Tag Archives | Productivity

Time to Reflect. You’re soaking in it.

Madge. "You're soaking in it"

In today’s information overloaded, fast paced, digital lifestyle there can be little opportunity to pause and reflect. The mindset of “just have to keep up” can dominate one’s thinking if your are not careful. Every once and a while I get present to the fact that I spend too little time “reflecting” on things be they family, work, and life in general.

I’m soaking in it.

Like the image above, (I am showing my age and if you know ‘Madge’ you are too), sometimes you may find yourself “soaking in it” and not knowing what is going on, or the benefits of what you are in the middle of doing. Being a married, father of  3 boys, self employed business owner/pixel pusher can impose virtual blinders that, if I let it, will limit what I know, see, and what is possible.

So why am I rambling on about this? Recently I became aware of just how much I am soaking in it. My ‘inner Madge‘ woke up and reminded me of what was going on. And sharing this with others might remind them to stop, look around, and take stock.

I set some measurable goals at the end of 2009. These were goals I mentally planned on completing by the end of  the first quarter of 2010. Well guess what? Today is the start of the second quarter of 2010. And those three goals? Not met. I went through piles of paperwork over the weekend and found them written down. I got them out of my head not just as ideas and things to do, but completely out of my head. I was soaking in it so completely that I lost track of these goals.

What are, or were, the goals?

  • Publish new WordPress/Thesis tutorials based on recently completed projects
  • Design, develop, and publish a visual overhaul to berchman.com
  • Release a free Thesis portfolio theme

I had planned on these three things to be completed yesterday.

So what’s the lesson in all this?

Two things:

  1. Use your systems. These three goals were never put into project tracking systems I use and broken down into smaller, manageable tasks (basic productivity, duh). I am remedying that THIS quarter.
  2. Reflect more often. I failed to check in with myself on personal projects. All things in the client and family world are moving along quite well. I dropped the ball on myself.

Reflection time is over. I will now return to my regularly scheduled program.

Get back to work.

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What are you waiting for? Publish!

I’ve been meaning to publish a post like this for a while. The irony of that combined with the topic is not lost on me and I find quite priceless. Have a look+listen and let me know what you think in the comments below.

Do you publish? or Do you wait?

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Taking Breaks Big And Small


Something I am not good at is taking a break from work. Any type of break–5 minutes or 5 days. On a daily basis I find myself sitting at the machine for 3 hours at a stretch without getting out of the chair. Obviously this is not good. I did get a pedometer over the holidays to see just how much movement I am getting during a typical work day. Right now I am averaging over 10,000 steps a day which is not bad for a mostly sedentary desk job. On a day-to-day basis I do need to take more breaks and get up and move around. I don’t think we as humans were designed to be seated for long periods of time. To help with that I recently setup a small mac-based application called FlexTime. It is a great app that will let me program periods of time and breaks, and it will put notices up in front of me to let me know to take a break or switch gears. Not only the physical change, but the mental change of focus and attention will help as well.

Other than the day-to-day breaks are the BIG breaks–vacations. We all need vacations to help rest and recharge. Problem is in this country (US) we tend toward the workaholic side of the spectrum and take very few breaks on a daily basis and take very little vacation time when compared to the rest of the industrialized world. Then again our GNP is the highest in the world so there is a positive side to it. However, I tend to work so hard for so long that I get burned out. I have been to burnout and back several times in my career and its no fun. To help keep this at bay I recently made a decision to take a vacation that sort of landed in my lap. A friend who is going to Mexico for 10 days asked me to come along–out of the blue.

Initially my reaction was. “Well, I do have so many projects going on right now I’m not sure I can spare the time.” I told this to someone I met at a party over the weekend and he looked at me and said, “You should go on the trip. Work will always be there, a chance to go to Mexico will not.” I thought to myself, he is absolutely right. It is the advice I would give to someone else if they were telling me the story. I would say figure out how to make it happen and I am making it happen. My new passport is on the way and I leave 2 weeks from this Friday. I have never been to Mexico and I have lived a couple hundred miles north of the border for almost 15 years. Its about time I take a visit. The work will be here when I get back.

When was the last time you took a vacation or a day off?

Yeah. Exactly–too long. Make it happen. Take the opportunity when it comes, or make the opportunity now.

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Overwhelmed? Me too.

Fire Alarm

Meetings, email, projects, laundry, dinner, kids, cell phone ringing! Don’t pull the alarm yet. They all demand your time and attention many at the same time as each other. No wonder our sleep-deprived lives are fueled by a steady diet of caffeine all the while stumbling around dazed and confused.

I recently read an article in the most recent Oprah magazine titled, “Wait! Stop! It’s All Too Much” by Martha Beck. I don’t typically read Oprah but my wife has a subscription and recently read this article and had to pass it along to me. Why? Because the stuff I complain about on a frequent basis was talked about in this article. The feeling of overwhelm is usually characterized by something called attentional blindness. It’s the feeling you get when presented with too many stimuli. As the article says, ” you sink into a muddled netherworld, like Dorothy in the poppy fields of Oz. Your intentions grow fuzzy. Is it dementia? Is it Alzheimer’s? Sheer cursed laziness? None of the above.” I have had this feeling on more than one occasion and it’s disabling.

A great example.
For a great example of attentional blindness go here and watch this video (It takes a moment to load).

You need to focus on the white team and how many times they pass the ball. Go do this now and then come back and continue reading. Don’t continue to read until you have done this.

Done? Great. Now how many times did they pass the ball? I counted 15. Should be about right. Want to know what is really the trick in that video? About halfway through a person in a gorilla suit walked through, thumped their chest and walked out? Did you see that while you were counting? If not, you just experienced attentional blindness.

You should go and read her full article. She does give a 6-step process for helping train your clogged mind to focus and help strip out the overwhelm. I highly recommend it.

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Flowing Not Fighting

Flowing with the Surf

I often wonder how the hell am I ever going to reach the promised land? I read many blogs on productivity and life-hacks and wonder when it will happen. When will I ever get all my crap together and sit cross-legged floating 3 inches off the ground while scanning to-do lists, doing, deferring, and delegating all the while with a blissful calm about me?

Our workloads can, at times, get quite heavy. The workload I am referring to is the professional sort. Not that I am making personal or family workloads less relevant—trust me they are very relevant and very heavy in their own right—it just that the professional workload can dominate our lives. I believe this is due to the fact that for those of us doing the 9-5 a majority of our waking time is spent in the professional workload mode.

Recently the professional workload has gotten quite heavy for me. This is not something new as workloads wax and wane as do the phases of the moon. However, when I am in the heavy workload phase I notice a slight shift in productivity—a clarity of focus and purpose if you will. Initially when the heavy workload begins its climb I tend to fight it. I will try and procrastinate, put off, and mentally deny that I have a lot to do. All during this fight phase I am typically not very productive. I can usually be found rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Then one day it ‘clicks’ and I start to get my productivity-fu going, or flowing. I cease the fight and give in to the flow. Face it, eventually if you keep fighting you will lose. You need to give in and go with the flow.

When the flow hits my lists of tasks become very targeted. My communications are more succinct and less chatty. I really start lining things up and knocking them down as I always dream of doing. The paradox of this is I seem to need to proceed through the procrastination and fight before I hit the flow–before I hit the fu.

I wonder how others perceive their fight and flow in relation to their workloads? Are you a fighter? Do you ever get into the flow? Or are you in the flow all the time?

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Plate Spinner

Plate Spinners

This is a place I have found myself on more than one occasion.

Being a husband, father (of 3, ages 7 and under), and owner of a small business I have on more than one occasion found myself unable to keep up on all fronts à la the ‘plate spinner.’ You know you’ve seen what I am referring to, the performer who has a stack of 20 or so plates with a pile of long, thin sticks as pictured above. One by one the performer takes a plate puts it atop the stick and begins to spin the stick and balances the plates on top.

The key is to keep the plate spinning, or crash!–no more plate. This is what life can feel like for me much of the time, a plate spinner trying to keep everything going and avoiding the crash. Everyone has their limits and sometimes you need to experiment to see just how many plates you can keep spinning. Over time your ability to spin more plates increases and you get more confident. But, alas, all good things come to an end.

When you are spinning many plates for a long period of time you find you need a break. You cannot keep this up forever and sometimes you need to let a few things crash and come back later to clean up the aftermath. I recently read a great blog post about this exact process at WebWorkerDaily. What should you do after you have let all the plates crash to the ground?

I found it to be a sensible approach towards getting all your plates up and spinning again.

Have to go… a plate needs a spin!

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Over-thinking to Non-thinking


I was thinking about the post from yesterday (talk about irony). It would be interesting if we could somehow measure the speed at which we think—a speedometer to thought. Perhaps this exists in the world of neuroscience and I’ll admit I’m too tired from thinking to go and do the research on this. This speedometer would tell you how fast your brain is working on its thoughts. Better yet perhaps what is needed is an RPM (Rounds Per Minute) gauge. That would actually be a better tool because it measures motion, how fast the gears are turning inside the engine, but not necessarily movement, how fast the engine is propelling the machine over distance.

Yes, the RPM gauge is perfect because many times when burdened by over-thinking the gears are turning at a high rate but not producing any results (distance covered or decisions made). I feel that sometimes my RPM gauge would be off in the ‘red zone’ somewhere for many hours of the day.

There is the flip side to this idea of over-thinking and that is non-thinking. I’m not talking about setting out into the world without a care or thought in the world. I’m referring to the process of meditation. The process of quieting the mind. I have begun meditating at least once a day a few weeks ago and it is a very interesting experience. The task of trying to “quiet the mind” is difficult but from what experienced practitioners tell me gets much easier and better with time and practice. I must admit that over the past couple of weeks I have let the practice slip just a bit.

I presently find myself getting the mind quiet for a moment and then start to think about something. The mind latches on and starts to think it over and then… “thought.” I say the word “thought” and then return to focus on the breath. At first this is very frustrating because my conscious mind continually wants to work on something. It has been conditioned that way and I am trying to unlearn old habits. I am trying to achieve a place of non-thinking in the moment. A place of relaxation that is free of high RPM thinking. I know this is possible but is it possible within me? I also wonder how many people have issues with over-thinking?

Just as with any endeavor practice and persistence are important to succeed.

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Over-thinking it

What a revelation I had this morning while IM’ing with my friend and collaborator Jonathan Brown. I was asking him a programming question in relation to a project I am working on. After I asked a very detailed question, he shoots back “you’re over-thinking it.” In that moment came a flood of clarity. I am over-thinking the problem. I’m over-thinking to the point of anxiety and exhaustion a great deal lately. The issues mostly surround business and work, but also personal issues as well.

What is the answer to over-thinking it? I think I may have a way to confront this.

The gears of the mindOver-thinking for me typically involves diving deep into the problem and getting narrow with my perspective. I sometimes get buried in the minutiae of what ever is at hand. The gears in my mind grind away to reveal smaller and smaller components of what I am thinking about. Eventually I get stuck either because I cannot break something down into a smaller piece, or I have two possibilities/directions that I can go and can’t figure out which is best.

Something happened a few months back that came to mind when Jon said those words to me this morning. I was attending a GTD (Getting Things Done) seminar. (If you are not familiar with GTD and its many ways of employing its methods, please investigate–it is a beautiful thing. Also, see my previous post). During the seminar we were taking projects and breaking them down into definable next actions. What next action will move a project forward? To figure this out you need to break things down. For example the next action on a project might be “Call Jon about starting new project.” In my mind I might take that action and break it down further.

  1. Lookup Jon’s phone number
  2. Dial Jon’s phone number
  3. Talk to Jon about project
  4. Confirm agreed next steps
  5. Hang up

You see how ridiculous this can get–I’m over-thinking it. I would start out with these project lists and then start falling off into the land of micro-next-actions. I was getting stuck and frustrated. So I asked our presenter, Maurice, about what I could do to stem the tide. His answer was genius.

“Look a the level of complexity with any project or task. At what level does the complexity not serve you?”

Simple, elegant, and perfect for this issue. Stop over-thinking, pull your head out of the sand and look at the bigger picture.

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A little structure can help

StructureI find that when you are an operation of one person lack of structure can work out. Flying “by the seat of your pants” can work because you only have yourself to blame when things don’t work out. On the other hand with each additional person you add to the mix more structure, defined roles, and clearly labeled responsibilities are in order or spiraling chaos ensues.

My life is a bit hectic but I love it. I am a husband, father and business owner and with these responsibilities comes many demands, from many places, in many forms. In the past two weeks my wife has started working full-time again (she is a teacher). With the start of her work schedule has come a new schedule for the entire family. Kids go off to school, off to daycare, my wife and I go off to our work. Then at the end of the day is the mix of everyone being picked up and brought back together at home. This is all too common in our society and culture.

However, for some of us the chaos that can ensue with being dropped in this process can wreak havoc—at least it has for me personally. Specifically the havoc comes in the form of a structureless process. I have been operating without any structure for the first two weeks of this new schedule change and it creates, for me, a great deal of stress and anxiety.

So, I have gone over with my wife (who thinks I am crazy!) just what I am responsible for each morning with regard to getting the kids ready and getting us all out the door every morning—simple enough, right? Except that each day of the week (Mon-Fri) starts and ends differently because my wife doesn’t start or end teaching at the same time every day, and she doesn’t have classes on Wednesday. This adds a touch of craziness to an already chaotic schedule.

I went ahead and I have actually written down a weekly schedule for me to look at detailing everything that I am responsible for. There are many tasks that I do the same every day, but there are others that I do not do every day. This may appear crazy but hell, it works for me. I don’t have to ‘think’ about what to do every morning, it is spelled out right on paper.

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I ride my bike to work. On my ride today I passed by a crew of workers inside deep holes in the ground. They were obviously working on underground infrastructure–things like electricity and plumbing that service the houses and buildings around us. As I continued on my way to work I rode over several large pieces of metal covering holes that are dug into the ground so that these crews can access the underground projects they are working on.

This got me thinking about infrastructure. In particular the infrastructure that is out of sight and out of mind. It’s these things that are under the hood that we don’t think about very often until we either experience the inconvenience of not having what they provide, or tragedy as was the case weeks ago in Minneapolis when the interstate bridge collapsed for apparently infrastructure issues. So, when infrastructure is ignored over time it can, and will, come back to bite you.

Relating this to business and entrepreneurship brings to mind items such as business plans, operations manuals, company policies, forms, and contracts. All of these items and more are typically not thought about on a day-to-day basis. However, their impact at crucial moments in the business life cycle can have profound repercussions. Presently I am working on an operations manual, and reviewing my forms. I plan to review my business plan next. I’m also working on a new marketing plan, the first-ever for my business,and this activity is causing me to reflect upon much of what my business provides and how it provides it.

So, be mindful of infrastructure. Take stock of those items you do not think about on a daily basis and assess the impact on your life and the life of your business if one of these pieces of infrastructure were to break down and not support you when you need it most.

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