Finding “Mind like Water”

This is the second in what will become a series I’m calling “Getting it together” for lack of a better immediate title. Details are at the end of this post.

It’s now officially a week and a half into the Happiness Project that I started in mid-May. My goal was to work on productivity; the thought being that if I feel more productive during the day, I’ll be happier, and will also free up my time to do other things that make me happy. Happy happy happy. There, I said it.

So far, I’ve made a lot of progress. Identifying the differences among the various types of work I do – Thought Work, Production Work, Media Consumption, etc. gave me the opportunity to a) accept that my growing tendency towards having my physical workspace change almost every day was actually a positive and needful thing, and b) spend a bit more time evaluating the day’s priorities before setting up my work space for the day, which has been hugely helpful in preventing me from distraction.

Also wonderful is the new habit of using Chrome for web surfing and Firefox for production work. Not only does it help me more delineate “surfing time” from “work time,” helping me focus on production work when I need to, but it gives me a gentle reminder to cross-check different browsers while I’m working on a site – greatly helpful when working on websites.

The thing that’s been sticking me of late, however, hasn’t been a physical space issue as much as a mental space issue. As with anyone who makes their living being creative can tell you, the conceptual part of the job requires a very different mindset than the actual crafting of a piece. Production work can be rigid, focused; concepting work requires (in my experience, at least) freedom of movement and a mindset that’s open and ready to receive inspiration. This week, the biggest challenge I experienced was figuring out how to shift my mindset into one or the other mode depending on what I had to do that day – and dealing with the inevitable procrastination that comes from hot Boston weather and a to-do-list that increasingly feels overwhelming.

Unfortunately, I haven’t found an answer to this yet, but I’m working on it. Today I started my day by deciding to enjoy the weather for a bit, run a few errands and tuck into a blog entry before I settle into finishing up an important proposal and getting closer to launch on a client’s website. We’ll see how well it works.
Recently, I decided on a whim to pick up The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin at my local bookstore. In it, the writer, a journalist by trade, decides to spend a year of her life in a systematic approach to increase her general happiness. What I loved about her approach was that it combined a really solid amount of navel-gazing (a personal obsession of mine) with a set of really practical tools that actually make it feel like a *project.* There’s nothing flowery or New-Agey about it – it entails creating a set of Personal Commandments that guide the process, choosing one particular focus for each month, and then creating a Resolutions chart with 5-10 things that you’re going to use to achieve your focus for the month – and ticking off each day that you succeed, and tallying up at the end of the month how well you did.

As someone who requires an equal balance of conceptual and analytical, this approach seems to be just what I needed. After establishing my “personal commandments,” I’ve decided to tackle the issue of productivity.

Setting up Work Environments for the type of work you’re doing

This is the first in what will become a series I’m calling “Getting it together” for lack of a better immediate title.

Recently, I decided on a whim to pick up The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin at my local bookstore. In it, the writer, a journalist by trade, decides to spend a year of her life in a systematic approach to increase her general happiness. What I loved about her approach was that it combined a really solid amount of navel-gazing (a personal obsession of mine) with a set of really practical tools that actually make it feel like a *project.* There’s nothing flowery or New-Agey about it – it entails creating a set of Personal Commandments that guide the process, choosing one particular focus for each month, and then creating a Resolutions chart with 5-10 things that you’re going to use to achieve your focus for the month – and ticking off each day that you succeed, and tallying up at the end of the month how well you did.

As someone who requires an equal balance of conceptual and analytical, this approach seems to be just what I needed. After establishing my “personal commandments,” I’ve decided to tackle the issue of productivity.

Lately, with the growth of the zen kitchen and all the exciting new stuff that’s been going on (which, of course, we’ve had no real time to talk about – but we will. Soon. We promise.), I’ve been noticing odd shifts in my productivity. I’m procrastinating more, finding it harder to focus, realizing at 6:30 that I’ve only managed about three things on my to-do list. For years I’ve dealt with a mind that shifts from one thing to another constantly and found ways of managing that, but this was something different. Something that was actively preventing me from getting anything done, let alone the work that we need to do for clients.

At first, I responded to this by getting frustrated, and even starting to beat myself up. I started reading productivity blogs all over the place talking about how to “get things done” and organizing books on how to set up environments to be as productive as you can be. I tried a bunch of things, including rearranging my office (which I do with enough frequency that my fiancé Nick just laughs at me when I tell him “Look! I rearranged my office!”). I tried going for something sparse. I tried cluttered. I tried elaborate organizational systems, and multiple journals, online and offline software resources, just about everything you could think of. Nothing worked well enough to keep me effective for more than about a week. Something would shift, and I’d be back in “I can’t work” mode.

Not all work is the same

What I realized as I started paying close attention to how I really did things, is that most productivity systems handle “work” as this generic, homogenous thing; the tools they recommend behave as if everything that you do during the day can fall into one framework. What I realized during my examination of my own workstyle was that most of what I do falls into four distinct categories:

  • Thought Work: this is the work of coming up with concepts and strategies for clients, of writing articles and doing research. About 50% of the work I do falls into this category on most weeks – and it’s been the hardest one to find the right environment for.
  • Business Development: This is the work of meeting new prospects, talking them through their project’s challenges and writing proposals, closing sales, etc. The big challenge to this one is that the environment needs to be flexible; it can happen from anywhere.
  • Media Consumption and Online Networking: This is the time I’m spending building relationships online, reading articles that people point me to, and managing my and the studio’s presence online. This is a significant portion of the work I do, and how we market the studio and stay current on what’s happening in the industries that we’re involved with.
  • Production Work: This is the actual work of making things. Writing code, making logos and print documents, extending clients’ brands across multiple channels. This is actually only about 25-35% of what I’m doing in an average week; most of the work that goes into an effective design actually happens in the Thought Work side of things.

The challenge with this is that each of these types of work has a unique set of requirements, and a unique mindset. I realized that what I’d been considering “procrastination” was actually Media Consumption – an essential piece of the work that I do to build the business, maintain relationships and keep myself current. But, I found that I would often find myself ending up in Media Consumption mode in the middle of Production Work – when most of the production work happens in the same browser, it’s incredibly easy for your fingers to start sending you to twitter and clicking on interesting looking links that your friends are posting. By the time you’ve gotten your head out of the latest interesting article on HTML5, almost an hour has gone by and you still have all that production work staring you in the face.

Separate Media Consumption from Production Work

The first strategy I tried, a while back when I first started realizing the issue, was installing Leechblock on Firefox and blocking Facebook and Twitter from opening at all during the workday. If I wanted to visit those sites, I would have to use Safari, which I hid in the Applications folder. This ended up not working for three reasons:

  1. I was viewing the work I did online as “wasting time,” and not realizing its value;
  2. if, as I often did, I found myself needing an immediate answer to a pressing question and posted it on twitter (which also updates my Facebook status), I wouldn’t be able to check the links that friends would send me as answers to the problem, because Facebook was blocked;
  3. I was approaching it from an angle of punishing myself for being “bad.” Have you ever responded well to someone telling you you’re doing something horribly wrong? Didn’t think so.

This time, I decided to honor the value that Media Consumption brings to my life and my business, but accept that, in order to maintain my focus, I needed to create a distinct environment for web surfing that was separate from the environment that I use for production work. So, taking a tip from my previous experience, I installed Google Chrome on my Macbook (honestly, I hate Safari – sorry, I do), and put it directly under the Firefox icon in my dock. When I’m in production mode (building websites, updating projects in Basecamp, etc.), I’m using Firefox; when I want to surf the web or check out an interesting link, I use Chrome, and I close out of the browser when I’m done.

It sounds like an odd and rather obvious thing to do, but I have to say that in only three days of trying this, I’ve felt less stressed out, and felt more accomplished at the end of every single day. Plus – and this is a great bonus – I have been getting more joy out of my work than I can honestly say I’ve felt in months.

It’s amazing what a simple shift in perspective can accomplish.