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.
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 – capturing, filtering, scheduling, evaluating. 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.
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.
Personally, I’m a lazy artist. I want the biggest bang for my buck. I want to do the absolute minimum and still make an impact. That’s why I love Jean Michel Basquiat. His work is proof that you can paint with the proficiency of a 5-year old, and still make a statement worth listening to. Also, doesn’t he look like what would emerge if Kid Cudi and The Weeknd did the fusion dance?
Basquiat was an incredibly gifted artist, cut short in his prime (he died at 27) and namechecked by rappers ever since. His work was distinctive, full of childlike youthful energy, irreverent, and seemingly nonsensical, but also revealing a profound knowledge and respect of art, its history and social commentary. In 1980s New York, an electric nexus of time and space, Basquiat emerged as an unlikely artistic force, rising as a black man, from the grimy streets, to global stardom.
He is the quintessential example of the artist who throws himself with reckless abandon into his work. Moving out of home for good as a teen, he spent most of his young adult life basically being a bum, surviving off money picked up in the streets, and immersing himself in the culture and the scene of the time, bouncing from place to place and party to party. His early creative efforts included cryptic haikus scribbled in graffiti under the moniker Samo scattered all over the city, as well as experimental live music with his band (none of them could actually play an instrument, but that was part of the appeal).
He is charming, talented with a keen air of innocence, and he befriends and eventually moves in with his sort-of-girlfriend, Suzan. At this point he had progressed from graffiti to full on painting at the insistence of another friend. Suzan worked and paid the bills, while he spent his time painting. And it is this one anecdote about his life that really earned my respect. Basquiat was too broke to afford canvasses, so he would salvage broken doors, windows, fridges, scraps of paper, tins, anything with a surface he could paint on. He didn’t wait to get proper canvases, or the right kind of paint or tools. He worked with whatever he could find.
If you really want to create, if you really want to do something. You just do it.
That is the crux of true creativity, its raw essence. The true artist doesn’t allow a lack of resources to become an insurmountable obstacle. In fact, we are drawn to such art-forms, pieces made with the scrappiest, bare essentials, because through all the limitations, and perhaps, even because of then, we can see the passion shine through, we can see the potential. We see a brave artist battling against his restrictions, turning his obstacles into stepping stones that pave his way. Basquiat has nowhere to paint, so he turns an abandoned fridge into a priceless work of art.
This same energy you have to bring to your life and to your work. If you have ambition, a burning desire to create something that resonates, that has impact, if you want to devote your life to the mastery of a skill or an artform, or a career, you start where you are, you work with what you have.
Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can
The biggest companies on the planet right now all started small. The origins of the slick phone you’re reading this on now can be found in a dinky garage decades ago with a bunch of nerds, hippies, and a couple pieces of hand-assembled circuit boards. Facebook the almost omnipresent behemoth it is now, started in a dorm room. The colossus that is Amazon started in a garage with doors as its first desks, Jeff Bezos packing books with his team to fulfil customer orders. The first Star Wars movie was produced with a shoe string budget and a lot of DIY.
Our problem too often is that we want perfection right out the gate, before we have earned it, and we want to do it with the absolute best tools. We think we need the light ring and DSLR camera before we start the youtube channel, the best mic and mixers before we start the podcast. So we don’t start.
Or we are insecure in our creative ability, and so hide behind our lack of tools. Sure, the right tools do help, but it is the artist that precedes the tools. A writer who knows what he is doing will do a lot more damage with an ordinary pen than a talentless hack with a Mont Blanc. You cannot hide your lack of skill behind expensive tools, but you can use the lack of tools as an excuse to procrastinate. You just have to begin. If you are really good, the world will respond, and better tools will present themselves to you.
Every master was once a disaster.
T Harv Eker
We all have to start from somewhere.
If you waited till everything was perfect and you had all the resources, you will be waiting forever. And even if you did get it – the perfect studio, the perfect lab, the right writing chair, you wouldn’t know what to do with it. At most, you would churn out works of stunning mediocrity. The tools don’t make the artist, the work makes the artist. The lack of tools is a gift. You get to work with the scrap, failing, prototyping, learning, crashing, rising up, drafting and tearing up, you need the grind, you need the work, because that is where you hone your skill. That is where you work around the obstacles, that is where you distil and learn the principles of your craft.
I started my design journey on dinky little Toshiba laptop (that was everything to me then by the way), a pirated copy of photoshop, and a design magazine. Now, I type this to you from a MacBook Pro. But it was all the work I designed on that first Toshiba, and then a PC, and then this sexy huge white Dell I had, that allowed me to finally get my first MacBook and then another one, and now, all the bells and whistles I need to create.
The obstacle is the way.
Creativity is just as much about limitations as it is about infinite exploration. The searching and playing around is an important part of the process. It is necessary to go far and wide in ideation. But it is the limitations – the brief, the deadline, the boundaries that really focus us and unleash the creative power to combine ideas, materials, colours to create something inventive, something remarkable.
With inventiveness and creativity, you can make the limitations you face a distinguishing feature in your work. Don’t have enough money for different colours? Limit your palette. Can’t make the special effects you really want? Hack it and let it have a DIY vibe to it. Whatever the obstacle is, use it to your advantage.
You don’t have to be fancy. You just have to begin. Even Basquiat started by painting on abandoned doors.
Degrees are not enough, and you should never send in a CV, or a resume. Never!…Why? well, because it puts you in the slush pile, with everyone else. Think about it. What is your CV, but a soulless document with a list of your accomplishments, schools attended, degrees earned, positions held, etc. While it may make ‘nice’ reading, it really does not do justice to you as a person. Besides, a CV is the easiest way to get excluded. According to Seth Godin’s book ‘’Linchpin’’. Your resume would probably get tossed in the bin because it was missing ‘this’ or ‘missing’ that.
“…if you’re remarkable, amazing, or just plain spectacular, you probably shouldn’t have a résumé at all.” – page 71
Scary? Um…well not really, at least if you want to live a remarkable life, defined by Cal Newport as a life in which: (1) you do something meaningful that you enjoy; (2) you have a flexible schedule that you control; and (3) you earn recognition and good (enough) compensation.
This is life by choice, not life by default. If you want to be remarkable, you need to master a skill that is rare or uncommon and important, or a master a common skill in a fresh or uncommon way. You need leverage, and your personality, your essence, your style and artistry is what will separate you from everyone else.
You want to be recognised, people must have the need to get to know you. What is your drawing card? You need to position yourself somehow, maybe as the girl with the compelling and popular blog, or as the guy who has the initiative and drive to develop and execute ideas. The possibilities are endless but the principle is this, develop yourself in a special way and present that.
It is much better to be approached and offered opportunities because of your contributions, ideas and network than to send in a CV and hope that your chance in a hundred is the lucky charm.
Steve Pavlina has a similar post on differentiating yourself in a highly competitive industry and it is essentially about leveraging your specific skill set, interests and abilities to push yourself to the fore in your industry. With the many technological advancements and tools available, hacking the system has never been easier and more accessible.
So, you want that dream job. Go ahead, develop yourself, master the skills, position yourself, contribute to your field, network and watch the magic happen. But never, ever send in the CV.
Hi, I am Otoabasi Bassey, a brand strategist, designer and entrepreneur exploring ideas around personal growth, design, branding, business, strategy and technology.