Go With The Flow?
When it comes to doing work, “going with the flow” has never worked for me. If I waited for a burst of inspiration to strike to tackle a major task, I would never start. Factors like boredom, hunger, social-distractions, entertainment, and fatigue always prevent me from taking the first steps.
If I didn’t have anything important to do, that ‘strategy’ would be totally rad, but that’s not the case. Real goals require real work. The “work when I feel like it” attitude that accompanies the “go with the flow” mentality won’t ever be enough to make meaningful progress toward my goals.
This internal conflict between lofty ambitions and fierce natural laziness ultimately charted my path towards studying productivity so intensely.
Before I started applying a high degree of intentionality to the processes involved in doing my work, my short-term, spur of the moment resistance reliably over-powered my long-term intentions nine times out of ten.
My pattern of losing 90% of my internal battles with motivation inevitably caught up to me when I bombed my first college math test (Calculus 3). I had been dreading this moment for years. My habits reached their breaking point, and I needed to do something about it.
I devoted a three-day, holiday weekend to improving this situation. Alternating between researching productivity techniques and filling the (major) gaps in my knowledge of multi-variable calculus, I emerged from the library that Sunday evening with a different approach to life and work that I have been applying and tweaking ever since.
Instead of riding the reactive wave of unpredictable motivation and urgency, I take a proactive and intentional approach to my work that dramatically reduces the role motivation plays in my life. By systematizing every aspect of my work, I slip into “the zone” more frequently, more intensely, and with less friction than ever before.
So what exactly do I do?
My Top Five Tools and Rules for Doing My Best Work
Rule 1: Automate Self Discipline
Approach each day as if you have a finite supply of willpower. Diet, sleep, caffeine, and exercise can increase your supply, but each day has a very real cap. For this reason, I do everything I can to reserve all of my willpower for problem solving and my actual work.
Believe it or not, distractions are distracting. At the beginning of a work-session, you might be able to handle them, but that willpower erodes with every passing minute. Automating self discipline means making one decision that makes thousands of micro decisions that would otherwise deplete your willpower throughout the day.
What sounds easier? Catching yourself every time you are tempted to grab your phone, or informing the few people who may need you that you’ll be unavailable for two hours and then turning your phone off for a predefined interval. The reflex to check your phone may still be strong, but when you go to log-in, your phone will be off and you’ll have stopped yourself before you got sucked into actually seeing anything. Similar tactics can and should be applied to your web-browser (using a tool like freedom).
Set clear boundaries for yourself and use software and/or co-workers to make it difficult (or impossible) to break the rules you set for yourself. Don’t make failure an option. Make wagers with friends that if you fail to do something (run a mile by noon, have written for 30 minutes, have finished a presentation) you owe them 50$. Think you’ll fail then? Deal with your distractions all at once (or in 1–2 batches at predefined times) rather than as they come in.
This is a tiny desktop application that turns your computer into a blank page for a predetermined interval (either words typed or time elapsed).
No spell check, no copy and paste, no alt-tab. It is as close to a type writer as I can find. You are faced with nothing but a blank page and a cursor. The only escape is doing the work.
Freedom is a cross-platform distraction blocking app. Freedom blocks specific websites and apps on all of your devices. This an extra layer of redundancy between you and your distractions. If you have to turn your phone back on for whatever reason, Freedom keeps the distracting apps blocked.
Forest is an iPhone application where you set a timer for how long you won’t use your phone. In that time, your phone starts growing a virtual tree. If you try to use your phone before that tree has fully grown, the tree dies. You are awarded points for each tree you fully grow, and those points can be redeemed for planting a tree in the real world. This app serves as an extra layer of defense backed by an actual cause.
Headphones/ ear plugs
Cover up your ears to block out distractions from the physical world. You don’t have to ignore sounds if you don’t hear them in the first place. Don’t let passers by, construction, or random sounds ruin everything else you’ve set up.
The Off Button
This largely unused feature of most phones is startlingly powerful. Simply hold the same button used to lock your screen and a slider (or similar menu) appears on your device. Follow the instructions to enable “off mode”. This little known hack temporarily stops all incoming communications, sounds, or vibrations from your device. The best part? Your device barely uses any battery when this feature is activated.
Rule 2: Work with intention and goals
Setting out to perform a task without clear intentions leads to a few issues.
First, you don’t have a goal for when to finish, so you work aimlessly and without motivation.
Second, it makes it harder to begin since there is no end in sight, so you procrastinate even starting.
Third, you can’t plan the rest of your day because of the uncertainty you face.
A brief strategy session at the beginning of the day can alleviate these issues. Set clear end times for when you want to finish specific tasks. Decide what you will be working on, and when. Have a goal in mind for when you want to be finished working for the day and what you need to have finished to be feel satisfied with your productivity.
As you get in the habit of doing all of your work in this way, you become a much better judge of how long various tasks take. This knowledge improves your ability to project deadlines and gauge if you should or should not take on additional work.
I use the Pomodoro technique to time my work intervals. The Pomodoro technique overcomes these obstacles by defining the amount of time you set for a task and when you will take breaks. This provides clarity of purpose, forces you to have an end in mind, schedules time to decompress, and makes it easier to get started. After 25 minutes of hard-work, you can re-assess your priorities. I recommend using a physical timer, but an online one will do.
Time boxing is the process of deciding exactly how much time you will give certain tasks and planning out your whole day in this way, usually broken down to 30 minute chunks. Take out a piece of paper, list your working hours of the day in the left margin (skipping a line between each hour), and sketch in ‘blocks’ of what you will be doing for every thirty minute interval. Include your breaks, commute, lunch, and a lot of slack.
This more of a concept than a tool. Parkinson’s law states that work fills to the amount of time given for it. If you give yourself a week to complete a task, it will take a week. If you give yourself a full month, you will most likely take that full month. If you set arbitrary, aggressive deadlines for completing your work, you prevent tasks from needlessly swelling in time and stress.
Rule 3: Set the stage
Declutter. Close any extraneous tabs. Hide any physical objects that may distract you. Tidy up your desk. Go full screen.
Set yourself up for success by clearing your work environment physically and digitally. When working on a challenging task, a stray paperclip on your desk suddenly becomes the most interesting thing in sight and you will gravitate towards playing with it.
Food will remind you that you are mildly hungry.
Scattered papers remind you that you need to organize.
For the time being, get anything not directly related to the task you are about to perform completely out of your reach. Stuff it in a drawer, and deal with it later. Handle non-essential digital resources the same way.
They say writers have the cleanest homes because when faced with a blank page, vacuuming floors and scrubbing toilets suddenly seems appealing. This temptation only grows stronger when you start out in a dirty space. Make sure the areas in your line of sight are tidy then happily snooze your cleaning until after you’ve conquered your important work.
This extension condenses all of your open tabs by creating a list of hyperlinks to what you had open. One Tab enables you to keep your bad habit of leaving too many tabs open by temporarily shrinking them to a single tab.
If you are unwilling to close applications and windows, you can move them to another ‘desktop’ to keep them out of site. On windows, you can press the windows key + tab and then click the button that says new desktop. Then, drag and drop any distracting windows to that new desktop. On mac, go to the mission control view and find the plus in the top right corner to create a new desktop.
Rule 4: Routinize the process
Having a clear process for doing your work minimizes the effort required to slip into the zone.
Instead of searching for motivation to strike, pick a time you will initiate your process then execute. For me, this entails completely setting up my workstation, informing anybody who may need me that I’m unavailable until a specified time, blocking any potential distraction, hydrating, eating, and using the restroom (hunger and bathroom breaks are sneaky distractions), hand-writing a sequential and time boxed to-do list (with at least two hours worth of work planned ahead; uncertainty about what to do next can completely derail a session), putting on either noise canceling headphones or ear-plugs, clearing all unrelated tabs, applications, and physical items, then setting my work timer and starting the work.
That may sound like a lot of steps, but the clarity of purpose, specificity of the task at hand, and complete annihilation of any typical distraction is the most potent way I know of to set myself up for a successful session.
Any scrap of paper
Use a piece of paper or sticky note to list the steps in your process. This may seem silly, but literally write out the steps involved. Step 1 communicate that I am unavailable, step 2 turn everything off, step 3 clean up, step 4 use the restroom and drink water, step 5 plug everything in, step 6 make my to do list, step 7 start my timer and get going. Until your process becomes a habit, build yourself a checklist and don’t deviate.
Rule 5: Capitalize on the grand gesture
The routine described above probably seems “extra as hell”, but that’s the point.
An elaborate process is psychologically similar to the effect produced by driving to a gym far away when you could just work-out at home. When you get to the gym, you are going to force yourself to work-out because you didn’t drive all the way out there to fool around. Likewise, if you take the time to go to an obscure location for doing your work such as a distant coffee shop or library, you aren’t going to let that journey to be for nothing.
The grand gesture is a powerful tool for overcoming resistance, and a specific routine is a good way to manufacture a similar effect. Turn your mind’s incredible power to rationalize anything inwards. Convince yourself of how wasteful it would be to not do your important work given all of the effort you put forth to get started. Use the ‘sunk-cost’ bias in your favor.
Coffee shops and distant locations
Making a trip out to a specific place for the sole purpose of working unlocks the benefits described above.
Extra computer hardware (keyboards, mice, monitors)
Something about taking that extra effort in your set-up routine makes a grand gesture that separates casual laptop use from actual work. You didn’t take the time to prop up your laptop, plug in or pair random accessories, and carry all this stuff with you just to be a Facebook or YouTube power-user. You did it to do your best work comfortably.
Fancy notebooks or pens
If your work is pen or paper heavy, using a special notebook or pen that you only use for your serious work can help put you in the state of mind to overcome resistance. Find a pen that is a pleasure to write with and a notebook of much higher quality than what you are used to, and use them. You will be nudged to work harder and more seriously.
Coordinating a group event involves the trouble of scheduling, communicating, and getting a location. Having multiple people get together in the same place for the purpose of doing work will force you to confront what you’ve been struggling to do. You might be fine being lazy or slacking off in front of yourself, but what about your peers?
Motivation is fickle, processes are concrete.
Resistance is real. It is the all too familiar nagging anxiety blocking you from sitting at your desk and getting started. It is the sudden urge to do house chores the second your work becomes difficult. It is the invisible force pulling from what you most need to do. It is the enemy.
Devise a plan and follow it. Just as any challenging foe, resistance and laziness can be defeated with a good strategy properly executed. Turn your phone off, block off the world, clearly define what needs to be achieved, know your start and end times, and then do the work. Get out of your own way.
Don’t let short-term thinking and laziness separate you from your creative potential. Build yourself a system, automate self-discipline, and execute. Let the results speak for themselves.