Neurosis can be a fickle mistress, with manifestations that vary in their helpfulness and annoyance. In my experience at a large tech firm — one that prides itself on speed, alacrity and a supreme abundance of information — I’ve noticed that my desire to be up-to-date and thorough often cuts against my productivity and peace of mind. Some easily sidestep this deluge, but I find it difficult to resist the pull of invasive notification systems and dopamine triggers. More than occasionally I feel anxious, scatterbrained and generally ineffective as I try to balance many competing priorities. The desire to do a thousand things inhibits rapid progress on a select few.
Navigating this persistent tension often leaves me feeling unfulfilled and stagnant in my career. The accuracy of that sentiment is irrelevant to this article, but these tactical symptoms evince systemic flaws in my habits and approach to work and, I suppose, life.
The coronavirus has been utterly devastating, caveats be damned. The accompanying quarantine has, however, presented an opportunity to observe, understand and improve upon the aforementioned flaws. Solitude and redundancy of place remove much of the noise from one’s daily experiences, laying bare actions and behaviors. In this dynamic, I have endeavored to improve my productivity and work-related mental health. I came across several resources speaking to these feelings, and henceforth is an attempt to synthesize what I’ve found in a personal context.
Finding your ‘what’
The constant noise of our attention economy demands a binary reaction: you either succumb to its reactive ephemera, or make a concerted effort to bend the information environment to your advantage. I’m a firm believer in finding importance in your work (and life, naturally). Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, is an excellent argument in support of this belief. Your profession may not align perfectly with the pre-planned ‘dream career,’ but why you pursue it must be personally resonant. Unpacking this reasoning will sustain you across trajectories and lead to compounding results over the long run. Intentionality, prioritization and leveraging your strengths lay a daily foundation for the practical pursuit of this substance..
Intentionality is key to unearthing this value in our information environment. Knowledge work comes replete with numerous tools and digital mediums that compete for our attention. To regain control, you must define a strategy for dealing with noise and focusing on the truly important. The particulars of the strategy matter less than having one (and employing it). In the Army, we often refrained, “hunt the good stuff.” At the time, this spoke to optimism as mental strength in the face of adversity, but that same philosophy applies here. Seek out that which is valuable, and don’t let your surroundings dictate your interactions with them. To this end, defining personal success is critically important to achieving intentionality in your work. The ability to tie your actions to tangible outcomes will increase the salience of your choices. When you understand the ‘why,’ it is much easier to choose the ‘what’ every day.
As a complement to intentionality, I’ve found conscious prioritization to be indispensable in improving my output and frame of mind. Every request, meeting and ad hoc effort should be weighed against that which is truly important. Prioritization cannot be latent or assumed — it shines through when vocalized. Whether alone or in a group, asking whether or not a particular effort is more urgent than established priorities clarifies the value of time and refocuses attention on goals. While it is an established company value at my firm, I was amazed at how much proactive, conscious, vocal prioritization influenced my own internal dialogue as well as that of my working groups. Employed together, intentionality and tactical prioritization increase the velocity and relevance of your output.
Our company embraces a people philosophy that encourages strengths-based work. By focusing on things you do well and enjoy, there is a greater likelihood that you will be satisfied and more valuable in your contributions. I don’t disagree — actually, I find this corporate axiom to be incredibly powerful. However, pursuing true strengths-based work is almost always underserved as the urgent crises and blinking red lights pull our attention from a more fulfilling work modality.
In an attempt to combat this, I began documenting what I spent my days doing, how often I found it empowering, and summarizing just how much time I spent pursuing work that wasn’t ultimately fulfilling. That awareness forced me to confront how little bandwidth I devoted to my strengths. I also became intimately acquainted with common themes expressed across many different types of work; rather than focusing on the task, I discovered the modalities underlying my competitive advantages. I’m blessed to work at a company where autonomy is generously granted. Not everyone has the choice to pursue exactly what one finds strengthening, but I believe nearly every knowledge worker has more independence than they believe. Also, by adopting a strengths-based work ethos, you are more likely to deliver impactful work product, thereby justifying your time allocation.
Unlocking the ‘how’
While the ‘what’ of your work is often elusive and personal, many thoughtful thinkers influenced my emergent philosophy on ‘how’ to work. First, the aforementioned Cal Newport wrote a fantastic book that kicked off this entire pursuit of mine: Deep Work. I highly recommended a thorough reading, but most applicable to the discussion here is the importance of intense focus and uninterrupted concentration to cognitively engaging tasks. In that modality, we are more likely to find meaning, satisfaction, and impactful progress. Newport posits that distraction and artificial busyness are deleterious to significant achievement in the knowledge realm. In practice, I found that submerging myself — or achieving a flow state — in pursuit of the wildly important not only left me fulfilled, but I achieved outsized progress towards prioritized goals. The antithesis of this state is the superficial, scattered attention deficit triggered by incessant meetings, chats, notifications — in essence, interruptions. I don’t find this very enjoyable, so emulating Newport has been invaluable.
Time blocking is another tactic I’ve found invaluable during this quarantine full of unstructured days. While it seems overly rigid at first glance, I’ve found that mapping my days to the actions that fill them increases both my awareness and intentionality. Rather than struggle through an ill-defined to-do list or an unstructured cascade of reactive work, thoroughly time blocking my work hours allows me to focus, identify slack and provide tactile feedback of prioritized productivity. There’s something inherent in writing a plan on paper that improves the likelihood you will execute against it. In a world full of distractions, a tangible commitment to oneself proves more enduring.
Along with this practice, I’ve been inspired by a thought piece from Paul Graham to pursue a ‘maker’s schedule,’ or at least something that more closely resembles it. This work philosophy espouses a duality in workplace culture — schedules that support management and those that enable creators. Managers attack their calendar with the aim of connecting people, resolving issues through meetings and building consensus. This is exactly how they should approach their days. In contrast, makers seek out large blocks of uninterrupted time to work deeply, as I reference through Newport’s work, above. In this world, meetings scattered throughout the day are an impediment to progress. While we all have a balance to strike, I’ve been trying to bunch meetings together and create blocks of uninterrupted time in which I can’t be reached. To me, this has been rewarding and effective. I think we could all take lessons from Graham’s article to better service our roles.
Inherent in a remote work quarantine is greater schedule flexibility and stretches of uninterrupted sameness of place. With that, I’ve been ruminating on daily rhythms and the best time to work, given the lack of commutes and social obligations. Research has demonstrated that people are bimodal in their circadian rhythms. They are most alert in the morning, dull in the early afternoon, and once again at peak cognitive powers in the early evening before gradually descending into sleep. To take advantage of this, I started blocking my mornings to think critically, work deeply and create. Then I take meetings in the early afternoon, with my workout scheduled for 4pm. Then, I re-engage work in the evenings before calling it quits around 8pm. I’ve found that having inspired time in the mornings and evenings to do my most valuable work has improved my outcomes, leaving me with a true eagerness for problem solving.
Lastly, I’ve embraced the imperative to produce. By focusing my energies on producing tangible work product against my top-line goals every day, I’ve found more enjoyment in my work than when I allow my schedule and communications channels to dictate my day. Once again, this value is embedded in many a firm. However, truly embracing it, tactically, changes the way in which you approach your work. Resisting the crush of pings, requests and ad hoc projects is difficult, sometimes exceedingly so given your role and disposition. I’ve found that tangible progress is motivating, however small. Employing the above strategies to stake out time and space for the wildly important is no small feat; being able to point to something as evidence can make all the difference when you are quarantined in 2020.
Cal Newport: So Good They Can’t Ignore You; Deep Work
Paul Graham: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule
Christopher M. Barnes: The Ideal Work Schedule (HBR)
Boz: Writing Is Thinking (as inspiration for the act of producing); more generally for contributions to company values referenced herein