Maintaining Sanity

Work Sprints: Let’s do better work in less time, and love it.

I’m running a high-energy, high awesomeness productivity sprint at Brooklyn Roasting Company on Thursday, October 3. Grab a spot here!

A funny thing happens when we start working for ourselves that I think too few of us recognize: we implicitly hire ourselves as our own bosses. We’re suddenly the CEO, the middle manager, and the worker bee all wrapped up in one little brain.

What happens next is even more curious: our inner bosses often find themselves imitating the very behaviors that we tend to despise in traditional industrial-era bosses.

We tend to, for instance, value face time as a measure of performance. If we sit in front of our keyboards for 10+ hours a day, we figure, we must be satisfying our inner bosses, right?

We know intuitively that it’s wrong, yet we struggle against it constantly. And we egg each other on, too. We can get into a competitive loop of who can lament about working more hours than whom. It’s honorable to bust your ass day and night. And that can be an awful way to live. (Many folks in the startup world struggle with this mightily.)

But we’re in charge. That means it’s up to us to define the rules. If we are intentional about the boss we’ve created for ourselves in our heads, then we can create a working relationship with ourselves that is nourishing and healthy. We can break the culture of treating work like a cross to bear.

But doing it alone is hard. It’s also no fun. So I propose we work on being better bosses for ourselves together.

There are a lot of ways to tackle this, but the most simple and obvious one to me centers around time management. (The guy who kicked off the modern coworking movement was hip to this, by the way.) If, by virtue of gathering and setting some intentions for ourselves and each other, we can get a better handle on our workdays, we can build on that.

To that end, I’m going to organize an Intentional Coworking gathering where the attendees commit to shifting their focus away from the number of hours worked and toward the quality of hours worked. Tony Schwartz, of the Energy Projectframes this mindset perfectly:

“For my first three books, I sat at my desk for up 10 hours a day. Each of the books took me at least a year to write. For my two most recent books, I wrote in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions — beginning first thing in the morning, when my energy was highest — and took a break after each one… Writing just four and half hours a day, I completed both books in less than six months and spent my afternoons on less demanding work.”

He continues:

“More and more of us find ourselves unable to juggle overwhelming demands and maintain a seemingly unsustainable pace. Paradoxically, the best way to get more done may be to spend more time doing less.”

Let’s commit to helping each other do better work in less time. Let’s celebrate our successes and enjoy the freedoms we’ve afforded ourselves. Most importantly, let’s do great things together.


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Achieving better focus, by way of Kevin Durant

I often find myself sucked into the typical distractions of our over-connected lives, surrendering my focus to email, social media, and open browser tabs. I’m always looking for new ways to combat this, and am experimenting with a new strategy.

Firstly, I try to set two or three high-priority things I need to work on in a given day. I know these are things that feed into larger narratives that are important in my life. I know that the day will attempt to distract me from these things as it plays out, so when I find myself drifting away from the important stuff, I wait for a break in the action, close my eyes, and shut the lid to my laptop.

I try to release everything that’s clouded my mind, and I ask myself one question: What Would Kevin Durant Do?

Kevin Durant, if you’re not familiar, is the star basketball player of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Aside from being a scoring machine and one of the best players in the NBA, he is notable for something that’s particularly rare for people of his stature: he carries a distinct lack of ego.

There is no chip on his shoulder. He is not out trying to show off. He shows up every night and kicks ass all day, and doesn’t bullshit. He just works.

So when I ask What Would Kevin Durant Do, the answer is always the same: he’d shut up and work. He’d head to the courts and practice 1,000 free throws. He’d work out in the gym. He’d do what he had to do and cut out all the crap.

He’d not belabor the tedium of practice and workouts.

He’d focus on being awesome.

And when the time came, he’d drop 40 points and dunk over everyone.

And he’d love it.

My idealistic vision of Kevin Durant helps me focus. Perhaps he can help you too.


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Shed pounds, or baggage?

“It is necessary for us to keep the constant way. Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine. If you become too busy and too excited, your mind becomes rough and ragged. This is not good. If possible, try to be always calm and joyful and keep yourself from excitement. Usually we become busier and busier, day by day, year by year, especially in our modern world… But if we become interested in some excitement, or in our own change, we will become completely involved in our busy life, and we will be lost. But if your mind is calm and constant, you can keep yourself away from the noisy world even though you are in the midst of it. In the midst of noise and change, your mind will be quiet and stable.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind


This is a fascinating time of year. New Year’s a fleeting moment when we shed our past and look, with almost universal optimism, toward our future.

It is a fleeting moment because, just as universally, our idealistic dreams of the year to come quickly fade as our minds once again fill with the distractions of everyday life. Our bad habits quickly return, and the world in this year turns out not to be that much different from the world we thought we had just left behind.

The period following New Year’s is often depressing not just because the weather is cold and grey and dark and awful, at least here in the Northeast, nor it depressing just because the Jets have broken the hearts of its fans once again.

It’s depressing because we put too much pressure on this new year to deliver tangible results. What kinds of things do people hope for in the new year? More money? Better abs? I fear we’re either setting our sights too low, or too high in the wrong direction.

Perhaps, instead, we can point the arrow inwards. Perhaps we can aim to simply work on being better at being ourselves. Perhaps we can focus on something crazy, like inner peace.

We stress ourselves out when we try too hard. Perhaps this time around we can stop trying so hard, let the friction die down, and simply be ourselves.


“A frog is very interesting. He sits like us, too, you know. But he does not think that he is doing anything so special… he has no idea of zazen.”



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Energy Crisis

I was listening to the “California State of Mind” playlist on Rdio when I encountered a song by Josh Martinez that struck me. I couldn’t find the lyrics to the song anywhere online, so I transcribed them here.

There are multiple verses, but the main one I’ve transcribed here starts at 1:41. Listen along with the YouTube & Rdio embeds below.

Energy Crisis

As my resources get depleted and nothing gets completed
My attention is spent on things that don’t need it
See the problem is the robbin’ of my time is so common that it’s not even thought of as a crime
Try to find just an hour that I can call mine

And take ownership of all the shit that I should be finishing
Instead of being banished to the back shelf and wallowing in limbo
As my edge begins to dull, my mind grows simple

I used to keep it nimble reading multiple novels
But now my mental stimulation comes from movie stars and models
In a pre-packaged plastic, easy to digest, my reading has digressed to the grade 3 level

And my favorite TV channels are headline news and headline sports
The scores are important, no time for views
‘Cause what’s right is difficult to choose so I smile at the water cooler and ignore the issues

168 hours in the week and a third of those are spent on sleep
We’re now down to 112, with 40 spent in a suit
5 more for my lunch break, and 10 for the commute

That’s 55 on work, and 57 left
10 watching tv and 10 surfing the net (nerd)
At least 10 with my girlfriend to keep things fresh

And that’s less than 27 hours left
I might go and see a movie or hang out with some friends
And now my free time is whittled down to 10

10 hours a week to write rhymes make beats
Go dig and run a label man it’s no small feat

So ask me if I’m packing it in and I respond with a grin
It’s all fun but I’m lacking in energy


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I filter emails pretty liberally, particularly mailing lists and anything automated. If I don’t need to respond to it and seeing it immediately isn’t urgently important to me, it should go into my Read Later label.

Many emails, however, manage to evade my filter axe simply by arriving when I happen to be away from my computer, where my filtermaking powers lie. When I’m on my phone, or if I’m really busy, I might likely just archive the email instead.

As a result, nothing is going to stop that email from hitting my inbox again sometime soon. If it’s an email that comes in overnight, odds are it gets nuked shortly after I wake up while I’m checking my email on my phone– and I’ll do the same thing every week. Waking up to a batch of emails that I instantly remove has become a daily routine.

To combat this, I just invented a nifty little shortcut. I created a filter called .ToFilter.

I lead with the period to put the filter at the top of my list of filters, which comes in handy when trying to label something on my Android phone– which makes me scroll through my massive list of labels to find what I want.

Now, when I get an email that I want to filter, but can’t right now, I simply label it with .ToFilter and archive it. In a matter of days, I caught 30 emails. Each of them is tied to some kind of a newsletter or subscription, some of which I’ll be unsubscribing from. The rest of them are headed to the land of Read Later.

Does anybody out there have a similar little trick to combat such things?


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Don’t Try to Defeat Your Inbox. You Will Lose.

‘Inbox Zero’ is a terrible mirage.

We all dream of it. A beautiful, completely empty inbox. Nobody waiting for you to respond. Nobody nagging you for your attention. Just you and your beautiful empty inbox, in total homeostasis with the world.

If you’ve ever aimed for Inbox Zero and achieved it, you know that it feels great.

For a moment.

Then another email appears in your inbox. Then another. A wave of anxiety returns, and you are faced with two horribly unpleasant options:

1. Chain yourself to your inbox, zapping every email that appears, until the day you die.

2. Let the inbox build itself up once again, your victory all too fleeting.

I think it’s safe to assume that nobody considers the first option practical. Anyone who does might already have some semi-serious psychological conditions. If they don’t, they will soon.

Your inbox, like your life, is in a constant state of flux. New things are always happening that disturb the balance and tax your attention. Attempting to fight that fact will lead you to nothing but frustration. And a still nonempty inbox.

Pursuing Inbox Zero without the proper perspective is a subscription for pain and disappointment. When you’re trying to get a handle on your correspondence, first frame your expectations as follows:

Email is something not to be conquered, but managed.

Over time, I will be exploring inbox management techniques in a way that accounts for the neverending nature of incoming email. That may include structured exercises focused on achieving some form of ‘Inbox Zero,’ but I believe part of the issue is in rethinking how we define the word ‘Inbox’ in the first place.


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I Have More Control Over My Time Than I Realize (And You Probably Do Too)

Originally posted here.

I’m taking a keen interest in mapping out my week. I’ve avoided trying to impose more structure in my week in the past because I believed there were too many extrenal variables outside of my control that would preclude me from doing so.

But when I sat down today and sketched out what my weeks look like, I realized that’s not nearly as true as I believed.

In a given week, I might do a dozen meetings, mostly over the phone, at widely varying times of day. Sometimes the conflict, sometimes they are stacked right on top of one another, and sometimes they’re just inconvenient.

But I accept those times when they’re proposed, or, worse, I set the times myself with only a passing evaluation of how it might affect my day’s flow. If I don’t agree to a meeting time that isn’t optimal for me, then the meeting doesn’t happen.

It takes two to make a meeting.

There are, of course, many external forces that impose things upon us. The most obvious external forces are usually the ones that pay our bills, whether a single employer or many clients. Myself and others have used this big external force as an excuse to not try to better structure our time, because we perceive ourselves as having very little control.

But it’s often not as true as we lead ourselves to believe. When I took a critical look at how my time gets scheduled, I found that I had much more control over what happens when than I realized– not total control, mind you, not even close– but more control than I was giving myself credit for.

Identify the external forces

I realized, too, that my days follow a fairly consistent pattern– the mornings are quieter, when not a lot of people are at New Work City yet and I’ve only received a fraction of the emails I’m destined to receive for the day. After lunchtime, more people show up, more emails arrive, and more tabs are open on the browser. I can say with near certainty that my ability to think and work lucidly on creative “maker” tasks at 9am is far better than it is at 4pm.

I can work on changing that dynamic, but I can also learn to work with that dynamic. If I know I’m going to end up distracted after lunch, then that’s when I should be setting my meetings– when I know I’m going to be dealing with communicating with other people anyway. It’s probably not that hard to do, either, because shifting suggested meetings to the afternoon from the morning is rarely a problem for others.

And it’s not about absoultes– if half of my 12-ish meetings are currently in morning time slots in a given week, reducing that from 6 to 2 would open up my creative pre-lunch time considerably.

Speculative meetings

As described in Paul Graham’s great post, speculative meetings are those which aren’t directly related to things on your critical path. Usually the phrase “grab a coffee” or a drink is involved. These meetings, while useful in aggregate and in the long term, can be a terrible distraction from your day-to-day obligations, when not scheduled properly.

So often I’ve had a call or meeting with someone, just to get to know them better, at a time when it was horribly inconvenient and I felt that I could not give that person my full attention. Same goes with catching up with a friend. I hate feeling like I want to avoid hanging out with friends simply for fear of being too distracted when the time comes because of the events unfolding that day.

So I either avoid setting speculative meetings, which makes them pile up, or I schedule those meetings and hope it works out. If, instead, I can identify an ideal time to have these meetings, and schedule everything I can into those slots, I might be able to improve this situation.

I’ve noticed that, once I hit 5pm, odds are that whatever anyone is expecting of me is going to be able to wait until tomorrow– so a lot of built up pressure from the day is relieved. I may likely not be able to return to a creative mode, however, so right at this point is an ideal time to schedule low-priority meetings and calls.

Make a plan

Given my evaluation of my week’s structure, my plan is as follows:

– Creative “maker” work before lunch. Aim to accomplish 6 Pomodoros before lunch, and be happy if I actually pull off 4 or more.
– Meetings after lunch. If it’s up to me to decide, the meeting will be at 2pm.
– Do speculative and personal phone calls and meetings at 5 or 6pm, when I am in full social/”manager” mode and the pressure is off.

I’m starting with this, and I’m accepting that I’m not going to be able to stick to it 100%. If I try to do that, I’ll fail and give up.

I’m aiming for 80%. If I can enforce the above structure with 80% efficacy, then I have to conclude I’ll have a much more efficient, manageable daily life.


Posted via web from CoStructureComment »


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Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs

Brad Neuberg started coworking in part because he wanted more structure and balance in his life.

As much as he wanted a place where he could work with other people, he also wanted to have a place where he could leave his work behind at 5:45pm every day.

Most coworking spaces since then have not adopted that emphasis on balance and structure.

Surely, for many spaces, imposing a uniform time of day when everyone stops working just won’t work, and shouldn’t be implemented— everyone works differently.

But what makes coworking really compelling is that it represents a set of needs for a new group of people who reside ahead of the curve in the workplace— people who have much more autonomy and control over their work lives than what we’re used to accepting as the standard.

And one need those people are going to have is help managing that newfound autonomy.

Because without some constraints, even self-imposed, complete autonomy can become unhealthy.

I just worked 16 hours straight, mostly because I’ve taken on more responsibilities than I should— but did I really need to work those 16 hours, or did I simply work those 16 hours because nobody told me it’s time to go home?

Workaholism is a threat that grows as the number of people working independently grows. Similarly, the threat of information addiction grows as the Internet grows as well— the more unfettered access we get to increasingly relevant information, via Twitter and SMS and RSS and the like, the more tempted we will be to let these things take over.

More on that later.

In both instances, we are encountering a challenge not dissimilar from what society dealt with in the early 1900’s with cereal.

Without getting into too much detail, here’s what happened: one cereal company decided to put a little hint of cane sugar in their cereal, which for some reason they weren’t already doing. People loved it, so somebody else made a cereal with a little more sugar.

People liked the cereal with more sugar, so they bought that one.

Before you knew it, you had Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs.

It’s too much of a good thing. A little sugar in your cereal? Harmless and nice to have. A little more sugar in your cereal? Mostly harmless and an even better experience.

But Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs? Now you’ve gone too far.

Twitter, if not carefully managed properly, could be the Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs of information: a constant heavy barrage of bits of data that leave you distracted, unable to think straight, and downright jittery.

Same with finding yourself in control of your work life and, further, finding something you’re really passionate about.

The only thing I do that I’m not really that passionate about is my day job. Everything else— managing NWC, writing I’m Outta Here, starting the Runway Project, running a panel at SXSW, helping run BarCampNYC4, building the CoSP coalition, how could I resist? Each one of these things gets me so excited that I couldn’t imagine going home at 5:45pm and watching TV with my roommates.

Dedicating a lot of time to these things is great, but without restraints, without some sort of counterbalance, it’s not healthy.

It’s workaholism. And I know I’m not alone.

Brad’s coworking group at the Spiral Muse was as much about not working as it was about working. It put work in it’s place.

I’d like to revisit this, so we can all lead healthier, happier, more balanced lives.

What do you think? Are you in the same boat as me? What shall we do about it?

Look at that; I created myself another project 🙂


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