What work really is, or 17 things I learned about productivity in 2017

1.  Workflow (as a defined process of tools and methods and routines) is different than work-flow or working in flow or flowing (as a state of mind in which work is focused, fluid, absorbing and fulfilling).

Workflow depends on a lot of things, like apps and your playlist and your tools and updates and wifi speed and battery life and deadlines and email dings and so on. Working in flow depends on one thing only, and that’s your ability to force yourself to tune out the distractions, the discomforts, and self-doubts and mental denials until you push far enough inward to reach that place where you are working, really working, flowing in your work and at that point nothing matters: the tools, the timing, the whatever. You’re going to do the work regardless of what’s available in terms of your workflow.

2. Flow is fun, a lot more fun than the (usually) procrastinatory, overly detailed nature of tweaking your workflow.

I love thinking about systems and efficiency and setting up tools and tweaking methods and so on. But it’s one thing, and work is another.

When you finish up a session of working/flowing, you’ve gotten something done, whereas when you finish up a few hours or tweaking your tools and processes you have, generally, a) no tangible results to show for it and b) a higher accumulated level of self-loathing/self-doubt as a result of “working” without producing any tangible result. I’m not saying you should have increased self-loathing/self-doubt as a result of spending time on your process and tools (Why should you? What good does it do?), I’m just saying that’s often the result.

It’s a compensatory relationship that doesn’t make any sense when you pull it into the cold hard light of logic.

Punishing yourself with an increased amount of self-loathing to make up for “wasting time” on tweaking your workflow without any tangible production to show for your effort doesn’t cancel out or validate anything, but we tend to get wrapped up in these emotional/psychological cycles without asking why or what they’re all about.

3. What’s happening on the inside matters more than what’s happening on the outside.

This one is true about everything in life, and it’s true about working and productivity.

Where’s your head at? That’s what matters.

Are you clear on what you want to do? Do you know for sure you want to do it? Is the next step forward sizzling in your mind, or are you fighting your way through a gray fog of uncertainty?

If you’ve got a clear next-step vision, you can push your way through any number of exterior distractions or obstacles. But if you’re not clear, if the sizzle is rained out by chronic stress or discouragement or exhaustion or disappointment or whatever, the best environmental conditions won’t make up for it. The moments/hours you spend getting your Self (the inner mental real you) straightened out will always pay you back in clarity which leads to energy which leads to focus which leads to getting shit done and (oh yeah) having fun doing it (see “flow”).

4. There are a lot of ways to do things.

You can learn from the way other people do things but ultimately you have to find your own way, the way that is good for you, and do it. Maybe it is just like some other (successful) person’s way of doing the thing or maybe it is different, brand-new, some weird hybrid, who cares, it doesn’t matter, if it works for you then it works for you and that’s the only test it needs to pass.

5. Most of what you do in a day is not important.

Details fill up your time and that’s okay, you don’t have to be doing Something Important all the time (really, what’s more important than, say, Breathing, which you ARE doing all the time, so keep that up, good job). Knowing that you’re not often/usually doing Something Important is good, however, because if what you’re doing is Not So Important then you don’t have to stress or argue or freak out about it. You can relax. Isn’t that nice.

6. Almost nothing is truly urgent.

Yet urgency will always rule you if you let it.

7. We all need to practice the pause.

The more rushed you are, the more you need the pause. I shared a little more about this concept in the mammoth post 32 ways to Increase Your Productivity by Vlad Khvatov.

Don’t rush into your day, don’t rush into a meeting, don’t hurry into an agreement, don’t follow a trail of urgency from one action to the next reaction. Urgency-fueled action hardly ever leads to productivity. Implement the pause. Pause before you begin. Think about what you want to do. Pause before you attend. Do you really need to be there? Pause before you agree. [Read more in Vlad’s post (along with a lot of other tips & insights).]

8. Focus matters, but creativity benefits from cross-breeding.

For example, I work better and enjoy my work more if I have multiple projects going on. I also like reading multiple books at the same time. There’s a creativity cross-breeding effect for me that helps me get through the boring sloggy parts, when they occur, and also keeps me from putting too much weight/worry on any particular project.

Of course, too many projects at one time can backfire. Too many projects means you can’t make much progress on any one, and that becomes discouraging really fast and then slows down your momentum. So there’s a balance.

9. Good tools make work more pleasant and easier (and often faster) but they’re not required.

So they’re a good investment but not an absolute necessity.

The only absolutely necessary tool for working is your brain, I guess, because even if you don’t have a notebook handy or a guitar to play on, you can mentally think about plot and character and play with a paragraph’s wording or a blog post’s outline, or you can mentally cycle through the chords to that song or tap out the fingering.

You can do a surprising amount of work this way and then – the fun part – when you get back to your tool(s), you’re ready to go, zipping into the work with the mental part (the most difficult part) already partially or mostly completed.

10. Routines and rituals keep you grounded and give you a structure to lean on.

That’s especially good when you’re emotionally overwhelmed or physically exhausted or mentally undone or whatever.

11. There’s a rhythm to the routines and rituals that work best for you and it’s good to find and follow the rhythms that are energizing and joyful for you.

The rhythms create those balances of work/rest, focused work/percolating, effort/play, socializing/solitude, physical/mental, so on, that make up your days and your life. As much as possible, find and follow the rhythms that work for you.

As much as possible, don’t impose your rhythms on other people; just stick to them for yourself and let others find their own way.

As much as possible, do not let yourself/time be owned by other people’s rhythms (or lack thereof).

12. The things that contribute most to your productivity may not seem important at all or work-related at all or like an official anything that you can justify spending time on.

But they do matter, don’t they? For me, these are things like taking a walk, getting time alone, meditating, reading… What? That’s not work. Right. But these actions feed me, boost my energy, help bring clarity which leads to focus, and so on. Worth the time, every time.

13. Making a long list of whatever’s in my brain is still one of the best things I know to do.

When I feel overwhelmed or excited but not sure where to start or worried but not sure why, a list helps me get it out and sort it out. Sometimes all I do is write it down and throw it away. Whenever you want to work or feel like you should work, but don’t know how to start/encounter resistance, making a list can help.

14. Everything can change in an instant.

You can feel like you’re stuck, or you can feel like you’re working so hard with no progress, or you can feel like nothing you do matters, or you can feel bored with everything about your life/work. You can feel bored, depressed, lethargic, hopeless, and stuck.

And everything can change in an instant.


15. Intention and control are different beasties.

Intention is being deliberate and conscious of what you think, feel, speak, do, focus on. Where you send your energy. What you create in your mind and how you use your skills to bring it forth into the world. Control, on the other hand, is the inversion, the negative of intention. It’s you reaching, grasping, attempting to exert force on the consciousness and choices of others. That’s none of your business. Stay out of it.

Release control and settle into your intentions, and let your intentions set your focus for your actions and see that pronoun that keeps recurring? Your, you, yours. You can’t have intention for what someone else will feel, think, speak, do, choose. You can only have intention for yourself, and, from that intention, begin the next logical action. Take the next step.

And the next step forward for you will always be better, smoother, and easier if you’re not tied down and wrapped up trying to control others and what their next steps are going to be.

16. When it comes to what you really want to do in life, your true work, your heart-work, the real work that is in you and waiting for you: fear and desire are the same thing.

As long as the fear is bigger than the desire, you’ll be stuck. You’ll procrastinate, your circumstances won’t allow it, you’ll always find new skills or tools or other requirements that you need first, you’ll commit yourself to shadow-work that is close but not quite what you want to do.

When the fear and the desire equalize, you’ll start moving forward only to feel like you lose all your progress. You’re in stasis. You’ll take some risks and do some of the real work, only to give up, pull it back in, downplay it, let your self-doubt eat it up, hide it, disbelieve it, take it back. You’ll ignore the open door to stand there pounding on the closed one.

It’s okay; it’s all part of the process.

When your desire (which has been growing and clarifying) outweighs your fear, things will start to happen. Little things that are actually big things. Pay attention, friend. Pay attention. Nurture the desire. Starve the fear, ignore it, put your fingers in your ears and sing la la la la la as you move forward.

17. Let what you learn from others help you but do not let it limit you.

Feedback is great. Learning from others is great. Reading about your heroes is great. Researching methods and tools, work practices and success strategies is great. Finding out what your target market wants is great. Reading the data and doing the polls and looking at the statistics, great.

But eventually it’s you and the work and you have to let all of that information fade into kind of a background hum. It can inform you but if you let it direct you, you will fail to do the work that you really want to do.

The work you really want to do and are uniquely equipped to do must come from you.

Be informed, be knowledgeable, be humble and learn, learn, learn. Then be audaciously confident and do what you want to do anyway, even if it doesn’t fit the market research, even if it isn’t how your heroes work, even if no one approves or understands.

This is a dance. Some of the steps you can learn from watching others, but it’s not until you let go of the instructions and lose yourself in the rhythm and flow of it that it begins to zing and snap and flower out into something bigger than you even imagined. Keep at it.