Steve Cutts‘ video titled “Happiness” is disturbingly accurate portrayal of so many aspects of our daily lives. When I watch this video, I can’t help but wonder why we buy into all these promises of happiness, and chase them so relentlessly?
Cutts’ work seems to capture so much of the futility of so much of what we do to achieve happiness in our lives. There is a better way to live our lives. Realising that and shifting our perspective isn’t as easy as it seems, though.
I keep thinking about demands on my time and who makes them. Of course those demands usually conflict and I find myself trying to find a way to balance these competing demands and answer the ones that matter most.
When we build our lives around ‘what’s due’ we sacrifice our agency to the priorities and urgencies of everyone else.
Seth Godin’s recent post titled “Missed it by that much” speaks to these kinds of challenges and how we can forget that time is running out for us to do things that matter most.
We sometimes like to think that we control our destinies and decide our fates but how often is that actually the case? We have the illusion of choice within shrinking parameters we don’t create. Where does that leave us? Probably not where we think we are, at all.
Time is running out for you to become the person you’ve decided to be, to make the difference you seek to make, to produce the work you know you’re capable of.
In the background there is a nagging feeling that time is running out for us. We spend all our time trying to satisfy everyone else’s demands (probably motivated by what they want to achieve given the time available to them) and rarely satisfying our own.
That is, assuming we even know what we most want to do with the limited time we have available in this life.
Perhaps, as we get a clearer sense of what we most want to do (even if it is just today, this week or this year) one way to reconcile all these seemingly incompatible tugs is to find work that others need and will compensate us for in ways that we can meet others’ needs.
It sounds a bit obvious but our model for employment tends to emphasize employers’ needs over employees’. The result tends to be a lot of people doing work they don’t particularly enjoy, largely in the hope that they have enough time off to do the things that matter most before they die.
It’s a little crazy, when you think about it. All that time we spend waiting for the few moments we really want to get to and then we are so often too exhausted or frustrated to enjoy them or make them as meaningful as we’d intended.
What might help is if there was a closer collaboration between employers and their employees to find ways employees could draw on their passions and make more distinctive and sustainable contributions. It’s probably a bit of a fantasy because it requires everyone’s expectations to sync and they rarely do.
Conventional wisdom is divided on what to do. Either you need to just find a decent job with a decent salary and live for the weekends (and hope there are more of them than not) or you should pursue your passion and wait for the money to follow.
The first option is pretty depressing, albeit practical. I also wonder how much it tends to shorten lives simply because of the layers and layers of sadness and the growing sense that you are wasting your potential to make a better contribution to this world before you pass on from it.
The second option sounds great. It appeals to our desire to find fulfillment and joy in our day jobs that feeds our souls and make our lives that much more meaningful. The trouble with this approach is that there aren’t any clear guidelines for how to trigger the cashflow and you still have bills to pay, mouths to feed, that sort of thing.
So, that leaves us walking a bit of a metaphorical tight-rope where we seek the answer to the question “What is most meaningful in this life?” while earning a salary; trying to figure out to merge the two and do all the other stuff that counts.
While all of that is happening, time is running out.
When I was growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut, an astronomer, and a writer. One out of three isn’t too bad, I suppose. But most of my life, other people’s jobs have often seemed more interesting than my own. Perhaps it is an example of the grass being greener. Perhaps I am just easily influenced by what I see and read.
Rubin’s post reminded me of recurring thought that comes to me when I contemplate careers, particularly urges to change careers. I noticed that there is a difference between pursuing a passion and working in that field as a career, at least for me. I have often thought it would be great to be in a particular profession because it seems so exciting and fulfilling, only to realise that the day to day experience of that work isn’t quite what it seemed to be from the outside.
The best example of this was going into law. As a law student, reading cases and watching legal dramas on TV and in movies, legal practice had a certain appeal. I thought that practice would reflect what I saw in fiction. The reality was pretty different and involved a lot of admin and paperwork with little of the Boston Legal/Suits style and excitement.
I started to develop this theory that some types of work should remain passion pursuits and not full-time occupations. At the same time I suspect that this cynicism may be the result of not having found the expression of the work I find myself longing to do that helps me achieve that satisfaction I hope for.
In the meantime, I look for work that incorporates the activities I enjoy the most or, at least, afford me the time to pursue my passions around my work. My current career, content marketing, involves a lot of writing and strategy work. Both activities stimulate me.
I look at photographers I admire and wonder what it would be like to become a professional photographer. Spending my days with my camera in my hands seems like an almost ideal life and yet I know that behind those phenomenal shots is a lot of experience, hard work and funding to make it all happen. I also wonder if I have the skill to work at that level so I spend my non-work time making photographs, hopefully refining my skills along the way.
My plan for the year ahead is to make more of an effort to blend my photography and my writing and to see what comes of that combination. I think that could be a really interesting combination.
Now and then, like Rubin, I’ll also read a book that sparks a desire to do something different when I grow up. I’m not sure when I reach the point where I can say I have grown up but it must come along soon, right?
You’re probably also under pressure to work longer hours, more days and somehow bend space-time to get more stuff done. Often this imperative translates into longer days, later nights and weekends partially consumed by work. This isn’t particularly productive and you’ll probably find you’ll be more productive if you disconnect on the weekend instead of powering through.
For some reason, many of us have this notion that work should take priority over family time and even personal downtime. Perhaps it is because we are concerned about keeping our jobs, progressing in the company and earning more. For many of my contemporaries, there is the added pressure of competing with younger colleagues who don’t have families and are willing to work for less pay.
I made the mistake of focusing more on my work, often at the expense of my family, when I was trying to build my business a few years ago. I’d frequently work weekends just to get that much more work done. What I realized (eventually) is that taking less downtime hurt my relationship with my family and didn’t lead to any real productivity boosts. If anything, I was less productive and more stressed.
Sure, there are times when you need to work extra hours. It happens. At the same time, it is really important to disconnect. Weekends give your mind an opportunity to disengage and process what you did the week before.
I find that I am more creative and focused after a weekend free of work. This isn’t about slacking off, it is about being more productive by not overdoing it.
The systems the article described seem pretty simple and I thought I’d share some of my processes that I have developed to help me deal with my conflicting tendencies.
I was diagnosed a couple years ago with ADHD. It gave me a way to explain why I struggled to be productive for much of my time at school and working life until then.
I initially resisted the idea and the suggestion that I start medicating myself. Medication like Ritalin always carried a stigma as a child. It was only when I embraced my condition and started taking medication to help me leverage it better (Concerta for me) that my life changed, literally.
I also strongly suspect that I am a bit OCD too although this remains a working theory.
My fascination with productivity systems
I am fascinated by productivity systems primarily because I had been so unproductive for so long. My fascination has often triggered my hyperfocus (ADHD adventurers generally don’t lack the capacity for focus, we just aren’t that good at invoking it at will).
One of my most ironic experiences was losing about 2 days of work researching productivity systems. My next favourite personal irony was taking about four years to finally read David Allen’s terrific book Getting Things Done and start implementing it more effectively.
What works for me (and really doesn’t)
My ongoing productivity challenge is that too much complexity in my system tends to leave me stalled because I can’t decide which tool to use for a particular task or step in my process.
In fact, I strive for a balance between absolute simplicity and the minimum degree of complexity required to create a functional system.
I also find that too many choices is totally counter-productive. This is one of the reasons I started writing in plain text. I have multiple options for rich text editors to use to write. The problem I encountered was that I found myself obsessing about which one to use for each writing project. The result was that I frequently struggled to just begin.
It sounds really silly, I know. Welcome to my world.
My solution was to remove most of my options and impose a series of constraints on myself relating to formats and outcomes. The simplest solution was to write in plain text with MultiMarkdown syntax. I like using other options like Apple Pages, Scrivener and LibreOffice now and then but plain text remains my default (I’m using it to write this post).
Another consideration is the extent to which my productivity tools are cross-platform. I put a lot of time and effort into developing a productivity system that works for me. I don’t mind spending time refining it but I really don’t want to recreate it.
This means that I need to be able to work with my system on as many devices and platforms as I can. Unfortunately there are limits with my current system. OmniFocus is macOS/iOS only and there isn’t a Linux Evernote app yet. This bothers me but the benefits of using these apps outweighs the risk of my losing access to devices to support them.
With that said, here is my system:
A system to encompass just about everything
You can’t really adopt a productivity system unless you are pretty clear about what you want to achieve. My system has to enable me to work the way that I find most effective:
I have a strong preference for digital even though I do a lot of note taking on paper.
I love the GTD methodology (it just makes so much sense to me) so I want a task manager that supports my efforts to manage my projects this way without cluttering my workflows unnecessarily.
Ideally I want to store all my reference documents and information in one, searchable location so I don’t have to think about where everything is.
Given that I do most of my writing in plain text, I want one app that I can use and one place to store my text files.
My productivity system
Keep my projects running with OmniFocus
When it comes to picking a solution to manage my tasks, I went with OmniFocus. It was practically designed for GTD and I can use it on all my devices. It isn’t cheap and it only works on macOS/iOS (the platform limitation bothers me but I can live with it). At the same time, it is excellent software and nothing really comes close to it.
I also like having little features like a notes section attached to each task. I often add links to Evernote notes (more about Evernote below) or even email threads to my tasks so I can quickly find the relevant materials I need for that task.
One of the reasons GTD is so powerful for me is that it breaks projects down into component “next actions”. A next action is the very next tangible step you can take towards completing your project. Being able to focus on the very next step I can take is crucial.
When faced with a step that contains multiple next actions without actually identifying those next actions triggers my tendency to go off track completely. If I don’t have a very clear next action, I procrastinate pretty easily and I find it more difficult to return to the project.
This is particularly a problem when there are so many other bright and shiny things to look at and which I can lose myself in for hours. Next actions are the closest I have come to train tracks for my productivity train. OmniFocus helps me focus on my next action beautifully.
As you can imagine, I have a number of projects and keeping them organised is pretty important too. OmniFocus has the option to create folders than you can use to contain groups of projects.
I recently listened to David Sparks and Katie Floyd’s interview with Mike Williams, President and CEO of the David Allen Company in Mac Power Users, episode 340, about his approach to GTD. He also uses OmniFocus and mentioned a role-based approach to organising his tasks.
I borrowed from his model and reorganised my projects based on what I see as my various roles:
Family guy (home and family stuff);
Work projects for my day job;
Independent writer (this includes personal writing projects);
Individual (personal health stuff and other projects that just involve me);
Lawyer (I have a couple projects relating to my previous career); and
Photographer (pretty self-explanatory).
It’s an interesting way to group your projects and makes a lot of sense given GTD’s emphasis of context as a powerful way to decide which projects and tasks to focus on at a given time. It certainly makes more sense than the more haphazard categorisations I used before.
Evernote is my place for everything
My choice for my “everything” solution is Evernote. I have been an Evernote user for more than 8 years and a Premium user for most of that time.
How I use Evernote
One of the key features of GTD is a reference system. I don’t like having piles of paper documents so I scan as much as I can and store almost all of it in Evernote. Even though I become frustrated with Evernote from time to time, it remains the best solution I have come across that lets me do the following:
I can store a variety of documents, images, rich text notes and clippings from the Web (the Web Clipper is terrific and I use it daily).
I mentioned earlier that I take a lot of handwritten notes. I capture those notes into my Evernote notes when they are complete. I often have other bits of information or documents in those notes which become handy references for when I am working on an article.
When I scan documents, I usually send them to Evernote too. This includes utility bills, letters and other documents I want to retain and reference at a later stage. This makes a lot of documentation totally portable and accessible from multiple devices.
Here is an example of how I use Evernote on an almost daily basis:
I work as an inbound marketing specialist.
I work closely with an account manager in a marketing agency.
He briefs me on an article he needs from me and I capture the brief into a note in a notebook designated for my work projects.
I create rough outlines or take handwritten notes while I do research for my article and add those to the note. The easiest way to capture my handwritten notes is by taking photographs of the pages with the Evernote app on my iPhone. The app will recognise that the pages are part of a document and automatically crop the pages and optimise the page rendering for legibility later.
Much of my research is online and I use the Web Clipper to capture relevant articles and PDFs into a separate Social Marketing notebook (which is my general social marketing reference).
Once my research is done, I create an article outline and send it to my manager to review. Once that is done, I update the version in my Evernote note. I have started adding checkboxes to each line in the outline so it’s easy to track my progress through the outline as I write.
Another benefit of the checkboxes in the outline is that each one is a sort of “next action” which is the atomic unit of a GTD productivity system.
When I write, I often have my project note open on a separate screen or my iPad while I type on my laptop. That way I have my brief, my notes and my research materials on hand and can just write.
I don’t just use Evernote for work. I have notebooks for various interests and for home and family stuff. I capture my kids’ drawings, class schedules and contact details for kids and parents for play dates. Evernote is my general reference for most of my daily activities.
There is a debate about how to use Evernote effectively. Some people prefer using fewer notebooks and tagging everything based on a structured taxonomy. They rely more on tags and Evernote’s search capability to find notes than browsing notebooks and notebook stacks. The benefit of this approach is a much simpler notebook structure and being able to apply multiple, relevant tags to notes based on their relationships to other notes.
Another approach involves a more complex notebook and notebook stack structure where notes are filed under specific notebooks based on some or other criteria. Tags remain useful but are no longer critical categorisation tools.
This becomes somewhat murky territory for me. I have developed a notebook/notebook stack structure as my primary categorisation method. I also tag my notes although I long ago gave up on trying to structure my tags into an organised taxonomy. I just have way too many tags. I’ve thought about reigning them in and creating a hierarchy of tags but it just hasn’t seemed worth it spending the time to do that.
My notebook/notebook stack structure feels a bit too complex and I’m toying with the idea of creating a structure in Evernote that corresponds with the role-based project structure in OmniFocus. I’m not sure that it will be as effective, though.
Evernote is primarily a reference system for me. Sure, it is also a production system too (just consider my example of how I approach and manage work projects) but the majority of my 25,441 (and counting) notes are stored and unstructured data that I reference now and then.
I’m very hesitant to embark on any substantial restructuring exercise when it comes to this stuff because it almost invariably becomes a completely waste of productive time and rarely yields a real enhancement to my overall system.
In fact, one of my most valuable lessons is that the urge to mess with my system without a clear and substantial benefit is to avoided at all costs. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
It’s probably worthwhile simplifying my notebooks to a degree but the current structure is the product of previous refinements and consolidations so I’ll just let that idea simmer for a while.
How to be more productive:
1 keep a to-don't list 2 learn to say no 3 rise early 4 communicate deadlines 5 create space to work 6 start now
When it comes to my writing, Byword is my weapon of choice. It is on my MacBook and my iPhone/iPad and it supports MultiMarkdown. After losing a lot of time trying to fix Microsoft Word styles in documents, I gave up on that odious app and switched to plain text.
Why plain text?
It probably sounds a bit weird that I am so fixated on plain text as my primary writing format. After all, MS Word has been good enough for most people (including many great writers) for so long, right? Well, to begin with, I have a difficult history with Word. I avoid it as much as I possibly can.
Secondly, I have a philosophical preference for plain text. My professional life is based on my writing and I have thought deep thoughts about whether my work will be accessible in the years and decades to come? Not everything I write is particularly good but I believe strongly in developing archives that will endure.
We certainly generate a lot of data and most of it may turn out to be cat gifs. At the same time, everything we create forms part of a collective cultural tapestry that will give our descendants detailed insights into who we are and what was important to us. It also forms part of a growing historical archive that will be all that remains of our generation in the more distant future. I believe that archive has intrinsic value.
In the much shorter term, I want to work in a file format that I’ll be able to access in the next 10, 20 or even 50 years time. Plain text is a fundamental file format. Everything should be able to read it. My text files are my source code and I want them to be accessible going forward.
On the other hand, when was the last time you were able to open your old WordStar files or even early Microsoft Word formats? Fortunately app suites like LibreOffice have impressive backward compatibility but this may not be possible with current MS Word and other proprietary formats like Apple’s .pages format.
I use MultiMarkdown formatting in my text files because it translates into rich formatting when I publish my files and because it is intelligible even in it’s raw format. As Markdown’s creator, John Gruber, pointed out:
The overriding design goal for Markdown’s formatting syntax is to make it as readable as possible. The idea is that a Markdown-formatted document should be publishable as-is, as plain text, without looking like it’s been marked up with tags or formatting instructions. While Markdown’s syntax has been influenced by several existing text-to-HTML filters, the single biggest source of inspiration for Markdown’s syntax is the format of plain text email.
I have a single folder in Dropbox for my text notes and that folder syncs with Byword on my iPhone and iPad to keep all my devices up to date. This also means I can work on my mobile devices too and I can even use another plain text editor. Plain text is truly cross-platform.
Keeping my writing as simple as possible to avoid distractions
A big reason I like MultiMarkdown-formatted text files is that I can just write. Styling is a function of whichever stylesheets are applied to my text in the publication process and the syntax I add as I write. I don’t have to spend hours messing with stylesheet formatting options in Word or some other word processor just to get my text down.
Plain text is perfectly simple and flexible as a production file format. It enables me to really streamline my writing process and that means fewer distractions to derail my productivity.
The one challenge I face at the moment is that the process of moving that text into a file format like .docx for other people to work with takes more time than I’d like.
The converters I have available to me (Byword’s native Word export; Marked 2 and one or two others) are fiddly in their own ways. I inevitably wind up spending time reformatting exported text to prepare it for review.
At the moment, the most efficient process seems to be to write in Byword with MultiMarkdown syntax and then take the exported RTF text into Apple Pages because formatting the text in Pages is easier than other options. If Pages isn’t available, Google Docs also works well enough.
At least the writing part is uncomplicated.
Integration with my other services
One of the reasons I really like Byword is that I can “publish” my documents to Evernote. Evernote notes use rich text formatting and will accept my MultiMarkdown formatted plain text and give me fair representations of that text as formatted rich text in my Evernote notes.
This is really handy for creating things like outlines or short notes that I want to bring into Evernote to form part of a project note or just to capture into my reference system.
Know your daily rhythm
Completely aside from the tools I use, I am increasingly aware of when I am most productive in a given day.
I am definitely more of a morning person and I am more able to focus productively then. A lot of that is due to the fact that I take my daily Concerta pill with breakfast.
Early afternoons are usually dead time for me, creatively. It may be the aftermath of lunch or just a midday lull but the time between lunch and about 15:00 are terrible times for anything that requires sustained focus and creative output.
That time is probably best for admin tasks or even a short nap (where possible). I nap for 15–20 minutes on average and one of those can leave me feeling so much better.
Then, for some reason, I find it easier to slip into my flow from about 15:00 until 16:30 to 17:30 so that is also a good time for me to work.
Late nights are usually particularly unproductive. I don’t think I have ever felt particularly effective working late at night so I usually just park whatever needs to be done for the next morning.
I usually need a minimum of 6 to 7 hours of sleep to be functional in the morning. The nights when I manage 8 hours of sleep often leave me feeling amazing in the morning. It is amazing what a difference the extra hour or two of sleep can have, for me at least.
Many people recommend taking breaks every hour or so but that doesn’t always work for me. There are times when I slip into that hyper focus mode and can work for 3 to 4 hours solidly without looking up. When that happens, I don’t even attempt to break that focus.
On the other hand, on days when I am struggling to focus and staring at my notes doesn’t do any good, I’ll often take a 10 to 15 minute break to let my brain rest. That is just me.
I don’t achieve much when I force myself to do something I find myself resisting. Usually that is a sign that I need to rethink the task or unpack it and identify the real next actions.
Easy to use and fewer distractions
The key for me is to have a productivity system that is easy to use and minimises the opportunity for distractions. I prefer working in quieter spaces (even though I listen to music while I work – it is my onramp to my Flow).
I also want to remove as much friction from my system as I possibly can. Friction exacerbates my ADHD tendencies and kills my productivity.
My system should just be available so I can get on with the work. As soon as I find myself working on the system beyond tweaks and optimisations, the system has failed.
I can open Byword and start typing.
I can open OmniFocus and see what I have to do next.
I open Evernote and I can (usually) find what I need to keep working.
I don’t want to have to work the system just so I can eventually start working. Even though I generally find my work interesting, it doesn’t always trigger that hyperfocus that makes work so much easier so any friction just increases the likelihood I won’t be productive.
For the time being, my productivity system seems to be working. I am more productive than I was for a long time. It isn’t a perfect system and I tweak it now and then. I think my OCD tendencies are really helpful there (mostly).
I’ve also learned that having ADHD is as much an adventure as it can be immensely frustrating at times. It is a part of me and certainly makes my life interesting.
Today is my last day. I am leaving imonomy after just over a year and a half in the marketing department.
I started at the company when there were just over a dozen people. Since then, the marketing department has expanded from 2 to 6 people (I was marketing department employee #2) and the company has grown to more than 40. We have moved offices twice and my role has incorporated content writing; project management; event management; social media management and even a little contract legal work.
Starting at imonomy also marked the start of a new career and a return to an almost lifelong writing passion. My goal for most of my time at imonomy has been to learn as much as I could about content marketing and becoming a better marketing writer. I think I have succeeded.
I have learned so much more than I thought I knew about how to write more effectively as a marketer, measure the impact of my work and collaborate with great people with different skills. I have also had an opportunity to add my perspectives on the social Web and digital marketing to the marketing mix here at imonomy.
Now that I am leaving imonomy, I am going to miss the wonderful people I had an opportunity to work with. I didn’t see myself working in adtech before I started here. Being immersed in the online advertising world from this perspective has given me a fantastic grounding in the challenges facing publishers, advertisers and adtech providers in a changing world.
I have a short break next week to spend time with my children before they start their new school year. Then I will begin a new phase at a local marketing company that has offered me a challenging and exciting role. This move is an opportunity for me to continue learning and expand my knowledge and expertise in content marketing.
I think I am most excited about that: the opportunity to continue learning. Doing work that doesn’t give you an opportunity to learn can be crippling. If my short working life has taught me anything, it is the vital importance that you keep learning and growing.
We often draw a distinction between work and play, especially when it comes to doing “work” we are passionate about. It is pretty easy to reserve your passions for your after hours time. Working hours become the time when you do what you need to do to pay the bills.
Unless, of course, you find work that feels more like play because it is closely related to your passion.
“A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play,” the French writer Chateaubriand is credited with saying. “He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.”
I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.
What struck me when I read each of these pieces of advice (and others I don’t remember right now) is that a better way to approach work is not to see “work” as the necessity to earn money to pay for “passion” and/or “play”. Instead, work should be another opportunity to refine and enrich your passion.
To paraphrase Chateaubriand, pursue your vision of excellence in whatever you do. Sometimes that happens during working hours and sometimes after work. Ideally you have an opportunity to do this during more of those hours than not or those hours are wasted. As Ray Bradbury observed:
I can only suggest that we often indulge in made work, in false business, to keep from being bored. Or worse still we conceive the idea of working for money. The money becomes the object, the target, the end-all and be-all. Thus work, being important only as a means to that end, degenerates into boredom. Can we wonder then that we hate it so?
My day job is to write marketing copy. It is easy to see that work as divergent from the writing I’d rather being doing. The more I think about it, though, even that writing is an opportunity to become a better writer. The more I write and the better I write, well, I become a better writer. Whether I do that during working hours or after hours shouldn’t really matter, as long as I am pursuing my vision of excellence in my writing.