It’s raining, just after lunch time. I’m sitting in a cafe called Blackstar in West End, Brisbane Australia typing this on my macbook pro laptop.
I don’t drink coffee, but I love the smell and don’t mind an iced coffee now and then. Blackstar brew cold pressed iced drinks, including one called “Full Creamy”, which comes in what looks like a beer bottle. I don’t drink beer either, so any chance to drink something out of a bottle that looks like beer and is coffee makes me feel cool.
For the last three weeks I have had “clear my email” listed on my to-dos. Email always falls to the bottom of priority for me because it rarely moves my business forward. Besides a few critical emails that relate to projects in development that I do attend to immediately, most emails sit in a folder that Angela my assistant marks for me. She handles my email, but some only I can attend to.
It’s quite funny how by the end of the weekend I tell myself that I will finish clearing my email on Monday, but by the next weekend there’s still plenty in there needing my attention.
A lot of the emails just need to be looked at, but not responded to. Things like launch emails with videos I might want to watch, or newsletters related to products I have bought online before, or updates from services like plugins, scripts and hosting accounts, or websites like youtube sending me recommendations.
Over the years I’ve unsubscribed from all but the most interesting things. Gmail has become very good at dealing with spam too. As a result I don’t actually get that much email. After a month of not responding to my messages I may have just a few hundred waiting for me to review. That’s pretty good.
The problem is most of the emails contain things I would really like to spend time on.
They might be training videos on how to use Facebook for marketing, or sell my products on Kindle, or other cutting edge marketing techniques.
Some of the messages are product related. I buy clothing, especially watches online and I can never get enough of looking at the latest SABA, Calibre and Country Road fashions that come into my inbox. There’s also eBay auctions, not to mention business related products like plugins for WordPress that claim to do cool things that happen to have a discount just this week only.
I could literally spend an hour on every single email, whether it’s to educate myself, to indulge in an interest or to update my technology. Of course if I did that, that would be all I do every day.
The mental challenge behind all of these distractions, which I am sure you can relate to, is avoiding that feeling you are missing out on something.
I like to know that I am up to date, that when something interesting comes at me I can spend the time to properly “consume” it. Whether I buy or do not doesn’t matter, what counts is that I have spent adequate time to make myself aware of what is going on.
I like that feeling of completion, and being on top of all the content in my emails is one area where I can never possibly feel completely at ease with. That is unless I decide to ignore it all by hitting the delete button, which sometimes is the only way to get things done.
Strangely enough, if you delete your email without thoroughly examining every one, nothing bad happens.
I have a folder called “Urgent” that Angela flags the most important messages for me into. These are really the only messages that I need to deal with personally. I might accrue five of these types of messages a week at most. The rest are superfluous to what I do.
Email is only a small fragment of my tasks. There’s always work for CrankyAds, the advertising management software startup I am running with my friends Mick and Walter. I have to write blog posts and do interviews and webinars when called for. I’m also working with an editor, David, who is helping me compile my writing into new products. I have to review that work as well.
I’m coordinating with a Filipino contractor who Leslie, one of my partners in BecomeABlogger.com uses to set up his membership site areas. Her name is Myreen and she is setting up a new product area for all these products I am working on with David. I’ve been writing a sales page for the first product and working with Myreen to get it up ready to promote as well.
On top of this I still spend several hours every day with my mother in hospital and I have to coordinate a team of helpers who come in to look after her and help with exercises. This is almost like a little business in itself, which unfortunately can be a bit random because of the nature of mum’s health and the hospital system.
Plus there is exercising, my dating life, my property investments, bills, the rest of my family and all the other things that go into one’s life.
My life, while perhaps not typical, is not different than most in terms of always needing to work on something or be somewhere. We all have a bunch of things pulling us this way and that, unless we decide to opt-out from it all, which trust me, sometimes I contemplate!
The insidious nature of this sort of lifestyle is that you run the risk of always being in a state of perpetual stress. Because there is always something to do or somewhere to be, your underlying state is one of agitation, incompletion, impatience and one that I particularly hate – feeling like you are always running late.
Even when you get stuff done, there’s still more to do, and as you do more, you create more tasks. It’s a treadmill and we all know it.
Just this week I had to remind myself that I needed to be okay with NOT getting things done.
I used to be really good at it. I could do a few tasks a day, knowing there are a lot more to do still, but as long as one or two things are done each day, that is enough. I would spend large amounts of my day on leisure activities because that was the point, you set up a business that requires not much work so you can spend the rest of your time doing whatever you want – what I call the 2 Hour Work Day.
Things have changed in recent years because my business has changed and my responsibilities have changed, but that doesn’t mean my attitude should have changed too.
I spend quite a bit of time in the hospital nowadays hanging out with my mother. One of the things we sometimes do together is read trashy gossip magazines, which have the appropriate amount of entertainment without any sense of seriousness, perfect reading when in hospital.
Just the other day we were reading a delightful interview with Gwyneth Paltrow, who I am sure you are familiar with. She’s not one of my favourite actors to be honest, but she did happen to respond to a question with an answer that reminded me of the need to set realistic expectations on what you can achieve each day.
No doubt a person like Gwyneth has an incredible amount of people vying for her attention, so figuring out how to make sure she works on the important creative projects, maintains a healthy family life, fulfills commitments and does all the other important life things, would be even more of a juggle for her.
As it turns out, my buddy Gwyneth doesn’t get everything she wants done each day.
I know, a shock.
The way she responded to the question, in that sort of typical light hearted manner she exudes, you could tell that she always has more to do than she can realistically get done. As a result she just doesn’t complete everything and is okay with that.
The important point being that she’s not upset, or stressed about it, or feels like she is failing in any manner – at least as far as I can tell from reading an interview with her in a women’s magazine (gotta trust my sources!). She doesn’t feel a sense of obligation to go study some David Allen “Getting Things Done” productivity course so she can meet more of the demands placed on her by other people.
There’s nothing wrong with trying to increase your productivity and pack things more in each day. I wholeheartedly endorse any motivation you have to eliminate procrastination from your life so you can be more creative and get more out of your daily hours than just passive consumption.
However you have to be careful to ask yourself why, and when is enough?
Everyone comes at this from a different place. If you are struggling financially, that’s a pretty good motivation to put in the long hours and get more productive. The same can be said if you hate your job and hence want to create a business to break free.
However if you are already established or relatively content with how things are, why are you pushing so hard for more?
You have to be careful, especially as an entrepreneur, because the drive for bigger and better never ends. It’s a dangerous treadmill that some people only get off when their health fails because you have pushed too hard.
From my point of view, reminding myself that I have a great place to live, an awesome car, plenty of freedom including time every day to spend with my mother during the greatest challenge in her life, the chance to see friends during the day and work on a project together, or just sit in a cafe and type, or go for a skate in the morning, or whatever, is pretty good.
Of course you always want new challenges and to be working towards something that has meaning for you. Knowing why are you doing it and how fast you need to get there is crucial. If you are just doing it for more money, that’s not a good enough reason, unless that money is used for something productive and of value.
Clarifying how quickly you need to get a result is perhaps even more important. You have to balance that deadline-driven motivation in order to get something done, but if you are pushing so hard that every day you constantly are stressed because the to-do list only seems to grow, that’s not how to live a life.
That’s why in my life so many times I have simply just clicked the delete button.
I don’t need to read every email, or attend every event, or watch every video, or say yes to every project, or go to every party, or invest in every project or even pay attention to all of these things. What I need to do is work on the handful of things that matter to me and do just a little bit towards them each day. The rest can be ignored and forgotten.
Many years ago when I first began to use CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) techniques to help deal with panic attacks, I did not realize CBT would become one of the best life skills I would ever acquire.
The main cause of much daily anguish in our western world I believe comes from using your mind to attempt to control and categorise and prioritise and just mull over all the components in your life.
If your usual outlook on life is negative, then you will spend much of this mulling time reviewing all the things that have gone wrong, are going wrong, you are not doing a good enough job at or feel like you could do better. You probably spend quite a bit of time upsetting yourself by thinking about how other people around you are succeeding where you are not too.
It’s one big mind mess. You are so full of constant worries and contemplations and ruminations about everything, you can’t possibly relax. In fact you will feel guilty if you do because you should be working towards something.
This is obviously a recipe for disaster and also decreases your productivity because you need rest in order to be productive (for more on this, see how research shows that rest is the foundation for performance).
Now to solve this problem you are going to need to make changes. Balance is key, and I believe the most important step you can make is how you THINK about it all. This is where CBT comes in.
When I was a teenager I was dumped by a girl I was with for all of three months. I was heartbroken. It was possibly one of the worst things that ever happened to me, at least from an emotional point of view. Of course most of it was fuelled by teenage angst, but that didn’t make the feelings any less real. I was hurting bad.
One of the daily torments I put myself through was constantly thinking about her. Everything would trigger a memory and most memories were tied to negative thoughts about her. For example I would look at my mobile phone and remind myself how I sent her texts and she wouldn’t reply. It was like everything triggered pain and I couldn’t escape my own thoughts.
Eventually I came to the realisation that much of my anguish was self inflicted because I chose to always think about her. I decided to change this.
My goal was to attempt to become aware of when I was thinking about her and then basically slap my brain to think about something else. I would try and stop myself from spiraling down long self-pity thought sessions about this girl.
It worked, sort of.
I did manage to at least become aware of my thought patterns and put a halt to the more negative ones. Sometimes it would take ten or twenty minutes before I caught myself doing it and it would take huge mental effort to focus on something else. As with most things it became easier with time.
This ability, which I would learn is a CBT technique, was later called upon to help deal with other negative thought patterns. I still use it today.
What was most enlightening about this process was realizing how much mental energy I spend on absolutely useless thoughts. Not only are they useless, they actually bring me down. It’s like I am attacking myself from the inside.
If you take this back to the wonderful point illustrated by Gwyneth Paltrow, that you have to be okay with not getting what you want done each day, then changing how you think about what you need to get done is the first and most important step.
Don’t waste your time thinking about what you didn’t get done or how you don’t have enough time or how much is in front of you or how other people seem to get so much more done than you do. Instead first allow yourself to be content with whatever you do get done and enlist your mind as a force for support and production, in every moment.
Obviously there are many things you can work on, such as prioritization (look at the 80/20 Rule and Theory of Constraints), staying in the moment and being productive when you just feel like crap, but it all begins with how you think.
Today, while far from perfect, I am much better – and quicker- at spotting when my mind is not on the same team. When this happens I do a quick mental slap, refocus and reframe and relax so that I can do what really matters at a pace that makes life enjoyable.
Not Always Productive