Five Lessons That Took Me from Productivity Addiction to Reliable Quality

I am in my last of four weeks of structured reflection on the way I work with the ultimate goal of finding a new way of working that will allow me to do less and do it better; a way of working that does not have me putting my body and my relationships second in line behind productivity. Week 1, I reflected on implicit and explicit drives to be productive. Week 2 I reflected on the causes of my stress and its impact on my physiology. Week 3 I searched for “why.” This week, I wrap up what I’ve learned. I don’t expect this to apply to everyone as we all work differently and have different jobs, but I’ve made some changes that have already had a profound impact on my mood, energy and quality of work.

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Lesson 1: #1 Until It’s Done

Recently, I got help from my altMBA alumni Shipit group in reducing the number of projects on my plate in order to “do less and do it better.” When my conference season hit and I had three presentations to give, I went even further and dropped everything to focus on one thing, my presentations. I knocked each one out of the park. The rewards were tremendous both in terms of my own emotions and for my position and company.

Like most of us altMBA alumni, there’s little I can’t accomplish if I dedicate myself to it. And like most alumni, I want to do EVERYTHING! I find that when I try to do everything, it dilutes my focus and dedication and thus dilutes my work.

I now block off times on my schedule for email and correspondence and stick to them. I block off times for recurring tasks and stick to them. These are the reactive parts of my job and they MUST be contained to make room for proactive Rockstar projects.

When it comes to my proactive projects — I never met a project I didn’t like. I used to say yes to them all. Now I say no to as many as I can. The “yeses” go on a prioritized list. One, and only one, goes on my schedule for the week and I work it until I can’t work it any more. It’s either done or put in a holding pattern as I wait for a collaborator. I will also sit with the uncomfortable FOMO that comes with saying no to projects. I will mourn the fact that I can’t do everything I want to do because it turns out I’m not immortal.

After mapping out my schedule, it’s only realistic for me to dedicate six hours a week to new projects. That’s horrifying. And it’s true. I’m working on ditching some things I don’t want to do anymore and reexamining the value of several but at this moment I have two time blocks — six hours.

I require myself to have two or three “flex blocks.” That’s two three-hours blocks in case “sh*t happens.” And sh*t always happens. If I get a miraculous sh*t-free week, I have up to 12 hours on my proactive project.

Lesson #2: Passion = Priority

I might get a bit NSFW here. Not because I’m going to talk about boobs (oops) but because I’m going to talk about half-assing it.

If I’m not passionate about the project, I don’t do it.

If your job is anything like mine — there are a hundred things you could do at any time to improve business. I now strive to do the ones I’m excited about first, even if the return is projected to be smaller. Here’s an example.

The marketing lead at my company has determined that SEO will provide the biggest return. I’m an Instagram junkie. If I have to optimize the company website but hate doing that, it’s going to take me six months to finish the homepage. I’m going to check more email and drift to the water cooler and do more research on SEO and drag, drag, drag my feet. My finish product will be “fine.”

If I can tap into my Instagram passion, I can have 60 amazing, optimized posts and a substantial increase in followers in one month. My work will be excellent. I’ll have a smaller scale return on my excellent work in one month but I get to multiply it by 6 as compared to my SEO project. My Instagram return might rival my SEO endeavors.

If you’re going to get fired for not following orders, then follow orders. Just go for the minimum on the passionless ones and throw your heart and soul into the passion projects. A good leader will see your Instagram success and redirect your work tasks. A bad leader who makes you double down on what you’re just proficient at and lets your Rockstar qualities idle is a cue for you to start looking for other departments and/or jobs.

Lesson #3: Passion is in the Process

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Passion isn’t just the tasks I want to do all the time. I want to drink wine all the time and online shop (yeah, that’s a keg of wine I’m putting in my pirate’s chest kegerator 💥). Those are dopamine activities. Short-term, feel good activities that just make you want more. They’re not real success.

Eckhardt Tolle says that when you are more focused on the goal than the step that you are performing, you have lost presence. It’s the PROCESS that will have the greatest impact on my life. That means I need to look at goals not from what I will get when I reach them (ego), but what my reality looks like on the way. How many of my passions will be engaged in the PROCESS of pursuing the goal. Shall I yell PROCESS again? I’m trying to beat it into my goal-oriented head.

When I took myself out of my regular context (went on vacation), I was able to identify the qualities of the activities that give me the most joy through the process of doing them. I have started using this list as I consider projects to say yes to and projects to say no to. It’s really a predictor of my success and quality. I would love to magically wave a wand and become an expert at paid social but when I look at the tasks required…the minimum proficiency will do.

In my last post, I mentioned how Eckhardt Tolle also shares that your primary purpose is to be fully conscious in what you are doing in that moment — it’s about your state of being. Your secondary purpose — what you’re doing — varies and is hopefully driven by your conscious awareness and not your ego.

As I perform both my passion task and my mundane tasks, I have been trying to remember to stay connected to that inner presence so I can engage deeply in the work that I’m doing. I need to work on this coming to mind more often until it’s a natural part of how I operate. It’s been surprisingly challenging.

Lesson #4: Recovery Required

This how-to-work lesson has come from some cuddle time with Lizard (you know, our favorite little critter running everything in the background of our brains). If I’m doing deep work, I am depleting New Brain resources like mad. I discovered when my “battery charge” is below 25%, I don’t have enough energy to start adaptive things like yoga, exercise, cooking and reaching out to others for support. I only have energy for Lizard activities. To expect anything else is unrealistic.

This means I need to honor the fact that I’m not super-human and schedule in replenishment times before I hit 25%. When I do hit 25%, I need to ease up on myself and not shame spiral over the fact that I had a piece of bread and watched a Star Trek TNG rerun rather than running 4 miles.

I’m working on identifying Lizard activities that are restorative, neutral and depleting so I can try and set myself up for success when the batteries are drained. Here are some examples I’ve come up with so far:

Restorative: meditation, napping, online shopping for kitchen items (not buying), looking up recipes, watching inspirational movies, a hot cup of tea, one (and JUST one) glass of great wine or liquor.

Neutral: Watching regular tv/movies — not amazing favorites, checking social media

Depleting: Games on my phone, eating when not hungry, alcoholic beverages

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I also discovered on this journey that I can feel good and not generous. If I don’t feel generous, it means that I don’t feel like I have anything to give — that my emotional resources are scarce. This is my barometer. If I don’t feel generous, I need to start re-charging NOW!! I have made this a regular part of my journaling.

Lesson #5: Sitting with Discomfort

I tend to distract myself from uncomfortable emotions rather than sit with them. When I distract, they are still there behind the scenes draining my energy reserves. When I sit with them, they are more likely to either dissipate or lead to a different action. I am attempting to build a new habit to hold uncomfortable emotions in my awareness and sit with them. My hope is to have a transformation around these emotions.

Awareness > Acceptance > Familiarity with Discomfort > No Label — Just Feel > Leverage Emotions for Right Action

If I make it to some sort of Zen state, I would love to be able to just experience my emotions without labels and use them as information to make decisions. Instead of feeling bad about a lack of acceptance, I could notice that emotion and use it to re-engage with the relevant group or remove myself. Instead of feeling bad about shame, I could notice that emotion and use it to connect more deeply or communicate information to bring the situation in alignment.

For now, awareness and acceptance will be plenty.

Status Report

So far, I’m doing a great job with the project list, a decent job with the time blocks and struggling with the new habit development around awareness and presence. No surprise there, trying to supplant very old entrenched habits with new ones is always an energy depleting challenge. I am still working on them.

The shift to these types of behaviors is especially hard because there are no dopamine hits along the way. They all have long term benefits but Lizard just wants a cookie now. My current strategy is to create a dopamine bridge for the new behaviors using a habit building app. Then I get to get a hit each time I check the box that a behavior has been performed.

It’s like training a dog. First you need a big treat to encourage a new behavior and you pair it with the clicker. Then you can remove the treat. Then you can remove the clicker.

So, to sum it all up…

Here’s my new path:

1: Choose one project at a time from start to finish

2: Put my passion first, the rest gets the bare minimum

3: My passion is in the process — in loving what I’m doing, not the reward

4: When I get depleted, I can’t take the wheel from the lizard brain

5: Sitting with my bad feelings is the fastest way to take the edge off

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