free time and productivity

Time Spiral
If you’re one of those people who think that you could accomplish a lot more with your life if only you had more free time, you’re not alone… and you’re wrong. For years I blamed the long hours I worked, exhaustion after those long hours, or the “necessary” errands that consumed what little free time I did have.  I thought that if I ever had a job that didn’t consume my evenings and weekends I’d have the time to accomplish all the things I always dreamed I would do.  Yet when I look back over the years since I’ve scaled back my working hours by becoming a consultant, the peak moments of productivity – personally and professionally – have seldom been the moments when I had the most free time.  I am not now at my most productive, and understanding why has become one of my primary self-improvement goals.

Since 2006 I have seldom worked more than 38 or so hours per week.  Here are examples of some of the clients I’ve had both in New York and Florida.  Client A was a very short commute (less than half an hour), and what I’d call an “early office” – I made it in around 8:00 am most days and usually left by 4:00.  Client B was a long commute (almost two hours each way), and while I seldom worked more than 8 hours in a day I did stay late on occasion.  It was a “late office” – most of the people in my department drifted in around 9:30 or 10:00, so it was hard to justify arriving at 8 and leaving at 4.  Client C was a short commute (by New York standards) of one hour, and the client was very flexible about the hours, not really caring if I arrived at 8 or at 10.  It was very much a ROWE office.  Client D was a driving commute, about 45 minutes, depending on traffic (often much longer in the evenings) and required that you be glued to your desk every minute of the day.

So when was I most productive while working? Client A was a horrific environment, with a no-wall cubicle farm, frequent last-minute meetings and a lot of work taking place on a trading desk.  If you’ve ever seen the movie “Boiler Room,” that’s the environment I was working in.  Client B was the exact opposite.  They gave me a quiet cubicle on the opposite side of the floor from the rest of the department.  They never had meetings, and email was the preferred method of communication.  Client C was back to the Client A world – a huge conference room shared by 45 consultants, all talking on mobile phones, yelling back and forth to each other and sitting two feet apart. Client D was extremely restrictive – quiet, with a boss who didn’t like hearing her staff socialize.  So where was I the most productive, both professionally and personally?  I was far more productive while working at Client B with four hours of commuting time than I ever was before or after.  Why?

Having so little free time while at Client B forced me to be organized and disciplined with my time while at home. It also made me focused at work, knowing that whatever tasks I could accomplish there would free up time at home.   I was focused on completing my work quickly and efficiently, and getting out as soon as possible, even if it meant working less than eight hours, because the commute was so long.   I did not spend endless hours reading Sports Illustrated or The New York Times during my commute.  I made good use of my time on the train by reading, and as any writer can tell you reading is the best inspiration.   Although we only had one child at the time, we didn’t have a babysitter and I seldom had any real free time until 9 or 10 pm.  So again, I knew I had to make the most of an hour or two late at night.

My busiest time was a time of tremendous productivity for me. Most of the “most popular” posts I wrote on brip blap were written during that time.  I was tired, and I felt like I had no free time, but everything got done that needed to get done.  While at Clients A, C and D, almost nothing got done.  The oppressive work environment meant that I was less productive professionally.  The noise and lack of space made it hard to accomplish anything.  Because I took longer to do my work, I came home and started writing, and it wasn’t good.  Because the commutes were short, I quit reading books and started listening to morning shock jock bits (this was before I discovered podcasts).  My personal and professional productivity took a beating.

Now, with more free time, you might expect to be more productive.  In my experience, I am not. I find that in a non-structured environment I have difficulty focusing on even the simplest tasks, which is surprising to me.   I have trouble reading.  I spend more time than I should with my kids, but not always in a focused or in-the-moment way.  I cannot get organized about my computer time – I check email again and again throughout the day, which is a terrible idea.  I waste time on Facebook and countless other nonproductive sites.

Some of us, despite what we like to think, need the structure of a job to be productive. Sometimes getting up and leaving the house forces you to be more productive whether you like it or not.  I have had to confront a simple fact:  everything I thought I knew about organizing my time has to be thrown out the window.  I have never been good about organization and productivity, because I was only organized and productive when forced to be by circumstance!  I have to relearn so much to be as organized as I need to be; but right now I have far more free time than I did in the past to do nothing but learn, so I have no excuses now.

Stephen King says in his masterpiece “On Writing” that the most important part of writing is learning to close the door. He’s a brilliant writer (if you think of him only as a hack horror writer, try picking up one of his books sometime – they are as well-written as anything you’ll ever read).  His point is that if you fail to close the door when writing, both figuratively and literally, you’ll never have a chance to succeed.  It is too easy to let the world distract.  Although he is talking about writing, he could just as easily be talking about cooking or exercising or almost any productive venture.  We have too much to distract us, and too little time to do anything well if we fail to concentrate on what we are doing at that moment.  The challenge is to learn that focus.

photo credit: gadl

society and the individual

Will code for food

All that is valuable in human society depends upon the opportunity for development accorded the individual.

– Albert Einstein

I love pop culture, as long as it is MY pop culture. I love Star Trek, Star Wars, the Matrix and the Lord of the Rings and don’t care much for American Idol.  Loving one and not caring for the other won’t make me much better or worse as a person; there is nothing in Star Trek that makes the fans of that show “better” than the fans of American Idol.  Yet I feel that there is some value from the one show not possible from the other.  I feel that liking one over the other makes me more of an individual.

There are many opportunities for the individual to disappear in a society. In a totalitarian society, the disappearance of individual is a survival instinct.  In a command economy, it’s the easiest action.  In a capitalist society, it’s not the way to wealth but it may serve as the avoidance of poverty.

If you stop and think about the ways in which you can live a “life fully lived”, either through commerce or service or self-improvement, the individual is key. I imagine Donald Trump gets the same sense of satisfaction through commerce as a community organizer does through service to others, although I can’t be sure.  But the opportunity for development accorded to the individual makes or breaks a society.

Do you want your neighbors to succeed? Your city?  Your state?  Your country?  Your world?  At each point you’re concentrating less on your own self-development and more on a larger ideal.  As a family man, I concentrate less on my own self-development (reading, contemplation, exercise, etc.) and more on my family’s development.  I think others expand this to concentrate more upon their neighbors’ development, and so on.  It’s not a bad thing, but I think every time you set aside your own self development for society’s, you eventually will suffer.

Boil it down to real life? Killing yourself to guarantee your children’s college education?  Paying exorbitant taxes to support a dying city?  Working to support a corporation?  Destroying your own health to support a family?  All are self-defeating in the long view.  Each will eventually undermine the initial reasoning; working long hours and wrecking your health to support your family will fail to pay off when you die young, for example.

Most people can’t make that difficult choice to concentrate on their own self-development. I’ll be honest:  I can’t. It’s hard to say that you need to work on your own happiness or health or prosperity now to ensure your family (or friends’, or community’s, or whatever) betterment tomorrow.  Sacrifice is tough in the short term.  America hasn’t demonstrated much stomach for that in the last decade or two, and we’ll pay the price in the next couple of decades.  But if you want to help others often the best way is to learn to help yourself first.

photo credit: pvera

the questions you need to succeed in business

These are not my original thoughts, but they are a great list of questions if you’re interested in providing a service (a blog, a business, consulting – basically any service you can think of):

  • What needs do people have that I can fulfill?
  • What trend or trends are present here?
  • What opportunities do they present?
  • What are the current gaps in the marketplace?
  • What is the insight that can lead me to create greater value in this segment?
  • How can I leverage what I know about this category or industry that makes sense for my [work] and my brand name?
  • How can I test the efficacy of my idea?

These ideas came from Thomas Edison, inventor of a couple things (!), and they are remarkably applicable 100 years after he said them. I am trying to apply these ideas to my thought process about future work after my current career winds down.

What really kills me – and this happens more and more often – is how much inspirational and quite frankly useful stuff has already been written. So much of what’s written about inspiration, getting rich, etc. has already been covered better and earlier. Even what I’m trying to write about has probably been covered better by people like Ben Franklin already. It’s amazing how “The Secret” is not really a secret – it’s there and it’s available, we (and I include myself) just don’t take advantage of it.

The simplest, most straightforward ideas are right there. They are public domain works. You don’t need to buy anything. You don’t need to attend a seminar. It’s all free already – the concepts behind wealth and health and happiness. Don’t buy another self-help book, just hit the Internet. In 10 years it will all be monetized and privatized, but right now it’s the biggest treasure trove of free information the world has ever seen…

(photo credit by ishrona)

thoughts on early retirement

My family has been gone for a few days, visiting family in New York, while I stayed here to work. It’s been an interesting experience, being alone, because I haven’t had this much time to myself in quite a while. I’ve attempted to spend my time doing productive things, although today, many of the productive things have involved doing something where I can watch football while I do them. One of the activities today was baking bread from scratch. This was an interesting experience. I had watched Lara make a number of variations on bread – items such as pizza crusts, pastries, and assorted cakes and muffins. But I myself never actually attempted to make bread. It’s strange, because my son has been baking bread at his Waldorf preschool for years, and it doesn’t really seem like that difficult. Be that as it may, I have never actually attempted to make bread. So today I thought, why not?

So I baked some bread. Today, following instructions I found on the Internet, natch. It worked fairly well. I was able to make a decent loaf of bread, with a nice hint of garlic and onion, because I like that kind of bread… salty and flavorful, not hearty and/or sweet. You may wonder what the point of this is. I am not a big do-it-yourselfer. I generally think that when you spend a large amount of time trying to do something like this that you could expend a small amount of money on, you probably are not spending your time in an optimal way. But then again this weekend, my thoughts have been turned  toward the idea of minimalism, frugality, environmentalism, simplicity, and lifestyle design. Why, you may ask? Because of something I read on early retirement extreme this weekend.

I know I have mentioned early retirement extreme, a blog about retiring at an extremely young age, several times in the course of my own blogging “life.” It is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the best blogs about this lifestyle. It is not the only one of course, there are several others: brave new life and Mr. Money Mustache leap to mind (both are excellent and you should be reading them). All of these blogs, of course, have
Your Money or Your Life a book written back in the 80s although revised recently, as an inspiration. But early retirement extreme is probably the best-known of the current financial independence blogs. The author of the blog, Jacob, announced this weekend that he was leaving his early retirement to go into a new job as a quant trader. I won’t go into the details of what a quant trader is, although I have friends in that industry. Google it (or quant/quantitative analyst).

To me, any job in the financial services sector is the exact antithesis of an early retirement. The hours are long, the office politics are brutal, the pressure to perform is immense, the positive impact to society is (in my opinion) minimal at best and negative at worst. Your ability to pursue what you want will be limited by the firm’s immense demands on your time and expertise.  But be that as it may, it is an immensely challenging field and I understand why someone like Jacob, with a PhD in physics, would be entertained at the thought of engaging in the challenge of trying to conquer this field.

I myself am not engaged in an early retirement lifestyle. I have not made the choices which would enable me to retire at an extremely early age. Until the mid-90s, I was engaged in a career quite typical of most American corporate mid-level management. I chose in the mid-90s to  disengage from this lifestyle as much as I could (mentally) and became a contract consultant, which allowed me to design a much simpler lifestyle, which involved much less travel, much less involvement in corporate politics and less concern over the need to constantly deal with bosses and subordinates. But I do aspire to some of the ideals of the early retirement movement. I drive a 10-year-old car, which I am not fond of, but I intend to continue to drive. Why?  Simply because I don’t believe there’s any compelling need for me to buy a new car. I do not like to buy things. I have attempted to live in a “simple-ish” home. We attempt to eat simply, mostly vegetarian and organic and locally grown. I don’t have cable TV. I don’t play video games. We read a lot in my household. We have a garden that Bubelah takes good care of.  But after all of that back patting of myself, I realize that I have a long ways to go before I meet any of the ideals of an early retirement ideology.

So it is jarring to me to see that one of the proponents of the early retirement lifestyle has abruptly left this lifestyle after achieving it so efficiently. But I understand. I have spent most of my blogging life reading heavily about hedonic adaptation. I’ve written about it several times, although I have never made it a main focus of my blog. But be that as it may, hedonic adaptation is probably one of the key measures for understanding yourself . No matter how miserable you are – or how happy you are – your current state is what determines your happiness. If you are miserable today and things go a little bit better tomorrow, you will be happy. If you are happy today and things go a little bit wrong tomorrow, you will be miserable. This is just human nature. If you buy a toy today, hedonic adaptation teaches us that you will be less satisfied with it as each day goes by. This is fine. People are like this. I am like this.

But I have realized, after reading a lot of the comments on early retirement about Jacob’s decision to leave the ERE lifestyle, that I do need to concentrate more fully on a singular goal, and that singular goal has to be finding a point at which financial independence allows me freedom of choice over my actions on a daily basis. This is critical. I enjoy many parts of my job. I had an extremely busy week this past week, but it was also very satisfying: I was able to set up a system for my client that exactly met their needs and made them quite happy. I had a great feeling of accomplishment from that. Now, but that in balance with this idea: I enjoyed making my client happy, but how can I weigh that against the fact that I was working late most evenings and was not able to spend much time with my children. Granted I spend more time with my children than I would if I was traveling heavily, but it was an uneven solution to the question “what is your ideal lifestyle design?” I’d like to make money, do interesting work and work with people I like….and have lots of spare time for my family (and, frankly, myself). And the only way this will happen is if I achieve financial independence.

Unless you are familiar with the early retirement general philosophy, much of this may pass over your head. But I think you get the idea. There was a guy who espoused retiring early and showed how to do it,  who then found that in retirement he needed to go back to work. It seems a little hypocritical when I first read it. But it’s not….  the idea is that you would like to put yourself in a position where you can do exactly what you want when you want to, even if that means you want to return to full-time work in a new field. I certainly can’t do that right now. I would submit that probably 99% of Americans cannot do this now. So if you have access to a blogger who has been able to do this, and he’s written a detailed guideline on how to achieve that same level of success, that’s a good guide map regardless of what he’s doing now. I’m going to pay more attention to my plans to retire early, personally. And when I say retire early, I don’t mean to quit working. I simply mean to be able to work when I want to, in a way I want to, with people I want to, with companies I want to and how I want to.

I think that’s sufficiently heavy for Monday. Get out there and do what you do with pride, and with a focus on doing it so well that someday you won’t HAVE to do it, you’ll WANT to do it because people love what you do so much that they will throw money at you. Nice daydream, huh?

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by mikebaird

PS I composed this post with Dragon Naturally Speaking (which I reviewed before, here). It took about 5 minutes of editing, mostly for punctuation, but by and large it got my speech. The geek in me appreciates the lack of typing.

the scrambled egg theory of productivity

scrambled eggs

Physics tell us that one of the laws of the universe is this:

You can’t unscramble an egg.

Think about it. It can’t be done. You can freeze liquid water, then heat it and turn it to gas and back to water, but you can’t unscramble an egg. It just won’t unscramble. Hit it with gamma rays, do whatever you want and it won’t unscramble.

scrambled eggs

The same principle applies to finance. If you spend an hour of your life earning $20, then you spend that $20 on a CD, it’s gone. Your life is gone. If you spend two hours getting a listing ready on eBay and you make a profit of $1.34 selling a CD, that time is gone, too. Was it worth that $1.34? Was the initial purchase of the CD worth $20?  That time is gone, and that egg can’t be unscrambled.  The money out – unless you spent it on something that will return to you like education, or an investment – is money gone.  In the cosmic sense, it has been scrambled.

Your time works the same way, too.  Every time you watch TV, for example, you lose a piece of your life. Whether it’s worth it or not is up to you.  I’ve seen many movies that inspired me, or made me laugh.  That might have been a good use of my time.  Everyone needs to relax and be entertained from time to time, but you do have to choose how to spend your life.  I know it may sound like an obsessive focus on money, but that is time you could have been working on your education, or coming up with money-saving ideas, or studying investments.  Watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island for the third time is not what Benjamin Franklin would have done.

Tony Robbins has a good bit about watching reruns of programs: he says we have two driving forces in our life, the desire for surprise and the desire for consistency, which are constantly at war. We want to watch a funny TV show for the second time because we know it’s funny; but we also hope something new will happen or we’ll see something we missed before. The chances of both of those desires being met decreases each time you see the same show in reruns. As he says, if you ever watch any TV show or movie more than once – get a life.  And trust me, I do this all the time. I have seen The Matrix and The Russia House so many times I can practically recite them – but I do know it’s time wasted.  This tendency to watch movies multiple times is one of the main reasons my family cut the cord.

So the next time you think about buying that CD or wasting time “making money” on eBay or seeing “that great episode where Gilligan breaks the Professor’s coconut-powered radio” just ask yourself if you really want to scramble that egg. Time is short, and it always – always – moves forward.

Creative Commons License photo credit: swanksalot

cutting the cord

cable cord

cable cord

Back in the early 80s my brother and I wanted to get a dog. Badly. We also lived in an area where TV reception was spotty (at best) and if we wanted to watch Star Trek reruns we had to go outside and spin the big aerial antenna around to pick up ABC. How are these two items related?

My parents weren’t “pet people”. I am sure they never had any intention whatsoever of letting us get that dog. But what they did know was that in early 80s America a new pop sensation – a music television channel! – was sweeping America. And for two early-teens boys, getting cable in order to get MTV was a priority.

Maybe you can see where this is going: we were given the choice between cable and a dog, and chose cable. That began a decades-long relationship between cable TV and me. Briefly I had satellite TV (once in Moscow, and once in New Jersey) but a cable always piped in a signal from somewhere into the house.

But a couple of years ago we got a Roku device, which completely changed how we watch TV. We started watching movies, at first, and then noticed that good, solid educational programs from PBS, Nick Jr., etc. were also available. Bubelah watched Russian TV and movies on a laptop, and my sports intake dropped dramatically with two busy little toddlers. I didn’t want to spend one of two weekend days glued to the TV throughout the fall and winter watching the NFL, especially since I’m a Jets fan and they don’t get shown much in this Jacksonville market (we get Bucs, Jags and Falcons).

So we finally dropped cable TV. We kept the high-speed internet. And we even dropped our VOIP “landline” in favor of our mobile phones and Skype. Now, we aren’t getting rid of the medium altogether. I’m not one of those people who is ready to quit watching the idiot box altogether – I do enjoy movies. I think some television is good for children, because they will get exposed to it one way or the other. And some shows and movies do teach, albeit only a little bit.

We’ll still have access to broadcast channels, but other than PBS I doubt we’ll ever watch them. I’ll probably tune in to an occasional football game, but if there’s an NFL lockout (as seems likely now) my sports viewing will drop to almost nothing. We’ll still let the kids watch their favorite shows, and we’ll still catch Anthony Bourdain on Netflix once in a while.

So who knows how I’ll feel about this move in a few months, but saving $70 a month for something we didn’t use much and really only used for mindless viewing (”hey, let’s watch Bad Boys II for the nth time!” or “look, House Hunters International is in El Salvador!”) doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Plus, I changed my car’s oil by myself this weekend – reading Early Retirement Extreme must have had some kind of effect on me.

Photo Attribution Some rights reserved by Andrew Mason

5 Time Management Quotes by Brian Tracy

Time management skills are essential for anyone who wants to breed success. How you manage your time will determine how fast you will succeed in your endeavor. Brian Tracy, author of books on time management and personal productivity, says one of the differences between successful people and average people is how they manage and value their time. After reading many of his books I’ve gathered five of his best quotes on time management.

1. “If you have two frogs, eat the ugliest one first.”

Eating a frog is an analogy of doing your most important tasks first thing you wake up. Brian Tracy got it from the saying: If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long! By doing your most important task first you will less likely procrastinate on the other tasks later in the day. By getting the biggest task done first you also set the tone for the rest of the day for getting work done.

2. “One of the most important rules of personal effectiveness is the 10/90 rule.”

The first 10% of time that you spend planning and organizing your work before you begin will save you as much as 90% of the time in getting the job done once you get started. This is not to be confused with the 80/20 rule which is about determining your most valuable tasks. The 10/90 rule is about planning when and how you do your work. Without a game plan of how you are going to tackle the tasks at hand or not even knowing when you will do it will make you more likely to procrastinate. Whenever you start a new task or project, think about the 10/90 rule. Plan first, then start.

3. “The fact is that you can’t do everything that you have to do. You have to procrastinate on something. Therefore, procrastinate on small tasks.”

Let’s be realistic here; everyone procrastinates. If you have to do it, you might as well creatively procrastinate on things that aren’t as important. It’s a good idea to make a separate list of tasks that are not important but have to get done at some point. For example, organizing your bookshelf or cleaning out your closet are not really important but have to get done at some point. Whenever you feel like procrastinating, look over this list and see what you can knock off without much effort. You still get work done even when you feel like you are procrastinating.

4. “There is never enough time to do everything, but there is always enough time to do the most important thing.”

Brian Tracy also calls this the “law of forced efficiency”. Today we are overwhelmed with information and things we need to do. You often hear people say “I wish I had more time” when they feel overwhelmed. What he is saying is that if the task is really important, you will get creative and find time for it to finish. Sure, you might really have too many things to do but that is not the core problem. Instead, you want to ask yourself “what is the most valuable use of my time, right now?” and work on that right away. Anything else in comparison is relatively unimportant.

5. “The purpose of time management and getting more done in less time is to enable you to spend more face time with the people you care about and doing the things that give you the greatest amount of joy in life.”

The three biggest factors for determining your happiness are your health, wealth and relationships. With the right time management skills you can free up time so you can not only feel happier but also you can actively spend time on doing things that make you feel happier. Relationships with friends, family and your significant other are important for feeling happy so make sure you spend time with them.

Thanh Pham is a productivity nerd and he writes on his blog about time management and productivity.

take your time seriously

If you waste the time you have now with e-mail and reading sports illustrated then that means you don’t take your time seriously and don’t see it as what it is ; your most valuable resource!

– a comment on free time does not translate to massive productivity

I was re-reading this old post of mine thanks to Jacob’s mention of it in Productivity and the Goose that laid the Golden Eggs. I don’t remember being particularly concerned with the comment at the time, since it just seemed to be taking a shot at me and my habits.  Now that I’ve come across it a couple of years later it gave me a moment’s hesitation, and then some reconsideration followed by resignation.

It’s related to another exchange/quote I’ve used again and again in my personal life. Unfortunately I don’t remember where I heard it and I’ve never put much effort into looking it up…

Trainer:  You need to exercise 30 minutes at least 3 days a week.

Guy:  I don’t have that much time – I’m very busy.

Trainer:  Did you watch TV this week?

Guy: Yes.

Trainer:  You had time.  You just didn’t want to exercise.

So true.  I’m not using this post to bash the TV – I’ve done plenty of that before – but you could substitute almost any activity in there and they could also be labeled as  “bad habits.” I endlessly re-read random chapters of books I like – I’ll yank it off the shelf and read a chapter, then put it back.  And yes, I spend more time than I should reading pointless emails and Sports Illustrated and whatnot.

It is easy to reward yourself with mindless, unproductive activities, but you do have to spend some time judging whether they really are a reward or just a habit. TV’s just a habit with me now.  I think I “need a break” but probably what I really need is a clearly-defined activity to do to keep my day moving forward – even if that activity is just to lie down on the couch for 15 minutes and rest my eyes!  TV is a default habit.  Popping open Sports Illustrated is a “neutral” for me – I can idly browse football news, even in the offseason, even about teams I don’t care about.  I can shuffle papers.  I can pick a lot of activities which aren’t productive but far more importantly aren’t even enjoyable simply because they are easy to remember, do and jump into and out of.

The lesson is simply to try to reflect on whether you really, truly want to do something or need to do it or are simply doing it out of habit. Half an hour before I wrote this I sat down and flipped on the TV and watched 15 minutes of Starship Troopers.  Why?  I had told myself I needed to write something – ANYthing – this evening and I was simply delaying out of habit.  Nothing more.  I know I used a number of activities to avoid doing even things that I enjoy doing simply because the time-waster is easy.  That’s not a good personality trait:  I’d rather do something easy than fun.

As suggested in some of the other comments on that piece, probably the best solution is routine and activity. If I had exactly 30 minutes set aside every day (or every weekday or every other day, etc.) to write, I’d probably focus in much better on writing on those days.  But as it is, I write when the mood strikes, and even when the mood strikes writing is hard work: it takes focus, manual effort (typing) and creativity.  TV or old books or rearranging the pantry take no focus, minimal effort and no creativity.

Each person has different levels of discipline and focus, but I’ve come to realize that for me discipline is easy only once I mentally commit to absolute positions – taking things cold turkey. Focus is nearly impossible – my mind jumps around, a lot.  So the solution is scheduling and self-accountability – making sure I do things in a scheduled time-frame, and keep track of how I did with that process.  Single tasking! For you it might be something else.  But just remember the next time you sit down to read the paper or play a video game you’ve already beaten that if you’re honest with yourself, you’d probably be better off doing something else – and happier while you do it.

relaxation and busywork

dirty dishes in the kitchen sink

dirty dishes in the kitchen sink

While trying to manage all of my many responsibilities, I found that my productivity suffers the most when I let myself worry too much about the busy work I have to do each day. I used to put so much pressure on myself to get everything done that I usually got nothing done and instead wound up sitting on the couch watching television. Afterwards, I often felt extremely guilty for not only failing to get everything done, but also for wasting perfectly good relaxation time.

So after a few months of this, I finally figured out a way to keep up my productivity, get the busy work done, and still have time to relax. I decided to try to combine my relaxation time with the busy work. I don’t always do it, but I’ve learned that with certain tasks, I can adjust my attitude and actually become quite relaxed by the mindlessness of them. I found that by combining relaxation time with the tasks, I actually create more quality time for myself at the end of the day, and I get my bigger, more important tasks accomplished much quicker.

I first got this idea one day while washing the dishes. I came out of a weird trance to discover how intently, but calmly I was wiping dry each dish. I realized that the activity of it, the routine of flipping the dish over, then stacking it, was actually pleasing to me. I usually hate doing dishes, but that day I was sort of enjoying myself. I realized that if only I could change the way I thought of doing the dishes, then I could get something out of it. Instead of thinking of it as a chore, I started thinking of it as a puzzle to solve or a game to play.

I understand that this sounds a bit childish, but I think in order to be able to accomplish these tasks, I had to change my perspective. I tried applying this new perspective to the other tasks I hate, like folding laundry and answering emails. I was mostly successful this way too. I combined, for example, my email checking with my morning coffee. In the mornings, I like to sit outside and drink my coffee as I wake up. Because my mind is so used to the relaxation of this activity, I found that adding one simple task to it, like checking my email, didn’t actually disturb me all that much. I told myself that I could enjoy the morning and answer one or two emails. Then later, I wouldn’t feel stressed about those two emails while I was working on a bigger, more important project.

That has been the greatest advantage of this experiment so far: I have more energy to focus on the bigger things in my life, because the anxiety over the little things has lessened. Combining my relaxation time with my busy-work has allowed me to sort of enjoy both. Then at the end of the day, I can really sit back and relax, knowing full well I’ve accomplished all my goals, and all because of a slight attitude adjustment.

This guest post is contributed by Olivia Coleman, who writes on the topics of online colleges and universities.  She welcomes your comments at her email Id: olivia.coleman33

Photo: Some rights reserved by miss pupik

working for free, and links

As usual I’m a bit behind in posting a link roundup – for some reason the roundup, which I originally meant to post on Fridays, has slowly drifted to Sundays or Mondays, or in this lamentable case, Tuesdays.  At this point, it’s almost next week’s roundup with posts from the previous week.  It’s ridiculous, I know. I have no writing schedule, which I’d highly recommend to anyone who doesn’t want to be a successful writer. I get on little “hot runs” from time to time, but keeping to a schedule appears to be difficult for me.

I’ve also taken on organizing two fairly large professional events. Combining that with Bubelah joining the board of directors of a local not-for-profit and my family’s taking on a lot of (unpaid) work. It’s a mental shift for us to engage in this type of ‘work’. I’ve always thought you should expend no effort on work-related activities unless you see a clear and direct path to compensation; maybe not direct compensation, but at least some idea how it might pay off. That’s been a big part of my contract consultant mindset:  make sure you give value, but also carefully guard against clients or others trying to push “non-work work” onto your plate.

But one of the things I’ve realized as I shift further and further from the traditional time-for-money work model is that you have to create and provide value sometimes without ANY clear connection to compensation. Let’s face it: the reason is mainly that if you’re doing your work well enough, that connection will force itself on you. An example I like is Adam Carolla. The former ‘Man Show’ host has built a fairly sizable entertainment network around his extremely popular (and free) podcast. He did it without a clear plan for monetization, but it’s clear now that he’s gaining traction, picking up advertisers and getting some attention from the non-techy parts of America. I imagine he’ll do quite well as podcasts become more and more the norm.  I can already listen to podcasts via my Roku* and Mediafly.  I’m sure the next generation of cars will have 3G connections and allow streaming audio content, too (and in the future, video, no doubt).  So Carolla will make some money down the road.  And that’s how I’m trying to force myself to approach it.

The links:

  • New Toyota Commercial Reinforces Materialism: I detest this commercial.  It’s tone-deaf considering the economy, and just annoying style-wise.
  • What We Buy: Purposeful or Passing Time?: I realize more and more that although I’d like to think I’m shopping for a reason, it’s FAR too often just to pass time.
  • What’s in Your Wallet?: A late entry in our Money Writer’s group writing project.

And more:

* Amazon affiliate link

the first and best way to simplify anything

If you want to simplify anything in your life, try to automate it.  Take the decision-making process out of it.  Turn it over to an external force.  What does that mean?

  • Retirement: Setup a 401(k) automatic deduction with your company – the money’s gone before you see it.
  • Bills: Have the basic bills – the ones that you know you are going to pay regardless, like the electricity and water – paid automatically.
  • Income: Get direct deposit.  Don’t let that check sit on your desk for two weeks.
  • Fitness: Take stairs.  Sell the electric mower and replace it with a manual one.  Make exercise part of your lifestyle rather than something “extra” you do outside of your “normal” life.
  • Nutrition: Keep NO junk food in the home.  Make it impossible to find junk food in your home.  Bring veggies to work.  Select a belief system – mine is Atkins – and stick to it like you’re allergic.

Those are just a few examples, but in general the idea of automation always works. If you can make that one decision – the decision to take future decisions out of your own hands – you’ll be better off.  Why?  Because we’re all tempted.

Take the 401(k). It’s usually not the greatest investment vehicle.  Sure, it’s tax-advantaged (now).  Almost every plan, though, has a terrible list of funds available for investment.  The tax advantages are touted but the tax penalties – should you need to get your money back before you retire for an emergency – are horrendous.  It’s not the perfect investment vehicle by a long shot.

But a 401(k) has one beautiful feature that makes it worthwhile.  Once you take that one brave step to set it up – to yank 10% or whatever percent you choose off each paycheck – it disappears.  It’s automated, and you don’t even know it’s gone.  You never see that money, and your temptation to spend that money is plucked from your hands.

I know it’s not possible to apply this principle everywhere. But any time you have an opportunity to make one big decision right, and remove the temptation to make smaller wrong decisions in the future, you should.  Reserve life for the things you want to spend time on, not the things you don’t.

Photo by PNNL – Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

getting organized with a Brother MFC-5890CN

Finding tools to make you more productive can often be, well, counterproductive. For every new online task list manager program, there’s another set of fancy features that do more than you want and missing features that make them less than useful.  You set up a great filing system, but it gets bogged down with paper.  You have online files that you mean to read but you can’t take your netbook along with you everywhere.

I had been wishing for quite a while now that I had a few tools that would make me more productive:  a better productivity book than the ones I’ve read so far, a filing system that made better sense than my current one, a high-speed multi-page scanner, a netbook and a few other things (high among them a good online task manager, since Remember The Milk is very good but does lack a couple of features I want).

I was lucky enough to get a Brother MFC-5890CN Professional Series Compact Color Inkjet All-in-One with Wireless Networking “device” to review.  I say device because I couldn’t really categorize it as a printer or a scanner (and it’s a fax machine, too).  It does a lot of stuff, far more than the printer I owned.  To be honest here:  in exchange for the review, I get to keep the printer.  Brother did not, however, ask me to give a positive review… they simply asked me to express my opinion on the printer. Since I have been wanting something like this for a while, and it seemed to be a good productivity tool, I agreed.

A little background – I’ve had the same printer/scanner unit – an HP – for years.  It scanned, slowly, one page at a time.  It printed, but the print cartridges were expensive and even an ink refill was pricey.  I don’t blame HP.  I’m sure if I bought a new HP it would be significantly improved.  But the cost of the cartridges and the slowness of single-page scanning made it more of a hindrance than a help to productivity.

The Brother printer is much better. It has a 3.3 inch color display for photos, so if you put in a camera card you can print directly without loading onto the PC.  It’s a cute feature, but if you want to correct red eye, lighting and so on you still need to upload.  I’d call the display a cute feature but ultimately not that helpful.

It has some neat wireless features I didn’t try out, yet. I hooked it up via USB, and despite having to install from a CD it worked very well from the get-go.  Print speed is great, and it prints 11×17 pictures, which are practically posters.  Print speed was impressive, too.  The CD installation was annoying, to be honest.  There were a million hoops to jump through before I got it up and running, but once everything was installed it worked just fine.

Other productivity features – it has a 33.6kbps fax modem.  Again, I haven’t faxed with it yet – and I think faxing is a dying technology – but occasionally I have found myself wishing I had a fax machine just to avoid the annoyance of scanning and emailing, when a fax would have sufficed.    So even though a fax is rapidly becoming as pointless as a rotary-dial phone, having it built in saves some trouble.

But here’s the best thing about the printer:  the scanner. I won’t lie – I love this feature.  It scans up to 50 pages at a time, and fast.  I always wanted a high-speed scanner, and this one did not disappoint at all.  It scans straight into any format you want, but I have been using PDF.  Being able to drop a 50-page document into the scanner and have it come out as a neat PDF is fantastic.  I have visions of paperless filing dancing in my head already, even though I know certain things like birth certificates and diplomas won’t ever be tossed in favor of their electronic counterparts.

The print cartridges are weird – there’s 4 of them, a black one and three color ones. On the other hand, the nice thing is that the cartridges – even the “high yield” ones – are far cheaper than HP cartridges.  The black ink cartridge – the high yield one –is only $27 bucks.  It cost me $17 just to refill an HP cartridge – new, they run closer to $50.

The Brother is not as cheap as a lot of printer/scanner/fax combos.  It runs around $200. But I can say, as someone who’s vaguely needed a printer, a high-speed scanner and a printer than can print quickly and on bigger-sized paper – this printer’s alright.

Read more about it here.

And by the way – if you enjoyed my review, let me know. I’ve been thinking about adding a weekly feature along the lines of “stuff that I use to make life easier/be more productive/etc.”.  I have a few products – books, stuff, etc. – that I’ve been thinking about writing about.  I am never compensated directly, but I do get copies of books and the other items I talk about, so you can take that for what it’s worth.  On the other hand, if you found my review annoying, let me know that, too.  Either way, your comments will make my writing on this blog better!