Fixing the structure vacuum

Snapshot of a not so unusual day in the life of Tony, circa May 2011:

8:00: Alarm.
9:00: Stop hitting the snooze button.
9:00:03: Check email.
9:02: Check twitter.
9:03: Click on an enticing looking blog post.
10:15: Realize I just spent over an hour reading about how the iPad is influencing the French elections, and that I was planning on already having gotten to New Work City by now.
10:16: Jump out of bed.
10:18: Shower / cleanup / dress / leave.
10:25: Pick up breakfast.
10:30: Eat breakfast on the train to save time, filling the car with the smell of bacon and likely ruining everyone’s morning. As I eat, I email myself notes about the things I really need to accomplish today.
11:00: Arrive at NWC, long after I intended to.
11:05: Sit down and check my email again, and immediately start working on whatever grabs my attention first. Probably not any of the things I had just emailed myself.
7:30pm-ish: Look up, bleary eyed, and realize that for the past eight hours, I have done some combination of meetings, email, Real Business Stuff, talking to members, eating, talking on the phone, and reading Twitter while trying not to read Twitter. And I’ve made almost no progress on the things I deemed important when I started my day.

I’m bleary-eyed, mentally exhausted, and frustrated. Defeated, I go out or go home, promising myself that tomorrow I’ll focus on getting the important stuff done.

I aim to be in bed by 1:00. I actually go to bed at 2:30.

This sucks.

I’ve spent far more days like this than I’d care to admit. It isn’t fun, and I don’t think it’s all that unusual either. When I worked in an office, I still experienced some of these things, but they were contained. I still pretty much showed up and left around the same time, took a lunch break, and got weekends off.

Now, though, I have nothing but my own personal discipline to keep me in order. As you might have guessed, relying entirely on that is just not going to cut it for me. I’ve been a big believer in independent careers for a long time now, but managing all this stuff effectively is no obvious task. If I don’t change something, this working for myself thing is going to kill me.

Time to devise a solution.

So how do I do something about it? I could, of course, get a job.

Okay, enough of that talk. A job would give me the structure and accountability that I needed, but it would come at the expense of the freedom I had fought to earn. I’ll assume this to be a last resort.

So what if I were able to substitute the good parts of having a job, without actually getting a job? I have a thriving community of independent people all around me. I’m sure most of them are better at managing this stuff than I am, so maybe I can learn from them. Along the way, maybe they can learn from each other too! It is time to start experimenting with that.

Also. Beer Belly.

While we’re at it, I’m out of shape. Not grossly so, but enough that I can feel it. And sometime between “post-college” and “pre-30″ my body started telling me it was time to start taking better care of myself. If I’m going to be working on my brain, maybe along the way I can find a way to work on my body too.

It’s time to run a tighter ship. I’m not going to do it alone, so I’m recruiting help.

Do you hit the structure vacuum sometimes? What do you do to try and fix this problem?

  • Frank Denbow

    I have the same problem some days. Especially when I set up meetings during the day, I get distracted from building stuff, as it usually takes an hour or so to get into the “coding groove” where I’m focused and things fly quickly. For me, I need a quiet place where nobody is around to distract with a quick question or anecdote (still havent found that during the day, which is why I mostly work at night). 

    One tip from @noahkagan is to check email twice a day, since most of it is usually not urgent. I was finding myself in this reactive state where my day was dictated by the email people sent me, which wasnt the best method of managing my time. Maybe having some “quiet hours” where all you are allowed to do is work on the main tasks you set out to accomplish would help in addition to this.”I could of course get a job….okay enough of that talk” lol! my thoughts exactly:

    • Tony Bacigalupo

      Paul Graham wrote a great piece about “maker’s schedule” and “manager’s schedule” that addresses what you describe beautifully:

      I appreciate what Noah’s saying about limiting email, but so much of what I do every day relies upon ongoing email conversations. In fact, I think that part of the issue is simply that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Everyone has different sets of needs, because the nature of what we do is so diverse. 

      What I’m wondering is how we might devise some meta-constructs that people can use to better manage whatever it is that needs managing, in a way that accommodates the fact that everyone has different needs.

      • Jesse Taggert

        Great post Tony, and something we all struggle with.

        What’s been helping me is having a “accountability call partner” that I talk with every day for 15 minutes. We talk mid-day and share progress on goals and help get over road blocks (allowing for the fact we all have diff goals and challenges). He’s even trying to make a biz out of it, in early early beta stages:  A platform where you create a call group and the system calls you exactly at the time for exactly 15 minutes. Quick, get back on track, and push on for rest of the day. I love it!

        And the other suggestions here are spot on as well.

        • Tony Bacigalupo

          Jesse, that is tremendous! Has it helped you achieve some long-term positive habit changes?

  • Michael Lewis ::::✈

    I had the same issue and it happens without seeing it coming. Like a frog in the soon to be boiling water.

    My first fix was a much MUCH earlier alarm. I wake up between 5 and 5:30am. Before you run away screaming that I’m a crazy the time I actually get up it’s almost six.

    I begin a workout routine comprised of the old school: pushups, sit-ups and stretching. Working out for maybe 15 minutes gives me time to think about what I want from the day before getting distracted by all the noise. I then shower and eat without rushing too much and make my way out the door by 7:30 at the latest each day.

    Here’s the key part to remember…yes I wake up mad early BUT I am focused, relaxed, feel good about getting a little exercise. Most people eat at work or skip breakfast or in your case incite riots over bacon on subway cars.

    Also, people rush out of work to go to the gym after they are tired from a long day at work. I have been there and have always found the workouts on the weekend were always better because I was rested so I am not convinced getting amped up at night leads to a great night of sleep so it likely contributes to getting up later in the morning.

    Lastly, it’s more natural for your body to begin relaxing near the end of the day so use that time to relax and plan tomorrow. Less meat and more greens have helped me wake up earlier too. I’m writing this at 5:48am on the west coast. :)

    • Tony Bacigalupo

      Mike, I love this… we’ve talked a lot here about the value of getting up early.
      But how do you maintain the routine? Does it not take a lot of discipline to stick to it?

  • Shrutarshi Basu

    I suggest you read the book “War of Art”. I find getting up a bit earlier and starting the day disconnected to be a good idea. The Internet is great and all, but I think productivity wise it’s a better idea to be disconnected by default (at least disconnected from “social media” by default). As for health I’ve seen good effects from cutting out processed carbs (rice, pasta, white bread) and eating 4 smaller meals a day, 4 hours apart.

    • Tony Bacigalupo

      Good call; I have been practicing cutting out all carbs & sugars from my diet (a-la 4HB) and have so far found tremendous success.

      How do you practice the self discipline required to stay disconnected through the start of your day?

      • Shrutarshi Basu

        I’ve found the best way is not to rely on discipline but to develop a habit. My habit is currently this: Get up in between 7-7:30 (a little grace period so that I don’t feel terrible right in the beginning of the day), go to the bathroom, brush my teeth and head into the kitchen to make breakfast. Breakfast is something simple to cook — generally eggs (boiled or poached), some sort of veggie leftover from last night’s dinner, maybe a sausage if I want some meat. It’s bulky enough to make sure I’m not hungry before noon, but slow-carb so as to not spike my insulin. Having to actually cook something and pay attention gives my mind some focus. I make sure that all the dishes are done the night before so as to minimize excuses. Then I’ll shave, shower and get dressed. 

        Only then do I pick up my iPod Touch, check the weather for the day and take a quick look at email and Twitter. I rarely get emails over the night so this doesn’t really add anything.

        Now I have a 25-min walk to work and so I head out and stop by a coffee shop for 30min to 1 hour. This will be a quick scan through RSS and then some writing — blog posts or a longhand journal. Finally I’ll head into work around 9:30-10. This part will change a bit once classes start. The walk means I get a decent amount of exercise. I also have a DIY standing desk (everything propped up on old books and journals).

        Forming good habits and routines is essential. I think I’m also going to try keeping off Twitter and RSS during the workday otherwise I just get hooked and never get anything done.

  • Adrian Codrington

    I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of waking up early. I set my alarm for 5:30, out of the house by 6:30, and am at work by 7. It can be hard getting up at that hour (especially in winter, when it’s cold and dark), but if I can get physically out of bed by 5:40, I consider the battle won!

    In the past, this has given me a couple of productive hours at work before others get into the office. However, I’ve recently decided to use these valuable early hours as my personal study time. I found that by the time I get free time at the end of the day (dinner made, kids in bed etc.), I’m exhausted and get nothing done with my personal projects, which are important for my long-term growth as a software developer (and possible future self-employment).

    Now the question is how to get that ‘quiet time in the office’ back, without sacrificing the study time. It’s a constant struggle and a balancing act.

    …and you’ve reminded me that I’ve got to fit some exercise into that schedule somewhere. Great, thanks. ;)

    • Tony Bacigalupo

      Sorry Adrian :-) How might you go about making the exercise something to look forward to instead of dreading?

      Regarding getting up early, I love it… on the rare occasion I manage to do it. Did you always get up early, or did you develop that over time? I find it very difficult to go to bed at a time that would permit me to get up early and would love to find a way to break through that!

  • Carin


    Welcome to my world.  I’ve been out of classes and on my own “discipline” for so long, I forgot I was accountable to anyone for anything.  Hence the degree continues to drag on.  I’m sick of it.

    Some of the things people have described so far are good starts – my best of all friends in VA and I check in regularly, bitch and moan about our respective projects, and then encourage each other…mostly it’s “Dude, just do it.  Really?  A couple of paragraphs of editing?  You can do it, and then you won’t waste time WORRYING about it.”  That’s the main thing for me – I spend so much time stressing over what I have to do, I never actually get around to doing it.  Talking with her ALWAYS shifts my focus to where it should be.  I don’t always accomplish everything I then get revved up to do, but I often find my productivity increase.  

    Also – that whole getting up early thing, yeah I tried that too.  Here’s what worked for me (you’ll probably hate me for this).  Getting out of bed on your own is hard to maintain, but I found that if I take a class (either at the gym or in my case, yoga at a studio), you develop relationships with the other people.  I LOOOOVE yoga, but if that’s not your gig, check out spinning or kickboxing – as long as it’s ass-early.  My yoga classes started at 7:30 and 8am, not hella early, but they were a half-hour drive from my place, so I was waking at 6 or 6:30 to get there on time, every time.  Just like with work, if you are accountable to someone else in your attendance/physical fitness, you are more likely to do it.  I never wanted to let my yoga class down by not showing up just because I was feeling lazy, and I NEVER regretting dragging in, even if my head was in the wrong place.  What I found was that 99.9% of my problem was getting there, and knowing that people were expecting me (kinda like….a job…) got my arse in gear.  Once I was there, I always got something positive out of the experience.  

    I am sad to say I’ve lost that community (I left it back in NJ when I came down south), and I am struggling to find a similar one here – but it works, and being in a stable place will help.  Check out classes at your gym.  The rest of your day will go better too – if you START with exercise, you will be focused where you should be for longer during your work hours.
    I also changed my diet about a year ago – mostly veggie now, pescetarian technically (veggie who eats fish); I also eat cheese and eggs in limited quantities.  Say what you will, but hard-to-digest meat protein only gets harder to digest as we age.  Check out some of the stuff being written about being “flexitarian” – the idea being basically that you go veggie a couple days a week, eat fish a few others, and limit your meat to only one or two days.  Believe it or not, this and exercise are supposed to really change not just your body, but your mind/concentration/memory/energy. 

    I’ll let you know if/when that all comes together for me!  :p
    Good luck!

    • Tony Bacigalupo

      Brilliant! I really like the idea of setting up some kind of hard obligation in the morning to force you into line. 

      I have tried this for a while in the past, and will try to resurrect it again. This could kill two birds with one stone, as meetings so often disrupt my flow. If I start each day with a meeting, it’s out of the way, and I can count on other blocks of time to be free.

      It sounds like you have made some good progress manufacturing some accountability for yourself; what are you struggling the most with now?

  • Frank Denbow

    Also check out iDoneThis, which emails you at the end of each day to ask you what you’ve accomplished. I’ve been using it, and i like it. 

  • Niladri Chowdhury

    Tony, this is indeed a very common among busy entrepreneurs that they find too much to do with very little time in their hand.

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    In case you have small team who are very busy then you can get a virtual assistant to help you perform these tasks for you and give them a clear deadline by when you will expect these tasks to be complete.

    In case you are thinking about a virtual assistant solution, do give us a shout for a trial of our services.