Searching for the Moon

Shannon Clark's rambles and conversations on food, geeks, San Francisco and occasionally economics

The Passage of Time and productivity

Posted by shannonclark on May 13, 2008

I have been too busy the past few weeks to blog as frequently as I would like, but as I sit this afternoon in a new cafe I just discovered (my Yelp Review of Coffee Bar) I have noticed that my perception of how time is passing varies. The past few days have been highly productive, lots of things to do, calls to take, emails to send, meetings to schedule (and reschedule) all as follow ups from many weeks of conferences and evening networking events.

Today time seems to be passing slowly, though I am thinking deeply, reading, writing, and researching, all things and modes which frequently involve me blinking and seemingly discovering that the day has passed me by and I’ve missed lunch and may not have budged from my computer for hours. Instead today I have found that I look at the time and though I expect it to be approaching evening, it is still only mid-afternoon and have lots of time to finish my other tasks of the day.

This got me to thinking about how we perceive time – and how this perception of time impacts our productivity – especially as an entrepreneur.

Like many tech people I have the ability to focus deeply on a topic that interests me, focus to the extent that I can skip meals, stay up all night, and avoid/procrastinate other important tasks. By no means is this a uniformly positive trait. I don’t, however, have Asperger’s Syndrome, but I have been know since childhood to at times forget about all else while deeply involved in a particular activity.

But in the interest of Getting Things Done (and yes, I’ve read the books) I have in the past few years learned a few tricks which appear to finally be paying off, at times in big way. In the past few weeks, I’ve been finding my productivity has been increasing (and in turn that feeds back on itself).

Here are a few of the tips and tricks which seem to be working, which are helping me get into that productive flow state where not only do I get a lot of work done, I do so without wasting a lot of time in the process.

  1. Dress for success. This may seem trite, but I have noticed that those days where I just wake up, toss on a t-shirt and sit at home very casually in front of my computer, often without shaving, though I do get work done, I’m not usually all that productive. In contrast, today I am well dressed, in a very nice (and in this case also expensive) designer shirt, good jeans, great shoes, even a matching belt. It is a small thing perhaps, but knowing that I at least look put together and at least reasonable successful helps me be, in fact, organized and successful. The key here is not purely outward perceptions of how you dress, rather it is finding a style that makes you feel confident and successful and comfortable at the same time.
  2. Stay hydrated. Another seriously basic tip, but one that I have noticed has a very real and deep impact on when I am very productive and when I am not. At home it is all too easy for me to sit down in front of my computer and five or six hours later get up, having neither eaten or drunk anything during that time. In contrast when I am out and about and pay attention, make sure that I am drinking many glasses of water at regular intervals over the course of the day, I find I am far more productive.
  3. Vary your posture and pay attention to your surroundings. At home I can sit mostly still and move only very little as I focus intently on my computer screen. Today at this cafe (and before getting here) my environment and posture has changed frequently. Every few minutes I have looked up, looked around, refilled my water glass, moved to the other side of the table and more. In short by giving my self mini-breaks every hour, I am more aware of the passage of time, am physically far more comfortable, and by being aware of my surroundings (more on this below) I am also considering myself in them.
  4. Surround yourself with others who are getting things done. This doesn’t have to be co-workers or even people who are working on the same things you are, but being around many people who are having meetings, closing deals, studying intently, writing rapidly and in short working and accomplishing things rubs off. It helps me, at least, focus on keeping up with the others around me. They are being productive, so I feel pressure on myself to also be productive.  This is a good form of pressure, not too intensive but enough that it keeps me from drifting into too many LOLcats or floundering at what to do next.
  5. Have to-do lists that you refer back to on a regular basis. A key aspect of GTD, at least for me in my rather casual practice of it, is in the keeping of task lists. The knowing that I have a list (or more usually multiple lists) on which I have braindumped all of the many, competing tasks that I have to accomplish. By knowing that I have these lists (and further that I have the lists with me, very important if rather basic) I know I can always refer to them if I find myself stuck for what to do next.
  6. Cross off at least something from your to-do lists every day. The difference between a productive week and an unproductive week can be as simple as going for many days without crossing anything off your lists. For one, this suggests that your to-do items are too broad, require too much time and work to complete. Consider breaking down big tasks into the incremental steps that it takes to get them done – if before you can clean your house you have to replenish missing cleaning supplies, that shopping task should be on your list ahead of the cleaning task. Knowing that you have accomplished something, even as “small” a task as getting to the post office and buying stamps, starts you down a positive trend of getting tasks done. I have a list which I generated after an event last week on which I wrote down everyone from that event with whom I need to follow up, in the past couple of days I have crossed most of those names off that list – have followed up with them and have meetings with most later this week. That continual progress inspires me to finish those tasks, to follow up and track down everyone else on that list as well.
  7. Snack and eat healthily. Again, rather basic, but it is very true that you are what you eat. When I find myself stuck at home eating fast but not very good for me foods, often with lots of carbs (cereals, candy, etc) while I may get a short term boost of energy I find myself later that day crashing and seriously unproductive. In contrast, today I have eaten quite healthily with meals that have a good balance of carbs and proteins, with very little sugars and a good balance of foods. As a result going into the time I am usually crashing (3pm-5pm) I am being highly productive and alert.
  8. Get some physical exercise every day. This is advice I do not keep enough myself, but today, for example, I walked about 2 miles after lunch to get to the cafe where I am at the moment. On my way here I made a lot of phone calls, replied to emails via my iPhone, and caught up with many other emails and news, so it was not “wasted” time (I also listened to some great podcasts) but the seemingly simple act of getting even that light amount of physical activity was energizing. I really should do more and more intensive physical activity on a daily basis (a long swim, rock climbing or the like) but even just walking a few miles every day is very helpful.

As I noted, many of these tips are rather basic and all might be helpful for everyone. My perspective is that of an entrepreneur, working a job which does not require me to be in the same office every day, a job that I could (perhaps) equally do from home, from an office, or from cafes. My personal choice is to spend much of my time in cafes, I like the buzz of people around me also working and accomplishing great things. As my company grows I do anticipate having an office of our own and that I will spend more time in that office.

One Response to “The Passage of Time and productivity”

  1. Serafina said

    pay attention to your surroundings. … Every few minutes I have looked up, looked around, etc.

    For me, this depends on which type of task I’m doing. If it’s something I enjoy, then yes, that helps. But if it’s a task that I’m not really into, but need to get done, then zoning out and being falling into that timeless headspace is the best option. That’s why I cant do that type of work at coffeeshops – too many distractions!

    They are all very basic, and I would’ve said “yeah, I knew that” to most/all of them, but listing them and articulating them in that way helps tremendously. Just like your #6, having them laid out in list form makes them easier to remember.

    btw, hi!

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