In this post I describe situations that I have gone through dozens of times, before I identified recurring patterns. I realized for myself that when I actually have time to work on my things, I regularly end up in a state of procrastination and feeling not productive at all. Even though I knew I was wasting a lot of time at work, I used to tell anyone and especially myself that I don't have enough time for all the fun things I would like to do.
In this post, I want to describe behavior patterns I observed from myself, and the supposed reasons for them. I draw one conclusion from them: Set yourself up for success by having a definite action plan.
Own your day - or someone else will.
This is level zero of my productivity guidelines: Don't immediately become reactive to other people's endeavor to assign you work or steal your time. We all have tasks that we have to do, and we all have tasks that we want to do. The latter ones usually serve our own goals and lead to making progress towards them. These are the tasks that serve our intrinsic motivation. They make us feel good. The first thing we need to be aware of is that there is a never-ending pool of externally-motivated tasks that do not get us anywhere in terms of our goals. If we fill our days doing them first, telling ourselves “once, these are done, I can finally work on the real stuff”, we certainly will never get to the real stuff. There is always someone waiting who has a better plan for how we spend our time. Just consider your email inbox a todo list that anyone with your email address can append items to.
If we let these lists control our attention, we will never “have time” to do all the things we ever wanted.
Do your fluctuating emotions control your outcome?
Consider the following situation, which I have gone through many times on my way to this article:
It's Wednesday evening and you have a wonderful evening ahead with your spouse. Tomorrow, you finally have set some time aside for your side project. You are excited, so you wake up early and drive to your office as the first one on the streets. You feel energized and excited about moving forward. You open the door, turn on the lights, open your computer, and ... now what? You're starring at the screen, and the cursor blinks at you. You pause and realize that you didn't think it through. You struggle and begin to weigh things against each other, trying to figure out what you should start with. But you can't. You spend minutes and hours, first getting a coffee and then emptying the dishwasher. You start with something but still aren't 100% sure. So you start something else. Your head is spinning, and you can't take a clear thought - not to mention a focused, single-minded action.
Guess what - you waste tremendously valuable lifetime, which could be the key to achieving your goals. It's not only the time you waste - you weaken yourself and your emotional state. You drain your energy and motivation in fights against yourself. You get into a bad mood and feel like you are procrastinating - which you are.
I call this the headless state. Because it's like a team without a head. Your thoughts and feelings are the players, each running into a different direction and fighting each other. It happens because the head of the team failed to give clear instructions.
Process saves you from the poverty of your intentions.
I heard this wonderful quote which originates from Elizabeth King. It describes concisely what happens to us usually when we failed to plan: we become the cue ball of our emotional state. If we haven't decided what we would be doing tomorrow, we will probably end up doing what we feel like doing. This, by any chance, might be the thing which brings us further. But most of the times will put us into the headless state. Probably, we will end up doing something completely off-track, which not only doesn't get us anywhere, but worse, puts us into a bad state for the rest of the day - feeling unproductive and that we're procrastinating.
But there's more to this.
It's hard to start.
At least for me. There's some resistance against starting something new. Even though we were excited about finally getting started with a task yesterday - now, that we have to take action, it feels like we're not so excited about it anymore. It's a subliminal feeling of not knowing exactly what to do, a fear of failure and doubt if it's the right thing to do.
I guess you noticed what the problem is: There was the word “feeling” above. And as we know from further above, feelings are the pitfalls which put us into a headless state. Once inside the situation our senses are blurred, and we listen to our feelings. So if we have this mysterious subliminal feeling of not knowing what to do, and didn't decide to do it yet - well, chances are ... you get it.
Zombies that can't stop.
Surprisingly, it goes very similar for ending things. First thing to notice is: Once we are up to speed and fully immersed into the task, it's fun working on it and making progress. Especially when we are working on things that scared us in the beginning. Here, a second, contrary phenomenon happens: we cannot stop. Even if we set an upper time limit to work on it - unsolved problems in our heads are like black holes for our attention. They suck in all our mental energy. Even if we do something else like going for lunch with a colleague, we can't help but keep thinking about it. Or, if it's already 7 PM and you'd call it a day. You can't break loose and spend the night dancing around your latest acquirement.
Tasks which we enjoy working on and that challenge us can become time sinks. If we are not careful about the time we spend on them, we will end up using all that's available. Then, when we finally surface from our work, we realize that we have literally no time left to do all the other things that are important to us. But that time is gone forever.
There's only one thing you can do about it: Force yourself to quit. You'll be so much better off having a good night of sleep or do the stuff you planned to do. Give your brain a break - it will continue to work on the problem and will subconsciously figure out the solution while you enjoy your evening.
If you fail to quit at the point you planned for, you inevitably neglect all your other plans for the day. Doing so for an extended period, you'll experience the feeling of stress. You become one of the headless zombies walking around and telling everyone “I have no time”.
It's exactly that state of stress that we want to avoid. It's a dirty road to unhappiness. Once you have learned that you don't have enough time in your day you will start to cut out things. Usually these are the things that would serve your emotional well-being like doing sports or meeting friends. Anytime something fun comes to your mind you tell yourself that do don't have time for it. We feel like we don't have enough time but actually procrastinate when we have time. We spend long office hours because we cannot stop to work when it's the time to stop. We become overworked and waste our time while thinking to be busy.
The actual goal is to turn this around. We want to be in a mental state of: Relax, I have enough time for anything I would like to do today. I am deeply convinced that you can end up at this mindset only with proper planning, and the submissive willingness to regard. Stop working in emergency mode, reacting to all kinds of external noise. Be deliberate about how you spend your time and don't undermine yourself.
So what we have learned is: We need a process which tells us what to do and when. If we know exactly what to do, there might be a small resistance against starting. We can overcome that feeling with our process because having a process saves us from being at mercy of our feelings. Once we are in, we should make sure we limit the time we spend. Otherwise, we will end up as a zombie which has no time.
A plan is nothing different than a series of deliberate decisions we made up front. We decided yesterday evening when we were sitting in the sofa with a relaxed cup of tea. We were looking at the world with a clear view. Thinking about our day is like watching someone else. In this stage, we have the emotional distance and clarity to judge what needs to be done next. We set ourselves up for tomorrow and decide what we will do. That gives us a process. A framework and concrete action plan that has already been decided on. That is the key to make the negotiations with ourselves reluctant. It leaves no doubt what we should be doing - even if we don't feel like doing it.
When we finally reach the situation where we need to take action, we can pull out our plan and see what we should be doing right now. All the feelings that we have - that it's not the right thing to do, or we are afraid to fail, or anything - we can notice them and leave them aside. Because we already made a decision - and we want to be consistent with what we have promised ourselves. We thought it was a good idea yesterday, and we thought it was a good idea the day before. Most likely, we've been thinking about doing it for quite some time. So there's no need to listen to our feelings - just get to the job.
Secondly, we need our plan to know when it's time to quit. If we don't know when to quit, we will never have enough time to do anything we want. We will always work until the last possible moment before we stop. We will learn for ourselves that we do not have enough time. We should think about the schedule we made as a fixed appointment with a friend - we simply cannot skip or be late. We force ourselves to quit. When we come home afterwards we are happy we went.
There are many people who tell me: “I don't have time to plan”. In my opinion these are highest developed versions of headless zombies that actually would need it the most.
We, the DayCaptain founders, came to these realizations by reflecting on our diaries of bad days we had at work. We've developed a process for ourselves to do our personal planning. It has served me well for quite some time already and puts me into a state of peace of mind. It feels like I gained back control over my hours. That I can decide freely how I would like to spend them. And ultimately the feeling of having more than enough of it. The whole DayCaptain project is centered around our personal desire to reconquer control of how we spend our time.
If you think now you are standing here at the end of the post holding in you hands just as much as you were holding before you spend the ten minutes reading - then you're absolutely right. The elephant in the room carries a sign saying: “what should I do now?”.
Now that we have the understanding why we need a plan, I put together a second post in which I will demonstrate how I use DayCaptain together with a process to craft my personal time plan.