Eight questions about routines and productivity

Every day. For decades. These are the four most intimidating words I’ve ever written

A few weeks ago. Sujan Patel reached out to me. He’d seen the post containing those four words on Quora. He liked it. He asked me if I wanted to contribute to an article he was updating. “Sure,” I said. “I’d love to.” So he sent me over some questions. Snippets of my answers got included in the finished article, Daily Routine of Fortune 500 Leaders

But I thought it’d be cool to post the full answers I provided here. Some mention ideas I’ve previously written about. Some offer new insights. But all are things I’ve learnt about the process of working and creating over the last few years. I hope you find these ideas as useful as I have.

1. What’s your best tip for making the most of your commute? 

Every day, we’re bombarded by words. By people and organisations clamouring for our attention and money. We’re surrounded by people trying to tell us and sell us stuff. For most people, the commute is the only time in the week where they’re alone, amongst strangers. “Perfect,” say productivity gurus. “You can use that time to listen to a podcast, send emails, or stretch your mind by reading a book.” Don’t listen to them.

Negative space is a central concept in art. Imagine a canvas painted completely black. That is what the absence of negative space looks like. It’s not a picture. It’s a block of colour. In our lives, we have little negative space left. Every minute is devoted to the pursuit of some quantifiable outcome. It doesn’t need to be like that. Like a spring that spends too long being compressed, we need to unburden ourselves from the weight of incoming information in order to retain our springiness. So maybe, today, as you drive to work, turn off the radio. Sit in silence. Spend some time just being a human being. 

2. What’s your best tip for avoiding long periods of sitting or inactivity during the day? (standing desks, breaks every X minutes, etc.) 

As Katy Bowman points out in Move Your DNA, sitting isn’t the problem. It’s spending extended periods of time in a single position. In Gregory Robert’s Shantaram, he describes the Standing Babas. People who have taken a vow to never sit again. They spend their entire lives on their feet, and as a result, their legs are swollen and they have to endure tremendous pain. 

Yes, sitting is bad for us. But standing isn’t the cure. Variety of position is. So spend some time sitting, some time standing, some time walking around, some time crouching and some time kneeling. Change levels and change position many times throughout the day.

3. 31 Million Americans skip breakfast, even though it’s benefits are widely-known. What’s your best tip for making sure you eat breakfast in the morning? 

There’s a few solutions. Some slightly more meta than the others. Usually, breakfast is neglected because of time constraints. If it takes you to thirty minutes to make and eat breakfast, the obvious solution is to go to bed and get up thirty minutes earlier. Or you can cut down the time required for breakfast by preparing something the night before. If you want to have an omelette, get the eggs and vegetables prepped and in the fridge, ready to go in the morning. 

If time isn’t the problem, then chances are, the problem has psychological roots. You feel impatient. You want to start your day. You want to get to work. To catch up. To stay ahead. There’s no quick fix for this. You have to evaluate your entire approach to work. Is answering emails more important that eating breakfast? Will the world collapse if you just sit and slow down for twenty minutes? Probably not. So relax. You’ve got time for some toast.

4. Do you agree that it’s best to do your hardest work at the beginning of the day, ie. ‘set the day’s pace by eating a frog’? Why or why not? 

Sun Tzu put it best when he said “morning energy is keen, midday energy slumps, evening energy recedes.” But the mornings shouldn’t be used for the hardest work. They should be spent 1) creating, being proactive instead of reactive, or 2) doing the thing that most moves the needle in your life or business. On the highest leverage activities. Which doesn’t necessarily mean the “hardest” thing.

5. What’s your best tip for avoiding distracting communication like email, text messages, etc. when you’re trying to be productive? 

Imagine you’re trying to lose weight. There are two ways you can go about it. You can go through your cupboards and chuck out all the food you don’t want to eat anymore. Literally, purge it from your life so you never even see it. Or you can keep it there and fight a gruesome battle with your desires and cravings every time you open the cupboard. Which do you think is more effective? Never seeing what you don’t want to eat? Or seeing it and having to fight the impulse every time?

The same applies to distractions. You can maintain an environment in which you are assaulted by push notifications and use your willpower to fight the urge to click, check and scroll. Or you can use some simple apps, tools and structures to create an environment in which distraction is not a problem because it’s an impossibility.

6. What’s your best tip for running efficient, effective meetings that don’t zap everyone’s productivity? 

First, ask yourself two questions: “What would happen if I didn’t go to this meeting? What would happen if this meeting didn’t go ahead?” If the answer to the first question is “nothing” then don’t go. If the answer to the second question is “nothing” then your company needs to rethink it’s approach to meetings.

But if you absolutely, 100% must have the meeting, there’s a very simple way to make it a good one. Appoint a moderator. Someone who has familiarity with the subject matter being discussed but is devoid of any decision making responsibility for the issue at hand. His only job is to keep the participants on track, prevent digressions, encourage dialogue, get contributions from every attendee, stifle ad hominem remarks, and ensure the meeting ends on time. 

And you are setting a time limit right? You do know about Parkinson’s law?

7. Do you have any personal development projects that you think keep you sharp for your day-to-day work? 

Write every day. Even if you’re not a professional writer. You can publish on a blog or keep it confidential and write in a diary or journal. It doesn’t matter. Writing every day compels you to pay attention. To look closer. To notice more. To be more conscious of the moments that are falling through your hands like grains of sand. To be more aware of life as it passes you by. This increased sense of mindfulness and attention doesn’t exactly harm your ability to do great work.

8. What’s your best tip for winding down and relaxing at the end of the day?

First, create a bookend at the finish of each day. Have one simple activity you do every afternoon or evening that signals the end of your day. It could be as simple as shutting down your laptop and putting it in your bag. Personally, I take out a 4×6 index card, jot down what I need to do tomorrow and place it on my desk.

After you’ve created a bookend, I find it helpful to switch modes. Most people work with their mind. They spend their days being stimulated mentally. So when work is done, it’s refreshing to be physically stimulated. Play a sport, weight lift, do some yoga. It’s easier to switch your mind off of work when you occupy it with physical effort.