Tag Archive | productivity

Rediscovering Pleasure in Professionalism

In the rush to be more productive, to be more successful, to be more…whatever it is we’re trying to be more of…it’s easy enough to forget about the why in pursuit of the what.

Case in point: I’ve been trying for a few years to get better at sketchnoting. In a time when I was finding classes and even books I read to be less and less interesting, taking up sketchnoting (and later sketching) revitalized my interest.

Not only that, it began to attract attention from others. Fellow class attendees and even teachers would enjoy looking at my sketchnotes, and I ended up even getting paid for them occasionally!

That was, of course, the death knell.

Profit Interrupts Pleasure

It’s a well-known phenomenon in Behavioral Economics; people will work their asses off for free, but will be offended if you offer them money for it. Even something that you really like doing becomes “work” if we attach a monetary value to it.

And that’s what happened to my sketchnoting. I stopped doing it for fun; any time I pulled out the paper and pens (or booted up the program on my iPad Pro, which I’d bought specifically for sketchnoting) my mind went into production mode:

Who’s going to buy this? What is your audience looking for? What have other sketchnotists done that is better than you? Where are your weaknesses? Where do you need to build skill? Is this going to work well as a PDF? Will your audience be able to read this clearly? Shouldn’t you be recording this real time, like those neat whiteboard cartoons? Who are you to be drawing anyway? You have a degree in Dance, for gossakes…

Notice how quickly that went into “Impostor Syndrome”? That’s part of the way that love as work loses its appeal. We have, in our culture, this funny word called “professional” which often holds the connotation of expertise, ethics, experience, and training beyond the “amateur” level.

In reality, of course, there’s only one real criteria for “professional”, and that’s whether or not someone’s willing to pay for your work.

Supposedly that’s tied into the idea that they wouldn’t be willing to pay you unless you had all those other things like expertise, etc., but the truth – which I’ve both seen and acted on myself, more than once – is that the people who get paid are not the ones who wait until people think their work is worth paying for.

No, the people who get paid are the ones who have learned the audacious art of asking for money.

Pay Yourself in Joy

I’m not saying that you should pay yourself in order to try and rediscover some of the joys of that thing you love. But perhaps (and I say perhaps because this falls square in the category of “I’m trying to figure this out) it can be treated like a bonus. If you have fallen into the briar patch of doing what you love for work (even if it’s not your primary source of income) then it would be a good idea to remind yourself of why you loved this art in the first place.

Me, I’m going to pick some ratio – 4:1, maybe – and try to make sure that for every four – hours? sketches? sessions? – that I do that are “productive” I have one that is simply for pleasure. It still isn’t really authentic joy – any more than enforced “break time” at a job is “free time” – but it’s a step in the right direction.

My purpose in the “pleasure sessions” (ok, maybe I need to find a better term…) will be not to produce something that I can show off or sell – rather, it will be to practice mindfulness, see how it feels to draw and letter and reformat information through the filter of my mind. To notice where the moments of joy happen, so that rather than optimizing for productivity I can optimize for my own enjoyment.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the quality of the drawings will be better when they are filled with an authentic appreciation of what I’m doing, rather than a forced push through to some marketable product.

We’ll see. Meanwhile, do you have a better idea? How does someone who has found that what they did for fun but now do for money keep the joy in what they love? I’d love to hear in the comments – or if you know someone who has faced that challenge, forward them this article and see what they think!

Are You a Slave of Time?

“I realized during meditation this morning that a huge part of my stress lied in a perceived scarcity of time. I am so concerned with ‘not wasting time’ – with ‘living up to my potential’ – that any moment that is not propelling me towards some goal is felt to be a waste, a luxury, a sin.
That’s ridiculous.”
– Personal Journal of Gray Miller, February 10, 2017

I’ve talked before about not so much wanting to “manage” my time as much as wanting to be a “Time Lord” (and that’s only partially because I’m in love with a Dr. Who fan). I fell completely in the whole “Inbox Zero”/“Four Hour Work Week”/“Getting Things Done” seduction scheme, with the pornographic dream of a world where I could do everything and anything if only I could manage my time more efficiently.

Actually, come to think of it, I fell for it long before any of those concepts. My mother created a fictional hero called “the File” who was sort of a cross between Jason Bourne and Encyclopedia Brown. He fought crime while writing volumes of literary and scientific research, spoke multiple languages, practiced martial arts, and, of course, didn’t sleep.

I don’t remember any actual stories about the File, but I remember the character sketch. It fed into my later identification with other hyper-efficient characters: James Bond. Sherlock Holmes. “Slippery Jim” DiGriz. Tony Stark. Tim Ferriss. Jubal Harshaw. Even Heinlein’s Lazarus Long became a model, which really wasn’t fair since he was a man who lived forever. Of course he had time to do everything!

The Fallacy of Enough Time

Time is what keeps everything from happening at once. – Ray Cummings, “The Time Professor”

It’s really kind of silly to feel a “scarcity” of time – because it’s the one thing that everyone has exactly the same amount of. No one can get more, no one can take any away from you. You have it, it’s yours, and you know exactly when it started being yours (in fact, I celebrate the 48th anniversary of my own Gift of Time today). As for when you “run out of time” – well, that’s something you can hope for, and make educated guesses and plans about, but the fact is nobody knows. Which again is a kind of “great equalizer.”

Why, then, do I feel like time is scarce, when it’s the one constant? The answer, of course, is that time doesn’t exist apart from other things. Here’s some of the fun flavors we add to time:

  • Activities to do, that
  • Result in measurable accomplishments, such as
  • Materials produced at a
  • High quality within a
  • Set “Due Date” (usually arbitrary)

That’s a heady mix to stir into our allotment of time! And if, like me, that “usually arbitrary” evokes a “No, I really need it done by a certain date!” I would ask that you really ask yourself: Why?

For example: why am I writing this blog post on a Tuesday?

Because I want to have it ready to post by Wednesday at 9am.


Because Wednesday is the day I put out Life Posts, and that’s a good time for people to read blogs.

Who decided Wednesday was the day you put out Life Posts?

Um…that was me.

Why did you pick that day?

Um…because Wednesday is hump day? And because “Life” comes in the middle of “Love Life Practice. And…well, it just seemed to be a good time to do it.

Basically, while there are a few (pretty weak) rationalizations, the reality is just “because I felt like it. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Preference is a great justification. Often it’s the “preference” of someone who has some other power over you, and that’s motivation enough (I don’t think the “why” game would work so well with my landlord).

The point, though, is that while Time is a constant, everything else – Activities, Results, Materials, Quality, and Due Dates – are variables. But for some reason we treat it as if the opposite were true – as if we can “make more”, “find”, “waste” or “kill” time. Meanwhile we tell people “being late is not an option”, or “here’s what I have to do today”, or reach “peak productivity” – every day.

Think about that. “Peak” is a metaphor for a mountain climb, a long journey with a beginning, long journey, a climactic “peak” moment, followed by a long journey back and a rest and reflection on the experience (such as “The Hobbit”).

You know what happens when everything is a peak? It’s called a plateau. I’m not saying that having a goal for excellent performance is a bad thing – that’s great! But expecting constant peak performance is not only unrealistic but destructive.

The Solution to Time Scarcity

Ha! Gotcha! I don’t actually have a solution here – I mean, I could make one up, cobbled together from the plethora of other time management systems out there, but I like being honest with you, dear reader. I can tell you that since that journal entry, I’ve been paying more attention to some of the things that make me feel time is less scarce:

  • Natasha and I had planned a business trip to Minneapolis last weekend, which was cancelled last-minute. Suddenly we had an entire weekend that was unplanned – and the result was some beautiful together time as well as getting further ahead on some personal projects.
  • I had a day with several projects scheduled including writing, business planning, meetings, and a workout. The day was supposed to start with a breakfast meeting with my soon-to-be-wed Middle Daughter, but she cancelled it last minute. At the end of the day, I realized I’d gotten everything I’d planned done in a way that felt relaxed and flowing.

That meant I’d over-planned by at least the amount of time the breakfast would have taken – but it also pointed out something else: sudden gifts of “unscheduling” seem to be one way to make time feel less scarce. It reduces the other variables, at least until your brain comes up with other things you “have to do”.

Maybe we need to hire “Unschedulers” who will jump out at random moments and cancel meetings and tasks? Maybe we need to do something like the old fashion trick, writing out our schedule and glancing at it over our shoulders so that we can eliminate the first thing that catches our eye? Maybe what we need is to follow Chris Brogan’s idea of only scheduling to 40% capacity.

Yeah, you read that right. Forty percent. It’s a scary thought. But please let me know if you have any better ideas – because something tells me our lives might depend on it.

The more you can convince yourself that you need never make difficult choices – because there will be enough time for everything – the less you will feel obliged to ask yourself whether the life you are choosing is the right one.” – Oliver Burkeman, Why time management is ruining our lives

An Urgent Message for Younger Me

Today’s post is in response to reader Jessica’s request for “Advice to younger self”. It occurred to me that the traditional Letter format was kind of outdated — we barely read through our emails. But if I really wanted to get my attention, I would text myself.

The De-Tolerated Life

Shortly after writing my post about de-tolerating your environment, I took on the elements of my desk that were most aggravating me:

  • I dusted the swords on top.
  • I found a better place for my glasses.
  • I used an old IKEA shelf as a cord manager.
  • I found better homes for both my hard drives and for my fancy poker chips.

And that meant that when I sat down at my desk, those five things that had been bothering me were gone. That meant that I could work in idyllic peace having achieved my productive utopia, yes?

No. But, Kinda.

See? Tragedy begets beauty! Promise. (not).

See? Tragedy begets beauty! Promise. (not).

Here’s the thing: much like the point of this blog, which is practical tools to make hard times happier, the point was not to make everything perfect- it was to make everything better. To create a bit more of a buffer between me and the shocks that may come, and increase the “slack” available in my work environment. Think of it as the “broken-window theory” writ small.

The thing is, I actually had a physical manifestation of it working while I was making the changes. You see, I had a cup of coffee on my electric mug warmer, and while fiddling with the cables and such I knocked it over – spilling it across my desk. Thankfully not across anything that would have been damaged, but it was my last cup of coffee, and it was exactly the kind of thing that would make someone swear, decide it was a bad day, throw up their hands and yell out “F*** MY LIFE!” in First-World angst.

At least, that’s how sometimes react. Maybe it’s just me. I certainly started to react that way – it’s that whole “amygdala responds first!” thing, and given the choice of fight, flight, or freeze, I tend to lean towards the former – which is why anger management was the first life hack I experimented with. I felt the surge of adrenaline, I felt the flush of anger – and then I laughed, because how silly would it be to get angry while you’re doing things designed to de-stress your environment? Ridiculous!

I chuckled, I got a towel, I cleaned up the coffee, and finished arranging the cables. The shelf is wonderfully convenient while hiding the cables I do use, and the tray for my glasses is both convenient and aesthetic. They are tiny things, and no, they haven’t made my life the perfect incarnation of workplace bliss – but life is made up of tiny things, many of them, and every one I can improve also improves me for the trying.

How about you? Any tolerations you’ve banished? How did it go?

The Maker-Time Schedule

This would be one of those “public accountability” posts, or maybe just a “notice of an experimental life hack.” As you may remember, a while back I tried out the concept of “Maker Time” – with some fantastic results. I’ve also been trying to come up with a more definitive schedule for myself because my projects seem to be flagging. It’s not that things aren’t getting done – it’s rather that they’re not getting done efficiently (or, in some cases, even noticeably). Based on my initial foray into Maker Time, it seems that integrating that concept into my everyday schedule might be a way to get out of this rut.

The temptation at first is to just schedule what 99U recently called “A One-Dayer“, but that doesn’t seem like a sustainable way to run my work day any more than a constant STOP (though there are times when I long for just that). The problem with that much focus is that it robs us of the ability for kaizen – incremental progress on things that we do every day, getting just a bit better.


courtesy Catalina Olavarria via Flickr CC

A Glimpse into My Time

The Maker Time Schedule

The first thing I did was make a list of the things I want to do every day – the things that require a daily (or semi-daily) practice in order to become an actual skill or aspect of my life:

  1. Morning protocols
  2. Exercise
  3. Sketching
  4. Reading
  5. Writing
  6. End-of-Day Review/Next Day Planning

Roughly speaking, I was only going to need to “schedule” the latter four; Morning Protocols happened first thing, not in the midst of the work day. The EOD Review also didn’t need to be much – I don’t do any review right now, so scheduling myself five to fifteen minutes just to get a head start on the day seemed like a pretty reasonable thing.

Then it was time for the projects. What were the things that felt out of control, the Big Projects that would benefit from focused attention in a large block of time? Back to the lists:

  1. Improving this blog.
  2. Working on my book(s)
  3. Working on my business, Gray Miller Creative LLC
  4. Improving my public speaking/presentations
  5. Building my podcasts/audio productions

I could have found more, but these five seemed to fill in a nice Monday-Friday slot. But how much Maker Time did I need each day? “Four hours” was the interval that stuck in my head. I blame Tim Ferriss.

Paying Attention to Flow

With half of each day dedicated to Maker Time, that didn’t leave a whole lot of day for the other activities. Things like writing and sketching required at least a half-hour, preferably an hour, to really show some progress. Exercise could be 20-30 minutes if I was being super-focused, but if you include showering and stretching it realistically needed to be an hour. Plus I knew from experience that I did not want things to be back-to-back. There needed to be transition time as well.

Taking a cue from the many productivity gurus who say “Do the most important thing first“, I decided that my days would go right from Morning Protocols into Maker Time (for whatever project got focus that day). That meant no emails (that were unrelated to the theme), no tweets, no nothing that didn’t directly affect the project until after noon. I arbitrarily chose to start the day at 8am, because I’m the boss of me. Most of my clients were on the west coast anyway, two hours behind me, so it wasn’t likely that I’d miss anything urgent…

Urgent! That was what I forgot. I have some clients and sites I manage that require attention on a daily basis (for example, today I had to notify two people of contests they’d won for websites I manage). Where did that fall in? Suddenly I was looking at a day that started at 8 and would go until…9 or 10pm!

Time is what keeps everything from happening at once;
space is what keeps everything from happening to you”

Gretchen Rubin

“Schedules are what keep you from doing
twice as much as you think you can
half as well as you wish you could.”
– Me

Something had to give. But I knew that writing every day, no matter what, was essential. I knew that sketching – an unexpected passion of mine found late in life – also required daily practice. Exercise? C’mon, we all know that you need to do something every day.

That left reading. I reasoned that I always found time for reading – at lunch, standing in lines, listening to audio books, a few pages before bed – and that it could also simply be something I did more of after the work day was done. I crossed it out, and my maker schedule took form, starting when I woke:

  • 1 hour Morning Protocols (includes a healthy breakfast
  • 4 hours Maker Time, based on the following daily themes:
    1. Blogday
    2. Bookday
    3. Bizday
    4. Speakday
    5. ‘Castday (I thought about “Pod-day” but it has unpleasant connotations)
  • 1 hour Lunch (with reading)
  • 1 hour Sketching
  • 1 hour Writing
  • 1 hour Urgent Business/Reading
  • 1 hour Exercise
  • 15-30 minutes End of Day review/Next Day Planning

You may notice that I didn’t actually put in times; that’s intentional, because as I mentioned there needs to be “passing time” in between tasks. I also don’t want people to think that this is implying that I only spend one hour a day working on client business; if I did, I could write some kind of bestseller, maybe called “the 5-Hour Work Week.” No, when I’m writing it means I may be writing copy for clients; sketching or ‘Castday means I might be designing something for pay or recording an audiobook as well. After all, when people ask me what I do for a living my usual answer is “Whatever I can get away with“.

Sustainable and Flexible Structure

It works out, if you put in about 5 minutes between tasks, to an 8-6pm workday with an hour for lunch…which is pretty reasonable, when you think about it. Of course, with my travel and such there are times it will simply wither away in a flurry of busy-ness (such as today, when the sick needed hugs, the car needed estimates, and my partner needed snuggles).

And it’s an experiment – an attempt to create a framework organically, based on my own needs and wants. It’s a life-trellis, you might say: now we just have to see what grows.

Use Love to Enable Productivity

courtesy Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr CC

Like most to-dos: not really ugly, but you wouldn’t want to wake up with it on your pillow.

Love in Iguana Land

“An iguana is any task I don’t want to deal with, anything I’m dreading or avoiding or dread-avoiding…Just thinking about them makes me want to crawl into bed and hide.”

– Havi, Fluentself.com

If you’ve not been acquainted with Havi’s idea of the “idowanna iguana”, it’s pretty charming. Illustrated, even, and the post recently about how iguanas really just want to be unicorns (making their way through the transition of being the rather mixed-message iguanacorn, of course) made me chuckle and think a lot about my own “iguana” collection. Today my big iguana was cleaning my desk. My partner Natasha’s big iguana was getting a flu shot.

My iguana-desk made me dread the commute to work (all ten feet from the bedroom) because of the chaos that would be waiting for me, not to mention the bills, the potential for missed correspondence, or even (eep!) things I’d forgotten to send out over the holidays. Natasha, on the other hand, just really doesn’t like needles. That dislike had grown into a mutant iguana that was quite in favor of medical advances like vaccines, antibiotics, painkillers, but refused to believe that these “flu shots” were anything more than a hoax.

Kids & Iguanas

Today I did, in fact conquer my desk. In case you’re wondering, listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast while cleaning off a desk can make you feel like every put-away file, every discarded paper, every shelved book is part of you turning into a PRODUCTIVITY ROCK STAR. Even if you don’t actually produce anything. Doesn’t matter. ROCK STAR. And when Natasha got home, she exclaimed “You found your desk!” (yes, it was that bad), and I got a little happy glow of Yes, yes I did. Did I mention that I listened to Tim Ferriss and I am now a Productivity ROCK STAR!

Then she got a pouty face on, because it was time for her to go get her shot. And I cheerfully bid her farewell, and smiled and told her it was nowhere near as bad as a tetanus shot, and hey, they might just let her inhale it instead of sticking her (the VA just stuck a needle in me, but that’s typical treatment for a jarhead). Her boss also encouraged her to get the shot, since they’ve lost some people to flu already this season.

That’s when I realized that one of the keys to dealing with your own iguana is much like dealing with kids: the ones that belong to other people are much easier to deal with than your own. You can make this into a strength, and let your loved ones know what kind of things you are dreading, that you really don’t want to do – and love those tasks for them. It’s so great to see you taking care of yourself and keeping healthy for me! Wow, that desk looks like it’s ready for you to write GREAT stuff!

It’s important you don’t belittle the iguanas (or kids, for that matter, but let’s not digress). Telling people to “get over it” or trying to pretend it’s no big deal does not help. Of course it’s not a big deal to you – it’s not your task, it’s not your dread, it’s not your resistance keeping you from it. Rather, acknowledge that this is a big deal, and then work on giving your loved one the strength and encouragement they need to overcome it.

In other words: tackle those iguanas together, and they won’t be nearly as scary.

Many thanks to Will,
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using your environment to reinforce your goals

Greetings from occasionally-sunny San Francisco. After a great weekend workshop, I had a chance to catch up today with my friend W – a remarkable woman of many talents and interests, including being part of the team of artists that helped string lights all along the Bay Bridge turning it into a work of art in and of itself.

While chatting with her about her work projects, we commiserated about some of the inconveniences of working in the home. Both of us have “commutes” of about 15 feet to get to our desks, and when your living and work spaces are that close, it can make focusing on work difficult. Even worse, it can make unfocusing on that work difficult as well. Especially if you’re a project-oriented worker, like me, there’s always one more edit, one more chapter, one more post you can put up, and when your desk is just sitting there, it can be hard to unplug.

Persona non Data

W has an interesting solution, simple yet brilliant. She creates entirely different user accounts on her computer for her work vs. her everyday life. That means it has a plain background, it has shut off access to social networks, all her backups are done. It puts her into a frame of mind that “this is work time.” She can code and design and do whatever it is she does (frankly, it’s over my head, I just know it’s cool) in a frame of mind that spells out productivity.

Then, when Work-W has completed the day’s tasks, she logs out and logs back in as “Play-W.” Colorful personalized desktops, her social media bleeping and blooping messages from her friends, the NetFlix queue pulled up and ready to go. It is more than just a convenient distraction; this means that she can relax, let go of the projects, and really devote her leisure time to actual leisure.

If you don’t work at home, this may not seem useful to you. But it occurred to me that it doesn’t have to apply only to work and play. What about projects? What if your home had a “guitar practice” setting, a “family dinner” setting, where the lighting, the online distractions, even the little things like the dishwasher running are shut down to enable some real focus? What are the ways you can improve your practice – the practice of work, of play, or whatever priorities you have – through shaping your environment ever-so-slightly differently?

Personally, I’m taking this from a traveler’s perspective, to see how I can create some small elements of consistency regardless of environment – and we’ll talk more about that wednesday. But for now, tell me about your environment. What ways does it help – or hinder – your practice.

More to the point: what are you going to do about it?

Avoid Burnout by Living Deliberately

Traveling at the Speed of Life

Take care not to smoke too quickly; for the best possible burn, taste, and aroma, smoke as slowly as the cigar will allow.

– Hayward “Lou” Tenney

Gray lighting a cigar near the San Francisco Bay

From Waking Dreams by Michele Serchuk

Cigars require attention, lest you suffer the dreaded “burnout”, when it simply stops smoldering and starts smelling. But the rate at which you puff makes a difference – more than I ever knew. “Lou” Tenney’s particular gem of advice came from a cigar lover’s newsletter, one of many tips I enjoy because they are freely given. It’s like congenial advice from a favorite uncle.

The science behind the “smoke as slowly as the cigar will allow” is fascinating. Apparently tobaccos contain sugars, and if you allow the leaves in your cigar to smolder it will caramelize themEven knowing as little about cooking as I do, the word “caramelize” definitely brings to mind “yum.” Indeed, this is what gives the draw a “appealingly sweet flavor.”

On the other hand, if you just puff away like a steam engine, you end up carbonizing the sugars, which (aside from bringing to mind Han Solo frozen on Jabba’s wall) gives the cigar a burnt, tarry flavor. Now, those of you who don’t like cigars, I know…you’re wondering “what’s the point?” Bear with me, this has more to do with life than with some filthy nasty wonderful relaxing indulgence.

There’s one more thing that the slow-burn does: it helps your cigar burn more evenly. And that is where the lesson really hit home for me. Read More…