Just a quick note about my pandemic productivity – or lack thereof.
I’m feeling a little guilty lately because in these pandemic times when we are semi-trapped at home, I have more “free time” than ever before – and I am being less productive.
I love to read. I have time to read. I’m not reading. I do read every day, but it’s articles online mostly. I have “read” a few audiobooks while working in the garden. I started a few books and ended up skimming or giving up on them.
I had a long talk with a friend about the pros and cons of to-do lists. I’m still making the lists, but I’m not checking off many items. Those lists can be a reminder of things not done. Sort of depressing.
One of my sons says his team has been more productive than ever working from home. As a member of the unretirement workforce (yes, that’s a real thing), I do get “work” done, but I definitely don’t feel very productive or more productive.
DIY sales are way up. My wife has been on a sewing and quilting binge of production. People are doing projects around their homes. I fixed a broken sensor in our oven, but the sheetrock job I started in the basement is still waiting for me since March. Cooking and baking supplies, books and TV shows are booming. You all are adding to my guilt.
How are you feeling about your productivity during this pandemic times? Am I the outlier in all this?
I gave the National Day of Unplugging from screens a try these past 24 hours. I was fairly successful. My phone and laptop charged. I made my Fitbit happy with my steps for the day. I took a walk with my wife to a coffeehouse and we talked about some of the good things we have planned in the spring. I cheated a bit in that I used a phone, but it was our old landline which has no screen. But those two calls were pretty important. I had also queued up some social media posts for the time offline, so I still appeared to be online to most people. I checked my email and messages once at noon today just in case there was something critical. That’s not so much FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) as it is the reality of how we communicate now. I have a family member who is having serious medical issues, so I really can’t be completely unplugged. When the sun went down, my laptop went on and I went back to this post which I had drafted a few weeks ago and revised it for this weekend.
One thing I did away from screens was read some on paper, and one book I picked up again from the shelf is somewhat connected to the unplugging. It was David Allen‘s book that posited, amongst other ideas, that multitasking is a myth. The book is Getting Things Done with the inviting subtitle of “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” Wouldn’t that be nice?
There are several things I took from the book. One is that my poor old brain is not meant to hold all of the things I put into it or all the things I want to do (or feel I have to do). Believing that I can hold on to all this information and finish all those things will mean disappointment.
That doesn’t let you off the hook for being productive though. There are people who are pretty good at using tools to help. That can range from a notepad and lists and journals to apps on your phone. Though I feel a bit guilty when someone asks me what my wife’s phone number is and I have to look at my phone, I am relieved that the phone remembers all the numbers I need. I shouldn’t feel that guilty because it’s just an electronic address book like we had next to our old rotary phone when I was a kid back in the last century.
But the idea I remember best from the book is about doing a “brain dump.”
Even if you are someone who lives in the digital world, you still need to sometimes write stuff down using simple analog tools.
To do this brain dump you don’t need a special pad (though they do sell them and that might help some people) to get started. A pen and a notebook are fine.
I’ve seen research that seems to indicate that when we write something down by hand it somehow sticks in our memory better.
You’re going to create 3 lists to get started. I’ve seen them labeled in different ways but in the book they are 1) Must (things you’ve committed to doing) 2) Wants (things you would like to do but haven’t committed to yet) and 3) Perhaps (things you may want to do in the future).
Do the three lists in that order and focus on one type of thing at a time until there are no more items for that list to dump from your brain.
Next, you evaluate each list trying to eliminate items that don’t belong. You can move between lists here. The objective is to get the least amount of things on your Must list, because you really want to get to doing the things on the Want list.
Since the ultimate goal here is to complete the things on the lists, you might ask – as I did when I had first read the book – Isn’t this just another To-Do list? Where’s the brain dump?
It is getting all of your thoughts down on paper so that they are “dumped” from your brain to give you some freed up memory space. It’s more of a rapid freewriting exercise than a slow, methodical, overthought process.
Organizing these things on paper can help clarify, prioritize and lead to taking action. You may be tempted to get out your phone or laptop to make the lists neat and clean but it is really recommended to do the pen and paper method.
You can later use colored pens, pencils, or highlighters to color-code your thoughts and that can help you see connections and patterns in what you dumped.
This post is just a primer on the technique. Besides the book, there are a good number of online articles on approaches to the brain dump and there are variations on the lists and their labels.
Of course, the only way this works and makes you less stressed and productive is that you actually start on the Must list. If that list has 55 items, I don’t think this technique will work.
Your motivation to clear that Must list is your desire to get to the Want list and completing items there allows you to make those Perhaps items to become Wants.
Full disclosure. My Must list has gotten smaller since I first did this exercise almost two years ago. I wrote about it here but took my own approach to it. The lists have been many times revised and have never been empty. That’s partly because I moved some Wants up to Musts as slots opened. I limited my Must list to a maximum of 10 things which meant some evaluation of “must” meaning “required” and by whom these things are required.
I don’t have any work/job/career items on my lists. I suppose I could do a separate set of lists for that but I never have done it.
You might have had some lesson in a psychology course about wants and needs which is what this reminded me of when I first read about the lists. A need is something that is essential to your survival. Some are emotional needs. Some are about goals and dreams. Wants, on the other hand, are things that we would like to have, but that are not essential to our survival.
As much as I want to have my poetry manuscript published, I know I don’t need to have it published. I know I must find long-term care for my aging and ill sister, and until I do, I will feel stressed and never get to things like that manuscript.
You may say that a vacation is a must to your survival, but honestly, two weeks in the Maldives isn’t a must.
Do I cheat on the lists sometimes and focus on a want while ignoring some must items? Absolutely. I need some of those items to keep moving forward and maintain my sanity. Spending more and better time with my wife and family is an emotional need.
Still, I recognize that the Must list is essential. And if I ever do clear all the items on it then, quite happily, the manuscript, the vacation and other things I want to do will become must-do items. That’s a very pleasant thought.
Being a virtual worker has its obvious advantages, such as no commuting, variable work hours and days, and working in your pajamas from the couch. It also has its disadvantages, such as allowing you to do nothing and lose track of time.
Because much of my work these days are billable hours rather than a salary, it is important that I keep track of how long I work on a project. I need those stats both to invoice clients and to give estimates to new clients.
This was a skill I needed to develop when I shifted my working days to virtual ones. One technique that I started using turns out to have a formal name. More on that in a bit…
This time management and productivity technique is very simple. When you start a task (not a project, but a piece of it), set a timer and work on that task for 25 minutes. Then, take a short break (3-5 minutes). Start working on the task again for 25 minutes and repeat until it’s completed.
I just started doing this on my own and it was only later that I discovered that I was using the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. His technique was to use a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Originally, he broke it down into six steps. These intervals are named pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.
The technique has been popularized more recently via a bunch of apps and websites that provide timers and instructions. I just use a cheap digital timer that can count down. I tried using my phone timer but for some reason it was less effective. Perhaps because the screen would go to sleep, so those numbers weren’t always staring at me.
One of the app options is Focus Booster which will automatically record your timesheets for each project or task and lets you export it for easier invoicing.
This technique is closely related to several other productivity techniques, such as timeboxing, and iterative and incremental development.
Timeboxing allocates a fixed time period, called a time box, to each planned activity. Several project management approaches use timeboxing. It is also used for individual use to address personal tasks in a smaller time frame. It often involves having deliverables and deadlines, which will improve the productivity of the user.
Iterative and incremental development, which is often used in software design, uses the basic idea of developing a system through repeated cycles (iterative) and in smaller portions at a time (incremental). This allows software developers to take advantage of what was learned during development of earlier parts or versions of the system.
A brain dump is letting out all your thoughts. Not in a barrage of conversation, but via pen to paper. It’s a form of release. It is a way to face reality. It means putting thoughts somewhere else.
I came across several articles lately about how to do a brain dump. Try brightontheday.com and lifehack.org. I originally read about it in David Allen’s book Getting Things Done. It seems so simple – too simple – to be effective, but it does seem to work.
I look at Weekends in Paradelle (and perhaps my other blogs too) as a kind of brain dump where I work out and organize my thoughts.
Brain dumps also have another application that is less noble. On forums and social media sites, students ask for answers to exams. Some requests are not so lacking in academic integrity and may want training material or practice items. In academic circles, a brain dump is when a test taker goes from an exam online to dump everything that they can recall about the test questions and answers. Yes, it is cheating.
It can also be the transfer of a large quantity of information from one person to another or to a storage and retrieval medium. In slang, it can describe a hurried explanation of a system, job, skillset. In computing, the phrase describes the taking of a snapshot of the internal state of a knowledge database for transfer or archiving purposes.
For a legitimate brain dump of yourself, you might want to start by trying doing one before heading to bed for the night. You dump all the things still lingering in your mind onto a piece of paper and let them go. The idea is to get out everything that has the potential to keep you up at night. Don’t make it a To Do list for tomorrow. That will just keep you up! But if upcoming things are on your mind, put them down, but let them go.
According to “the rules,” after you write down anything and everything, you should start a new page and organize. This is where I depart from the rules because I don’t like turning the dump into a To Do list, and putting categories and priorities to the list does just that.
I do find it useful to just write my thoughts in little group in the corners of a page. One corner for concerns, one for errands, places I want to go – whatever things seem to be filling my head. I have seen actual brain dump pads online, but a blank sheet works for me and you could just make a sheet that works for you on your computer and print out a few. I also have seen brain dump journals and perhaps keeping your sheets in one place might be useful to look back on later – but a blank book would work fine and is probably cheaper.
Is this a daily practice? Not for me, but I suppose it could be a daily practice. I seem to do it when I need it. It often happens late at night.
I know that academic brain dump is all about getting access to other people’s brain dumps, but I think the real value is in examining your own thoughts.
What do I conclude from reading these articles? Unfortunately for me, you have to get up really early. Those successful folks are up by 5-6 am. These are not people who hit the snooze button. They seem to leap out of bed.
I am also not pleased to read that these winners blur the line between business and personal life. Business is on all day and night. Their personal lives are organized in the same way as their business calendar. Business meeting are logged in along with gym time and time with their spouses and kids.
They are not playing Words With Friends while sipping a second cup of coffee.
I also discovered in my web searching someone who has made a living by studying these kinds of habits. Laura Vanderkam is a writer who “questions the status quo and helps her readers rediscover their true passions and beliefs.”
On her blog, I found her writing about one of my personal demons – the to do list. I can’t stop making them, but when I see how many items are still undone, it drives me crazy. Laura says:
My big realization over the past few years is that a weekly priority list gives me a nice mix between the immediate and the long-term. Before the start of the week (either on Friday afternoon or Sunday evening) I make a list of weekly priorities. This priority list encompasses both the professional and the personal. This includes things that “have” to happen (a doctor appointment, articles I’ve already committed to turn in) and things that I’d like to have happen: new article ideas, long-term planning, running a certain number of times.
Then, each day I make a daily to-do list off this weekly priority list. I tend to front load the week, because things will come up that I want to make time for later in the week. Coming up with the right balance of an aggressive, but not overly ambitious weekly priority list takes time. But as with anything, we get better with practice.
Laura has written a number of books in this category: All The Money In The World: What The Happiest People Know About Getting and Spending ; 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think and Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues.
She stays busy. Read her bio: USA Today’s Board of Contributors, CBS MoneyWatch, articles in The Wall Street Journal, City Journal, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Prevention, Fortune etc., appearing on The Today Show and Fox & Friends, hundreds of radio segments, Princeton grad,runner, wife, mom to two young sons and a baby daughter.
So, I guess when she wrote 168 Hours she was thinking hard about squeezing the most out of those 168 hours in a week.
I get a lot done. Friends ask me how I have time to write online on all my blogs, work and still write my poetry and enjoy my hobbies. That makes me feel good. But why do I still feel like I’m not accomplishing enough?
My wife heads for bed to read for a bit before sleeping about 10 pm consistently, but I continue to stay up (often into the morning hours) and work. I am a night owl and feel more productive at night, but I know I need that quality sleep time too.
Vanderkam is a proponent of self-examination and prioritizing, and believes you can get you eight hours of sleep and still have time for the gym, hobbies and write that novel without giving up work, family, and other things that matter to you.
She questions that idea that hitting the lottery and having, as another of her books says, All the Money in the World, is not the answer. Even with a pile of money, there is never enough. Even the person with an average income spends a lot (too much?) time trying to stretch their money and fretting about spending too much and saving too little.
The premise of her book Grindhopping sounds too good to be true: Building a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues. I’m pretty far from a life in the corporate grind. But if you’re there – long hours, low pay, few rewards, trying to climb out an entry-level jobs – then the idea of hopping over all that to starting your own company, freelancing, consulting, job-hopping, and networking to success has got to sound very appealing.
Though I don’t need to hop over any one for a job, it would be good to get more out of my 168 hours – though it’s more like 112 if I can get in some decent sleep. My fear in reading the book is that it will make me want to add more things to my to do list.
It is really getting to me how many things I have undone. It doesn’t help that I am big on making To Do lists. I need those lists to keep track of things, but they also act as reminders of what I have not gotten done.
And lots of things never make it to the lists. The books waiting unread and the stack of books with bookmarkers in them that are partially read. Magazines unread. I even started to tear out articles that I wanted to read so that I could recycle the rest and have less confronting me. Now, I have a wire basket full of torn out articles.
My mind is always wandering. The abbot at a Zen monastery that I used to attend told me that I have “monkey mind” – a mind that is like a monkey hopping about from limb to limb in the jungle.
Usually, we can blame a lack of concentration on being too busy, feeling stressed out or being overtired. But lately I have been less busy, not very stressed and better rested and it hasn’t helped the attention or the To Do lists.
I’ve tried things. Yeah, medication. That was a bust. I tried meditation and mindfulness and ways to increase my awareness of the world around me. I really do try to pay attention whether I’m typing something for a blog post or on one of many rambles through the woods.
I was a kid in a time when there was no such diagnosis as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). You were just a kid in school who was talked too much and didn’t pay attention. Later, the term “hyper(active)” come into use, but it was often diagnosed as a kid who ate too much sugar.
Symptoms? Impatience, distractibility, forgetfulness, impulsiveness, and having trouble finishing tasks.
I know that I’m supposed to shoot for at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity three to five times a week. My walking doesn’t cut it because I am so distracted by passing sights and sounds that my speed is inconsistent.
I see these phrases like how to “reboot” your brain, as if it was a laptop and all you needed to do was hit the power button. You need to “rewire” your brain. Focus, organization, time-management and follow-through. Life as business practice.
A diagnosis of ADHD is a nice thing to blame instead of blaming your own inadequacies that make it impossible to get organized, to stick to a job, to keep an appointment, to concentrate. But it doesn’t make things get better.
I actually have found blogging and setting myself deadlines to write here and on a few other blogs to be a great focusing exercise. But this post is done. Time to click “submit.” Then I can focus on my breath and jump from limb to limb like the good little monkey I have always been.