Exploring Relaxed Productivity

Exploring Relaxed Productivity

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the concept of “Relaxed Productivity”. The past few weeks have been a bit manic. I’ve been juggling multiple projects, chasing new business, creating new products and producing more content than I usually do. It has been a bit crazy.

So last week, I wanted to try a different tact. Or at least, I could afford to try. See, I always have the experienced of being almost at the edge of overwhelm. My fingers are always in a lot of different projects, I’m always doing a lot of work. But that comes with its cost. Eventually things devolve. The work gets a bit sloppy, projects are rushed and I slip into extreme fatigue. Something has to give. I spent most of the other week in a sleep deprived state. I got stuff done and done very well, but it left me exhausted.

In 2018 or so I came across the concept of ‘Working to Live’ and it started to change the way i approached work. The thing as a freelancer, one man band, mercenary, is that it is very easy to get overwhelmed with work. There are always requests coming your way, projects to be finished, projects that were finished coming back with more stuff or edits or changes. There is always more work.

You can also be incentivised to take on more work. Because the more you work, the more you earn. At the same time, it can be difficult to charge as high as is needed, because otherwise then you don’t close the deal, and sometimes you need the cashflow however small so you take the hit. Plus, people almost never pay when they say they will, projects get stuck in limbo or fall off completely. And when they do pay, they want things yesterday. So you get stuck in a loop, taking a lot of work to make the money you desire and then bumping up against time and energy constraints. You end up working ridiculous hours and crashing and burning repeatedly.

Is there another way?

Is what I’ve been wondering.

I have come across local creatives talking about how they are fully booked for months. So I’d imagine they are simply spending the next few months only working on what’s already on their plate. That seems nice, like they already have enough in the bank, or charged high enough to be able to maintain such a schedule. Also it means that they have enough time to really dig into the project and get things done to a high standard.

Must be nice, I want in also.

To Work to Live means to schedule ones life around life as much as possible, instead of work. It means scheduling the things that are important first – like rest, like exercise, and eating, or chores, and then scheduling work around that. Now sure, this is a very privileged place to be in. But if you already have control of your time as an entrepreneur or freelancer then this is a worthy goal to strive for.

What principles would have to be in place?

Reduce your footprint

If your bills and needs are high, then you will always need to be generating income. And if you generate income from your work/labour, then you are going to have to work a lot. Reducing your footprint and reconsidering your lifestyle can give you the space you need to position yourself better and work more sustainably.

Plan at least a week ahead

To have a more relaxed and productive workflow, you need to have clarity over your time, resources and tasks and set things up accordingly. You would need to plan your life at least a week a time and front load it with the right amount of work. Know what needs to be done each week and really be honest about how much time things will take. Any other tasks that come up would have to compete against the already assigned task or move to the next week.

That means probably no rush projects, if you can help it.

Strive to be as effective as possible

If you only have limited time to work, then you have to make sure you are working on the most important things. Prioritise the important things and the things that will give the biggest results. Then you can get around to all the other stuff. Make the time you spend working count.

Be more valuable

To enjoy more relaxed productivity, you are probably going to need to increase your income. And you can do that by increasing your value, improving your skills, and selling your value to the clients who can afford it. You are going to raise those prices to attract and service the right market.

Innovate your business model

To be able to strive to a more relaxed level of productivity, you would need to work differently. Make your business or setup less dependent on you and built upon systems that can run without you. That could mean selling products, hiring people, or leveraging digital platforms. Position yourself for scalable exponential growth and that could earn you your freedom

Enjoy the time off

It can be easy to fall back into old patterns of toxic hustle culture. And there’s a time and place for that. Sometimes you do have to go all out and work like crazy, but when we in relaxed mode, we want to allow ourselves to actually enjoy the time off. For a workaholics like me, it can be hard to turn the brain off and just do something else. But invest the time in yourself, in your experiences, in your relationships and funny enough, it might just make you even better at your work.

Work and The Negative Returns Curve

Work and The Negative Returns Curve

Work is an interesting thing. For most of us, it takes up most of our lives. At least 60% of our time is spent at work, either at an office, or more so these days, working from home. And depending on how engaged you are with what you do, how much you love or tolerate it, you might be looking for ways to make work more effective and efficient. Ways to squeeze more out of the time you spend working, etc.

This is the essence of productivity. Finding ways to produce more.

If you work for a company or business, you might be able to skirt away by doing the least amount of work you can get away with. Since your labour is paid for on a fixed monthly basis, that might make sense. Or you might want to push harder to get noticed and promoted. If you work on commission or you work for yourself, then your income is probably tied more directly to your labour. So the more you work, the more you earn.

At this point, it gets very tempting to maximise the amount of time you spend working. After all, if you can work more, you can make more. But the human body is not a machine, and the amount of energy and attention we have is finite. We still have to do pesky things like eat and sleep.

If you push and try to work as many hours as possible, you will quickly come against your upper limits. And that is a limit you need to get very familiar with, and respect accordingly.

In the early days of my career, as a whip-smart youngling, I would work almost all the time. From the moment I woke up, to the moment I went to bed, every day of the week. Understandably I burnt out often. Sure I was much younger and able to put in insane hours without too much of a strain. Also, I love what I do, still do. But overtime, I have come to respect the productivity decimating power of a burnout, and I’ve changed the way I think about work.

It is not use burning the candle at both ends for weeks on end to be completely wiped out and unable to work for days or even a month at a time. The better way is to find your rhythm and optimise it at both ends – your work, and your play.

The case against overwork

Because human energy and attention is finite, putting in more hours at work than you need to actually starts to become detrimental. The work you do 4 days into a work stretch will not be as good as the work you do right at the start or midway through. Plus, bad work can lead to even more work down the line, where you have to backtrack and make changes or fix the bad work you did.

You probably don’t need to work as much or as long as you think.

Especially in the creative space. It might do you better to focus on writing for 2 hours every day, than to try bang out an entire book in 9hour daily sessions. But everyone is different, the point is to find the rhythm that works for you.

Personally I am able to give about 3-4 solid days to my design work in a week. On day one, I can do an easy 12 hour stretch. On day 3, I can average out at 8hrs of work. By the 5th day, I am barely functional. If I push further than that, which I certainly could, I would definitely pay for it by the next week. In this state, no matter what I do, I simply cannot work. My brain and body are far too tired to do anything creative or productive.

Find your balance

As I’ve grown and refined the way I work, I have learned to institute a couple of things like respecting the weekend, respecting how long tasks actually take, and communicating clearly to people when I’m available and when I’m not.

These days I am able to strike a balance, knowing that once Monday rolls in, I am completely focused on the grind, and by Thursday, Friday, I am easing off, and when it’s the weekend, I do not think about work at all. Whether I am at work or leisure, I am able to give my all to it, knowing that I am doing the right thing at the right time. I rest and bum out when I need to, and I get on the grind when I need to.

Make your work time more efficient

Striking a balance also helps us do one other important thing, which is focus on the efficacy of the time we actually spend working. If I can only work for a limited time, then I have to make sure that it is time well spent. I have to ensure that I am working on the right things – the things that actually move me forward, on the projects that excite and teach me, on the ideas that could give exponential return.

By respecting the time off, we can become even more deliberate and intentional about the work we do.

Which is why if you are someone who works for yourself, you have to be strict with your hours and your time. It is far too easy for something to come in to encroach on that. Clients need things last minute. People are disorganised, everything is urgent. It is okay to throw on the cape and save the day from time to time. But acquiescing constantly to such demands will just throw you off course and into chaos.

And that isn’t what we want.

We want a life by design. A life where everything is at the appropriate level at the appropriate time.

It is okay to go all out and have hectic head-down work sessions. Some seasons call for it. But it is also doubly important to make sure you get some down time, that you take care of yourself, that you have other things in your life other than work. The chance to pursue curiosity, the time to rest and relax and play, the time to have experiences, the time to nurture relationships.

The time to live.

That is paradoxically, how we become more productive in the long run.

Cultivating the Mind of an Artist

Cultivating the Mind of an Artist

I picked up this lovely little yellow book the other day – Brief Lessons in Creativity by Frances Ambler. And it is quite the gem, helping to inspire and nudge me deeper down a path that has been on my mind on-and-off for years now.

See, I work in the creative industry. I genuinely create something almost every single day whether it is content, or client work, whatever. I am always making something. However, it can become quite mechanical. You have your set of tools, your set of trusty techniques and ways of doing things. You can competently create on demand. But it is also very easy to stagnate and get stuck doing the same things over and over again.

It is difficult to grow and break ruts, to grow new skills and ways of looking at the world, and yet we must. To keep fresh, to honour the muse, to have longevity in the game. It is important to keep exercising the muscle of creativity and stretching it to new places.

I’ve always wanted to live a more artistic existence, and I suppose this has always been an underlying reasoning behind my life path. Working for yourself gives you control of your time. It then becomes up to you to optimise that time and be able to spend it how you want to. But it is very easy to get stuck in the day to day business of commerce, and not having enough time or energy to explore the possibilities.

Yet, if you want it, if you want to become better, to experience a new level, to maybe even become great, then somehow the price must be paid. We must incorporate practices and rituals, spaces and times to nurture the soil of creativity, to improve how we see, how we process, and the techniques of creation. To become better creators and artists.

Here are some ideas inspired by Frances’ book.

Just start/Begin anywhere

The blank canvas can be very intimidating, especially if we have not created in a long time. We might hold some romantic notion of how we ought to be as creatives, of how good the artwork has to be, or of how good we should be. We should throw all of those concerns away and just begin from anywhere. Just start. Take a piece of paper and make a scribble. Write a few random words in a notepad. Record a couple random melodies. Make a mess. Do something.

Doing this will shake out the cobwebs so to speak, limber up those stiff limbs and get you back in the groove of creating.

Follow your curiosity

What interests you? Put some time aside and do a real deep dive into it. What ever piques your curiosity. Maybe you always wondered about UFOs, or medieval weaponry, or knitting. Whether it is something mundane or something outlandish, allow yourself the space and time to dig into it. Do some research, go down an internet rabbit hole, visit sites, connect with people. Follow your curiosity, you will find new things, good, bad, boring, interesting, and it will fill your tank with new ideas and new references.

Make space

I have blogged at length about the need to create and protect creative space. To be able to cultivate and nurture your creativity, you need to have the space and time to devote to it. You need a place to make your art, whatever that is. This space needs to stimulate or support you as needed. It has to be sacred and set apart. This is an important time of enquiry, of experimentation, of worship.

Curate a cabinet of curiosities

Collect stuff. In your travels, in your movements around the world, you will come across things – signs, images, discarded objects, places. Bring something back with you, take a picture, make a film. Build and curate a storehouse of inspiration, of little odds and ends that you can come back to, study in more detail or tap into for ideas and direction. You are only as good as your references.

Actively experiment

Try different things. Start your process from the opposite end, or start from the middle. Create in a different medium or work with a different technique. Try creating with your less dominant hand, or in a different environment. Keep pushing the boundaries of what you create and how you create it. Shake things up to unleash new skills, new perspective and fresh takes.

Travel

Move around, it could be as close as a walk around the neighbourhood, or as far as moving across continents. But exposure to new places breaks up monotony and allows us to see things with fresh eyes. And it brings us in contact with new people, ways of living, and ideas.

We could all gain wonderfully from cultivating an artist’s eye and mind. Beyond the boons to creativity, the work of creating pushes one into a deeper state of being. A space where one must be still, and observe, really look, or really dig in and think and draw from the depths to birth something new. It is in these spaces that we learn about ourselves, that we tap into our powers, that we create something tangible, something truly us. It is here we meditate and connect to the sublime. It is here that we discover, that we learn, that we break through.

It is through the way of the artist, that we can become even more ourselves.

5 ways to supercharge your productivity

5 ways to supercharge your productivity

In a previous post, I shared my experience with upgrading my living space, and as I mentioned then, the experience has inspired me to take a closer look at productivity as a whole. Although I am already fairly organized, I know there is still plenty room for improvement.

And as I dive down the rabbit hole and nerd out on productivity tools and frameworks over the next couple of weeks, I will share ideas on how to improve how we get stuff done and stay on track with all our concerns.

I find myself asking questions like. What does my workflow look like now? How do I stay on top of everything? How do I become more effective and efficient? How do I ensure I do the things that usually tend to fall through the cracks? What systems do I have in place to capture all the ideas, tasks, requests I have and be able process them well?

How do I read more and retain information? How do I gather my notes in such a way that it is easy to access and apply those insights? How do I keep up to date with all my projects and make sure they are moving forward?

A lot of questions I’m sure I will have a lot of fun trying to answer. But even now, there are some quick ideas I can think of to help take your productivity to the next level, and make yourself even more effective.

Have a prep/planning day

If you don’t already do this, then you need to set a day and a time to plan your week. Every week.

If you are able to build the habit of checking in with your goals, intentions, tasks and priorities weekly, you stand a much better chance of staying aligned to it over the long term.

This is the time that you take to review the week that has passed and look over the one coming. You can do this on a Sunday before the week officially starts, or on Monday morning, or whenever really. As long as it happens every week.

In this time you get to empty your mind of all the reminders, and tasks and requests that have been swirling up there and objectively sift through them to prioritise the most important things to get done in the coming week.

This is absolutely crucial if you want to keep your plates properly juggled.

Make your calendar your best friend

I’m not yet great at this, but in my research, I have seen quite a few people swear by having a calendar. It is a vital component to your productivity and time management.

The idea is to make sure that every appointment, call to make, birthday, event to attend, you want to make sure all of that is captured in your calendar so you don’t forget. Instead of having to keep all of that in your head, all you need to do is pull up the calendar and be reminded of what you need to do by when.

Another powerful use of the calendar is to use it to time block. You can actively plan your day hour by hour the day before according to your prioritised todo list, and actually block off time for each task. So when you start the day, you have a clear game plan, and at any point in the day, you know what you should be working on.

Obviously you can move things around as you need them, but having a plan in the first place is invaluable in putting you in control of your day. It eliminates distractions and keeps you focused and accountable.

Organized productivity boils down to a few main principles

When trying to be organised and productive, people often worry about the details – what tools to use, what apps to download, what is the best notebook, etc. But truth is, the tools are less important than the underlying system and principles.

There are a few main principles to getting things done, those boil down to – capturingfilteringschedulingevaluating. You want to be able to reliably and consistently data dump all requests, tasks and ideas into appropriate apps and notes. You want to be able to filter and prioritise all that stuff. Then you need to be able to schedule the most important tasks or steps of your ongoing projects. And you also want a system where you can monitor what you are doing and review and adjust as needed.

Once you have these main things in place, it doesn’t matter exactly what tools you use, just that they work for you.

Invest in your tools

Whatever you do for work or creativity, there are the tools of your trade that you use regularly. You probably use a computer, you might need a camera, or a ring light, or some notepads and pencils. Evaluate what you do, and what you need to get it done. Invest in improving your tools from time to time. Get things that are durable, as top of the line as you can afford, as nice as you can afford. If you enjoy using your tools, you will enjoy your work.

The day I switched from a PC based set up to Mac was a game-changer for me personally and I haven’t looked back since. Getting an extra screen boosted my workflow and productivity. The Logitech MX3 mouse I started using this weekend is already having quite the impact on the way I work and design.

Invest in your tools and leverage them to become better at what you do.

It is all about reducing friction

I mentioned this already in my post about upgrading your environment, but it bears repeating here. What being organized and improving productivity is all about is making it easier and more fun to do what we need to get done.

Having a neat and clearly define place for everything allows you to easily find what you need when you need it. Using your calendar allows you to free up mental space to actually be creative or problem solve with the peace of mind that nothing is falling through the cracks. Having a proper note taking system allows you to access the information you need when you need it. Designing and fine-tuning your workstation to your needs make its easier to plug in and get things done.

Keep evolving your productivity practice and finding ways to reduce friction and you will find it easier to breeze through your work and reclaim the time and space you deserve to enjoy life.

5 Tips for a Super Productive Work Session

5 Tips for a Super Productive Work Session

Over the past two weeks, I have shared some ideas I’ve learned around time management. But now let’s turn our attention to the actual time we spend working. How can we supercharge those sessions so we get the most out of them?

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about the fact that our attention spans as humans have been negatively impacted by the plethora of opportunities for distractions we have. Our digital devices are especially guilty of this, keeping us returning to the feeds, looking for notifications, mindlessly scrolling for pings of interest.

As a result, it might be hard for a lot of people to sit down and really get hard things gone. This can feel like a herculean task. For you however, the intrepid creative, the entrepreneur, the professional, it has to be a skill you cultivate. These are table stakes.

For our success, we need to do the work, and we need to do it well. And the quality of our creative or productive output hinges greatly on what we are bringing to the table. It depends on our working and creating habits.

In Cal’s words:

To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.

How we engage with the work would be different for everyone. We all have different jobs and responsibilities. And from our school days to our career years, we develop our own styles of being productive and getting things done. However, we can always improve.

Let me share some ideas, that might help give you the edge.

Set aside the time and space you need

This is a fairly obvious no brainer. Of course if you need to get things done, you should set aside the time and place to do them. How else would you get anything done? The work requires your focus and complete attention, you have to make space for that.

The time you set aside for the work should be protected as such. If you need to go deep, you will need no distractions, and nothing barring an emergency should pull you from this sacred time.

Lately, I have found it useful to time block my calendar. So when I plan my week, I am able to set portions of each day that are dedicated to certain activities. These times sections I block away to work are sacrosanct.

As a person who dictates his own hours, having these set times dedicated to work allow me to fully step away from work when I’m outside that time. As long as I’m respecting the work time and making the most of it. I can enjoy my down time guilt free. And when I’m on the clock, I’m free to completely throw myself into the work.

You must also set aside the space. You need a room, a table, an area that is dedicated to your work. There you keep your tools, your materials, all you need to get things done. Once you are in this space you are primed for work and productivity.

You could work from anywhere you like but if you are constantly working in spaces not set up for productivity like a living room or your bed, you will dilute the energy of those spaces blurring the lines between work and life.

It is important to set up a dedicated work area in a way that inspires and enables you to do your best work.

The aim is flow

To have a truly excellent work session, what you are really trying to do is to get to the state of flow – that mental state where you are fully engaged. A place where the work isn’t too hard or too easy. It is the right amount of challenge and it holds your focus.

Once you are locked in this state, your fingers glide over the keyboard, your brush strokes move of their own accord, your ideas emerge freely. This is the state of flow. This is the place where you do great work.

How productive our work sessions are, are dependent on how quickly we can get into flow, and how long we allow ourselves to stay in that state.

If we know how to activate our flow state regularly, then we are able to readily access a deep well of productive energy.

The key to this is a distraction free environment, or at most the right level of distraction. We have to make sure that we are not disturbed. So switch off the phone, switch off the TV, get off the apps, and give your full attention to what you are doing.

Be prepared. Have everything you need around you when you get started – tools, books, paper, snacks. Then get to it.

Over time you will even build a pre-work routine, a ritual that says to your subconscious, we are ready for business. It could as simple as brewing a cup of tea, or having a quick 5 min meditation session to put your mind in the right frame to dive in.

Have a clear agenda / Aim at one thing

Now, you could just jump into the huge pile that is your task lists and just start doing stuff. That is certainly one way to get things done. And if there are not too many things to do, eventually you will get to the end of your todo list.

But often we have numerous balls in the air, multiple projects running, things to worry about and get done. There is no way we can clear out every thing in one sitting. How we do make the most of the time we have to work?

Well you have to be organised as you would imagine. You would need a clear picture of all the things that you need to get done and how they fit to the larger picture.

So for today, for this session, you would need to decide what is most important and prioritise accordingly.

What are the things you could do that would pay the most dividends in the future, or would make things easier or more streamlined? What actions or tasks will actually move you forward? Decide what that is and then get it done.

Being organized and having your priorities clear will have you aimed at the right targets and directing your energies across the right lines. So when you sit down to work, you can confidently dive in, knowing that you are working on the right things.

Take breaks / Stop when there’s still more in the tank

Once you start getting into flow regularly, it gets tempting to stay in that space for as long as possible. It can get addictive. But to be able to work consistently over the long term, we have to respect breaks.

Over the years, many productivity techniques and methods around this idea have sprung up, like the Pomodoro method which advocates that you cycle between 25 mins of work and 5 mins of break for about 4-5 cycles at a time.

A rhythm like this can be useful while barrelling down a day of productivity. But the actual time spans are up to you. Decide what a healthy chunk of work time is for you. It should be just long enough for you to make tangible progress on a task. For me that tends to be about 45 mins of work balanced with 15 mins of break.

Many of us spend all our times in front of screens or seated on desks. The breaks allow us to move the body a bit, stretch and get the flow pumping. Consider getting some sun, or a quick workout in.

Ernest Hemingway in an interview about his creative process, advocates for writing until ..”you get to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”

It could be worth the try, leaving something in the tank everyday, so the next day you have a clear springboard to launch from, a state to continue the work from.

Make it fun

Once again, make it fun. Find ways to make your work time enjoyable.

You could do it with snacks. rewarding yourself with candy or crisps after each task is done.

You could do it with friends, finding ways to turn the work into a game and compete for something. Or perhaps work along to your favourite music, or play something you don’t have to focus on in the background – an old show, a documentary.

A favourite of mine is playing video game retrospectives in the background while I work. Some of them can be up to 3 – 5 hours long and I get to learn about a game series and its nuances while I’m focused on something else.

Always improve and kit out your workspace. Make it nice, make it inspiring, make sure you are equipped with the things you need to succeed, as much as possible.

This would make it fun and enjoyable to be in your space. The more you do that, the easier it would be to work and be productive. The easier it is to create your best work.