spend time on autopilot

Spending Our Days on Autopilot

“We spend much of our day on autopilot – not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work.”

 

Good habits are everything, but they are hard to develop without deliberate, conscious effort. Bad habits, on the other hand, spring out of nowhere and are always ready to creep into your life. When we spend time on autopilot and fail to recognize how much time we lose to TV, to our smartphones, or to the snooze button, we start to allow bad habits more space to creep into our lives. Living on autopilot encourages us to do easy things, and to default toward limited action rather than put effort into things that take effort but in the end provide more value.

 

Newport’s solution to our autopilot days is to literally, “schedule every minute of your day.” We can schedule time for deep work, we can schedule time to do the important things around the house that need to get done, and we can schedule time for TV or scrolling through the internet on our phones. If we try to schedule out what we are doing and when, we can start to think about how we spend our time and begin to redirect ourselves toward more meaningful activities. Scheduling our full day, not just our workday, will give us a chance to jump out of autopilot, to stop moving through the motions each day, and to use our time meaningfully.

 

This isn’t to say every minute of the day has to be productive, but it gives us a framework to keep distractions and low value tasks and activities away from the times when we are trying to focus and get important things done. If we find that we have bad habits that waste a lot of time in the morning or early afternoon, we can schedule activities during those times that get us away from the distractions, helping us be more engaged and intentional with the world. Planning is everything if we want to get away from spending our days on autopilot, and if we want to find a balance between excitement, important work, and mindless leisure.
Shutdown Rituals

Shutdown Rituals

What do you do at the end of your work day? Do you just haphazardly save and close out of anything that you happen to be working on during the last 10 minutes of work? Do you glance back through your email one last time and shoot off a couple emails to make sure you got a response in before you left for the day? Do you even sign off for the day or do you just leave the office only to continue checking email and doing tidbits of work here and there for the rest of your evening?

 

One thing about work today is that it can creep into every moment of our lives. It is easy to continue checking your work email all weekend long, to continue to take calls from clients well into the evening, and to hop on for a few minutes here and there when you are off the clock to help take care of something. All of this can be extremely draining, and we can become overly consumed by our work. Living this way pushes our family out, adds a low level of stress to each moment of our day, limits our time for real leisure and disconnection from work, and as Cal Newport puts it in his book Deep Work, prevents our unconscious brain from working through those challenging issues when we are not thinking of them directly.

 

Newport’s solution? Shutdown rituals. For Newport, ending the day with a plan is incredibly important for having a life focused on meaningful things within and outside of work. Shutdown rituals are crucial for setting ourselves up to have a productive workday the following day. If you take some time to gather your thoughts, reflect on what you accomplished, how long it took, and what you wish you had been able to achieve, you will be able to better structure your work and your days. You can plan ahead for the next day to make sure you get the really important thing done and avoid getting stuck on the small unimportant details. Shutdown rituals allow you to evaluate what went well, and where improvements could be made. They also allow you to put your work down, knowing that you have a plan to address the crucial things tomorrow, when your brain is fresh.

 

Newport writes, “Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they’re necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness summarized previously.”
Finding Success Through Structure

What Happens When Your Day Lacks Structure

In the past I have found it incredibly helpful to have fully planned out days. To know what I have going on, what the most important priorities are for my day, and when I am going to buckle down with focus work versus when I am going to sift through emails is a great feeling. When I have thought through what to work on and know I have blocked off sufficient time, I can really do some great work.

 

Without having such planning, each day is a bit of a challenge. Things come to mind as the day passes for what I should work on, but I often float from one task to the next without a great sense for why I am working on any specific thing at any specific moment. This strategy is easy and might work fine when I am not under tight deadlines, but I have run into a real crunch when suddenly remembering a project or task that needs to be done today. Or, when fortunes change and an emergencies pops up, I have been wholly unprepared to deal with the new reality that needs my attention immediately.

 

My last post was all about finding success and finding willpower in a routine that makes you effective. Creating spaces, planning ahead, and developing rituals for deep concentrated work is the best way to ensure that you can do hard things continuously. This structure is important, and Cal Newport describes it in more detail in his book Deep Work, “without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard.”

 

Whether you work as part of an organization, lead a campaign, or work as a solo entrepreneur, you need time for deep work. You also need to think about what each day is going to entail and have a plan to get the most important work done. Spending a few minutes thinking about what is most important and what you should be focusing on at what time can help free up the mental energy and space required to get into deep work. Having to think continuously about what you should be doing at any moment is exhausting and will lead you to flutter around at a shallow level with your work. If you haven’t yet developed an effective structure to approach your day, you are missing out on being effective and finding a sense of stillness in doing the important work that needs attention.
Don't let standing meetings become too much

Watch Out For Standing Meetings

For teams working on diverse projects and diverse tasks within projects, standing meetings can be important. It is often necessary to get the important decision-makers in a room to discuss updates, progress, hurdles, plans, and challenges. At the same time, however, these meetings can overwhelm our schedules leaving individuals with too many meetings and not enough time for work.

 

Cal Newport, in his book Deep Work, answers the question: Why do these meetings persist even when they have become overwhelming and overbearing on our schedules?

 

They’re easier. For many, these standing meetings become a simple (but blunt) form of personal organization. Instead of trying to manage their time and obligations themselves, they let the impending meeting each week force them to take some action on a given project and more generally provide a highly visible simulacrum of progress.”

 

Rather than really working on goals and objectives, standing meetings allow us to pick marginal work targets on a flexible, rolling weekly basis. The work done (or planned) from week to week might not actually be an important step forward, but it can feel like something and we can vocalize that we have at least done something during the previous week.

 

Newport doesn’t suggest killing all meetings, but rather using our meeting time more wisely and cutting meetings when they are in the way. If we find that meetings are not really providing us much useful planning, and if the topics discussed at a regularly scheduled meeting don’t seem to have much weight, we should remove it from the schedule. If it is helping us with planning and staying on track, and if we are using the meeting to its full potential, then it is worth keeping. The key is planning and focusing outside of the meeting, ensuring that when we do meet, we are not wasting time but actually addressing important topics and setting concrete steps to make meaningful progress on our objectives.
Reschedule Your Email

Move Email to the Periphery

Email is the default busy work for most people today. I currently don’t receive a lot of emails, but in a previous role I was frequently inundated with emails, and a few days out of the office undoubtedly resulted in hundreds of unread emails to sort through. With so many messages coming it at every moment, and with so many people receiving, reading, and replying to emails all around us, it feels like checking and answering email is an important part of our jobs.

 

The reality is often that email is one of the least productive and least meaningful tasks for us to engage with. I have always like the idea that there are four types of tasks (an idea we can apply to emails): 1) Urgent and Important, 2) Urgent but Unimportant, 3) Non-urgent but Important, and 4) Non-urgent and Unimportant. Many of the emails that we spend time with fall into categories 2 and 4, and consequentially our action on those emails doesn’t provide much benefit to ourselves or anyone else.

 

With a better system we can move email to the periphery of our work, rather than keeping it at the center where it is continuously monitored throughout the day. This approach is difficult and takes real planning to implement if you are used to being on top of your email at every moment. For many of us, our day starts by checking every email first thing in the morning and we default to an easy strategy of trying to keep the inbox clear whenever we have a second to check it.

 

Changing away from this default would require deliberate action on our end. Cal Newport sums it up in his book Deep Work, “If e-mail were to move to the periphery of your workday, you’d be required to deploy a more thoughtful approach to figuring out what you should be working on and for how long. This type of planning is hard.”

 

A solution that I found helpful for managing emails went like this. First thing in the morning I would log in and quickly scan my emails. Email that was obviously unimportant I would archive. I used Gmail and had Boomerang, which allowed me to make emails disappear from my inbox and show up at a later time when I could address those issues that were non-urgent. Any email that was important and urgent I would review to see whether it truly needed action at this moment or not. If it didn’t, I could use Boomerang to have the email come back to me at an appropriate time.

 

After lunch each day I scheduled 1 hour of admin time for myself. During this time I would address the non-urgent but important emails that needed a response from me, or that I did need to be aware of. I would also use this admin time to schedule the remainder of my day and the first half of the next day (or longer if possible). I could estimate the time needed for me to focus on specific tasks, and block time on my schedule to handle those tasks, with an hour admin block after lunch for the following day for more planning.

 

This was a tough schedule that required focus and effort to maintain, but during the day I could reliably concentrate on important tasks. My mind was not constantly trying to ask whether I was working on the right thing, and I didn’t have to try to remember emails I had clicked in earlier. I improved over time at estimating how much time I would need for certain tasks, and I could routinely adjust for meetings and interruptions as needed. I got a lot done, and I kept up with email just fine, even though I only spent a small amount of time on email in the morning, and sent a lot of emails straight to archive.
Solving for Productivity

Solving For Productivity

My general sense, from working at a health-tech start-up to my time in government, is that we under-invest in how to be productive. I recognize that everyone will have different preferences, different abilities, and different thinking styles, but I have seen plenty of areas in which we could improve the how and when of our schedules to make ourselves more productive. We can level this up from individual level decision making around productivity into group levels of productivity to really improve our organizations.

 

In the start-up world I saw individuals who were incredibly productive, but who also seemed to work for 12 or more hours every day. This is impressive, but not very sustainable and not something that could scale. In government I have seen people face mountains of work, but fail to prioritize and schedule appropriately to focus their work. Both examples highlight the importance of how we approach our productivity and why we should have more discussions about planning, schedule design, and deep work if we are going to improve our productivity as individuals and organizations.

 

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses these issues directly. He shares a story about a business school professor named Adam Grant, who produces a prodigious amount of work in terms of New York Time’s best selling books, academic journal articles, and award winning courses at his University. Newport met Grant who shared with him a PowerPoint outlining strategies for academics to become highly productivity and effective. As Newport states it, Grant, and the professors who developed the PowerPoint, “See productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve.”

 

This is the exact opposite of the productivity strategies I have seen in my two careers. The commendable start-uppers burning the midnight oil seemed to mostly just throw themselves at every project until they were spread too thin and slowed down other operations. Conversely, many of the people I have seen in government simply give in, arguing that there is too much work and not enough manpower to manage it all. Neither see their effectiveness and productivity in a scientific sense, adding variables and completing formulas to find their maximum (sustainable) productivity.

 

Newport encourages us to think about how we do our work and what work we prioritize. His suggestions also seem to be in line with recommendations from Dan Pink’s book When. From Grant, Newport learned, “batching of hard, but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.” This can take place at “multiple levels” according to Newport who demonstrates how an academic can batch teaching into one semester and research into another semester. In our own lives, we can batch important analytical work into our productive and focused mornings, and we can save emails and rote paperwork for our afternoon struggle-bus hour.

 

We might be tempted by Newport’s advice to just double down on our hard work and extend our working hours. But this is not the best strategy for the best performance. Newport explains a lesson he learned while researching his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, “The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration – radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.”

 

If we see a mountain of work and shrink from it, or if we see a mountain of work and blindly throw ourselves at it, our end result is not going to be the best possible outcome. What we need to do is think about how we can be the most productive in tackling the task in front of us. We need to think strategically and scientifically about our approach, batching the complex focus work into periods of productivity, and saving the less important work for the time when our brains have maxed out on their focus ability. This is something that leaders of all organizations should be encouraging and teaching to those they lead, otherwise they hold onto the secrets of good work, and allow those who work with them to flounder about in front of the challenges of work in the 21st century. By adding a little more time to planning and thinking strategically for how we work, we can make adjustments to kickstart our productivity. By giving ourselves realistic challenges and knowing when to say no, we can ensure that all of our work is the best we could possibly produce.

Asking Others What They Really Want

The Coaching Habit is Michael Bungay Stanier’s book about how to become a more effective coach and help the people you work with, manage, or coach to become the best version of themselves possible. His book is full of both theory and practical applications, looking at psychology and building on his own coaching experiences and experiments. One of the suggestions that Bungay Stanier includes in his book is to ask people what they really want and help them build an understanding of what is at the core of their motivations and desires.

 

Bungay Stanier presents what he calls “The Foundation Question” as a tool to help build the ground to understand the direction that people want to go and start a conversation about why people are focused in a specific direction. Getting to the heart of someone’s desires will reveal a lot and will help prepare a road map toward the goals that go along with those desires. In the book, he writes,

 

“What do you want? I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: sightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer. We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question “But what do you really want?” will typically stop people in their tracks.”

 

It is hard for us to be self-aware and reflective enough to really know what we want, but it is even harder for us to be able to then take our desires and package them in a way that we can explain to other people. Beginning a process of thinking about what we really want and what drives us will shed light on how frequently we are motivated by selfish interests and meaningless definitions of success. Often our motivations are driven by someone else, outside ourselves, that we want to impress or whose standards we feel we need to live up to. Working through these complex emotions and desires with another person can be a way to help them get on a more stable and productive path. Bungay Stanier’s question can reveal a lot of fear and a lot of goals that sound great but have self-defeating motivations. The Foundation Question helps determine the starting point from which we can build better goals and align work and habits to achieve those goals.

Building Habits

In my last post, I described the ways in which much of our life happens on auto-pilot in habitual decisions and actions that often don’t register with our conscious mind. Not everything we do needs to be a conscious action (think about how tired your brain would become if you had to focus on every step you took and how annoyed you would be if you had to think about every blink), but becoming more aware of our unconscious decisions is incredibly valuable for making changes in life. Michael Bungay Stanier looks at the ways we can actually change our habits in his book The Coaching Habit and he identifies five specific components to changing behavior. He writes, “To build an effective new habit, you need five essential components: a reason, a trigger, a micro-habit, effective practice, and a plan.”

 

If we think about our habitual actions that we barely notice, we can see that we will never actually change those habits if we don’t first build self-awareness around our actions and behaviors. It is not enough to just think to ourselves that we want to write more, exercise more, or have a more tidy home. We have to actually recognize what habits are shaping the end state that we want to change. We have to have awareness of a problem, issue, or what could be different, and then we have to dive deeper to understand what it is that causes to the thing we want to change. It all begins and is shaped by a self-awareness that is like pancake batter poured in a single spot. You focus on one thing but your awareness and recognition slowly spreads outward around that one thing.

 

Changing a habitual action requires a reason to change. You may recognize that your house is messy and that it stresses you out. From there you have to recognize something that leads you into the original habit that you want to change. Do you automatically roll out of bed and grab your phone as a flashlight and then find yourself checking emails or Facebook for 30 minutes instead of making your coffee? What can you do to prevent yourself from grabbing your phone? For me, purchasing a flashlight allows me to leave my phone in another room, helping me keep away from habitual morning distraction. This solution is somewhere between a micro-habit and an environmental modification to try to replace the trigger (my phone) that lads to the habit I want to avoid (wasting time online). An important step toward change might be small and may not even seem related to your original habit, but can still shape your behavior in a powerful way. Thinking through these changes and building this awareness is what allows you to create a plan to actually make the changes you want to make.

 

This is a very quick and simplified version of changing a habit, but throughout, you can see the importance of self-awareness in making changes in your life. Habits stick because they go unnoticed. We don’t recognize what it is that drives our unconscious habitual decisions, so we end up with the same habits shaping our same behaviors and actions. We must be aware enough to recognize the change we want, what leads to the behaviors we want to avoid, and think through our actions to plan ahead.

Coaching Tactically and Coaching Strategically

I work for a tech start-up in the heath care space and within our company (at least in our office which is lead by a couple of former Microsoft ninjas) two key buzz words are tactical and strategic. I was not sure exactly what these words meant and how they were used in business until I had a very specific meeting with our site director who was my manager for roughly 6 months. I was in a one-on-one meeting explaining some challenges that I was facing in my role. Every day I was reacting to problems that bubbled up and needed my immediate attention, and I was not quite doing anything that would get ahead of those individual problems or solve the long term issues that grew out of acute problems. My boss at that point described the difference of thinking tactically versus strategically.

 

The daily grind and the individual problems that scream for our attention is the tactical work. The long term planning and insightful problem solving that stops those problems from showing up in the first place is the strategic work. The tactical is important and takes a certain set of skills, but the strategic is the differentiator, what separates the average companies from the excellent companies, what makes the top employees stand out from those who show up each day and punch a clock. What I was learning in that one-on-one was the difference between the two types of thinking, but now when I look back, I’m also able to see the difference in the coaching style that was taking place along those same lines.

 

In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier makes a distinction between two types of coaching, coaching for performance and coaching for development. He describes the two styles and approaches in the following way, “Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. It’s putting out the fire or building up the fire or banking the fire. It’s everyday stuff, and it’s important and necessary.” In this quick quote he is describing tactical coaching. How can you help an employee, colleague, or friend navigate the individual challenges that are popping up in front of them and how can they get through those hurdles? Bungay Stanier continues, “Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, the person who’s managing the fire. This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful.”

 

The second piece is about coaching strategically, helping the individual see not just how to overcome one challenge, but how to adapt and change what they are doing, the process they work with, and how they are approaching obstacles to make them better in the long run. It is a focus on the individual and their growth as opposed to a focus on a problem and how to address that problem. Thinking strategically requires awareness and an understanding of common threads between problems and issues. When you coach strategically, that is what you are trying to build in the other person. You are working with them to find the areas of growth that will connect the dots in their own life and story, and you are working with them to shift their perspective to solve long term problems, build successful habits, and move beyond immediate issues. This is what my boss was doing with me when he explained the difference between thinking tactically in my daily work and angling myself and my operations to be more strategic.

Plan To Be Resilient

The most well designed systems have back-ups. Major buildings have back-up power generators, sports teams have back-up athletes, and companies have back-up computer drives. The reason  that all these back-up exist is because plans fail, infrastructure breaks, and people make mistakes. Designing the best building, coaching the best team, and creating  the best company requires that we think about what will happen when things go wrong, so that we can bounce back quickly, stay on track, and make sure the lights stay on. If back-ups are part of the best teams, buildings, and companies, shouldn’t they also be part of our plans when we try to design and create the best possible lives for ourselves?

 

Michael Bungay Stanier thinks so. He quotes Jeremy Dean’s book Making Habits, Breaking Habits in his own book The Coaching Habit to talk about how to build resilience into your plans and goals for changing habits. We already know that the best engineers and the best designers and planners of buildings, boats, and barbecues expect that things will go wrong and that you will need back-ups to make sure your building power is not gone for good, to make sure your boat can still get you out of the storm, and to make sure your grill doesn’t blow up. It is important to see that no matter how well we plan our own life, we will still need back-ups so that when things go wrong our life doesn’t explode and leave us without a way to come back together.

 

Bungay Stanier writes, “Plan how to get back on track. When you stumble–and everyone stumbles–it’s easy to give up. … What you need to know is what to do when that happens. Resilient systems build in fail-safes so that when something breaks down, the next step to recover is obvious.”

 

In my own life I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I will do to be resilient. I spend a lot of time thinking about how awesome I am and how I am obviously going to crush-it and achieve my goals the first time. I spend less time thinking about what I am going to do to still be successful or achieve my desired outcome if for some reason my initial plan does not work out. What I end up doing for myself, without recognizing it, is failing to set myself up to be resilient in the face of challenges and obstacles.

 

This is not the first time I have written about the benefits of thinking ahead to the challenges and roadblocks that we might face on our journey. I have written about Richard Wiseman’s recommendation that we look ahead and anticipate the road blocks that we will face on our journey. By expecting challenges and then writing about how we will overcome those challenges, we are planning to be resilient. Rather than looking ahead and just expecting easy success and wins, we can look ahead to the obstacles we must overcome and build a plan to reach those. When we fail, which we know we will, we can have a plan in place so that we only fall one rung on the ladder, and don’t land on our butt at the bottom, paralyzed and unable to restart our climb.