One way trip to productivity – part I

Being an impulsive adventurous person I tend to have a chaotic approach to doing anything. Whenever I am enthusiastic about something (which is “business as usual” for me) I dive right in and get so immersed in the activity that I lose track of time. “Not a bad thing!” you might say, or “Good for you, you’ve found the flow state!”. Well, here is where it gets tricky: I get really really tired after that, and sometimes so energy depleted that I cannot even sustain a simple conversation anymore (neuroscientists would say it’s a sign of a high cognitive burden). The ugly side of this “superpower” is that I am not aware of the stress building up in my body (especially due to artificial breathing during heavy concentration). But my body is. It sends the information to my brain, which learns to associate the activity with the stress it caused. “No more stress please!”, says the brain, “stay away from writing about serious topics or designing”. And so it happens that, until recently, I had a pretty interesting record of fast and deep acquired skills and knowledge in different areas, that I would revisit only after a while once my brain got used to the “initial pain”.

I will write in a different article about the psychological and neurobiological factors associated with this kind of behavior, but for now I will focus on the solutions.

As you can imagine, this was not a very productive behavior. While it may have been useful for really short and unique endeavors, when it came to medium and long term dreams and goals it was completely unsustainable. It was time for some drastic changes in how I approached work and learning. I took a step back to reassess my life and started creating for myself a daily routine to help me be more productive while maintaining a healthy energy level throughout the day. After a couple of months of good results, here I am sharing with you my “magic dust recipe”. So buckle up, we are going to embark on a journey of discovery, improvement and results. 🙂

Envisioning my Lifebook

My premise for the Quality of Life category

My highly productive journey started in November last year, when I enrolled in the Lifebook program. For six weeks I reflected on my life and designed the way I wanted it to unfold in 12 categories, considering my beliefs, vision, purpose and strategy for each. For me, reflecting on the purpose was life changing. It made me think about why I want all the things I envisioned for myself in a specific category. In some areas I discovered I was actually functioning on autopilot without having a clear purpose. As an example, when I was reflecting on my health and fitness category I discovered that the reason I wanted my body to be strong, fit and healthy was because I needed it to be able to sustain all my life adventures (travelling, learning, creating). It completely changed my perspective. I used to start from time to time different exercise programs at home, without following through for long because I didn’t have a clear reason for doing it. I knew it was good for me and for my energy level, but realizing that a healthy body was the no.1 condition for the entire great life I want to live was a game changer. I was always an active person and did a fair amount of outdoor physical activity (mostly walking for long distances) but that changed with the pandemic. Exercising never felt more urgent. Long story short, after going through all the 12 categories of my life I discovered that 80% of my life vision was depending on 20% good habits. So I started building them.

Building habits is not an easy task (it takes 21 days to form one). In the past I had a long track of “almost habits” because I didn’t have the right mindset for it (a clear purpose and a motivating objective). What has changed now is that, instead of establishing a result oriented goal that is very far in the future, I focus first on consistency and frequency (doing it for at least 21 days):

  • Instead of posting a complete article from time to time, I started writing something every day. My goal changed from posting to writing.
  • Instead of striving for 100 squats in a single trial, I started with a simple daily workout routine. The goal was consistency and not performance.

Focusing on performance without a system to perform is counterproductive. Starting small and just making sure we are consistent for at least 21 days is very manageable for the brain. It needs simplicity especially when the habit is not something we are enjoying that much. But once results are obtained, dopamine is released and, being one of the most addictive neurotransmitters in our brain, it will make us want more of that healthy habit we built for ourselves.

Here I am after two months of consistent practice in both writing and exercising. Now I find it really hard to skip a day. It feels unnatural. 🙂 In addition, because the habits were formed, I even started defining improvement goals. However, it wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t gotten crystal clear about why I wanted to build these habits in the first place.

Considering my circadian rhythm

Another stepping stone for me was working with my natural rhythm. I believe we are all a part of Nature and we can understand much about the human behavior if we look at natural cycles. I am also a firm believer of the fact that we all have our own particular rhythm and, although we might have access to a lot of information regarding “The top___ for being ___” it is our duty to test everything and see what actually works for each of us. That being said, something I do encourage you to experiment is working with your biological rhythm. In my case, my energy level is very high in the morning, while it starts diminishing somewhere around 3 pm. After that it takes me tremendous effort to do any kind of activity that requires heavy thinking and concentration. For this reason I am always using my morning for work (mostly alone) and leave the rest of the day for fun time (playing, reading, walking). Although I haven’t read it yet, I do know that Daniel Pink has written about the circadian rhythm and chronotypes in his book When. If you feel like you are more productive during the evening, you might be one of the few “owls” (as Daniel Pink calls them) out there. If you’re a “lark” like me, than you might find yourself brain drained by 9 pm.

Working with your chronotype might make a huge positive difference. I personally wasted a lot of energy going against my circadian rhythm in college by pulling all-nighters before any important paper or project. While it might have worked in my early twenties, now I can’t even fathom sacrificing my night sleep. It has been so long since I have started using my natural energy flow for (and not against!) me that I would hardly trade it for a night stand. Going to sleep around 10 pm and waking up at 5.30 am works wonders for me.

Doing the creative work first and building the right environment for it

Not only do I schedule my working time in the morning, but in order to make the best use of my brain’s daily energy resources, I have started doing the most creative tasks first and leave the administrative ones for later in the day. Therefore, every morning starts with a little bit of journaling (it usually takes me around 30 min) and continues with writing or working on other creative activity (visual design, planning, or problem-solving). I check my email only after completing my To-Dos for the day. Since I started doing this my productivity has sky-rocketed and I have been less stressed by and about external interference. Most of my heavy creative work is completed by 9 am. 😇

I learned about doing the creative work first while reading Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind by 99U. It has a lot of great tips for making use of your creativity in a productive way, but I will only mention a second one that has helped me personally: creating the anchors for doing creative work. Since it uses a high amount of the brain’s energy, it’s very easy to get distracted by simpler, less consuming activities. Sometimes, we might even tell ourselves that we are waiting for the inspiration to come. In reality, creativity is like a muscle that needs frequent training in order to perform at its best. One way for doing this is to create an external environment that will trigger the creative activity. For example, listening to the same kind of music when creating, or arranging the desk in a specific way, or even selecting the same place for working on creative tasks , will prepare the brain for that kind of tasks. In psychology it is referred as building anchors. You will mostly see the benefits of this technique when you have to work on a creative task that you lack the motivation for.

If you found anything useful so far, you can check the second part of the article where I address also apps I use to help me take breaks (yes, I need help for that!) and to organize my work.