Nov 112015
 
Let's see ... working at the computer. While on the phone. While listening to something. Good luck with that.

Let’s see … working at the computer. While on the phone. While listening to something. Good luck with that.

I think it was in the 1980s or 90s when McDonalds tried to expand its dinner menu. With pizza.

Many fast food aficionados were waiting in line for that first slice. Myself? Not so much, but that’s only because I’m something of a downer.

“Well,” I remember saying, “That’ll be two things it can’t do.”

When people talk of multitasking these days, I still think about McDonalds pizza. (If all this is making you hungry, you can still get McDonalds pizza in West Virginia and in Ohio.)

When people mention multitasking, I flash back to Mickey D’s pizza abortion. Trying to do too many things usually means nothing gets done. At least not well.

Is this what your brain becomes after multitasking enough?

Is this what your brain becomes after multitasking enough?

But in the day-job world, they like multitaskers. If you can do many things at once, so much the better. With today’s uncertain economy, employers want the workers to take on more tasks to offset labor costs and replace a few people. Without the bump in pay, of course.

If you’re the creative/artistic type, multitasking is also a big deal. So many irons in the fire, and we may be more prone to squirrel-chasing than the average person.

Here’s the deal. You’re really not multitasking. You’re switching back and forth from one task to another. You’re switching from email to writing, from Facebook to playing music, from taking that robo-call to getting back to work.

Okay. So what? Maybe this article from Fast Company gives you a clue:

“We found about 82 percent of all interrupted work is resumed on the same day. But here’s the bad news — it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.”

Wow. That’s almost a half hour. Per switch. Considering the number of switches you’re asked to do in a day, how does anything get done?

It’s official. You interrupt me, I charge you for a half hour at my going rate. Time and a half for ticking me off.

Think a 9-to-5 boss will go for that?

How about that robo-caller?

Applications …

So how do I cope with those interruptions? I share my favorite method in my email newsletter, plus I have a whole bunch of linkage and further reading.

View the latest issue here. If you like what you see, subscribe there.

 

Apr 102013
 
little blue pills

If you miss a goal, treat it the same way as a missed dose. No do-overs.

If you’ve ever had a prescription for some really strong drugs, you’ll probably remember the doctor’s stern advice/warning about taking them. One that particularly sticks out in my mind is this: If you miss a dosage, wait until your next scheduled time and resume. With a single dose, not double.

This really makes sense, and it really applies to my creative practice too. So I miss my 1,500 words today. So what about tomorrow? Do I shoot for 3,000?

Wrong again. I try for 1,500 again tomorrow. Creativity is tough enough without the pressure, and the worst kind is the pressure I put on myself. Tomorrow’s a fresh day. 1,500 is sufficient. Now if I really bring the chandeliers down tomorrow and slam down 3,000 or 4,000 words, I won’t complain. But I’m not going to chase it. 1,500 is still tomorrow’s goal.

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Apr 022013
 

Backgrounder: I knew I was listening to the wrong people. Or, by following my own instincts and not listening too the wrong people, maybe I’m on to something. We’re taught to go easy on ourselves and avoid showing off, along with a bunch of other nuggets. But many of these old pieces of wisdom don’t seem to matter much to highly successful people — or highly creative ones, for that matter. Sometimes it’s good to blow up the conventional wisdom. Let’s explore this idea further this week.

We’re taught that isolation is a bad thing, and living inside one’s own head is even worse. And for someone like myself, too much private time is leads to a lot of weird stuff that I won’t bother to discuss here.

However, the creative process calls for public and private time. Stephen King calls it the “door open/door closed” practice in writing. After so much public face time I need to retreat back to my home office, kick the door shut and tell the whole world where to get off. That’s when I write or just ruminate on an idea and develop it. Many successful people require significant alone time.

The trick for me is to find some balance. I’m training my friends to not bug me in the early morning or late evening. My daily to-do list has things I can do in public and those where I need solitude, and I build my schedule around that. A real challenge for me is in knowing my rhythms and using those as my foundation.

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Jan 222013
 

[Backgrounder: While creative thinking is a way for any organization to grow and thrive when times change, it’s not always a welcome thing. Many companies choose to stay comfortable and live in the status quo, and will use any means to quash creativity. I’ve worked for a few like that. If you run a company and want to keep those freethinking troublemakers in their place, this week’s 3 Graffs series is for you. If you’re one of thosr troublemakers, you might discover you’re in the wrong house and this series is still for you.]

Mistakes are bad. They get in the way of a perfectly good status quo, and tend to gum up a well-oiled time-tested system.

Mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. If this means terrorizing your workers into avoiding mistakes, so be it. If someone steps out of line, thinks too much on the job and makes mistakes, make sure he gets the blame when things go wrong.

Then prepare for an organization that, at best, remains static and fades into obsolecence while the competition is out there kicking tail.

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Jan 042013
 

I’d written about peak hours before, and I guess it must be a hot topic in some circles. Folks are always trying to squeeze more productivity out of their days, and playing with the body clock seems to be the favorite way of doing this.

More sleep? Less sleep? Uninterrupted or multiphasic sleep?

Start your day doing little, easy-to-do things or tackle that big job you’d rather not think about first?

Is it true that if you burn the candle at both ends you get more light?

Is my brain really more creative when I’m tired? And why won’t my brain shut up at night?

Everyone’s got an opinion there.

I found this infographic from HealthCentral (and some other perspectives by Ridiculously Efficient) a few days ago, and it’s interesting. I’ve pasted it here so you can have a look at it, and myself being one who keeps his opinions to himself (why is my nose growing?) I’ll have some observations here.

Accomplish more in a day by synchronizing your cicardian rhythms

One of the things that caught my attention is the assertion that most people keep a similar natural timeline — like about 80 or 90 percent. This suggests most so-called night people are that way by choice.

I noticed this because I’d always gravitated toward night work. I did a lot of nightside reporting back in the day, spent a lot of late nights playing music, and even most of my so-called day jobs (cab driving, casino work) were at night. But was it me, or was there some other attraction?

OK. Maybe the pay was better, the boss more easygoing, the clientele livelier and the girls prettier at night. But as I got older, I found myself going more toward days. Most of the time (except those times my overactive brain keeps going) I’m usually in bed by 11, like an old fart. Even New Years Eve — a time when most people are out howling — I struggled to keep my eyes open while waiting for the ball to drop. 2013 almost started without me. Man, did I feel ancient.

I’ve also noticed how, on this infographic timeline, the creative process kicks in at around 8 p.m. This in itself is interesting. Fatigue seems to kick-start the process, according to HealthCentral.

I do see evidence of this. At around 8-ish I’ve usually had dinner, my computer is shut down, and I’m chilled out in the recliner, some heavy jazz playing on the Bose, and my mind goes all over the landscape. I usually spend that time with a clipboard in my lap, slamming down ideas as fast as I get them. That’s also when I write my crappiest but most imaginative first drafts and do my wildest brainstorming. Sometimes my bipolar brain won’t shut up, so I gearing down and getting to bed at a decent time is an issue. This does cut into my beauty (!) sleep.

A couple of other things I noticed:

  • A person is more easily distracted from about noon to 4 p.m. (For me, true.)
  • A power nap at 2-ish is good for the body. Maybe it’s encroaching geezerhood, but I find I do this more often than not.
  • But while the brain is easily distracted in the early afternoon, hand-eye coordination peaks around 3-ish. Interesting.
  • Cognition is at its best in the late morning. (For me, also true.)
  • A hot shower is recommended in the morning, because it’ll warm the body and make you more alert. That’s the claim, anyway. I do know my body thinks it’s a Ford because it doesn’t start well when it’s cold.
  • Email sent out before 9 a.m. is most likely to be read. I do have to challenge this, but that’s because very little of my correspondence stays within the Eastern Standard Time zone.
  • For social media junkies, 8 a.m. tweets are the most upbeat and those sent out in the late afternoon are most likely to be retweeted. Facebook status messages sent out at 8 p.m. are the most “liked” (again not accounting for time zones), and a person who builds his whole day around a social media schedule is probably addicted.

Or something.

This whole thing is interesting, but probably not a be-all end-all. Will my habits change because of this infographic? Of course not. I’m not even sure if this infographic is based on hard science or wishful thinking, and even if it was hard science we’ve all got our own peak times anyway.

I think my own biggest take-home is how the brain runs rampant when the body’s tired, but that’s something I’ve suspected anyway.

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Jan 022013
 

Confession time: I’m a GTD (Getting Things Done) geek. I love productivity systems. I love to tweak stuff.

Systems are great. The best ones are easy to set up, intuitive, and can run in set-and-forget mode. But I love to experiment, which becomes a problem.

Could it be this tweaking is merely a dodge, an excuse so I son’t have to do my work?

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Dec 312012
 

I’m amazed folks still brag about their multitasking skills, and even more amazed that I take pride in a good multitask. Without realizing it just doesn’t work.

New research suggests the brain isn’t built for multitasking. The thinking process merely flashes from one activity into the other, basically doing a core dump every fre seconds. Tell me, how does a person get anything done that way?

Tempting though it is to multitask, the brain works better when concentrating on one thing at a time. Just write. Just paint. Just text. Just answer your email. Just chew gum. Just …

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With the new year coming up, I’m giving away my ebook “Finding your passion: Where creativity meets danger” today and tomorrow through Amazon. Give your new year a kick in the right place — on the house.)

Oct 192012
 

Some things are demanding or complex enough to require a person's best.

There are probably times during your day when you operate at peak efficiency, and others when you’re probably better off taking a nap. The good news is, these times are usually predictable.

There’s even better news on this front: These peak times will evolve as you develop personal habits. I’ll get into that part later.

The whole trick here is to find those peak times, and to my knowledge there’s no real test to determine what those are. As far as I know, there’s no substitute for the good old-fashioned trial-and-error method. That, and running an audit of yourself.

Once you know your peaks and valleys, you can plan your day somewhat. If you’re self-employed, this knowledge is huge. If you have one of those day jobs where you have some control over your work flow, this is still good stuff to know. If you have one of those on-the-line jobs where you make grommets all day, it’s still good information.

If you have a day job and are exercising those creative muscles by building something for yourself in your off hours, this knowledge will be like gold.

What I found out: Some surprises

I did this audit recently, and came up with a few surprises. I have two peak periods a day where I’m really smokin’ and dealin’ — but those peaks are several hours apart. Which means if I was working for someone else full time and need to be at my best for the whole time, a split shift is the thing. But no single employer deserves that much from me.

My peak periods run from about 9 a.m. to noon, and from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Each of these periods is followed by a three-hour stretch where I start to wear down but am still good.

But from 3 to about 5 p.m., forget it. I’m useless. Anything requiring brain power takes considerable effort.

Gee, maybe that explains why I was such a strong starter but not a great finisher on my former day job. Getting toward the end of the shift I was sucking on fumes. If that job required any brains, it would have been worse than it already was.

I’m still trying to figure out how the morning thing got into the picture. Like, how did this longtime night person manage to operate in a halfway intelligent manner in the mornings? I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I’ll get to it; just let me lay my story out right.

Trust me. That monkey mind will get ya.

I’m writing this at 9:30 a.m., right there in my wheelhouse. My peak periods are reserved for writing and brainstorming; the real high-impact stuff. A problem is that my mind is so active during these stretches that I’m particularly susceptible to distractions. Especially in the morning session, when I top-load most of my work, I use a timer to keep me focused. Otherwise, monkey mind takes over.

I use my declining periods for some editing, pitching some work, research and work-related correspondence. I try to put the most important stuff toward the front of this time while I still have something.

From 3 to 6 p.m. I’ve shut work down. Forget it. I’m borderline useless. No writing or editing then, otherwise I’ll make a mess of things. Save that for reading, some correspondence, some social media. As I get older I’ve come to appreciate a good nap, and that’s the time for me to do it.

Although I always thought my chunked-up day was because I’m a max-effort kind of guy, after talking to other creative types I find two separate peak periods in a day isn’t all that unusual. It’s like the brain and body catch that second wind. Even when I try to push against my personal tide and try to get stuff done during my useless period, I still perk up in the evening. The only real difficulty here (besides the monkey mind) is that I need to bring things to a hard stop; otherwise I’ll go past midnight. This old guy needs his sleep.

Using the chunks instead of blowing them

OK, so you have a day job and maybe you’ve identified two peak periods in your day. Give one to your employer because that’s the right thing to do. Put your more intensive work into that time slot, and use non-peak times for the more mundane tasks. But if your employer demands both of your peak periods, he’s stealing.

If that other peak time is in the evening, use it for the stuff that demands your best. Write that novel. Work over the chord changes of “Giant Steps.” Build that Next Big Thing. The declining time is still good for engagement, social stuff, and anything that requires you to be present.

Appendix: Peak times will evolve

I find it interesting how my peak times adjusted over the years. I’ve always been a night person; I even sought the midnight-to-8 shift whenever possible. Mornings were for other people. I just don’t do mornings, and anyone who called me before noon usually caught an earful of naked hostility.

What happened?

I’d like to think I’ve matured, but that’s not likely (no future in that anyway). More than likely it was that aforementioned day job. I had to hit the ground running at 7:30 a.m. each day, no fiddling around. That, I think, trained me to those hours.

Some further reading

OK. I’ll admit falling asleep is an issue for me, especially when my mind is in overdrive. I noted it on Twitter the other night:

* * *

Ugh. Still up. #amwriting at 12:30 a.m., BDT. That’s #Bipolar Daylight Time for the uninitiated around here. #brainshutup

* * *

Gets rough around here sometimes.

Liisa Kyle, Ph.D and Lisa Rothstein, those outrageously multitalented ladies at davincidilemma.com, came out with a blog post about things to do when you can’t sleep, and it’s really interesting. Kyle, who wrote the piece, suggests our current model of falling down and sleeping for eight hours is a fairly recent phenomenon. She cites a BBC piece as evidence.

It seems the normal sleep pattern until the 20th Century was to fall asleep for about four hours, get up for an hour or two, then go back to sleep for another four. The straight eight started to catch on the late 17th Century, and pretty much took over by 1920. You could say increased industrialization and shift work more than contributed to this change.

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Oct 182012
 

Going old school with a productivity hack. My own timer has a hand-drawn hash mark at 22.5 minutes, the length of an LP record.

Back when I had all my music on albums, it was easy. Have something playing while I worked, and when that side expired (usually 22.5 minutes) take a break and flip the record. That became my favorite timer.

So I was amused when a guy named Francesco Cirillo popularized what he called the Pomodoro Technique, a productivity trick that prescribes 25-minute work sessions and five-minute breaks where you disconnect from the task. For that he uses a simple kitchen timer, one of those novelty ones that looks like a tomato. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, get it?

But that is how I roll these days. I do my 25 minutes on, take five, rinse and repeat. They have pomodoro timers you can download, or just go to the kitchenware department. My timer’s not as fancy as Cirillo’s, but I don’t have to flip the record either.

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(For further information on the Pomodoro Technique, check out Cirillo’s website. Get his book from Amazon, or download the free .pdf version. Or get an official Pomodoro Technique timer here. Full disclosure: I get a small piece of the action for any Amazon purchases, and might be able to get a double cheeseburger off the dollar menu any day now.)

Oct 052012
 

Paradox: Doing nothing can be a productive part of your day.

You wouldn’t know it by looking, but doing nothing can sure be hard work.

If you’re anything like me, the whole thought of doing nothing goes against your grain. If you’re addicted to action, if you’re always “on” (raises hand), this can be the most counterproductive foolery I’ve ever mentioned in this space.

Sure, I can gear down but only under protest. I can take my time getting my engines going in the morning, but I’m always doing something. Even when fatigued and my body screams “enough!” my brain is still engaged, looking for something to get into, looking for more squirrels to chase.

If you take a book, clipboard, journal, or smartphone into the head with you, doing nothing is probably a foreign concept.

But there’s something about this doing nothing.

Doing nothing on the schedule

I recently heard a podcast with Michael Hyatt, former CEO of one of the world’s largest publishing companies. Even though he left that job, he’s still a busy guy. He’s always on demand on the lecture circuit. He writes his regular blog posts and puts out the occasional podcast. He wrote the book on writers and artists getting the word out via the Internet. Although he guards his time, he serves as a mentor to several other leading lights in the writing/platform-building world.

'Scuse me while I chase this squirrel ...

Hyatt says he starts his day by doing nothing. In a studied manner. It’s something he puts on his schedule. He spends 15 minutes doing nothing, enjoying the quiet and solitude, then goes into the rest of his morning ritual.

This, he says, is probably the most important addition to his day and to his productiveness cycle. This is a guy who has his priorities straight anyway — he keys on what’s important in his life, makes sure he gets enough sleep, has his mental quiet time, then gets busy.

Think about this. When you’re creating, those doing-nothing times are valuable. Many novelists suggest taking some time to shift between full-on creative mode (first draft) and editing mode (second draft). I’ve heard anywhere between one or two months of doing nothing.

This does several things:

  • You hopefully succeeded in putting the story out of the forefront of your mind, though it still resides in the subconscious. That’s when the creatures in the attic begin their work, and what they come up with is usually an improvement.
  • By putting some distance between you and the project, you can see it with fresh eyes when you pick up the manuscript again. I can usually tell I’ve done this successfully. When my project looks like it was written by a Martian, then I know I did this doing-nothing time right.
  • You can rest and recharge, and hopefully your brain shuts down with you.
  • You train yourself, and you train your sense of inspiration. Artists complain that the Muse is inconsistent; it doesn’t strike when you’re ready but it keeps whispering stuff in your ear when you’re busy with something else. You’re synchronizing schedules, and also making yourself more receptive to inspiration.

Sometimes if you’re trying to get on the same page with that inspiration thing and it’s not working, it’s a good thing to walk away. Go for a bike ride. Hike the Appalachian Trail. Work on something else. You might find this elusive Muse hanging around in your subconscious, conspiring with the creatures in the attic again.

My own attempts to sit down, shut up, and listen

There’s a beauty to just sitting quietly, and it’s worth discovering — especially if, like me, you can’t sit still for nothing.

A scheduled doing-nothing time may be the only rest you get all day, so enjoy it.

I’m experimenting with a scheduled doing-nothing time, and my results are kind of mixed. Perhaps it’s because it takes time to develop the habit. Like Hyatt, I’m trying to get it going first thing in the morning.

For me, it’s really hard. Beyond difficult. Next to impossible. When my alarm goes off, the first thing I usually do is start the coffee. See, already my brain and body are engaged and it’s downhill from there.

What about if I set up the coffee before going to bed, put it on a timer, use those first few minutes constructively doing nothing? I usually like to have two hours between waking up and starting work, because it takes that long for me to find my brain and get into a groove. Have my doing-nothing time first thing, then grab that cup of joe before doing my morning reading and journalizing. That’s what I’ve been playing with.

So far, it’s rough. I’m not used to doing nothing, and my first impulse is to use that 15 minutes for additional sleep. But let’s get real here. All the beauty sleep in the world’s not going to help me anyway, and I might as well use that time for something useful.

And sometimes doing nothing can be downright useful.

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