Two years ago I changed everything about my working life. I left a career as a partner in a law firm, sold my house and moved out of the city to a beach community, and started working remotely. If you're going to flip the table, you might as well do it comprehensively.
Learning to work on my own is an absolute work-in-progress. Everybody has plenty of advice for you, whether you want it or not. "Set up an office workspace, never work from your dining table". "Make sure you get dressed for work in the morning, never stay in your pajamas". I'm not good at most of this advice. I'm writing this at my dining table, in my pajamas.
So what follows definitely isn't advice about productivity. It's just a collection of tiny epiphanies that have occurred to me along the way.
From constant interruption to none
I used to work in an open-plan office environment. It had some amazing benefits in terms of knowledge-sharing, team culture, and training for more-junior staff. But it also meant a near constant level of interruption.
When there's no office door to close to signal that you're busy, people will just ask if you're busy. And by the time you've turned around to answer, you've lost your place in the document and/or your train of thought, and so you might as well just say "no, go ahead".
Now, no one interrupts me. I mean, sometimes the postie knocks on the door if a courier package needs a signature. But mostly, if I want to, I can go for hours without a single interruption. Sounds like bliss, right? So much focussed work time?
But here's the problem: when there's no one around to interrupt you, there's also no reset when you've gotten distracted. No prompt to guiltily close the tab where you're reading the fourth page of Go Fug Yourself and snickering to yourself. Nothing to draw you out of that longform essay on an unsolved murder mystery. And all of a sudden you look up and realise it's lunchtime. I tend to roll my eyes at people who follow bots on twitter to yell at them about getting off social media, but it's true that I now need to make my own interruptions (Alexa! Set a reminder for one hour), just to make sure I'm back on task.
Set your own deadlines
I have a very old friend who once described the life of procrastinators like me as being governed by "the Guilt and the Fear". During the Guilt phase, you know there are things you need to be doing, and you feel guilty about not doing them, but it's not a powerful enough motivator to make you actually do them. Nothing happens until the Fear kicks in. That's when you crash the deadline, stay up all night cramming for the exam the next morning, write the blog post the day it's due instead of a month earlier when it was asked for.
But for the Fear to kick in, you need a real, immovable, external deadline. Otherwise nothing happens. You can noodle along in the Guilt phase forever. In my old career, I was a constant slave to these external deadlines. Now, I have to set my own. But for them to work, they have to feel real, because I can negotiate myself out of basically any personal commitment (See also: my personal commitment to not drinking during the week).
As best I can, I'm managing this through outside accountability. Setting goals for a quarter that I have to report against to my boss. Scheduling calls with people to discuss something that means I then need to have prepared for it. Agreeing to submit pieces of writing for review by a certain date. I can still be a bit slippery, but it helps.
Don’t let the tools win
I admire people who have systems. I go through phases of being obsessed with the idea that a system will save me. I bought the pack of manila folders and the label maker you need to implement Getting Things Done. We wound up using the label maker to leave stupid messages to one another on our office equipment. Somewhere in a box I still have a stapler labelled THE FACILITATOR. I no longer remember why.
I saw a tweet last week that said, "Did you know: the reason you haven't completed that task is because you don't have the perfect pen & a brand-new notebook to write in?" I own more Moleskines and Field Notes than I can probably fill in a lifetime. I covet a beautiful bullet journal.
But in the same way that the best camera is the one you have with you, the best "system" for me can vary wildly depending on the day or the hour. Work-wise, we're currently using Asana for task tracking, and I love it. But even that's been an evolution that's had us trialling several different tools and ultimately rejecting them as 'not quite right'. And even with a plan to have all my tasks in one place, I'm still prone to asking Slackbot to remind me of things, mapping out my week on a pad of paper, and leaving cryptic notes late at night on my phone. I once woke up after Webstock with a note in Teuxdeux that just read "Lachlan helmets and sh&t". To this day I have no idea what I meant.
But I do know for sure that an idea that is out of my head and onto a page (paper or digital) is better for my mental health, my sleep, and my overall ability to get things done. It just turns out it doesn't matter how I go about that. Systems work for some people; those people just aren't me.
You always get more done than you think
There are days now when I get frustrated by how 'unproductive' I feel. But when I try to unpick that, I realise I'm comparing my day to a mythical concept of what a 'productive' work day looks like. Some outdated idea of a nine-to-five world where you have a half-hour lunch break and otherwise you're just a machine, churning it out at your desk.
I think I'm particularly bad at thinking this way, because I came from an industry where you charge for your time. As my new employer likes to say, "that's an input, not an output."
I get more done now, but I get it done in weird and unproductive ways. I'm still best at smashing out a bunch of emails in the half-hour before a plane takes off. When faced with a blissfully empty day in the calendar that I can dedicate to writing, I'm more likely to curl up on the couch and watch an entire season of RuPaul's Drag Race. There's very commonly a forgotten piece of toast that's gone cold in my toaster, because I guess I was making breakfast at some point, and then got distracted by work.
What's a work/life balance anyway?
The more I embrace this fluid, looping way of getting things done, the more the traditional office environment seems broken. Being at a desk during set hours could sometimes be performative. It didn't necessarily make me more productive. I used to hear people say "we work hard, but we play hard". We didn't though. We worked all the time, or felt like we had to give the appearance of working all the time, and feared we'd be judged if we didn't.
Erika Nardini has taken hits on social media this week for the interview she gave to the New York Times in which she said that one of her tests for interview candidates is how quickly they'll text her back on the weekend. She thinks about work all the time, she says, and she wants others who can do the same.
It's encouraging to see people push back on this. I think about work all the time too, but it's not necessarily healthy. As I have more flexibility to arrange my own day, I'm less impressed by the idea that one person's way of working is a standard that others should have to live up to.
We're all productive at different times of day and in different ways. Timely's founder, Ryan Baker, wrote a great piece recently about making work and life complementary rather than competing priorities. That's what I'm aiming for now. My work slides in and around my life, but it doesn't encroach on it -- it's part of it. When people ask me if I'm travelling for work or for vacation, the answer is always both. I think maybe the separation we've been making is artificial. What matters is that we get the things done -- not the way we go about it, or the tools we use, or how it compares to how anyone else does it. I think the sooner we embrace that, the more productive we'll be.