An (Incomplete) Cycle of Productivity

The Cycle of Productivity - Complete

The Cycle of Productivity - incomplete

I️ came across the above diagrams when reading Jinny S. Ditzler’s book, Your Best Year Yet.

I️ love the visuals they give — and not to mention the irony that, if you feel as though you’re on the hampsterwheel, then maybe you actually need to stop shortcutting the productivity cycle by skipping one or more of the segments.

In her book, Ditzler writes about how this fourth step of recognizing and celebrating progress is what contributes to our overall motivated state:

By far, the most important lesson of the Cycle of Productivity comes in segment four. Too many of us simply go straight from the end of the third segment back to the starting line without taking a pause for acknowledgment, pats on the back, thinking about what happened, or learning from it. Our eye is always on what’s next or what isn’t yet completed, and before long we feel as if we’re running on fumes — below the empty mark! We don’t feel like we’re getting anywhere and we experience little satisfaction.

This model reminds us to take time to appreciate what we’ve accomplished…

This is exactly what Teresa Amabile teaches in her book, The Progress Principle.

When we want to be super productive, we often think that speed and efficiency are what matter most. But when we shortcut ourselves, it actually slows us down in the long run. We are less productive when we don’t take time to rest and recharge and when we don’t acknowlede and celebrate our wins.

A few days ago I️ wrote about how 2017 has been a very successful year for me personally and for my work and business. As I️ said in that article, having a successful year is most certainly the result of many moving parts and lessons learned over the years.

But if I had to boil it down to what one thing had the most impact, it was, without a doubt, our 8-week work cycles.

Here’s what they look like:

Blanc Media Work Cycle

The emphasis of this 8-week work cycle is usually on the 6 weeks of focused work time. We pick one or two projects that we believe will have the most impact and that can be completed within 6 weeks.

But something else that has proven to be so beneficial is that every single work cycle we take time to review what we did, recognize the progress we made, and celebrate it. It has taken me almost this entire year to embrace our buffer week and sabbatical week — I️ usually want to get right to the next thing and not take time to pause and reflect. But skipping those last two weeks of the cycle are akin to working within an incomplete productivity model.

An (Incomplete) Cycle of Productivity

Just in time for your Monday morning commute tomorrow, this week I was honored to be a guest on Eureka, the Baron Fig podcast for thinkers and creative folks.

Adam and Joey are great guys (and have become good friends over the years). We had a lot of fun talking about productivity and writing.

(Here’s a direct link to the episode via Overcast. And here’s where you can find the Eureka podcast page.)

“Space Between” (Yours Truly on the Baron Fig Podcast)

An Epic Prime Rib

This past Sunday, my wife and I hosted an end-of-year dinner for 6 of our closest friends. It began just last year and is now officially a new tradition for the 8 of us.

I was in charge of the main course, and so we had prime rib roasted to perfection.

Here it is, just about to go into the oven…

During dinner, we all went around the table and shared our highlights and lowlights from the year.

For me, I had two big highlights to share, one of which was all things work-related.

In 2017, I took an unprecedented 8 weeks of vacation (including the 2 weeks at the end-of-the year that start tomorrow).

Moreover, Blanc Media generated more revenue than last year and we retained more of our earnings than last year; we created a brand new product; and I traveled more than I have in the past decade and was able to build many new relationships. Plus, I can’t recall a single night or weekend where I needed to work (though I’m sure there were at least a few).

My point is that, work-wise, this was a very successful year (and I’m not really talking about the financial side).

It was successful in the areas that matter most to me: time with family, a life outside of work, time to rest well, doing meaning work, and still being profitable without being stressed out.

The big question is: How? What contributed to this?

Obviously having a successful year is the result of many moving parts and lessons learned over the years. But…

If I had to boil it down, the single most impactful thing this year was our new work cycles.

In short, this new schedule was our attempt to simultaneously increase focus and productivity at the office while also increasing time away from our desks.

  • These 8-week work cycles forced us to focus on only the essential.

  • They helped us realize and define our boundaries.

  • They kept us free from work debt.

  • They forced us to take time off, rather than to just keep on working and working and working… until… 

 For years, I used tell myself that I only needed to work through just one more difficult week / project to get to an important milestone. But I did that over and over for years. There was always just one more thing.

 This year, for the first time ever, I prioritized stopping points, rest, and breaks within our work cycles. Not allowing work to infringe on my personal life.

What’s crazy is that so much of this approach to work overlaps with something I’ve been doing with my family and in my personal life for the past 6 years…

Every January, my wife and I take an evening or two and we map out our upcoming year. And year after year, this time of planning is always a highlight.

Through it, Anna and I are able to define what matters most to us for the year and see what obstacles we may encounter. It helps us maintain margin in our family life and it helps us to focus on what is most important so we can say no to everything else.

(It’s a very similar mindset and approach to what I began doing this year with work.)

For the next few weeks I’m going to take Friday to talk about how to make progress on your goals.

We won’t be talking about how to hustle harder. Rather, we’ll be talking about how to move at a sustainable pace so you can enjoy life in the process.

Here are the topics:

  • The difference between goals and systems and why they are both important (you can’t have one without the other).
  • A simple-yet-powerful structure for attaining your goals that is free from any particular productivity system, app, or methodology.
  • Lowering the barrier of entry to your goals so you can finally get started on them.
  • How to define meaningful progress (and recognize that progress) so you stay motivated.
  • The ebbs and flows of life, and allowing yourself to zig and zag in different seasons of life.

Next week, we’ll get into the two big “goal setting” camps…

Some folks say that need to know your goals inside and out or else you’ll never accomplish them. Others say you should not set goals, because who knows if you’ll even accomplish them or not, instead you should live in the moment.

Which is the right approach? We’ll dive into that next week.

Side note: This January, I’d love for you to be able to go through the same year-planning process that Anna and I go through. Which is why I finally put something together for you. It’s brand new, it’s very simple, and it will be available on December 27th.

A bunch of folks went through it this past week and their feedback has been super positive. More info on that later. For now, just wanted to give you the heads up.

An Epic Prime Rib

Do Not Disturb

My favorite feature of iOS 11 has been Do Not Disturb While Driving.

At stoplights, it’s almost universal that most folks will be looking at their screen. While annoying, at least this isn’t life-threatening behavior.

But stoplights aside, it is uncanny just how many people I see texting while driving. I often want to honk at them and remind them to put their stupid phone down, but I’m afraid that I’d just cause a wreck.

Needless to say, Do Not Disturb While Driving is a feature that will undoubtedly save lives. And so, in that respect, DNDWD is my favorite feature that everyone has who is using iOS 11.

But it’s also my personal favorite feature as an iPhone owner.

It has now been months since I received a notification while driving. And I have absolutely noticed how much more calm and present I feel when driving.

I love that my phone never buzzes and my watch never notifies. And there is no fear of missing a truly important message or phone call because people can get through if they need to. But so far, I have received exactly zero “urgent” messages while driving.

Additional, Miscellaneous Thoughts and Experiments with Do Not Disturb

In addition to the the “While Driving” part, Do Not Disturb is a pretty great feature in general.

Do Not Disturb While Working

Both my iPhone and my Mac are scheduled to stay in Do Not Disturb mode until 11am every day. This gives me a good 3-4 hours every morning to do my work without any incoming notifications.

Do Not Disturb at Night

For about two days I tried turning off internet access for my iPhone in the evenings (using the settings of my Eero). But it was very short lived — since I quickly realized that without internet access I couldn’t control my Sonos nor our Nest. Also it meant my iPhone wasn’t automatically backing up at night and updating.

However, I liked the idea of having no internet access in the evenings. There was no “pull” to just check stuff.

Some folks recommended that I just turn off all notifications and put my phone down somewhere else.

But I already do both of those things. For years I have had notifications turned off; I only get pings for incoming text messages and DMs. And my phone is usually by the fridge in the kitchen.

My no-internet evening experiment wasn’t so much about cutting off the incoming distractions as it was about giving myself the mental breathing room (similar to DNDWD) that accompanies the complete absence of something.

Do Not Disturb

On Constraints for Creating

In his response to my post from yesterday, my friend, CJ Chilvers, made this fantastic comment:

I’ve always stressed constraints in creating art, not necessarily sharing art.

This instantly makes me think about the challenge between creating the work and sharing the work…. a topic I could write about all day long. Because, well, as someone who creates things for a living and then puts them out there, I kinda need to nail it when it comes to both creating and sharing.

Earlier this year for my book club, we read through Show Your Work, by Austin Kleon. And in that article I wrote about how I have two modes of work: Monk Mode and Publishing Mode.

When I’m in Monk Mode, I have a tendency to go dark to the outside world. All of my working hours are spent with my keyboard, some books, my team, and a whiteboard. I don’t publish much to my websites, nor do I update Twitter or Instagram all that much.

But when I’m in “Publishing Mode” then it’s somewhat the opposite. Most of my working hours are spent publishing things to my sites, tweeting, etc. But I’m not focusing on any particular project or product.

A goal of mine has been to operate in both of these modes simultaneously. And, to be candid, it’s a huge challenge.

You’ve no doubt noticed that for the past few weeks I’ve been publishing here every day. Which I have loved (and I will share more about it next year). But this “publishing mode” has been, in part, made possible because I am not head down in “monk mode”.

Relatedly, Austin Kleon recently wrote an article about “how to hide and still be found”.

In which he states that his book — Show Your Work — was “for people who were great at hiding, but not so great at being findable.”

So but what about for those on the other side? The side that needs help hiding?

Austin doesn’t have the answer (yet?), but he does write this:

We seem to have being out there nailed. We’re all of us, it seems, out there. Maybe we need some help learning how to hide again?

For me, that’s what this year has been about: Learning how to hide and still be found. How to stay connected overall, but how to disconnect in crucial ways that allow me to recover some calm, some privacy, some inner sense of self, so that I can make great things to share. Because if you don’t hide, at least a little bit, it’s hard to make something worth being found.

As I wrote about back in August, I was in search of a workflow and rhythm that supported (a) doing deep work and creating huge pillar products while also (b) frequently publishing articles, podcasts, ideas, links, inspiration, etc.

It’s now December and I’m not there yet. But I think a big piece of the puzzle is what CJ said, and what I quoted at the beginning of this post…

Use constraints when creating, not when sharing.

On Constraints for Creating

Removing Obstacles to Prioritize Output

I never got into Tumblr, but I loved the idea behind it.

Tumbler encouraged you to post anything and everything: quotes, links, conversations with friends, photos, videos, articles, etc.

On the one hand, this led to tons of Tumblrs being the online equivalent of an angsty teenager’s messy bedroom. But on the other hand it also encouraged folks to put stuff out there day after day.

For the most part, I am an advocate for the idea that constraint breeds creativity. But sometimes the constraints need to be removed so you can just get unstuck.

And that’s something Tumblr got absolutely right. Because Tumblr had all sorts of various post types, there was no right or wrong thing to publish. You could share anything you found to be interesting or special or unique or funny or helpful, no matter the format. It all counted. You didn’t even need to have a title.

Contrast that with WordPress where, for a long time, the only post format was written text. Which meant that if you didn’t have something to say via written text, then you didn’t really have anything valid to publish.

And but so, if you find your output slowing down — or dammed up altogether — what can you do to get unstuck?

Remove whatever (false) constraints may be holding you back. Find a new outlet. Maybe just choose to get started again.

Daily creative output is inconvenient — no doubt about it. It’s messy. It’s up and down. That’s just the way it is.

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Removing Obstacles to Prioritize Output

Seth Godin:

Most organizations think nothing of having twenty valuable employees spend an hour in a meeting that’s only tangentially related to their productive output.

But if you’re sitting at your desk reading a book that changes your perspective, your productivity or your contribution, it somehow feels like slacking off…

I work from home, for myself, and it is still a mental hurdle to allow myself time in the day to read and learn without it feeling like slacking off.

Seth’s got a great list of books. Here are a few I’d put in:

Reading at Work

Continuing in this week’s theme of “Rubber Accessories to Make Your Apple Gear Work Better”, let’s talk about the Apple TV remote.

The Apple TV remote is a case study in form over function. It’s a beautiful little remote control that is an absolute pain in the butt to use.

I highly recommend this $8 case. It makes your Apple TV’s remote much easier to hold, and it helps you know which side of the remote is actually up.

Apple TV Remote Case

Thoughts on Camera Gear

Soon after my first son was born I wanted a better camera than my iPhone.

That was five years ago. Long-time readers may remember that I dove deep into the world of mirrorless cameras. (I’ve put links to all those past articles at the end of the post.)

To make a long story short, in the Fall of 2012 I purchased an Olympus E-PL5. And it proved to be surprisingly awesome. Though it lacked a bunch of the knobs and dials that a more advanced photographer would want, the E-PL5 was capable of taking some incredible images.

After using that camera constantly for about 18 months, I upgraded to the Olympus E-M10. The E-M10 had all the upgrades I wanted.

Life After the E-M10

After buying the E-M10 in the spring of 2014, I pretty much stopped paying attention to all new camera gear.

Instead of following the latest gear trends, I wanted to use what I had and push it to the limits. If I hit a point where I was using my camera all the time and wasn’t satisfied with my results, then I would allow myself to look into other options. But that never happened.

Five years later, and I am still using my Olympus gear regularly (though the iPhone X is certainly giving it a run for its money) and I’m still very happy with the results.

Recently, however, I was curious what new gear there was. I started searching online and found that the Olympus and Micro 4/3 landscape is mostly unchanged from when I stopped paying attention back in 2014.

There have been steady and incremental updates to all the versions of all the Olympus flagship cameras, and there are some cool new Panasonic and Olympus lenses, but nothing significantly new or mind blowing. At least, not for me.

Now, please don’t read this as me griping or complaining against Olympus or Panasonic. There’s nothing at all bad about incremental progress. If anything, I’m bragging about the opposite side of the coin: the camera and lenses I purchased back in 2013 and 2014 are just as great as they were when I bought them.

And this is something that I’ve discovered to be true about photography gear: it doesn’t become obsolete the way other technologies do.

My iPhone, iPad, and iMac will all, eventually, become obsolete and will need to be updated.

A good camera will only become obsolete if you neglect it or else outgrow it.

* * *

I have no doubt I’ll upgrade my camera gear one day.

I’d love to move up to full-frame, and there are some excellent options: both Leica and Sony have both been pushing things forward in that area. The Leica Q is stunning, and if it came with a 50mm prime rather than the 28mm, I’d be in trouble. Likewise, the Sony RX1R is pretty awesome.

For now, what I have is still serving me well. In fact, I recently took some photos of all the grandkids as part of a gift to my parent’s on their 40th wedding anniversary. I used both my Olympus E-M10 and also my office Cannon 6D that we use for shooting video with its 50/1.4 lens.

Guess which camera I got better photos from? The Olympus. No doubt because it’s the camera I’m more comfortable with, and that results in better images. But it’s just proof that for stuff like this, tools and gear are not the most important.

All that said, here are some shots I’ve taken recently with the my Olympus E-M10.

If you’d like to read more about my foray into camera gear — and get more of the details behind why I bought what I bought — then here are links to all the articles I wrote, in chronological order, starting here, here, here, here, here, and, finally, here.

Thoughts on Camera Gear

MagicGrips for Your Magic Mouse

Elevation Lab MagicGrips

A few weeks ago I happened across this new to me product from the folks at Elevation Labs, and it’s pretty awesome.

The MagicGrips are a pair of rubber grips that attach to the side of your Magic Mouse to make it more comfortable to hold.

They’re $13 (cheap) and work exactly as advertised.

As you can see from the super-bokeh’d image up at top, the MagicGrips fit perfectly, and don’t interfere whatsoever with the functionality of the mouse.

On the bottom side, the grips don’t interfere with two “skis” that the Magic Mouse rests on. And on the sides, the grips don’t touch the button’s edge, so there’s no hindrance with using the mouse.

Elevation Lab MagicGrips

Elevation Lab MagicGrips

They attach like stickers to both sides of the Magic Mouse, and took me about 30 seconds to put on. And I think they look great — it’s not a degradation of aesthetics.

After years of using the Magic Mouse, it took me a little while to get used to the new grip. But now, with the grips, the Magic Mouse is much more comfortable.

It’s a nice little upgrade to a tool that I use pretty much all day every day.

MagicGrips for Your Magic Mouse

Over on The Focus Course blog, my friend and one of our Focus Course alumni, Mo Bunnell, wrote this article on the conundrum we face when we have more ideas than time.

As I look back, distinguishing between my successes and failures is really simple: nearly all of my successes in life have been when I’ve focused on very few things, obsessed over them, and pushed them until they are ready to ship, good enough for my standards. Nearly all of my failures? Starting too many things, saying Yes to too much, or beginning more things than I can finish to my standards. Trying to do too much leads to fragmentation, dysfunction. And despite what you read, there’s no fun in dysfunction.

More and more, my success seems correlated to what I say Yes to and what I say No to.

Mo’s article originally appeared in one of his Founder’s Friday newsletters. And as soon as I read it I felt super encouraged, because it came at just the right time.

Just a few months ago Isaac (my production manager) and I were getting ready to start on a big new project. But things felt rushed… as if we were behind before we even began.

Isaac suggested we move our project deadline back by 30 days to give ourselves additional margin. But I wasn’t sure. And for several days I was stressing out over this conundrum of how much we needed to do but how I didn’t want to miss our deadline.

Reading Mo’s article reminded me of my own advice. More often than not, it’s better to sweat the details and ship something that is up to standards than it is to rush something out the door.

And so we did choose to move our project deadline back by 30 days, and it was clearly the right decision.

When Mo talks about the power of focus, he’s talking about the results you’re capable of when you give yourself the time and the margin you need in order to obsess over a project and really make it something special.

The Power of Focus