This year, I have been working towards making my workspace a place that promotes creativity and productivity. Little did I know, my environment was having a huge effect on my output. This week, I am going to share some strategies I have implemented in my life that has boosted my focus and creativity, increasing both the quality and quantity of my work. Feel free to adapt these strategies to fit your working preferences, habits, and routines.
No, not THAT f-bomb, the other one. Fear. Twice in two days I have heard or read something that refers to fear and the description has varied from fear being an effective tool for achieving an outcome, to fear being an oppressive feeling that fuels self-doubt. Indeed, fear is a key driver in many of our actions. I have a fear of heights (or at least of falling from heights), have been fearful of losing my job, and have been afraid to ask someone out on a date. I have used fear (not proud, more an admission) to try and get my way or drive things the way I wanted them to go. The list is pretty endless on both sides and some fears will always be there. However, the fears around my abilities, my value, my competence, and especially about a job are gone. That loss of fear is enabling me to achieve what I didn’t think was possible. Here’s what has changed for me.
Near the beginning of 2016, I blogged about this year being a Leap Year. I suggested that with planning, I would be able to leverage that extra day to review the trajectory of my year and do any course correction needed to meet my yearly goals. To do this, I need to know what my goals for the year are and what my plan to get there looks like. The key areas I mentioned in the blog post were day-to-day time management, work back schedule, goal construction, and milestones. I’m reporting back on how I did with those areas and how I did with my extra day.
Far too often, I sit down to write an email, finish a project, or write up an idea I had earlier in the day only to be met with the blinking cursor of a “trapped” thought. Within seconds, I am hypnotized by the steady rhythm of the flashing caret. Seconds and then minutes pass. And, for some reason, the room always feels darker. I can literally feel time passing. But here’s the worst part: I know the idea is in there, I have it in there somewhere, but I don’t know how to access it.
Writing a weekly blog is a worthwhile process--one that is both challenging and rewarding. Despite our best efforts, Andy Ruth and I don't always get around to it every week. The hardest part is finding time. Through the successes and failures, I have come to realize the key is discovering the gaps of downtime between daily tasks and then learning how to utilize those breaks. For example, look for time between meetings and during breaks for coffee or lunch. You can also mentally prepare in the car (or public transit) and when you are getting ready in the morning (in the shower). About 10-15 minutes a day is all you really need, but remember: don’t limit yourself to 15 minutes if you are on a roll.
Time is funny. We all have 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. Yet most of us complain about how little time we have and how there are too few hours in a day. This year is a Leap Year so we all have an extra day. This is also the start of a new year and many make resolutions, so this year I will make a resolution about time, and my extra day. I resolve to remember I have an extra day and use it to reflect on (and correct) the trajectory of my year. In fact, I will officially declare it as Extra Day - a day to limit work, take a breath and reflect on the direction the year is taking. I’ll do it on February 29th since that is where the calendar places our extra day. But, to do that, I’ll need a plan.
When everyone is trying to stand out, it’s hard to be unique without looking like everyone else. The slang use of the word “peacocking” entered popular culture as a way to describe someone who dresses in a way to intentionally stand out. Over the past decade, this term has made its way into the business world and is now commonly applied to someone who intentionally goes out of their way to make themselves look bigger or more impressive than they really are. “Peacocking” in the business world shouldn’t surprise us: this kind of thinking is part of the millennial cultural DNA, reinforced by teachers, coaches, and parents. Some popular lines include: “You have to sell yourself;” “Make sure you spend time talking about your accomplishments;” “Bulk up your resume;” and “When you talk about a weakness, make sure it is a strength in disguise”.
Twice a year, Bill Gates disconnects from reality in order to reconnect with (and redefine) his goals. During each one-week break, Gates travels into the woods of the Pacific Northwest where he dives into papers written by the Microsoft community. He scribbles notes, maps out ideas, and writes summaries for executives. There are no interruptions (besides a caretaker who provides two meals per day and a steady stream of Diet Orange Crush), no employees, friends, or family to accompany Bill; even his wife stays at home. This is a time of deep thought, reflection, and goal creation, and has been responsible for many Microsoft innovations.
Columbus was at play when it dawned on him that the world was round. Newton was at play in his mind when he saw the apple tree and suddenly conceived of the force of gravity. Watson and Crick were playing with possible shapes of the DNA molecule when they stumbled upon the double helix. Shakespeare played with iambic pentameter his whole life. Mozart barely lived a waking moment when he was not at play. Einstein’s thought experiments are brilliant examples of the mind invited to play.
One of my writing friends gives all her workshop students toothbrushes. She tells her students, “This is one of the most important writing tools I can give you. Use this twice a day: once in the morning and once at night.” The toothbrush does two things for these creative misfits who spend too much time in their heads thinking about stories:
A dear friend of mine, Leslie Goh, sent me a link to a piece in the New York Times. She suggested it reminded her of me. The piece, written by David Brooks, suggests the need for two bucket lists. Brooks, who is successful from a business sense, talks about meeting others who seemed to be successful in a way he was not. This led him to think about a different bucket list not tied to business goals or personal goals, but rather moral or virtuous goals. The way he organized these different groupings is into resume virtues and eulogy virtues.
I think we’ve cured boredom.
You wake up with an app that tracks your sleep. You respond to all the text messages you received during the night. You get an email notification while texting. You pour some of your green-machine juice and do a web search for “reconstituted concentrate” to see if your juice is really 100% juice. You track your breakfast in a nutrition app. You get a Twitter notification (swipe it aside, you’ll look at it later). You read the news using an app that selects stories based on your interests. A Facebook notification interrupts you. Before you leave for work you check your step count so far this morning, and look to see how you compare to your friends. You check the weather app and decide to bring an umbrella. You listen to that new song on your streaming music app and tweet about it. You Instagram the sunrise on your way to work. You get another notification but ignore it. Your boss sends you a text asking you to pick something up from the printer/copy center. In line, you buy tickets to a concert this weekend. On your way to the office, a local coffee shop sends you a message using a location-based restaurant app promoting their seasonal drink that happens to be on special. You buy a coffee and pay for it by scanning your phone. In the elevator you Yelp a review. Good morning.