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2 Brains…and Too Productive

Lately I’ve been in a productivity rut. I keep four numbers on each day. One describes my weight for the day, the other three describe my productivity for the day. The system is rough and subjective, yet it forces me to assess what I’ve been doing with my time.

  • The first number describes my productivity for creative activities. Usually this means writing/revisions/video/audio production. This does not include my blogging. Blogging is an extra and of no intrinsic value. (1 to 10)
  • The second number describes my productivity in doing technical/computer stuff. This includes sysadmin, research, backup, “playing around” and posting intelligible questions on forums and newsgroups. (1 to 10)
  • The third number (really an afterthought) describes my productivity doing household chores and family duties. (1 to 5).
  • The fourth number describes my weight. I’ve been trying to get under 200 pounds for a while and would really like to hit 190 by the end of the year..

I am very stingy about awarding myself points. In the last two months I think I’ve given myself a 10 for Creativity only once (maybe twice), and lots of times I’ve given myself a 0 or even a 1. That is okay if I am working on technical stuff of if I am doing household chores, but sometimes this happens even if all my engines are devoted entirely to Creative. There is no value to having a high third number, but often it helps explain why the first two numbers were so long. If it is a 5, I usually write a note, “brother” “shopping”, etc.

My Creative number fluctuates a lot and is really the number I watch most often. I’ve been pushing myself on the writing a lot lately, and have been relatively productive, although not tremendously so. Even in my glorious state of unemployment, I find that I can go for a week without getting the Creative score over 5 (which is bad, really bad). Then suddenly on one day, everything falls together in place and then I have two glorious days of productivity that just make me feel super.

Something similar happens with technical stuff. I peak to 9 to 10 more often, though it is also hard to do. For the record, on Saturday and Sunday my numbers were 1/10/2/199 (Saturday) and 0/10/1/199 (Sunday). I was outrageously productive. It was scary. I literally wanted to stay up all night and use all the juice I could. Most of us in technical or creative fields understand the concept of flow and how productivity depends on entering that flow state. For me, I need large blocs of time–usually 4 or 5 hours, to accomplish anything. When I say 4 or 5 hours, I mean totally uninterrupted time–no chores, no phone calls, no emails. These blocs are necessary to knock though certain barriers. Sometimes I get really stuck, and I have to play around a lot to make it work. But once I break the barrier, I suddenly become productive again. Once I get past the next barrier, I sometimes can work during a choppy schedule–because I already know where I’m going and what I’m doing. In creative writing there is a certain art to it–recognizing that sometimes you need to stick with it until you fix the problem, and sometimes you need to route around the problem and continue with the story or work on some other story until inspiration hits you. Revisiting the same problem on several different occasions (each time with fresh injections of energy) can do wonders. Things occur to me during a revisit that would never have occurred to me earlier. Sometimes skipping over the problem can be the best way to deal with the problem; maybe you are mistaking the problem altogether. On the other hand, sometimes you need to really study this problem intensely–really work it–to pass this barrier no matter how long it takes.

Here are some general insights :

  1. Avoid choppy days. On some days I have to chop my days into little bits, usually because of errands or social obligations. If I chop my day too much, my day becomes totally worthless. If I have to go out and do stuff, I allow myself only one trip a day to accomplish all I need. If I do more, then I waste too much time.
  2. Avoid going to the supermarket or other stores too often. A supermarket trip always takes a long time and interrupts your flow. I have several occasions where I forget to buy a single item, and that causes me to be unable to cook a recipe,but sometimes I just make my peace with that.
  3. Turn the #$#$##$* phone off. I keep it off at regular intervals. Really I don’t get many phone calls, but a simple phone call from someone else can interrupt my sleep in the morning or afternoon. Naptime is precious, and it just chops your day even more. If you have to make a social call, schedule it via the web so it is at your convenience not at the whim of your friend.
  4. Sometimes when having problems trying to solve a big problem, it can be a good idea trying to solve an unrelated smaller problem first. Breaking a big problem into smaller problems is a well-established method. But often when I am truly clueless, I get the inclination to solve a minor technical problem in some totally different area (on my pda for example). Sometimes this can take away a lot of time, but at other times taking a vacation from your big problem can do a lot of good.
  5. Working before the TV can be fun and good sometimes. I’ve been doing a lot of work on my laptop. Mainly troubleshooting. And I’ve found that I can have the TV on to watch my favorite show while doing certain kinds of work.
  6. Don’t watch the #$#$%%$ news—unless you’re eating. I no longer eat while reading. It may have something to do with the fact I don’t have a kitchen table, but if I watch things while I’m eating, I catch up on my TV watching. But news–there’s always news on everywhere, and most TV segments take too long (with their fancy graphics and commercials). You can get up to speed while surfing the net without having to give up a half hour or hour of your time.
  7. Avoid cleaning up at home too much. This is a controversial subject. I am a lousy housekeeper. But sometimes I have to force myself to just overlook the rising mess to get some work done. Often if I delay a day or two or three, I can increase my productivity. I’d really like to work on cleaning-as-I-go though.
  8. Prioritize your tasks, beginning from most intense to least intense. Try to do your most intense, and if that fails, move down the ladder to something appropriate to your current concentration level. For me, writing stories is my most intense activity (and that includes serious revising), followed by programming, troubleshooting computer activities, routine programming/typing, simple revisions, organizing, basic sysadmin tasks and finally household chores and reading. Even reading follows a hierarchy. Highest is novels, then short stories, research reading (technical and literary), random educational topic and finally magazine reading.
  9. Learn to stop working when it’s futile. When you are “going through the motions” of being productive (that usually means sitting on your chair and web surfing while you valiantly try to stay focused), sometimes it helps just to give up and do some recreational activity or household chore. Or exercise is a great pause.
  10. Schedule exercise regularly. The general point is keep a daily routine. For me, I go swimming/(or other cardio work) at 3:00 PM or 4:00 PM, and then do exercise ball stuff while watching late night shows at 10:30-11:00. When I regularize my exercise routines, my whole day will suddenly work. I can’t stress how important this is.
  11. Cut yourself some slack. Aside from visiting my father once per week, I almost never factor in friends/social visits. As much as I need them (they can recharge me a lot), they often wreck my productivity schedule. Of course, I am alone, so working alone seems more normal to me. Sometimes I mess around on the net or spend way too much time watching TV or read mindless stuff. It’s unavoidable. Rather than feel guilt about it, I just accept it as a biological fact and look forward to when I can be productive again.
  12. Use your PDA to keep lists and appointments. I can’t tell you how much that reduced the load on my brain knowing that this info is stored somewhere–always available when I need it. I’ve not used it as much for storing creative ideas, but c’est la vie. I don’t check my calendar every day, but I do often. (Btw, I really miss my ability to store appointments and contacts on Outlook on my PC to my Dell Axim). It is much easier to input things on your PC.
  13. Set as many of your bills under Autopay as you can. Paying bills is such a bother, and you shouldn’t have to worry about it.
  14. For things you persistently forget, put a reminder on a visible place (on a chair, by your monitor). Often I forget to accomplish tasks repeatedly over time. For a while, I had forgotten to change my auto insurance or renew my license plates. The current thing is to reset my password for my interlibrary account (which you can only do on 9 to 5 business hours apparently)
  15. Managing shopping lists and cooking schedule is important! Cooking requires lots of planning and logistics; if you forget even one ingredient, you inevitably have to delay cooking something or go for a one item shopping spree. Beware those things. Having a healthy diet prevents you from getting into a rut. The less you have to worry about food, the more able you are to eat right without spending a lot of money and eating last-minute foods.
  16. Even if you have the time, refuse a lot of activities/group meetings. There is a tendency to fill your time with meetings and assume unnecessary obligations. I do my best to duck them unless you know you will benefit from them (or you have timed it to give you relaxation and a break).
  17. Close those browser tabs as often as possible! I have a chronic problem with leaving tabs open on Firefox. I sometimes will have up to a 100 tabs open in several windows. Previously that used to drain system resources, but now it’s more draining on my mental attention as well. Sometimes I just have to shut everything en masse down to prevent myself from getting bogged down with distractions. I can no longer find anything. Firefox has a function (Bookmark –> Bookmark All Tabs) that lets you store the tabs you had open. However, in 99% of the cases, I rarely need to refer to what I had open previously. I’ve often found it useful to use a standalone blog editor (I am currently using Qumana, though I am searching for one in linux as well). You need a way to work on your posts without depending on a stupid Firefox web form. Incidentally, netvibes (an Ajaxy RSS personal web portal) is really cool for putting my main websites all on a single page. Better than bloglines even–without the clutter.
  18. Don’t forget to schedule in time for reading. I have lots of projects and learning activities that involve reading. Reading can be a low-intensity and recharging activity, but I frequently just forget to do it (Instead, I do a lot of websurfing–me bad!). If I’m getting stuck before my PC, I will unhesitatingly go to the book; that can be a better use of your low concentration time anyway.

Those are some of my secrets (and I may add to it over time). The one thing I haven’t addressed is how these steps would help me after my sabbatical from work is over. Now I do have complete control over my schedule, but realistically when I work fulltime, my freetime will shrink substantially. One shocking revelation I had after quitting my job is that many of my excuses for not working still remained even though I no longer had a job to blame. The problem with a fulltime job is not the job itself–it’s having to shoehorn relaxation, social obligations, chores and creativity all into a small space of time. Weekends were a kind of torture. I inevitably had to choose between friends and doing housework and writing fiction. Often I had to choose between doing time-consuming sysadmin stuff and doing creative stuff.

I still haven’t found a solution for the creative-person-at-a-fulltime job problem. However, the sabbatical has taught me a lot about how to improve my productivity and how not to blame external circumstances. (I also recommend Arnold Bennett’s free ebook, How to Live 24 Hours a Day which talked about how he dealt with the exact same problems).

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