nonetheless. You could use it to log your WordPress blog posts, MailChimp email campaigns sent, and who knows what else.
As I mentioned earlier, Rescue Time knows when I’m away from my computer via inactivity. Which is awesome and kind-of annoying. When I come back to my Mac, Rescue Time prompts me to categorize the activity I was doing while away.
I can define and set these categories so that my time away options suit my most common time away activities. And I can give a description detail about the time away if I want.
Some other apps I’ve used for time tracking like this don’t do a great job at watching when I’m away. And so they’ll say that I spent 5 hours one day in OmniFocus b/c I left that as the frontmost app when walking away from my computer or something like that.
Since I try to spend a good amount of my time reading and working away from my Mac, I like that I can still log that time and have it count.
One thing I don’t like about Rescue Time is how bent it is on office work as the center of everything. I had to go to the Miscellaneous category and create two new sub-categories: one for “Family” and another for “Personal”. And then I had to set those as “Productive” times. Oy.
I’m not sure if Rescue Time assumes I treat family time as non-productive (as if time with my family means time when I’m not doing anything of value) or if they just assume that I don’t take breaks in my day to be with my family.
But for me, I often take breaks in the afternoon and into the evening to be with my kids. (It’s a huge reason why I quit my job 4 years ago to work from home.) But then I may come back to my computer in the evening to wrap up some tasks or work on photos or something. Rescue Time’s default was to log that Family time as uncategorized and neutral. But no way — it’s just as much a valid use of my time as writing is.
So, that said, my biggest gripe against Rescue Time is its bias toward defining productive as “working”. But with a little bit of customizing my reports and categories, I’ve been able to change the definition of Productivity to something more along the lines of “doing what’s important”. (Now that’s what I call meaningful productivity.)
Rescue Time and the Small Wins
And this ties in with something I wrote about a while ago regarding celebrating progress.
Acknowledging our daily progress is a way to strengthen our inner work life. In our efforts to create meaningful work, it can be easy to get lost in the mundaneness of our day-to-day.
And so, one way we can thrive in the midst of the daily chaos is to recognize the few things we did today that made progress on meaningful work or that strengthened an important area of our lives.
When we take the time to celebrate our small victories — to celebrate progress — then we are re-wiring our brain (our thought process) to seek out the reward found in doing meaningful work instead of the quick-fix high we get from putting out meaningless fires and filling our time with busywork.
I’m an advocate of journaling my daily progress as a way to give myself a daily boost of confidence and motivation. Which then impacts my behavior to keep on doing the important work, which leads to better and better results and increased performance.
Rescue Time plays a role here as well. It’s a 3rd-party telling me that I met my daily goals and had a productive day / week. Rescue Time’s report is mostly just the amalgamation of time spent in productive and very productive categories. But since I’ve defined those categories and their level of “productivity” for me, I trust the reports and use them to boost my own motivation.
Having a 3rd-party service track your time may sound crazy to you. But I think it’s worth it, if even for a short season. It’s not always easy to view our habits, workflows, and calendars objectively. But if we can learn about how we spend our time and use that knowledge to rescue even just 15 or 30 minutes a day, wow! That time adds up fast.
As I was getting the links for this article put together, I discovered Rescue Plan has an affiliate program. If you want to sign up for the Pro account, use this link and I get a small kickback. Their free plan is great, too. And a good way to test the waters. Thanks!
On a recent edition of The Fight Spot, I wrote about one of the aspects of doing our best creative work: stepping out of the echo chamber.
The dictionary definition of echo chamber is “an enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound.”
An enclosed place where the majority of what you hear is unoriginal (a multi-dimensional repeating of what was once said) and whatever you say is echoed back to you.
Echo Chamber is also a metaphor. Here’s the Wikipedia definition: In media, an echo chamber is a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored or disallowed.
By nature, each of us tend to sit in the center of our own echo chamber.
When we get too absorbed in the platform, the new, and the feedback, then the echo chamber becomes the place where we compare ourselves by ourselves. It becomes noisy. Inspiration runs dry. Our creativity gets stifled. We grow cynical and sarcastic. And it serves as an ever-present distraction and pacifier from doing work that matters.
When we look to the echo chamber as our sole source of inspiration, it’s like looking to a bag of chips for our sole source of nourishment. The constant barrage of our timelines and inboxes — those “little updates” — are like snacks and junk food. They will fill you up but they are not a significant form of nourishment.
How can you become a voice — how can you provide something original, unique, and valuable — when all your inputs are unoriginal echoes?
The inspiration and motivation needed for your best creative work will not come from the echo chamber.
Limit your feeds and inboxes. Subscribe only to the people and sources of input that enrich your life and give you the motivation and tools to do your best creative work.
Seek out inspiration from offline sources. Such as books, nature, conferences, silence, prayer and meditation, relationships, journaling, building your own projects, etc.
Create something every day. Write in your journal, come up with 10 ideas, take a photograph, draw a sketch, etc.
Curate what you share. Be a source of motivation, encouragement, and equipping to those who follow you. Put thought into the work you publish. Even your tweets and Facebook updates can be nuggets that motivate, equip, and encourage.
A Challenge to You
At some point this week, do one of these things:
Unsubscribe from one RSS feed or email newsletter, or unfollow one person on Twitter or Facebook.
(You should feel free to unsubscribe from my site / newsletter / unfollow me on Twitter — if what I am writing isn’t helpful to you at this time, or isn’t providing you with the motivation and tools to do your best creative work, then cut it out. You only have so much time, and the last thing I want is to be a non-helpful source of input in your day.)
- Take 15 minutes to find inspiration from an offline source. Read a chapter from a favorite book, put your phone in another room and just sit in silence, take a walk outside, etc.
Create something. Write a journal entry, take a photograph, draw something, come up with 10 ideas for little ways you can show your friends and family how much you love them (you don’t even have to act on the 10 ideas you come up with).
Do something to encourage or equip someone else.
Before you move on from this article, decide which one of the above challenges you’re going to do and make a time in your week for when you’re going to do it.
Is the stay-at-home dad who spends most of his day changing diapers and cleaning up messes any less productive than his wife who is the CEO of a charity organization?
Productivity tends to be defined by how well we use our task management systems, how organized our calendar app is, how fast we can blaze through a pile of emails, and how fluidly we flow from one meeting to the next. But those metrics can skew toward rewarding effective busywork while giving little dignity to meaningful work.
What if we started defining productivity differently?
Less focus on our party trick of balancing many plates at once.
More focus on consistently giving our time and attention to the things which are most important.
When Ray Bradbury was first staring out as a writer, he thought the path to success was to do what everyone else was doing. He found inspiration in other people’s work, but he lacked originality. It wasn’t until later in his career that he began to discover what he called the truths beneath his skin and behind his eyes.
Last Wednesday on The Fight Spot, I wrote about removing ourselves from the Echo Chamber. An echo chamber is “an enclosed space for producing reverberation of sound.”
Have you ever felt that you’re spending too much time in an enclosed place where the majority of what you hear is unoriginal and whatever you say is echoed back to you?
When we get too absorbed in things like the platform, the analytics, the new, and the feedback, then the echo chamber becomes the place where we compare ourselves by ourselves. It’s noisy. Inspiration runs dry. Our creativity gets stifled. We grow cynical and sarcastic. We lose motivation for doing meaningful work; it serves as an ever-present distraction and pacifier from doing work that matters.
* * *
I’m going to ask you a question. And I want you to answer honestly.
Don’t answer to me or to your peers. Don’t answer with what you think you should say. Take a breath and answer honestly to yourself.
Okay, here’s the question:
Do you want to do work that matters?
Pause for a moment.
Think about it.
Okay. One more question:
Are you willing to be foolish?
Pause for a moment.
Think about it.
Are you willing to be foolish in order to do work that matters? Are you willing to fail? To be honest with others? Are you willing to create something even when life is still messy? Are you willing to take risks? Are you willing to put your work out there even when you’re afraid it might not work? Are you willing to try something different than what everyone else is doing because your gut says “why not”? Are you willing to make space in your schedule so you can show up and create something every day?
In our heart, we say, “Yes!” Then we tell ourselves we’ll start tomorrow.
Most of us want to do work that matters. But most of us don’t want to be foolish. At least, not right now. Or, we’re okay with being foolish so long as it’s calculated, planned out, polished, and then distilled down to the lowest common denominator until it’s so insipid it couldn’t possibly be confused as foolishly original.
Here’s a tip: it’s easier to be foolish and to take risks when you are surrounded by people who are also being foolish and taking risks.
If you want to do work that matters, then run from the risk averse and put yourself right in the middle of the foolish crowd.
How can you become a voice — how can you provide something original, unique, and valuable — when all your inputs are unoriginal echoes?