Hello Future Me

You know this situation well - I can almost guarantee it. 

It's time to go through your to-do list and start taking action against the tasks, or actions, you have decided are outstanding and need to be completed. You're pumped, ready to go and start owning the day. 

You've got your coffee next to you, the ambience is great because your pumping some appropriate tunes through your headphones - chill-out music if you need to concentrate or something more hardcore if that's your thing. 

You're in the zone, ready for the flow to start. 

You look at the first task. Looks pretty easy. 

Phone Dave

Erm...right. OK. I can do that but...why did I need to phone Dave again? 

Tell you what, I'll push that aside until I remember what I needed to speak to him about and move onto the next one. What have we got? 

Schedule Meeting with Marketing Team

Hmm, what was this meeting about? Was it about the issue I have with Project A? Hang on - didn't my line manager call me last week asking to arrange a meeting? Why did I need to do that?

Oh dear, this isn't going well. 

Sound familiar? I know this to be true because I've been there so many times in the past. Looking at entries in OmniFocus 2 (that meant something to me when I created them, yet mean absolutely nothing now!

My workaround for this is very simple, yet has multiple benefits at the same time. 

I create tasks by delegating them to my future self

I imagine that the future Lee knows nothing about the present Lee and I think about the information that he is going to need in order to be able to get this work completed. 

Let's take the first one - Phone Dave. The action title itself will be something along the lines of Phone Dave to discuss the testing that is required for 64-bit Office 2016 in our Head Office Procurement Department. That's a good start. Then, the notes section will have Dave's number or Skype name as well as some key bullet points that I need to cover. 

When I come across this on my Actions List, there is no need for deferment, I can action this straight away. 

If there are links to documentation that may need to be referred to, I'll add these in as well to save gathering them at the last minute and losing time. 

Even better than this, if for whatever reason I cannot make this call, I can delegate to someone else, safe in the knowledge they have all of the information they need. After all, when I created the action, I delegated it to my future self in the first place. 

Remember that the future, better version of you will have a lot going on in his/her head and will not be able to remember the context that the action was created in. You cannot be too detailed when creating an action and if helps you pass actions on to other people in your team, that can only benefit everyone.

Give Yourself A Break

Like all of you reading this post, I'm a human being. A human being that gets frustrated when I'm unable to achieve everything I set out in my todo list. One downside of being an incorrigible planner is the negative feelings that manifest when life gets in the way and things don't go to plan. 

The intentions are so great when you wake up. You bounce out of bed, ready to attack the day and make progress on the list you created the night before - after all, you're a Productivity person, you want to be the best version of yourself that you can be. 

Then that call or email comes in - the one you didn't expect, from a client, a colleague or a family member, that throws the plan you had meticulously created into disarray. All of a sudden, the commitments you had made to yourself need to be reviewed and shifted. You may have to let somebody down who is relying on you, or postpone an event that you were really looking forward to on a personal level. Some of the goals you had set yourself for the day may not now be achievable. If you are not careful, the day can slowly start to unravel and sure enough, as your attitude becomes negative, so too does your focus on the hours ahead. 

I know the above is a familiar scenario to you. I know this because I am just like all of you and, as I really am my own worst critic, I go through the above emotions more regularly than I would like. 

However, when I do, I think back to a phrase I was told by a former line manager when I was starting out in the world of Project Management. 

Life happens sonny - appreciate that and enjoy it because it's a lot better than the alternative

The fact is, he is so right. Tomorrow is a new day and if I'm lucky (and sensible), there will be a lot more of them to come. No day is going to be the same as today, so plan as normal and roll with the punches when they come. The chances of two days being disrupted to this extent are slim and, if they are, then the chances of three are slimmer still. 

So keep going. Remember that productivity is all about doing the right thing at the righttime. So you need to pick up your child from school because they are ill? Well yes, it throws your afternoon out, but when you make your decision on what needs to be done based on priority vs urgency, you go and pick up your child. Everything else can move. 

Give yourself a break. Life happens and that is such a good thing.

Scheduling Brain Dumps

 

I look forward to my Friday wind-down time. This is usually spent either travelling back from a client site or, if I'm working from home, stretched out on the sofa carrying out my weekly review. 

Why do I look forward to this so much? 

I love this time because part of my weekly review involves a scheduled brain dump - thirty or so minutes that are spent simply emptying my head of all thoughts and feelings. 

I open up Day One on one of my devices (often this is the iPad as it's great for this scenario) and create an entry within my Inspiration journal (with a tag named Brain Dump) and just...write. 

What do I put in there? 

Anything and everything that comes into my head. 

It could be thoughts about my day at work, worries about the weekend, reminiscing about conversations I've had that are, somehow, still playing on my mind. Maybe there is something you need to research in readiness for next week, or you've had an idea for a project you want to work on but seems ridiculous at this moment. 

Any of these things can lead to inspiration and forewarn you of situations that are not as they should be at this moment. 

Once everything has been extracted from your grey matter and displayed in front of you, magic can happen. 

  • You can review what you've written and make decisions about how/if to progress them. Is there a problem that needs to be resolved? Create a project in your task-manager of choice and work out what the very next action is that needs to be completed to edge you closer to resolving. This process alone lifts the pressure from yourself and allows you to wrestle control of the situation from your sub-conscious. Let's face it, your subconscious would have been happy to keep hold of that negative thought and let it pick away at you, slowly, over time, driving you nuts! Not anymore - take control. 
  • You can revel in the glory and take the time to feel good about things. That's right - we're allowed to do that sometimes! If you have achieved something great or were thinking about a special time you had with your family when you performed your brain dump, take the time to re-visit this thought and think about what it means to you. This could be the most productive thing you do all week as there is no greater motivator than positive thoughts. 
  • You have freed up your brain to have more ideas. I've lost count of a number of times I've created a project after a brain-dump and, as I'm working out the actions required to meet my objective, other ideas find their way into my mind and start knocking at the door, desperate to be let out. This often happens during the brain dump process itself. Creativity begets creativity. 

If you schedule a brain-dump at least once a week, you open yourself up to a lot of possibilities for self-improvement and focus. How long it takes is up to you. Sometimes, I'm done after fifteen minutes. Other times, I'm still there after two hours, ideas pouring out. 

Give it a try - let me know how you get on.

Multitasking Is Rubbish

I'm supposed to be good at this stuff, yet it's amazing how many times I'm guilty of failing to eat my own dog food. In fact, I wouldn't be offended if you said that I can be a real idiot at times when it comes to being productive. 

Hey, at least I can admit it and recognise where I've fallen down I guess! 

Just this morning, I fell under the "I can multitask" bus and this is how. (Hands up if you've done the same....)

I'm sat in an office with one other person, dialling into a conference call via Skype For Business. It's a call that doesn't need my attention for the entire forty-five minute duration, so I make the usual pleasantries at the beginning, mute the microphone and use this as an opportunity to process my email from the previous day. 

Mistake. 

In fact, count the 'productivity' mistakes through this sad tale as you read. 

I've got one ear listening to the content of the call whilst I'm looking at an important email that is going to take some serious troubleshooting over the course of the day. I'm reading through, and for some reason, I think I'll concentrate on the email a little easier if I take one of my earphones out and reduce the volume of the call I'm participating (!) in. 

My office mate then sees the removal of the earphone as a sign to ask a question he's been keen to ask for days. Being a quintessentially polite Brit, I have difficulty saying that I should concentrate on the call I'm on (as well as the important email I'm trying to process) and so I engage. 

We chat for a couple of minutes until I hear a voice in my ear.

"Lee, did you catch that? I think you're on Mute". 

Naturally, I have no idea what was asked, and so I abruptly cut off my office mate, apologise to the conference call lead for the network issues I just encountered (!) and ask them to repeat the question, wasting the time of everyone on that call while the events I missed are recanted. 

So I now have a call that is being extended unnecessarily, an email that is no further through being processed yet is now in the back of my mind due to its importance, tugging away at my attention like a puppy playfully trying to free a toy from the hands of it's owner, as well as a colleague who feels awkward having been cut off mid-sentence while I deal with something that is clearly 'more important'. 

All in the name of trying to do more than one thing at once. 

The brain is not designed to multi thread, like a modern day CPU. Multitasking is simply a myth. When you try and work on more than one thing at a time, all you end up doing is switching your attention multiple times - and all of that attention-switching takes energy as well as time. Each time you shift from watching TV to writing a text, to checking your Twitter timeline - your brain is initiating a stop/start process each time. It's fast, it's rapid and it can give the illusion that you are doing more than one thing at once, but have you ever been listening to a podcast whilst checking Twitter and found that you'd missed something that was said? Of course you did! You weren't listening whilst reading, you were listening then reading - your brain was switching rapidly between one task and the other. 

 Was I able to complete any of those tasks earlier to the best of my ability? Not a chance. Yet the example I've given above is repeated by people in both the workplace and domestically time and time again. Myself included! Admittedly, this morning was a rare occurrence and I'm usually highly focused and able to work on items singularly without an issue. This morning I just - fell off. I thought I could do it and was pleased, in the end, to see that I couldn't and the theorising we read about multitasking is indeed true. 

There is a great test you can do at the following site that tests this theory - I urge you to try it out. 

Why I Love Morning Pages

My morning routine has matured over the years. I remember the time when it was as simple as:

  • Stagger downstairs
  • Chug coffee
  • Worry about the coming day
  • Sit down and rock, gently, to and fro
  • Get dressed
  • Commute to work. 

Thankfully those days are a long way behind me, as I adopt tried and tested methodologies to help prepare myself for the coming day, as well as the coming weeks and months. 

One such practice is known as Morning Pages, a technique devised by Julia Cameron. The framework for this involves writing three pages of longhand writing that can be based on ANYTHING. You just let your brain run free and write down anything that comes to mind. 

Sounds strange doesn't it? Well, I thought so too, however when you marry this up with the practice of meditation, you can find yourself with some pretty impressive results. Whilst meditating, I find my brain roaming, with thoughts trying to barge their way into the forefront of my consciousness. The key to successful meditation is to gently push these thoughts aside and retain your focus. 

When writing your Morning Pages, rather than push the thoughts to one side, you release them onto a different medium - in this case, paper. 

Julia Cameron first mentioned these Morning Pages in her twelve week course The Artists Way and adopts a strict set of guidelines as to how they should be completed. They must be completed first thing in the morning, before your ego's defences have had a chance to form. You must complete three pages of continuous long form writing (fewer is stifling for the brain, whereas any more can reduce the practice to being nothing more than a chore).  You can, however, write about anything. Anxieties, plans for the future, events that have made you angry, or even elated - it's entirely down to you. You let your brain run free. 

So how has writing these Morning Pages helped me with my day-to-day life? 

As someone who is trying to develop journaling into my daily routines, I find writing my Morning Pages an essential experience. I find myself writing about so many different things, it's almost like mind-mapping in the way one thought or feeling can unlock another. I write about my family, my work, my studies, my hopes and dreams, my concerns, my goals - one thought always begets another and when I complete the last word, I feel genuinely liberated. 

Completing this process every morning gives me a regular outlet for my thoughts and feelings that I can rely on and, more importantly, look forward to completing. 

My quarterly goals are always commanding my attention, so my Morning Pages are a good opportunity to write down how I feel they are progressing. I don't make conscious changes to them at this time, or even make any form of judgment or decisions as to how they need to improve. Sure, I can write down any modifications that need to be made, which I can review later, however, this practice is intended solely as an outlet for my thoughts. Write now, action later. 

My brain has been pretty clear recently and I owe that not just to the Weekly Brain Dump, but to my dedication to completing my Morning Pages. There are three whole pages to complete, it's difficult NOT to empty your brain during this process!

I've also been able to face up to my problems in a more pro-active manner, rather than let them fester and erode myself from within. Like many of you, I've endured tough times over the last few years and there have been times when I've doubted so many things, not least myself, however I have found that getting these thoughts onto paper/print has somehow brought them more to the surface, given them a sense of..well, realism. If something is real, it needs to be dealt with. Even the act of committing your anxieties to print is a form of processing, a way to share the worry - even if it's only sharing it with yourself. I like to look at this as sharing my worries with a better version of myself, someone who is more equipped to deal with the situation. 

Now I'd be lying if I said that I follow Julia Cameron's Morning Pages practice to the letter. On the contrary, I merely use the premise as a framework and I have adapted to fit my own way of life. 

In the first instance, I'm a digital junkie and I scan my pages into DEVONthink so that I can search them retrospectively and look for patterns and trends in my thinking as part of my monthly review. I was toying with the idea of using Day One to record these pages, however, I'm reluctant to use my iPad or MacBook first thing in the morning. I like to wake up slowly, with as little tech light as possible. This may change though, we shall see how it develops. 

Secondly, Julia recommends three sides of US Letter Paper (A4 for we Brits is fine). I tend to use my Moleskin for this instead as this is my handwritten 'thought journal'. Also, this scans nicely into Evernote. 

This isn't the first thing I complete as part of my morning routine. I come downstairs, put the kettle on for my coffee and whilst that's boiling, I drink two glasses of water, take my vitamins and perform some light stretches. Once complete, I make my coffee then go and settle down in the living room where I put on some quiet music and start writing. 

Finally, I don't commit to a given amount of pages. I'm a strong believer in Parkinson’s Law which says that work will expand to fill the time allotted to it. Therefore I set a timer for thirty minutes which I've found is often more than enough to empty my head in the morning. Invariably I'm complete by 5:45am. 

Like everything, I'm not a purist. I don't practice GTD exactly as the book says, when managing projects, it's hard to follow PRINCE2 or Agile rigidly 100% of the time and I've found Morning Pages to be no different - I need to tweak a little here and there to make it work for me. 

If this post does nothing more than to make you think about writing something about your day first thing in the morning, then I'll be happy in the knowledge that I've been able to do some good along my way. You'll feel the benefit.