I used to dislike the word “productivity”. It immediately calls to mind endless checklists, crammed schedules and our absurd 21st century fear of spending a minute without an internet connection.
But most of all I struggle with the halt it puts to developing new ideas. Creativity doesn’t fit into a regular work week plus your usual social calendar. As Rich Hickey, creator of the functional programming language Clojure, asks in his eloquent talk “Hammock Driven Development”: “When was the last time you thought about something for a whole hour? A day? A week? A month? A year?” Just think about it: when have you? Have you ever? (If you’re not a coder, I’m not either – the talk contains plenty of nuggets for non-developers too.)
A Playground for the Mind
I was instantly drawn to Hickey's idea to carve time out of your regular schedule to create a playground for your “waking mind” and your “background mind” to go back and forth and really dig deep into a problem or idea.
But it wasn’t until this year that I experienced what it felt like to do so. Today, generation Y (1977–1995) is also nicknamed the burnout generation (reference in Dutch). That’s my generation. Chances are that it’s yours too. And when I turned 30 last December, I checked nearly every box on a burnout checklist. Because someone close to me suffered from a burnout a few years ago, I knew I had to start listening to my body and it urged me to slow down. I stopped working nights and prioritized sleep again. I stopped working weekends and set aside time to be with friends and family again. I made myself get up an hour earlier to do yoga or walk my dog. I went on a four day solo road trip and spent 15 hours without wifi on an airplane.
For years, I was overstimulated. My protection mechanism had kicked in too strongly and I ended up not wanting to do anything. But simply by setting a few things aside, new ideas started popping up again and I felt excited. I discovered that the key to getting things done is taking a break first.
Of course I knew all along, but now I felt it: taking a few minutes each day and a whole day or even longer here and there creates a perspective that’s missing when you’re in the middle of things; chasing your next deadline, appointment or follow up. Slowing down every once and awhile helps me lower my stress levels, get enough sleep and discover ways to work smarter and not harder. From this vantage point, productivity isn’t about living from checklist to checklist anymore, but about moving, standing still, finding yourself and moving forward again from a place of connect (thanks, Adriene).
Treat yourself to something. To get you started, here are a few things that I enjoy doing:
- Get up
Clear your mind before you start your day. Stress levels are relatively high when you wake up, so do something you love for 30 minutes to relax. I practice home yoga or walk my dog, but you can meditate, do some writing, read a book or listen to music. So get a good night's sleep and get up an hour early.
- Create focus time
List your important-but-not-urgent tasks and get to them before lunch. I felt so productive ticking away at checklists for nearly a year, only to realise I was 13 months behind on my business paperwork.
Also, schedule just eight pomodoros a day. Your email, meetings, delays and breaks will usually make up for the rest.
- Do one thing at a time
Don’t watch TV while you’re eating. Don’t listen to music when you’re taking a walk. Don’t listen to a podcast in the car. Watch TV. Eat. Listen to music. Take a walk. Listen to a podcast. Go for a drive.
Doing several things at once will make you stressed and tired. Try to experience everything that you do with all your attention and different senses and allow for associations and ideas to come up in the process.
Go on, take a breath. Breathing consciously a few times a day helps you concentrate and improves your sleep. Stick stickers in places you sit regularly as reminders.
- Hit the road
This one's my favorite. Go on a solo road trip, preferably abroad so your wifi doesn’t work. I now refer to my 2016 solo road trip as “my road to sanity”.
If you haven’t already, take out your calendar, pencil in some well-deserved playtime.