Identify the problem!

Is there a habit you just can’t seem to make stick? Or is there a task you just don’t tackle no matter what? It may be time to identify the problem!

When you’re struggling with a habit or a project, there is usually a very specific reason holding you back. You may try all kinds of approaches, but until you identify the concrete issue, you’re unlikely to resolve it.

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Try this: Make a possibilities list

Do you hate to-do lists? Do you feel suffocated by deadlines? Try this instead.

Different things work for different people. Over the past two weeks, I’ve been suggesting different strategies that may work for you. If the traditional strategies such as to-do lists, schedules, deadlines, and accountability buddies don’t work for you, then this may be just the right thing for you!

Continue reading “Try this: Make a possibilities list”

How I motivate myself to work on my PhD

If you haven’t heard, there’s a pandemic going on, and now the holiday season is also upon us. These things are timely and feel immediate (i.e., they are here right now), while my PhD doesn’t feel so urgent.

I noticed a few months ago that I didn’t feel much urgency related to my work. I thought, “I’m getting back in the groove of things, I still have 1.5 years until I need to finish my PhD, it’s all good, that’s loads of time.” That’s all fine, but time is ticking away. If I don’t focus and work now, I’ll be pressed for time later.

I needed to make my PhD work feel more urgent. But how to do that without any pressing deadlines? While February 2022 (the end of my PhD contract) keeps gradually coming closer, it’s still too far away to give me a tangible feeling of immediacy.

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Create a system instead of searching for motivation

With so many people working from home during the COVID19 pandemic, finding motivation is an extremely common obstacle right now. Many of us are struggling to do our work, and we wonder why.

We assume that it’s due to a lack of motivation. “I’m less productive than usual, so it must be because I don’t care enough about my goals or because I’m not trying hard enough.”

But we miss the fact that we’re not in our usual work space, and our work habits have been disrupted. Literally nothing about our work life is the same: we don’t go to the office anymore, we don’t have set working hours, we aren’t using our comfortable work stations, and we don’t meet our colleagues, at least not physically.

Instead, we’re at home. (This refers to those of us working from home, clearly.) If we have a laptop, technically, we should be able to do everything we were doing before, so we expect the same productivity as before. But that’s not fair.

We may find it confusing to be working from home if we usually see home as a relaxation zone or simply a non-work zone. We may not have a working space set up at home, and our laptop may not be as convenient to work on as our work station. In addition, we may not have silence and/or we may be getting interrupted by the people we live with if we have a partner or children.

Alternatively, we may be lonely or bored. If we live by ourselves, we may have complete silence and calm, and that may be part of the problem. Perhaps we need the stimulation provided by many people working in the same physical space. What’s more, a coffee break or lunch break with a colleague provides much-needed social interaction, while also reinforcing the feeling that we’re at work.

Lots and lots of things have changed in the way we’re working right now. Sure, our motivation may be lower as well, but that’s probably not the main issue. Instead, we’d do well to address the changes by creating a system that gets us going.

Create temporal boundaries

Many people benefit from having specific times of day for working such as set working hours. This creates a separation between home and work even though the physical separation is not there right now.

To make this more tangible, in addition to giving yourself working hours, schedule something outside of those times: a call with a friend, a walk by yourself, or an online exercise session. In this way, you’ll actually have to stick to your self-imposed working hours because you have other things happening outside them.

For couples with kids where both parents are working from home, setting up shifts can be very helpful. One parent may work for 3-4 hours in the morning while the other parent takes care of the kids, and vice versa in the afternoon.

Whenever possible, try to create new work-related routines. In preparation for your workday (or shift), you may put on your work clothes, make a cup of coffee, and sit down at the same makeshift workstation every day. Then, once your work time is over, you can change into your home clothes, go for a walk, read a book, or cook dinner.

Create a physical workspace

If you have the opportunity, create a physical workspace for yourself. It’s great if you can work in the same workstation every day, thus distinguishing between ‘work’ and ‘home,’ which is the rest of your house.

Try to limit interruptions while you’re working. Leave your phone in a different room or on a high shelf and stop yourself from accessing social media (use an extension in your browser if necessary). Ask your partner and/or kids not to disturb you while you’re working (easier said than done… haha).

Create accountability

Many people need to feel accountable to someone or something in order to complete a task. Their own desire to do something may not be strong enough to propel them to action, but if they know someone else expects them to do something, they do it.

The most straightforward type of accountability is to have a supervisor you report to. You know what work they expect you to do, so you do it. In order for this to work, the supervisor needs to be familiar enough with your work and needs to check in often enough. Also, there need to be some sort of consequences that take place if you don’t complete something on time. For some people, simply not meeting an agreement is motivating enough; others may need more tangible consequences.

A buddy or a support group can also be a good source of accountability. You and a colleague may team up to tell each other what you’re going to work on today or this week and then revisit what you’ve accomplished at the end of the day or week. Support groups can work similarly where people share what they’re working on and then review their successes and challenges.

Whatever type of accountability you choose, make sure it works for you. You need to feel that someone is counting on you and that there is a real expectation that you will do your work. For more info on creating accountability, check out Gretchen Rubin’s extensive suggestions here.

Remember your ‘why’

Finally, remind yourself of why you’re doing this work. What are you trying to accomplish? Why is it important? Why do you find it interesting? What do you like about your work and why are you the right person to do it?

Once you connect to your ‘why,’ use the momentum and get going.

What helps you get your work done in these unusual times?

How to be productive with a newborn

Our son just turned 12 weeks! Last week, I described how I went back to the basics of time management when he was born. I also went to the very basics of task management, and it’s been super effective.

Many new tasks came up when our little boy was born: order diapers, fill out the form for his daycare, read an article on his development, etc. I started jotting these down since I didn’t want anything to slip through my fingers.

Usually, I advocate the GTD approach where tasks are sorted by context: some need to be done on the laptop or my phone, others in my sons room or in the kitchen. The logic is that when you find yourself in the specific context, you can check the respective list and see what tasks you can do there.

With my newborn, however, I found it more helpful to have one list. I’m not sure why; perhaps because my different contexts were pulled more closely together by my being home with him. I began keeping one list on my phone with the creative name ‘General Tasks.’ I’d arrange the tasks on it in terms of which I wanted to tackle next. It was very easy to open up my list whenever I got a moment and see what task I could tackle at that time. This list served as a catch-all place for the tasks that had crossed my mind at some point.

I also added tasks on the bottom of the list such as ‘Organize a photoshoot in the spring’ with a due date of April 1. These are quite far in the future still, but they will come on to my plate in due time. Since I don’t have that many tasks on the list, it doesn’t feel overwhelming to have these longer-term tasks on there too. If at any time it becomes too much, I’ll move them to my ‘Someday Tasks’ list.

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the ‘Today’s Want To Do’ list, and that’s different from the ‘General Tasks’ list. The General Tasks list includes tasks that I’d like to get done sometime, in the near or far future. I’d consult the General Tasks list whenever I had time on my hands to do something. Today’s Want To Do list is really about what I hope to accomplish today.

It’s interesting how when things became more chaotic, I simplified my system. Perhaps that’s because it feels like I’m doing more task management at this point than project management (i.e., I don’t have many separate projects but rather it all more or less revolves around one project). I’m sure this will change when William becomes associated with more ‘projects’ and also when I go back to work.

But for now, simplicity works like a charm. At least one aspect of my life is not chaotic 🙂

Photo credits: Ani Manahova (a.k.a. my mom)

Identifying the problem at work

I am currently giving a bootcamp course on organization and time management at the Donders Institute where I work. About twenty researchers get together every Friday afternoon, and we discuss the tools and strategies we’re using to organize our days and tasks.

I usually give some suggestions or tools for people to try. One of the simplest but, it turns out, most helpful ideas so far has been to identify the problem. When you’re having trouble with something, try to honestly see what’s getting in the way.

I was surprised to hear how many people found this trick helpful. One person said she used it to successfully write a difficult part of her paper. She noticed that she was procrastinating writing, and usually she would have just avoided it for as long as possible. This time, she asked herself what was stopping her, and she realized she didn’t have all the necessary technical information to write the part about her methods. To address this, she contacted people who had that information and, once they gave her the necessary details, she continued with her writing.

Another person was struggling to read papers regularly. He even scheduled time on Fridays to read but always ended up doing something else instead. Through our discussions, he realized that he needed someone else to count on him to read that paper. He made an agreement with his supervisor that at their weekly meeting she would ask him about the paper he’d read that week. Knowing that his supervisor expected him to read the paper was the push he needed to read papers regularly.

Yet a third person was struggling with his data analysis. He often didn’t know how to proceed and how to do his analysis correctly. He realized that he wasn’t seeking out help when he needed it and was trying to be independent even when it was hurting his performance. He found a course he could take to give him the necessary expertise, and he also got in touch with a research group that has experts on that type of analysis. He hopes that these resources will help him to progress more quickly and correctly with his data analysis.

Identifying the problem is a small step, but it makes it possible to take exactly the right action for a specific issue.

Can you apply this to your work? Have you tried it? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

How to get yourself to do what you intended to do

When you make specific plans about when you’ll complete a desired activity, you’re much more likely to do it. But it’s one thing to plan it and another thing to actually complete it. How do you make sure you follow through with your plans?

Implementation intentions are examples of simple, explicit planning: “If situation X arises, then I will do Y.” I explained this in more detail here (point 1).

Specific plans are great, but how do you make sure you actually do them?

  • Put them on your calendar: Make an event on your calendar. When the time comes, do the activity. It doesn’t get much simpler than that, but it only works if you check your calendar and follow what it says.
  • Set reminders: You can add a reminder to your calendar event. Or you can add a separate reminder. Or you can create a note (e.g., in Google Keep) with a reminder. Alternatively, you can put post-it notes around the house or on your computer monitor. The problem with reminders is that they’re easy to ignore.
  • Set an alarm: An alarm is something you actually have to turn off. It requires an action from your side, or otherwise it will continue making noise. Alarms are more effective than reminders because even if you choose to ignore its message, you still have to physically do something such as press the ‘off’ button.
  • Name your intent clearly: When the alarm goes off to tell you to go to bed, for instance, you need to say out loud what you are going to do now:

“I am getting ready to go to bed. I will read for 15 minutes in bed.”

Or, alternatively, if you choose not to follow the intent of the alarm:

“I am staying here and continuing to look at social media.”

If you change your mind sometimes, that’s okay, but then state that clearly:

“I am staying here for 5 more minutes in order to finish my conversation with my brother. In five minutes, I will get up and get ready for bed.”

This may seem silly, but clearly naming what you are doing and what you are going to do incites action.

  • Track the time you spend on certain tasks: Monitor how long different activities take you. Once you have a realistic idea of how much time you spend on what, you can make purposeful, informed choices about what you do more of and what you do less of.
  • Set practical obstacles that prevent you from doing other (unwanted) things: For example, if you’re trying to limit your time on social media, install an app that limits the amount of time you can spend on those sites/apps.
  • Make it easy to follow through with your intentions: If you’d like to go to the gym, lay out your gym clothes from the day before. If you’re trying to have a healthy meal, make your food beforehand.

You can use one of these tips or combine several to make sure you follow through with your implementation intentions. For instance, now I’m reading before bed every night. I’m using several of these strategies: it’s on my calendar; I have an alarm on my phone to tell me to get into bed; I state my intent clearly; and I’ve put my kindle on my night stand, so it’s easy for me to read. Also, before I started this, I tracked the time I spent reading books for pleasure and was disappointed to see that I wasn’t making a lot of time for that. Now, I’m making some changes, and I’m quickly seeing the amount of time spent reading increase.

How do you make sure you complete the things you’d like to do? Or are there any activities you particularly struggle with? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Do focused work and be responsive to external demands

We are expected to quickly respond to things such as email and personal messages, but we also need to do focused work, for instance when we need to write an important document. We can manage to do both if we set up our day so that it fits our activities and our rhythm. Follow these five steps to find out how.

Do you also get drawn into the craziness of being available all the time? A study by Jackson and colleagues shows that the typical person checks email every five minutes and then, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking the email.

This leads to worse performance for almost all of us; a study by Watson and Strayer shows that only 2% of the population can pay attention to two things at the same time. When we hear this, most of us think we belong to that 2%. Sorry to break it to you, but we probably don’t.

As much as our culture idolizes multitasking, for almost all of us trying to do many things at the same time leads us to perform worse. It looks like we’ll need to put our beloved multitasking to rest and focus on one thing at a time, the old-fashioned way.

We can do both: allow time for focused, uninterrupted work and also respond to external demands. Here’s how.

1. Do one thing at a time

Since we’re not good at multitasking, we need to do what we do well: do one thing at a time. Choose one task to work on for the next 30 minutes of one hour. And commit to it. Set a timer and begin.

Make sure you eliminate distractions during this time. Also close your email app, close any messaging apps, put your phone on silent and out of reach. Close the extra tabs on your browser; they attract your attention, and you may find yourself clicking on them without even noticing. If you habitually open your browser and end up distracting yourself, you can turn off the wifi on your device or even turn it off in your house if you’re working at home.

Observe yourself and learn about your own tendencies. What attracts your attention? What distraction is so irresistible that you end up pursuing it? If you notice what distracts you, you know what you need to address, and then you can come up with a way to minimize it.

2. Set aside blocks of time for certain activities

Make sure you’ll have time for all those other things that are calling your attention. If you keep wondering what’s in your email, schedule time to look at email after you’ve worked on your important task. If you want to check social media, make sure you give yourself 10 minutes to do that after your focused time period is finished.

One way to do this is to schedule specific time blocks for certain activities. For instance:
20181116_153537.jpg

Image credit: Marisha Manahova

Another way is to pair two activities: after you’ve completed the first one, you can do the second one. For example:

“After I’ve worked on my article for 45 minutes,
Then I will look at social media for 10 minutes.”

Knowing that you will get to the activities that are attracting your attention puts your mind at peace. Even if you’re not responding to your emails right now, you will get to them in a hour.

3. Figure out when you have the most energy

It is also important to figure out when is a good time for you to do focused work. Till Roennenberg, author of Internal Time, developed a useful way to figure this out.

On a free day, at what time do you wake up? This doesn’t refer to the day after you’ve been out all night. Rather, if you’ve had a few days when you could go to sleep and get up whenever you wanted, what does your wake up time end up being?

That is your natural wake up time. After that, the body has some sleep inertia (i.e., remaining sleepiness) which lasts for 2-3 hours. Once the sleep inertia has lifted, then your peak energy starts and lasts for about 4 hours. To illustrate this, let’s take an example:

20181116_153910

Image credit: Marisha Manahova

In order to take advantage of your peak energy, you should schedule your main task for the day sometime in that peak energy window. Other tasks, such as email and administrative tasks, can be left for other parts of the day.

4. Set your main task for the day

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, each day should have a main task, also known as an anchor task. This is the most important (and often most difficult) thing you need to do that day. It should be prioritized over other tasks, and you should devote uninterrupted time to it during your peak energy window.

5. Prepare for the next day
At the end of each workday, spend 10 minutes planning the next day at work. Look at your calendar and at your tasks for the next day and decide what would be the best time distribution. What will your anchor task be? Schedule 1.5-2 hours to work on it during your peak energy window. What other 1-3 tasks will you need to work on? These are smaller tasks (i.e., not your anchor task) that still need to get done but are not as important and don’t demand as much attention as your anchor task. Schedule time for those either during your peak energy window or outside it.

Also, schedule time for email, messages, and other external demands. It usually works well to have two time blocks scheduled for that, for instance, one hour right before lunch and one hour at the end of the workday.

Putting it all together

To put this all together, you can take the following steps:

  • Start by figuring out when your peak energy window is;
  • For each day, decide on an anchor (i.e., main) task;
  • Schedule time to work on the anchor task during your peak energy window;
  • Schedule time to work on smaller tasks during other times of the day;
  • Schedule blocks of time for email, messages, external demands, social media, or whatever else tends to call for your attention.

Once you’ve planned out your day, all you need to do is set the timer and get going.

Have you tried this? What did you find? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

Find your peak energy window

By doing difficult or important work in your peak energy window, you can greatly increase your productivity and the quality of your work. Here is how to find out when your peak energy window is.

Have you ever been asked, “Are you a morning person or an evening person?” If so, what did you answer?

While this is a useful question in order to get to know yourself better, the truth is more nuanced than that. Till Roennenberg, author of Internal Time, developed a useful way to think about this. With a couple of simple steps, you can figure out for yourself when your peak energy window is.

Let’s say you’re on vacation; you don’t have to wake up early for work, and you also didn’t stay up too late last night. You went to bed when you got sleepy, and you woke up rested.

On that morning, at what time did you wake up? That is your natural wake up time.

After you’ve naturally woken up, the body has some sleep inertia which lasts for 2-3 hours. Once the sleep inertia has receded, your peak energy window starts and lasts for about 4 hours. To illustrate this, let’s take an example:

Natural wake up time: 8:00
Sleep inertia: 8:00-10:30
Peak energy: 10:30-14:30

In order to take advantage of your peak energy, you should work on the most important task for the day (or the most difficult thing for the day) in that peak energy window. Other tasks, such as email and administrative tasks, can be left for other parts of the day.

So if your natural wake up time is around 8:00 and you start work at 9:00, you’ll be trying to work in the middle of your sleep inertia. It’s not surprising, then, that you can’t get yourself to focus or be productive. You’d be better off doing some simpler tasks until about 10:30 and then starting on the important/difficult task.

You may have noted that lunch falls right in the middle of that peak energy window for most of us. This could be a bit of a waste since many of us experience an after-lunch dip. To minimize it, you may eat a medium-sized lunch instead of a big one since a smaller meal will make you less sleepy. Also, metabolizing carbs tends to make us more sleepy than metabolizing protein or healthy fats, so you may want to minimize carbs at lunch and include more at dinner, for instance.

If you’ve seen my previous blog post about swallowing the frog first thing in the morning, you may be confused: these two blog posts seem to give conflicting pieces of advice. This may very well be the case, and you need to figure out what works best for you. That’s why it’s best to try out both and see how you feel and perform with each.

For someone with an early natural wake up time, doing the important task first thing in the morning may be effective since it coincides with her peak energy window. For someone with a later natural wake up time, however, this would mean trying to work on something difficult during their sleep inertia period, which may not be a great idea.

My natural wake up time is early, so my peak energy window is approximately 9:00-13:00. Often I actually move my lunch to 13:00, so I’ve used all my peak energy time for focused work. In the afternoon, I can focus, but it’s more difficult (unless I have some green or black (!) tea). After 17:00, don’t count on me to concentrate well.

In contrast, I know people who are only really awake from 14:00. A colleague of mine knows this about himself and has purposefully switched his working hours to 12:00-20:00. He does his best work 14:00-18:00. He used to try to work in the mornings, but he ended up not delivering results because half of his days were wasted.

This is why it’s important to figure out when you do your best work and, if you have the possibility, try to adapt your schedule to that. I realize that not everybody has such a flexible schedule, but for those of us who do, it’s a shame not to use such a simple tool.

What is your natural wake up time? Do you experience sleep inertia? When is your peak energy window? Are you able to focus in the afternoon/evening? I’m really curious, so please let me know! Comment below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

My little experiment with “swallowing the frog”

Starting with the most important task of the day every morning for a week made me more satisfied with my work, a little more productive, and a little bit anxious about what was waiting for me in my inbox.

Okay, I did it! For one week, I started with the most important task of the day and worked on it for 1.5-2 hours before checking email, messages, or any other external demands. To see my thoughts on this before I began, read this blog post.

My verdict is that “swallowing the frog” was useful. It was amazing that by 10:00 in the morning, I had done a great deal of work on my most important task of the day. It felt satisfying and calming in a way. No matter what came up during the rest of the day, I had already made remarkable progress with an important work task.

In terms of productivity, I think it helped a little. I managed to get a lot of things done this week, but it’s difficult to say if I would have gotten less done had I not implemented this. The benefit was that once I had the big task out of the way, I had time for many smaller tasks which I probably wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise.

For somebody else who works in a busier environment with more interruptions, this could be a bigger game changer though. If it is really difficult to find uninterrupted time for focused work during the day, getting in that time first thing in the morning can really help. Since I’m doing a PhD, nobody ever really needs me urgently, so I don’t get interrupted that much.

Frog

There’s really no reason to include a picture of a frog, except that I wanted to.

Image credit: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

With that said, it was still strange for me to not check email before starting my work. I had an uneasy feeling: “Who knows what emails I’ve received? Who knows what messages are waiting for me?” Inadvertently, once I checked my emails and messages after my first ~2 hours of focused work, there was nothing urgent there. There were things I had to take note of or respond to, but nothing that I had missed or delayed by not responding a few hours earlier.

Actually, I noticed something interesting. What I sometimes do (in general, not this past week) when I have an important task to work on is that first I quickly check my emails and messages to make sure there’s nothing urgent. Once I assure myself of that, I close my email without responding and begin working on the important task. Intuitively, this should calm me down because I know there’s nothing urgent.

However, in reality, my mind is drawn to those messages. How should I respond? What do I think about this? So instead of focusing entirely on the important task at hand, part of my cognitive resources are drawn towards the emails I just skimmed. This detracts from my focus.

During this past week, I didn’t experience this because I didn’t take a peek at my emails before starting with the task. This turned out to be a very good idea because my attention was entirely devoted to what I was working on. And afterwards when I did check my emails and messages, I responded to them right away without wasting cognitive resources on planning my answers.

For now I’m going to stick with “swallowing the frog.” It felt good to have important work done early in the day, and it boosted my productivity a little. And I will keep working on the struggle of not checking email and messages first thing in the morning. I will probably get used to working in this way and thus feel less anxious about it in a few weeks.

How about you? Have you tried “swallowing the frog” first thing in the morning? If so, does it work for you? What type of workflow works for you in general? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.