How Open Loops Destroy your ability to Focus, and what to do about it.
Hi, how’s it going? I hope you’re well.
So I’m trying something new today. I’ve been a blog writer on and off for the last number of years, but I’ve never done a video blog or “Vlog”, if you will. So welcome to this… This is what that is [actually this is the transcription of that vlog, but let’s not be pedantic].
What I wanted to talk about today is open loops and how they destroy your ability to focus.
So what are open loops?
They’re ongoing processes that don’t have a resolution that are taking up space in our mind. So if you use the analogy of a computer, it’s like multiple browser tabs being open that are each consuming some of the computer’s working memory. You might also have a few apps running in the background, maybe even some larger programs like video editors that are still open, not being used, but they’re just holding something that needs to be finished that you haven’t saved and closed down on the computer. That’s all using the computer’s RAM and it’s reducing the computer’s ability to do work.
A very similar process happens in our own minds when we’re trying to hang on to too many thoughts at the same time as focusing on the one thing we really want to be doing right now. So for example, these might be; you have to remember to add honey to your shopping list and you’ve to remember to call back Dave later. You don’t have these things written down anywhere and in the meantime, you’re trying to just spend a half an hour to get this one job finished that you’re trying to focus on all that [distraction]’s still going on.
And there might be several, several other things as well to add to that. So open loops can really reduce our ability to focus on what we’re trying to get done and really just make any job take a lot longer.
This is also called the Zeigarnik Effect after the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik who studied it.
So we want to be able to close these open loops and get back some of our focus.
So what would we do to diminish that?
The key thing here is to have systems that you can trust where your brain knows that those open tasks, even though they’re not finished yet, they’re ‘handled’. They’re okay to forget about. That’s the point you want to get to.
So for example, if I’m focusing on preparing the notes for making this video and something else comes to mind, like I have to remember to buy something downtown later, I have a little space on my daily tracker for notes and another one for distractions. The thoughts that come up and derail me from what I’m trying to focus on, those will get written down there.
And I know that once I’m finished this task, or once the timer goes off for the Pomodoro technique I’m doing, then I’m going to take those notes and put them on my actual to-do list, and I know that from there they’re going to get handled. I can trust that system. I’ve been using it long enough that once I write it down, it’s just out of my mind and I can focus back on what I was doing.
The “Two Minute Rule”
Now, if you’re not in the middle of a Pomodoro sprint or some other timed work and you’re in your daily life, you have a bit of flexibility, you’re cooking dinner or whatever, there’s something called the “Two Minute Rule”.
It’s that if a task that just came to mind takes less than two minutes to complete (maybe it’s putting away the mail, filing something into your filing cabinet or sending a quick text or remind somebody about something); if you can finish that task and close that loop in two minutes or less – you should just do it immediately. There’s no need to write it down. There’s no need to add it to a planner. Just get it done. Get it out of the way and close that loop as soon as possible.
Credit where credit’s due; David Allen talked about that in his book, Getting Things Done, (the two minute rule). So full credit to him for that idea. It’s become widespread thanks to the popularity of the “GTD” (getting things done) method over the last 20 years.
Delegate to close Open Loops
And the third way that we can handle open loops, or at least some of us can, is to Delegate it. Depending on what the task that comes to mind is, again, it might be better to write just that quick note if you’re in the middle of the timed sprint, but then after that sprint, you want to delegate it to someone who can have responsibility for getting that task done. And it might only take two minutes to delegate if you have employees, or if you have a virtual assistant that you trust, or maybe your kids if it’s a household task, you want to just ask them to get it done.
It comes back to the first thing I said, which is that you have to have systems that you trust to get it done. Otherwise the loop is still open.
So if your employees, or your virtual assistants are completely reliable, then fantastic! You can trust that that job’s going to get done. I then used the example of delegating it to your kids. Now, if your kids are fully trustworthy to finish whatever task you’ve given them, clean their room or whatever, great, you can trust that that open loop is now closed.
Otherwise you might need a new system. If you’re going to have to follow up on that later. It’s not a closed loop. But maybe you have a system for that where every evening at 9:30 PM (if these are teenage kids), you check in with them that their chores are done. You just have to ask them to do it once. Then you come back later and ask “is it done or is it not?”. Maybe there’s accountability for that. Maybe there isn’t. Just a quick, random example of a way you could handle that…
So that’s it! Just a few thoughts on what open loops are and how they derail us from our focused work and some thoughts on how to close them. I hope that’s useful for you guys, all the best.
Talk to you soon.
Please leave a comment and let me know what you thought of this new format.
What follows is the transcript of an interview I conducted nearly two years ago, so in 2019, pre-COVID. I was speaking to Treasa Spragg about “struggle porn”, sleep, naps, deep work, and getting the most important thing done each day.
Of, if you prefer, listen to the audio version.
The audio was recorded in her car by the side of the road in Dublin city, and it was intended only as the basis for a written blog post – so this is in no way professional audio quality. You can occasionally hear other cars, and we even had to move the car ourselves at one point.
I’m also not a professional interviewer (nor am I trying to be). So… excuses made… But I’ve decided to make the audio (and its transcription) available now anyway as there’s a lot of great wisdom that Treasa shared here, that people struggling with sleep and work in 2021 will find helpful.
As many people, myself included, prefer to listen to an interview rather than read it, I’ve provided it in audio format on YouTube, with its transcription available here. The transcription is of course more searchable, for quotes, etc.
I’m Treasa Spragg. I am the CEO of Revolution Project Ltd, and I basically get people moving and then I help them to sleep optimally.
We were going to talk about struggle porn, so, what exactly is struggle porn? Where does it come from, and how is it at odds with science?
Do you know what’s hilarious? The guy who’s responsible for wrecking our sleep is… Of course, the term struggle porn did not exist back then, but in 1879 when Edison created the first light bulb, he set us all off on this whole thing of thinking that we could use the hours of darkness to be “productive.” He famously used to say that he only needed three or four hours of sleep a night and that we shouldn’t be focusing on losing sleep, we should be focusing on a better use of that time. But since then, you’ve had so many people, unfortunately, mostly males of no particular age, but who do the whole hustle and grind thing and think, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead. You can get by on three, four or five hours a night.”
We’ve had some famous people like Margaret Thatcher, Trump, people like that who sleep very little, but all of the scientific research shows you’re going to be chronically sleep-deprived if you have less than six hours. Seven to eight is optimal for the majority of people. There are ways to find out precisely how much you need, but most of the global population would fall between seven and eight hours. More than nine is as detrimental to your health as less than six.
I wasn’t aware that more was bad… And is it true that there’s a fraction of 1% of people who do get by and are fully healthy on two hours, three hours?
There are people that are called super sleepers. It’s a genetic anomaly and there have been very, very few of these people in the world, but they genuinely only need an hour and a half…
Which is one sleep cycle, is that right?
That’s only one sleep cycle, yeah. That’s genuinely all they need. There is an interesting opposite phenomenon called the fatal familial insomnia, that is genetic, so it hits and it has only appeared, I think, in Italian families, where it just has a sudden onset. It could be in your 30s, and very, very quickly, basically, you develop really bad insomnia. And then, of course, you have all the resultant health side-effects, including dementia and people die! That’s sort of the opposite end of the scale. But most people who say that they can get by on three and four hours, if you put them in a sleep clinic, and if you actually got some researchers to do cognitive tests, you’d find that that isn’t the case. The Sleep Doctor, that’s his title, in the U.S., his sleep cycle is only 78 minutes. It’s rather funny for a sleep doctor, but he actually only needs five of those cycles, so he does get more time in his day than the average person.
Right. Because it’s five times 12?
It’s, well, five times 78 minutes.
But he’s saving five times 12, because an average sleep cycle is 90 minutes, so he’s saving an hour per night?
Oh, yeah, he is. Yeah, yeah. He gets more bang out of his day. You need five sleep cycles per night. Very unique things happen in the sleep cycles, and even the way the way that we have more deep sleep in the early part of the night, which is why it’s a really good idea to try to get to bed around 10:00 as opposed to midnight or 2:00 AM. And then we have more of the dreaming. We spend more time in dreaming in the later stages… But even the light sleep, particularly the light sleep and wakefulness a couple of hours before you wake up are also really important.
The different stages all have different purposes. I mean, scientists are still asking, “Why do we sleep?”. There are still so many questions around, why do we sleep? We’re only just beginning to find out things about dreams and things like that. But yeah, we need the five cycles.
Nick Littlehales works with football teams, Olympic cycling teams, all of this kind of stuff. He will say, “Look, it’s not optimal, but if you must, then you can get by with four good nights and then three nights where you’re only getting four cycles. But you make sure you adjust your time for going to bed and waking up so that you get four cycles.” And then you have what he calls a “controlled recovery period” the next day where you’re getting a full cycle in optimal conditions.
So these three and five hours sleepers are just supplementing with coffee during the week, and then they’re crashing for most of Saturday and Sunday morning. And then they’re effectively jet lagged come Monday.
Yeah, and it doesn’t actually work. You get into a really bad cycle with trying to offset your tiredness with caffeine. You’re going to go into just a really bad cycle because all caffeine does is block your sleep drive and then it’ll keep you up because it can hang about. It has a half-life of seven to eight hours depending on your physiology.
So, don’t take coffee in the afternoon…
Yeah. It’s best to have no coffee after 2:00PM. I mean you do get some anomalies of course. You always will. We’re all slightly different physiologically, but the general rule is [no coffee after 2pm]
Do you follow your own advice? You get [five sleep cycles] even with kids; [no coffee]?
Oh, yeah, I almost don’t drink coffee at all. I’ll have a decaf sometimes, but I really have to hunt down a decaf that hasn’t been chemically treated to be decaffeinated. But yeah, no, herbal teas, and turmeric lattes, and decaf tea after… Yeah, about two o’clock.
Yeah, I’ve never been a coffee drinker. Although recently, I found a jar in the press after someone moved out.
Oh, funny, yeah.
I was really tired one day. I was like, “I’ll try it.” And because I don’t drink it, it’s like-
Oh, yeah, it has a huge effect on you.
Yeah! Initially. But then, it’s just going to wear off.
It does. Well, it basically blocks the tiredness signal in your brain. When it wears off then-
…it doesn’t make you less tired, it’s just that you don’t realize it for a while.
Exactly. It just blocks that information from you. And then when it skulks off a way to its corner, all of a sudden you get this message like, “Whoa. You’re this tired.” Instead of the tiredness creeping up on you gradually.
Once you actually realize, “Look, it’s been telling us fake news for years essentially.” That’s what coffee has been doing. See, a lot of us, we’re all ritualized. Every habit, whether it’s a good habit or bad habit, it’s a ritual, so it’s something that we’ve become so used to doing. It does take… I say to people, “Don’t worry about shifting something by five or 15 minutes. It might feel as nothing, but once you’ve done it for a month, you’ve actually made a massive difference.”
I will have people who are like, “I love an espresso after dinner at eight o’clock at night.” I literally just ask them to bring it back in 15-minute chunks at a time. Or, if their dinner is always late, then just instead of having the espresso, moving it on to something that’s a substitute that they actually enjoy, so that you don’t have to do it in one fell swoop. I find that that’s like New Year’s resolutions. You’ll say all of these things, and then it’s too much too fast. Psychologically, we don’t like pain.
Funny, I generally am a cold turkey person. I’m a huge believer in habits as well, like if I’m learning something difficult, like a new piece of music or something. I don’t know when I’ll get there, but I’m going to do a little bit every day and I’ll get there. But then whether the thing is like, “Oh, I take cold showers now so that’s what I do every day.” I’m not doing it once a week, and then twice a week-
Yeah, you’re doing it every day.
Yeah, straight away.
Excellent. Did you read some Wim Hof stuff or how did you get into the cold showers?
I had heard things about it, but even conflicting things like, “Cold showers are great to wake you up, cold showers are great before bed to get you to sleep.” I was like, “No, come on, [they can’t both be true].” But in the end, I was trying to get some work done at 10:00 PM or something. I was really tired. I was sitting in the chair. I was thinking, “I can’t, I can’t. What will wake me up? Splash the face with water! It doesn’t feel like enough. I need it all over me. I need to really cool down. Do you know what? I will try this [cold shower thing]. I’ll do 10 seconds. I’ll make it 10 seconds.
I started the habit then, and I’ve continued it every morning instead of coffee. I rarely do it in the afternoon anymore, but it gets me right up. Even if I have only had five or six hours. [Though] I’m generally an eight-hour sleeper.
I mean, the thing is that depends on your age as well. The thing is that once kids go from being kids to being teenagers, their circadian rhythms are knocked out by three hours. All of a sudden kids have genuinely been feeling sleepy at 7:00 or 8:00. And then all of a sudden out of nowhere, it’s 10:00, 11:00, midnight, which really frustrates a lot of parents. But once you realize that this is something they have no control over, they’re genuinely not tired until later, but they still absolutely need their sleep. And so schools shouldn’t be starting as early as they do, but the gradual restoration then of your circadian rhythm back to a decent time can be something that people don’t focus on. So you can come out of your teenage years into your 20s and you still have this thing of going to bed too late and it requires moving back. What’s optimum for our bodies is that because we do have, the circadian clock actually is a 24.5 hour clock, but it gets reset every day by the melatonin.
It is optimal if you go to bed at the same time every day and wake up at the same time every day. When you start doing that, what happens is even at the weekends, I’ll wake up at 5:50AM naturally on the weekends. I might lounge in bed a bit longer and just be thinking and ruminating, but I have hours to get stuff done before the kids wake up, which is brilliant. But if I, then, am going out, I’ll have a nap that afternoon and I’ll have a nap the following day. But it is better for your body. It’s better for your brain function.
So if you’re going to be out late, you make sure you get an evening nap first or something?
Yeah, get a nap the previous afternoon. You don’t stay in bed longer. You get up at your normal time, but I would definitely then have another nap in the afternoon.
What’s your nap alarm clock set for? 25 minutes?
It depends. Basically a half hour if it’s just a general day and for whatever reason, I’m feeling tired, that’ll happen once in a while. But if I’ve gone out to salsa or something and I’m back late, then I’ll try to have a full cycle and I’ll set the alarm for 90 minutes and make sure the bedroom is dark, and quiet, and everything.
So you’ll get one full cycle.
Get one full cycle, yeah.
I can’t remember where I heard it, but my nap timer is set to 25 minutes because you don’t want to hit 30 and be the first third into your cycle because you’ll wake up more tired than when you began if you allow yourself to hit 30 minutes or something?…
Well, it’s if you go beyond the 30 and particularly 60, or 30 to 60 seems to be really challenging for people because you probably have gone into just that part of the cycle that you don’t want to be woken up from. You always want to be woken up towards the top of the cycle.
Is there a name for that part of it?
Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s the deep wave, so it’s your deep sleep. It’s the slow wave of sleep. It’s just if somebody will call you, they’ll really have to shake you, or the alarm goes off, it pulls you out of it. Yeah, which is challenging.
So, 30 or 90 minute naps, but you don’t really want to be in the middle of that?
Correct. There’s something that Matthew Walker recommends, but very, very… just once in a while. If you’re very tired, but you do have to be productive, he advises taking a cup of coffee-
Nappuccino! Taking a coffee, having 30 minute nap. You wake up, the coffee will hit your brain in 20 to 30 minutes, and, Bob’s your uncle, you’re going to be very productive for the next little while. I mean, the thing is that caffeine has been shown to have… It’s the prefrontal cortex that it affects and it definitely helps your cognitive function, but then all of the other side effects cancel that out. It’s just if you have to give a presentation, or something or other, or something’s happened and you need to be-
Special circumstances, yeah. You don’t want to be doing stuff like that all the time.
Yeah, it’s not a daily ritual to be to getting into.
The angle was struggle porn as well, so to draw it back to that. Sleep is the main thing struggle porn is attacking, I suppose, but-
Well, I think as well, it’s the longer working day where people feel like, I think especially, I don’t want to necessarily namecheck, but there were a lot of talkers who were basically like “hustle and grind endlessly for five years, and then you’d have it made and you’d be able to coast”.
Five years of your life is actually a very, very long time in terms of doing a lot of damage to your health and your relationships. We always have to think, “What’s the cost of our life?” If you were to sit down and write, “Well, what’s really, really important for me?” The majority of people will say, “My health, my family, my friends,” maybe a passion cause or something. And then it’s like-
“…but it’s not my internet marketing business”.
Yeah. But it’s also like, “Well, okay, if I’m going to basically hustle like crazy for five years and disregard my health, not take care of anything that I love, my family, my friends, anything like that, is that life, is it worth it?” The thing is that you never know when something is going to happen to you. I think you have to always live like you have this present moment in this day, and that’s it, and it’s wonderful to have it. So I think you always have to, if your values are, or the things that make you really happy, if you know what they are, I think they have to guide you. And then at least every day you’re going to be happy and you’re going to be close to people. It might take a little longer to get to your goal, but not necessarily. I think if you create the right conditions-
Consistently do the most important thing every day and a few other, two or three tertiary important tasks, you’ll be getting there as well.
Cal Newport has two amazing books on Deep Work and Digital Minimalism. But with Deep Work, he talks about the fact that you have to train your brain almost as if you’re training your body in a gym to be able to do completely focused deep work. I love the thought of a power hour. I’ve known about that for a long time, but he was talking about you can extend your capabilities, but it really takes a lot of focus and training to get from one hour to four. But he thinks four hours is maximum that anybody can do in a day. That means anyone going into an office and working from 9:00 to 5:00, the most really good, deep, productive, excellent work you can get out of them is four hours. All the rest of the time is administrative, it’s relational, it’s meetings that push things along a little bit. But the deep unfocused work where everything, all the magic really happens, you can’t get more than four out of somebody.
Yeah. The thing is as well is that the proof’s in the pudding. I mean, he’s 37, he’s a professor, and he’s actually produced more papers than is the norm for somebody of his age and experience. Obviously, with the books as well. That’s where his second book was really, the second one that I read, Digital Minimalism, was really useful because it talks about the attention economy and what you’re going to do as an individual about that. How do I guard my own time? How do I guard the input that comes into me? How can I make sure that I’m choosing the input rather than just leaving it open by just saying, “Go on world,” via all these social media platforms?
Your mental diet.
Yeah, yeah, completely. I think it’s really important.
So he was saying four hours total in the day or was it a four hour blitz?
Well, it’s a four hour [deep work] blitz, but he reckoned that’s the most that somebody could do. Yeah, everything else would be… Yeah. Even for his office hours for students to come and see him, there are two set days of the week at these times. He’s very clear on the time he gets for family, and the time he gets for his own health, and things like that as well.
He doesn’t even do email. It’s really funny. He has all these caveats before you email him. Email is the only way. He has no social media whatsoever. You won’t find him on anything. If you need to get him, it’s via email. But he asks you, “Has your question being answered here? Or is it about this? Or is this something interesting that we can collaborate on? And if you think it passes all of these markers, send me an email. And if I agree with you, I’ll contact you.” So that there’s no onus on him whatsoever to respond to the emails that he does get.
Right. That’s Tim Ferriss’ way of doing it as well.
One person I found very interesting though is Arnold Schwarzenegger because he was challenged on the “sleep faster, no one needs more than six hours” thing that he’s very famous for saying that in graduation talks he’s given. I was like, I love Arnold Schwarzenegger for so many reasons and so many ways, but I never agreed with him on that. I was like, “You are very successful, but it seems to be in spite of this rather than because of it.” He did in that, it was a Tim Ferriss interview of 2017 I think. He said, “Look, that’s what I needed [personally].” He conceded a bit that , “I always just woke up. It’s six hours OF sleep, not ‘go to bed and get up six hours later'”. It depends how long it takes you to get to sleep and six is just what I needed. And if you need more, you should probably get more. Some people need five and that’s fine.” And so he sort of conceded on that. But had you ever… I’m sure you’ve heard him say that, and what would have been your opinions?
I would have said, “Listen, you either speak in generalities or you mention the generalities, the general population need between seven and eight, general population needs five cycles of 90 minutes. And there are always outliers always, but you never, ever prescribe.” In my workshops, I show people how to actually figure out without going to a sleep clinic, how to figure out what optimal for them. Most people can figure it out in a week. For some people, it takes a bit longer because you have to have a couple of static weeks where you don’t have anything unusual going on and you can completely control when you go to bed.
It’s like a holiday week.
A holiday week or even just a week where you’re like, “I don’t have anything social going on or I normally go out on a Friday night, but this particular Friday, I’m not going to.”
What if night owls have to get up for 7:00 to get to work by 9:00? They won’t be able to figure that out on their own.
This stuff was really hard because one of my best friends, she lives in Dubai, which actually suits her time clock a lot better. But because she works for herself and because her work covers a whole lot of time zones, she is very, definitely a night owl. She does her work between 10:00 PM and 5:00 AM. She will generally then sleep until midday, one o’clock. She’s absolutely hugely productive.
In general, because we live in this kind of world, it’s unfortunate for night owls, for people who are… That’s their chronotype is to be a night owl. It’s really challenging because the reality is that we do need to… It’s really tough. I would be all for schools starting later. Do you know what was so daft? My 15-year-old, Monday through Thursday this entire academic year , her first period has been maths, which is crazy. They’re not fit to engage at all. But schools should definitely be starting later for kids. This is where flexible working comes in and remote working. If you’re a night owl naturally, you can most likely arrange with your boss that you don’t start working at 10:00 AM, which is fantastic.
Yeah. That’s been my experience… I started work at 10:00am. I’m more of a night owl, not radically, but closer on that end and would start work at 10:00am when I was doing the game dev stuff. I found my brain was on by then. Now I’ve been like, “Oh, by 10:00, so many things can happen to derail you.” So now I’m trying to get up at 8:00 and do work from 8:30 until 10:00. Just get that one most important thing done. Then I’ll move off and try other things.
Can I ask you what that one most important thing is? Is this one most important thing that you’ve determined or is it a reaction to an email or something coming in?
The idea is that I don’t even check email till 10:00 AM.
So I’ve written it down the night before on my spreadsheet. I’ll color green if I get it done. Color it red if I missed it that day. As I look back through the month, I’m like, “It’s mostly green.”
On Wednesday, it’s often been ‘write a blog’, but I might reprioritize that now, but the idea was just ‘get the blog done in the morning. Don’t let it drag on all day’. Other days, it would be something that should take an hour and it gets done first… If the most important thing is that I email one person a response. I’m not going to make that the one hour task.
Oh gosh, yeah.
So, a rather abrupt end there unfortunately. I could speak for hours more with Treasa, and there’s so much that she touched upon that I’d love to ask her more about. Like “wait, why exactly is getting more than 9 hours of sleep as bed as getting less than 6?”, but that will have to wait for another interview, I suppose.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this format, and that those listening on YouTube did as well. It’s the first time I’ve done a dual posting as audio and text, and I think I will be doing more of it in future. It makes sense to recycle the content to reach more people, whatever their media preference.
If you have any comments or questions (particularly for Treasa – maybe we could do a follow-up, more professional interview) please leave them in the comments.
As I said before, the business took a back burner while I studied a Masters in Consulting in Paris. I experienced lockdown there, and it actually wasn’t so bad at all for me, thankfully. I was busy enough with university never to get bored, with a few friends remaining around the residence, and a view of the Eiffel Tower within my 1km permitted walking radius. Not too shabby! And when lockdown lifted and exams were over, I had the once-in-history opportunity to explore Paris without it being full of traffic or tourists. Silver linings!
Anyway, throughout the year I did only a small amount of contract work for this company, and ignored the blog. It’s important to prioritize the most important parts of a business and not try to do everything!! Blogging is a ‘nice-to-have’, especially if doing it prevents you from pursuing actual cash.
Since exams finished in May, I’ve resumed writing my eBook on Productivity. I’ve also started a day job with which to pay the bills and finish my Masters program (in lieu of a thesis, you do a work semester and a report on it).
An hour per day of focused work
So, what I now do is dedicate the first hour of my day to my own business, and then start the day job afterwards, with evenings being my own for relaxing or meeting friends. This way I work on my own stuff while I’m most fresh, and before distractions start to arrive (I don’t even turn on my phone before I’ve finished this hour).
One hour per day may not sound like a lot, but it’s 7 hours per week of focused work on the Most Important Things in the business. If you work a 40 hour week you still get at best 5 hours per day of productive work, for 25 hours per week maximum, and it’s frankly never even that much. Spending 7 hours per week minimum, of focused work, makes this about a 1/3rd-time job, focused on the activities that will move the needle.
Since I’ve started I’ve written several thousand words for the eBook, taught two workshops, arranged for more upcoming ones, and build a couple of websites for clients.
The trick is consistency! And it’s easiest to be consistent when you build a habit around what you’re trying to do, and schedule it in that part of the day where it’s least likely to ever get disrupted.
Working from home is of course a great help! Any time that would have been lost commuting has been regained, and what time remains is often a bit more flexbible. I’ve long been an advocate of remote work, despite its challenges. I’m even giving free talks on the topic to workplace groups at the moment. Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss this.
Given that I’m only working about 7hrs per week (but consistently and sustainably), I’m focusing now on coaching only one topic – Productivity! I’m the most passionate about it, and in the time of COVID and work-from-home, it seems like it will provide huge benefit to people.
So please keep an eye on the site for what comes next. Join the newsletter (coming soon), follow me on Twitter, or just email me if you’d like to know more about anything discussed above.
What having a To Do list gives you, is a quieter mind, ready to focus on the task at hand, not distracted by what needs to be done later.
Yes! Christ, yes! Of course To Do Lists are still a good idea! Forgive me for doing a test on a click-bait title, but it gets me fairly directly to the point I want to make today.
Everyone seems to need an edgy opinion now, and a click-bait title, just to get some of that sweet sweet traffic. This became crystal clear recently (obvious as it already was) when I signed up to the blog site Medium and got their daily email of story summaries. I’m seeing blog titles like “Crypto is a fad!” right next to “Why Bitcoin will save the environment!” (I’m paraphrasing), and blogs on getting up at 4am right next to ones about the critical value of getting 8 hours of sleep. [Stay tuned here, as in the coming weeks I’ll be doing an interview with someone specialising in sleep and productivity, and together we’ll be taking a strong stance against the current wave of “struggle porn”.]
How long will it be before we’re back to advocating ruling employees through fear and cheating the customer as “the forgotten best practices to make millions!”? I can almost see it happening. Mark my words.
Apart from maybe the title today, I do prefer the higher-integrity approach of actually trying to teach useful habits. You’d think that the basics wouldn’t need to be covered any more, but an epidemic of careless blog and video topics with misleading titles (like mine today) are actually eroding our knowledge-base when it comes to productivity at work, and conveniently for me, opening up space to talk about the ABC’s again.
To Do Lists under attack
Almost just to be contrary it seems, I’ve seen more and more people advocating for a NOT To Do list. This isn’t a bad idea per se, as it’s good to highlight our time-wasting habits and work to eliminate them, but some “influencers”, in a careless case of Chinese Whispers, I think missed the point when they started saying to create NOT To Do lists at the expense of actual To Do lists. How does that help anyone?! Use both, by all means, but if you’re picking one only, you must have an actual list of tasks to get done. You can’t fumble your way away from what you don’t want to do and somehow arrive at success.
Other suggestions are to write ONLY your Top 5 most important tasks to do the next day (or 6, if you’re talking about the Ivy Lee method – it seems we’ve lost one sixth of our productivity over the last century), and trim everything else off your To Do list! Just don’t have them on there. Again, I think this is crap advice. Have your longer To Do list, and move 5 items to the top, or to a separate daily list, or circle them, or whatever you want! You can figure this part out without a blog.
What am I dancing around?
Okay. For a second, let me stop speaking reactively about what not-not to do, and speak in favour of To Do Lists on their own terms. The fundamentals.
What having a To Do list gives you, is a quieter mind, ready to focus on the task at hand, not distracted by what needs to be done later.
If you have something near you (a phone or notebook) that you can trust to remember things for you, you won’t expend mental energy trying to move short term inspiration or information into medium-to-long term memory. We learn this is as children when the teacher says to “write down your homework”. They won’t allow that you forgot what it was. They know you have a list that you are to refer to when you go home, so that you do the work they’re expecting and arrive back the next day not having had the time to build a tree house, or whatever that algebra was keeping you safe from.
For some influencers to be contradicting this advice is asinine. And you know that they don’t follow what they’re saying! Listen them speak on a panel at a conference and they’ll speak about the tools like Trello and Google Sheets that they use to coordinate their team and “make sure things get done”.
I first learned the absolute necessity of To Do lists when I was running stage shows with a crew of around 30 and had to liaise with venues, suppliers, cast, crew, ticket suppliers, and my dad to borrow the van! It’s impossible to run something like that writing down what NOT to do, or even writing just 5 tasks. And once you’re in the habit of writing down the “urgent” task that comes to mind, you can sleep easy knowing that tomorrow it will be handled. Sleeping better of course will also let you do that work more quickly and with less mistakes. Double benefit!
Just as Animal Farm was a book about Communism, and not animals (I did not appreciate this the first time I read it… I was young!) this was a blog about runaway edgy “advice” and not so much To Do lists. Do try out new ideas, but question them, too. Ask the person giving it if they follow this advice, or what they’re basing it on.
I follow this advice. I used to use a .txt file on Dropbox as my To Do lists, as I could access it on my PC or mobile app, but I’ve now switched to Workflowy as it has more functionality that a text file, and also has an easy-to-use mobile app; something I don’t find with Google Sheets.
I also bought a small whiteboard to leave on my door with my absolute most important medium-term tasks on it. I found it helped to have them in my face every day.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Do you’ve any recommended tools or approaches to getting everything done?
Until next week…
PS As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I’ve linked to a Whiteboard above. It costs you no extra to buy through the link, but I get a small percentage as a referral bonus to support the site.
But the one thing that’s worked really well for me is to just have two times of the day that I’m batching emails.
This week I want to share the idea of ‘batching’ as it relates to productivity at work, especially when applied to emails. I’m someone who’s borderline obsessed with productivity and constant incremental improvements (kaizen) to my work process. I want to get more done in less time, and still have energy left at the end of the day to balance work with life, and maintain my health.
You can find lots of info and blogs out there on productivity (including this one, today). But did you know that a huge amount of it originates from a single source? One of the undisputed masters of productivity and work-life balance is Tim Ferriss – author of the 4-Hour Work Week, and host of the Tim Ferriss Show.
Although batching is something we all do to one extent or another, the first person I saw codify and apply it to office work is Tim Ferriss. So, what is batching, how does Tim use it, and how can it help you?
What is Batching?
As the name perhaps implies, batching is the grouping together of tasks with the objective of doing them all at once. Bakers bake a batch of bread, not a single loaf, factories produce a batch of thousands of items in a single run before resetting the machinery, and productive workers batch all their calls, emails, meetings, and creative time into separate batches as well.
This reduces “switching costs” (the amount of time it takes to re-focus on a task after you’ve been distracted away from it) and prevents us from being reactive all day. How many times have you sat down to resume your actual job, only to have your train of thought broken by an email or IM notification three minutes later? You read it, send a quick response, and try get back to work, but then you remember further info that might benefit the original sender to you go look up a link. While you’re browsing, that Twitter bookmark calls to you from the top bar and now you’re scrolling for no particular reason. It happens. A lot! But a lot less when you adopt batching.
Tim Ferriss’ email batching
Tim wrote about how he started to only check emails at particular times of the day, and get them all done within a set time-frame. For the rest of the day, emails didn’t happen as far as he was concerned. Then he’d increase this batching to only certain days of the week, until eventually he was only checking email once per week total!
He was helped in this by some automated response systems that explained how he would only check emails periodically, but if your query related to X, then the answer was Y, or if requesting a speaking engagement, he currently wasn’t taking any, etc.
He also empowered his staff to handle any customer service disputes up to a value of $100 without checking for his permission. Since 90% of disputes were for values worth less than $20, and he would previously have been emailed about every dispute only to usually say “yes, grant that”, this saved a huge amount of time for himself and his staff.
But what if I miss an important email?
There are two nuggets of wisdom to consider here.
You train others how to treat you
If you tell the key people that communicate with you that you’re adopting a new email-reduction approach, and will only be checking it once per day, they won’t expect instant replies. This also results in receiving less emails about trivial matters. They will also know that if there’s an actual urgent issue, that they should walk up to your desk, or phone you to get instant access.
Things are rarely that urgent
Things are rarely (depends on your profession, I understand that) so urgent that an email can’t wait a few hours. It’s not an urgent medium. Maybe some day you’ll miss first-come-first-served on a spare concert ticket or something, but what’s the value of that to you? A ticket might be worth €80. What’s it worth to you to have less distractions at work and get more work done more quickly every day?! The trade-off is a no-brainer in my opinion.
How I’ve adopted it
I’ve designed and redesigned many timetables for myself over the years. I think mostly they work at first, then the routine (any routine) kind of gets to you, and you switch things up a bit. I don’t think there’s one perfect timetable for anyone, let alone for everyone. But the one thing that’s worked really well for me is to just have two times of the day to check emails. In my situation I could actually get away with once, probably.
So at 10 am I’ll check email in a 30 minute window. All emails. Personal, work, other work, Facebook and Twitter messages, WhatsApp texts. I’ve 30 minutes to clear it, or postpone things. This includes checking links on newsletters, special deals, articles, etc. I limit my time so I can’t endlessly go down the rabbit hole. If there’s a long article I really want to read I’ll bookmark it for the evening.
Also in this time window I’ll usually send a message to someone I haven’t spoken to in a while. People I met at conferences, friends who live overseas, cousins, etc. That takes 5-10 minutes of the time usually. If there’s any time left over I’ll also try to get in a few mental exercises, memorising lists. I do this habit every day. This is how I can name you 50 States, 28 (soon to be 27?) EU countries + capitals, 32 Irish counties, all Bond movies (by year), and how to say “Cheers” in over 30 languages and counting. I really want to get email out of the way so I can get to this more fun mini-game before starting ‘work’ work.
I repeat this at 2pm. So my day has its communication time and its work time separated. It also means that any query to me should be answered in a half a working day or less, which is perfectly acceptable.
After dinner I have no rules about email or messages (Tim Ferriss would disapprove) but this has worked wonders for me. Outside of those two half hours, (before dinner), all notifications are off. The phone is set to Do Not Disturb (while allowing calls through, since I get very few and they’re usually somewhat important).
Bonus Tip: Gmail Snooze
Gmail now has a Snooze button for emails that allows you to send something in your inbox away and have it return unread at a set time. This is great if you want to clear the clutter and rush to inbox-zero, but without addressing an important issue yet, but not deleting or risking forgetting it either.
Bonus Bonus Tip: Pause your Inbox
You can also use the Boomerang plugin for Gmail to completely pause your Inbox for a time, so that if you need to work inside Gmail but don’t want to be distracted by new messages, they’ve got you covered. This plugin is also how your schedule an email to automatically send at a later time – something Gmail can’t do for some reason.
Yeah, pretty much batch your emails into one or two times per day, max! You batch your laundry into a single load – why not email and texts? You can experiment with batching other things too, like cooking several meals for the week on Sunday night, or doing your bookkeeping/receipts every 2nd Monday morning. It all takes a little discipline and planning, but it can save huge amounts of time and keep you focused on your real work.
I hope you found this useful. Please share some of your favourite productivity hacks in the comments, or just say hi and let us know if you’re going to/already use this one. If you’d like to read my recent blog post on combating Procrastination, click here.
If you’d like to set up a free call to talk about how I can help double productivity for you or your team, please get in touch. I’m happy to chat for 20 minutes and offer some quick wins at no charge.
Until next time…
PS As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I’ve linked the book “4-Hour Work Week” above. It costs you no extra to buy through the link, but I get a small percentage as a referral bonus.
How to stop procrastinating is one of the biggest questions we all struggle with on a daily basis. This paragraph has already taken two days to write!
Tasks that seem difficult, unpleasant, or hard to guess the duration of tend to get put on the long finger. There’s probably a physiological aspect to this. Note: I’m not an expert in any of the fields involved here, but in layman’s terms: The function of procrastination is believed to be our minds protecting us from stress, and the cortisol that we know will be released by engaging with stressful tasks. We’re particularly prone to procrastinate when we’re tired or already stressed. But our bodies don’t necessarily realise that we’ve got bills to pay, dammit!
If procrastination is a protective function though, our bodies don’t seem to consider that incomplete tasks take up mental space (though you can reduce this affect by writing things down on a To Do list), whereas getting things done produces a little dopamine hit. So it’s clear that procrastination, while natural, isn’t necessarily doing us many favours if it’s saving us from a little cortisol now, robbing us of dopamine soon, and producing more cortisol in the long run by creating more incomplete tasks.
Probably best to get a handle on it, then. So! Here are some of my adopted techniques to stop procrastinating. People in paid 9-5 employment can benefit from these too, though they apply more to those with flexible working days.
The Pomodoro Technique
This technique takes its name from the Italian word for tomato. This is because its inventor, Francesco Cirillo, had a tomato-shaped kitchen timer on his desk that he used to measure work periods of (usually) 25 minutes.
The idea is to work in 25-minute sprints, then take a 5 minute break (good to move around, use the bathroom, get some water, etc) and resume another period after that. You repeat this up to 4 times for a very productive couple of hours, then you should take a longer break.
I first started using this technique while working in my last job as a games programmer. I’d have been assigned a big feature to complete, that would take hours or days (you never quite know with games programming). I’d break the task down into chunks that should take 25 minutes or less each, and then focus intently on just that sub-feature for 25 minutes. Sometimes a task wouldn’t be complete, but I’d have definitely broken the back of it without getting distracted. When the clock’s ticking, we tend to focus better.
Now, how this helps me to stop procrastinating requires just a little twist in what you think the technique is best used for. It’s great for productivity, yes, but it also carries the strong likelihood that that unpleasant task (say, a VAT return, or employee review) will be off your plate in less than a half hour if you just start now!
That promise has seen me start and finish more programming jobs, tenders, applications, emails, and bookkeeping tasks than any other technique. I’m even running a Pomodoro clock right now. I’ve 9 minutes left. The blog won’t be finished in that time, but in one more the first draft should be done, another and I’ll have edited and added pictures, and one final one will see it posted, shared on social media, and totally finished!
You could get yourself a desk timer, but I just use a simple free App called ‘RemindMe for Windows‘ (which I also use to remind myself to correct my posture at my desk every now and again).
As I often mention, this is one of the biggest benefits to hiring a coach. A coach is of more benefit keeping you accountable towards bigger goals and tasks, but accountability can be used in all sorts of ways.
When I used to live-stream game development, I set two times a week (and posted them on my streaming pages and Twitter) that I would be streaming live at that time. I didn’t have a huge audience, but once the info was out there, I’d be a liar not to show up and start working. Whatever else happened in the week, I always had two slots of 90-120 minutes where the game itself, in-engine, got worked on. This kept the ball rolling and not stuck in an email & admin pothole.
Similarly, once an artist and composer joined my team, I felt accountable to them, and any tasks I had that they needed done miraculously got accomplished. Most of us hate to let others down and are much more willing to not deliver on a promise made to ourselves alone.
If you work alone and people aren’t counting on you, posting things publicly, or getting an accountability buddy (accountabilabuddy – I can never let that hilarious contraction go unsaid) or coach can seriously help you to stop procrastinating and finish more tasks.
Urgency – Make Plans
This leads on from the others fairly well, but it’s a little different. Where the Pomodoro technique has you create an artificial time pressure, and accountability has you create (if it doesn’t already exist) artificial social pressure, this has you create real pressure – timed and usually social.
Parkinson’s Law states that a task will expand to fill the time allotted for it, in the same way that a gas will fill any given chamber evenly. I’ve always noticed that if my evening is free, I’ll usually wind up finishing some of the tasks that were allotted for the working day in the evening. If, however, I’ve made plans with someone to go to a show, gig, movie, etc, now I’ve now got a real time constraint on the day, and the social pressure of not wanting to cancel on my friend. If I’ve bought tickets, I’ll have the benefit of financial loss aversion too!
Doing this not only helps you knuckle down and get things done, but it rewards you for doing so and protects your work/life balance, which in turn protects your long term health, productivity, and enthusiasm. It’s a positive feedback loop that’s actually very powerful!
So rather than not make plans because you might have to finish work (you always will, according to Parkinson), say yes to that invite to the pub or games night.
How to Stop Procrastinating – In Conclusion
Using these three techniques (and others) have greatly helped me to stop procrastinating and increase the number of unpleasant jobs that I get done. Doing so has also freed up more time for me to enjoy my life outside of work hours (by basically creating “outside of work hours”).
I hope they’re of use to you as well. You might also enjoy my article “Movement Beats Meditation” (which is about perfectionism, not exercise or spirituality).
Do leave a comment if you have any of your own techniques or success stories, and please share the article if you found it valuable.
I’m a perfectionist. I’m a planner. None of these are bad traits, but if left unchecked they can cause you to spend a lot of energy spinning your wheels and going nowhere.
Hello and welcome to the site! First post! Woo! (It will soon become apparent to you that I’ve a somewhat informal writing style). So, why should a phrase as seemingly innocuous as ‘movement beats meditation’ be the topic for the site’s first post?
Well, I’ve spent days now trying to decide what the perfect first post would be for my new coaching website. Should I talk about the journey that led me here (it’s a good one!), or about my first client (my dad. When I was 23 I told him to fire me), or maybe about the purpose of the site itself?
Planning is all well and good, but taking action is what counts! I realised that I was falling victim again to one of my own key character flaws, that I’m sure a lot of us share. I tend to want to know what the second step is before I take the first one. I’m cautious. I’m a perfectionist. I’m a planner. None of these are bad traits, necessarily, but if left unchecked they can cause you to spend a lot of energy spinning your wheels and going nowhere.
Basically, I tend to meditate on a problem, instead of move!
When I realised what I was doing, I was reminded of something that I heard not too long ago: “You’ll achieve more through movement than through meditation…in most situations”. It’s attributed to Joe Polish, a renowned marketer and entrepreneur. I can’t quite find where he’s said it, but I’ve heard a couple of the personalities that I follow mention this, and regardless, it’s true!!!
“You’ll achieve more through movement than through meditation…in most situations”
Taking an action produces a result. Thinking about what action to take gets you exactly nowhere! Even if it was the wrong action, you’ve produced a lesson to learn from, instead of staying put where you were, wasting time, and learning (and producing) nothing!
The ideal first post?
Well, the purpose of my new business is to help entrepreneurs to get past the hurdles that are preventing them from creating a better world for themselves, their families, and the world at large. So, what’s the perfect first post to do that? The answer (or one of several right answers, more like) was staring me right in the face in the form of my own procrastination-shaped hurdle (this is all getting very ‘meta’ now, isn’t it?). Sometimes we just need to move!! Indecision and choice paralysis are the arch-enemies of entrepreneurs (well, more accurately they’re a couple of villains-of-the-week from a huge rogue’s gallery of arch-enemies. “Tune in next week and watch our heroes battle the dreaded ‘Impostor Syndrome'”. haha. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that).
Of course, as with all things in life, it’s about balance. You don’t want to take disastrous action that an hour of research could have saved you from. You don’t want to be overly impulsive, but when it comes to choosing a topic for your new blog that nobody is even aware of yet, all you really have to do is pick something of value. It doesn’t have to be the most valuable thing you’ll ever post. That can come in the future, and time will tell you what it was. You can’t plan for it, so just take an action!!!
Finished is better than perfect.
So, first lesson: When there are several right answers to choose from, don’t let yourself get slowed down. If there are no wrong answers, what’s the problem? Make your decision and go! Flip a coin if you really have to, but stressing over whether one choice might be 5% better or worse than the next is a waste of your mental energy.
Movement beats meditation!
Thanks so much for reading. Do please leave a comment if you got some value out of this.