Returning to work after a long absence is an interesting experience. Returning to work with almost 100% autonomy and the freedom to choose both your work and hours is a hard-fought but deep luxury. It’s given me the ability to reset, start from scratch and work out what ‘productivity’ best resembles in my life. Here’s the story so far.
What I’m going to share with you is a mix of old and new. I’m returning to a few concepts that have been good to me over the years, but accentuating them and going ‘all in’ on what I know works (for me). It’s also taking into account two really important ‘problems’ I needed to solve, that are certainly newer and nuanced:
- The smartphone problem. I noticed in my sabbatical time that I’d become morbidly fascinated with Trump and Brexit, leaving me regularly sat at home with a vague sense of doom. It’s just not healthy for me (read: anyone?). Twitter has become a cess pit and gets me down. Yet phones offer the easiest route to ‘looking busy’ when your brain feels idle and most people fill in pretty much every gap in their attention these days with a bit of shiny scrolling. But I know I need to occasionally dream, think or just be silent and bored to be creative and useful in my work. I had to solve this mild phone addiction to give me my focus back.
- The child problem. Well, it’s not a problem as such, but I realised on my sabbatical that, for various reasons, I needed to put Roscoe first. Like, actually first. Before anything. I’ve always found parents who say “my kids come first” vaguely annoying. I think it’s a bit pious but also that it lacks a bit of imagination (like “I used to dream of professional successes or visiting all the football league stadiums, but now my biggest priority is buying Lego for a child’s birthday party”). Can I plead special circumstances? I’m a 50-50 single dad, with a special needs kid who requires A LOT of admin and is at a critical stage of his learning and development. I know, its still pious and annoying. He comes to me on Wednesday evenings and he’s either here until Saturday lunchtime or Sunday evening, depending on whether it’s mum or dad on the weekend shift. So being useful at work and showing up for him means maximising the first half of my week.
Luckily in solving these problems, I remembered I teach this stuff. I’m aware of the law of diminishing returns of attention. Most studies point to something like a 40 hour threshold as being the sustainability point for peak performance in more manual roles, hence Henry Ford’s designing of what we now refer to as the ‘typical 9-5’. Yet studies of knowledge work jobs tend to point to diminishing returns after around 30 hours a week.
I also work with an awareness what psychologist Roy Baumeister called ‘ego depletion’ – the idea that every act, every decision, every little effort to focus your attention or emotion onto something useful helps chip away at your ‘ego’ or self, until the well runs dry and you need refilling. It’s why you can sit at your desk at 4pm and just stare blankly at a screen when you’ve a list of useful stuff you should be doing. This operates for me on a daily and a weekly level, so broadly speaking I need to be doing the hardest or most skilled work earlier in the day and preferably earlier in the week, too. This is basically the ‘proactive to inactive attention’ concept from ‘Productivity Ninja’.
So you can probably see where this is going. Here’s my new ‘business as usual’ week:
Fix-up, look sharp
|Thursday||Sleep/Roscoe||Review & Wrap Up||Chill/flex||Roscoe/Chill|
|Friday||Sleep/Roscoe||Yoga (9.30 – 10.30) / Chill||Chill||Roscoe/Chill|
The timings here are largely irrelevant, but the 3 distinct ‘modes’ are useful:
This for me is my ‘big rock’ time. My time to get down and work solidly on something where I can really add value. I tend to focus on one thing for each ‘period’. Think of it like school! It’s total focus, total solitude (I’m a natural introvert so luckily this doesn’t bother me or scare me, as it seems to other people – it feeds me). The key to making this work is to massively limit the capability of my smartphone during these periods, via an app called Quality Time.
This is where I open the doors, (metaphorically speaking, as I’m usually still in my shed). This is where my job switches to being about supporting other people in the work they do. It could be via emails, skype calls, meetings, coffees, or something else.
Chill is the one I find the hardest. I noticed during my sabbatical how guilty I would feel just curling up on the sofa to read a book and enjoy a moment. It’s something I struggle to do when all the temptations are nearby. Baumeister’s work makes clear not only how important it is to recharge, but also that self-control is a muscle, so developing my ability to chill, actually builds increased self-control in my brain, so that ‘ego depletion’ happens at a slower pace in future. The mindset that ‘chill’ is as important a priority as ‘work’ might seem strange – since it’s usually the thing we promise ourselves in that mystical never-land of ‘when the work calms down’ – but it was one of the hardest and most profound lessons the sabbatical time taught me. Seeing the energy of ‘chill’ as something that adds fuel to the fire rather than ignores or wastes the flames has been a mindset shift, and has helped me get a better balance.
In part two of this post, I’ll look at the 3 C’s and their practicalities in more detail, offer some reflections on the first few weeks of implementation, and answer that “fuck, but 5am, seriously?!” question. Stay tuned.