Melting the candle

Melting the candle

I remember about three weeks ago, I woke up on a saturday and exclaimed that it was the first time in memory I hadn’t felt tired. I don’t have the best memory, but that’s at least a good 10 years.

Right now I’m exhausted; I managed about three hours sleep last night. I admit it was due to having to get up at 4am to get to the airport, but five hours tends to be normal.

Being a bit OCD for productivity, it’s ironic that getting a good night’s sleep is possibly the most effective productivity strategy available and I suck at it.

The problem lies with trying to fit too much into a day. Rising at 6.30, working hard all day, fitting in evening meetings/events/having fun and then arriving home at 9 or 10 and having three or four hours of “me” time.

The weekends aren’t much better. Wanting to get the most out of them, I’m invariably up pretty early and not asleep before 1am (even without booze).

It’s pretty obvious that there is a problem of short term gain, the self gratifying me-time, that is letting the side down. Even when I’m exhausted, I’ll watch the whole film or an extra episode of whatever life consuming series I’m in to.

There are clearly some solutions to this problem:

  • Stop pissing around and go to bed early.
  • Have naps during the day – I read recently that the Japanese view falling asleep at your desk a sign of commitment to the company.
  • Have a longer day. Mitchell Feigenbaum, winner of the Wolf Prize in Physics for “demonstrating the universal character of non-linear systems, which has made possible the systematic study of chaos”, experimented with a 26 hour day but eventually gave up after not being able to cope with rising to the setting sun. I don’t fancy that too much plus I’m not a mathematical physicist and require reasonable office hours.
  • Dealing with it.
  • Go for a walk. I’m far to tired for that.
  • Other, more creative solutions. However, I’m too tired to think of anymore.

Because of the career choices I’ve made I pretty much always settle with option four: dealing with it.

This leaves me with the question of how to be productive when exhausted.

Here are some of the tried and tested methods of being productive when tired:

  • Stimulants such as coffee, red bull, caffeine tablets and various other (legal) drugs to waken me up. The problem with this method, as any self respecting student will know, is that it is perfect for about four hours of the day and the next four hours in spent sliding into oblivion, each hit not as effective as the last.
  • Fresh fruit and yogurt. I find eating spine tinglingly healthy food a good way to naturally wake me up. A small pot of tastebud shuddering greek yogurt is enough to keep me going for 20 minutes (and is also a great after-lunch-slump fixer). This is slightly more appealing than the caffeine cycle of doom but I find I’m not very hungry when tired. 
  • Make your jobs for the day so easy that a child could do them. This is Getting Things Done (GTD) at its finest. I’m not talking about just doing jobs such as tiding your desk or opening that pile of mail but simplifying your schedule to remove any temptation of procrastination.

I have a finite length of time before I naturally look for procrastination and I’m pretty sure this is directly correlated to how tired/jacked up on caffeine I am. When I’m super tired (like now) it’s about five to ten minutes before I defocus and adopt the thousand yard stare.

It is on days like these that I try to break my workflow into approximately 8-10 minutes.

One of the fundamentals of GTD is to break projects down into 2 minute actionable tasks. I.e. actions that you can physically do such as find number of john, jot down talking points and physically call him rather than just call john.

The problem comes with actions such as polish sales document Y. This is clearly a task that requires a competent level of cognitive effort at the best of times and frankly impossible after a mere 3 hours sleep.

I actually go to the extent of creating actions that say “review sentence A, B & C and note done if anything needs changed” (not what needs changed just that it does). Task done.

Then go back and note down what needs changed. Task done.

Then I attack each individual item that needs changed. If I can’t think of a better way to fix it after 8 Minutes (2 minutes on task and 6 minutes regretting watching that really shit 3 star IMDB rated film) I give myself two options:

  • Do something else
  • Write down the reasons why I can’t fix it.

If it’s option 2 then I explore the reasons for not being able to fix it. Invariably it’s because I’ve clumped multiple actions together so I split them up.

If I still can’t work out why I’m not being able to fix it, I highlight it and do something else.

I know it’s a bit ridiculous to micromanage myself like this but it’s very effective when zombied. Before I know it, I’ve smashed 40 tasks and it’s only 11am.

The other option is to low effort tasks. The beauty of GTD is that it makes you apply an effort rating to your tasks across your project (I tend to rate tasks 1 – 5 for effort required).

Minimum effort tasks (1/5) are important but they tend to be online research / reading / watching ted talks / writing emails to friends or updating details across accounts.

Looking at my GTD app (Things) I currently have 26 minimum effort tasks ranging from buying a book on Amazon to review 50 different blurred backgrounds for a micro app header background.

For me this is almost magic. I’m doing procrastination activities that actually move many of my projects forwards! I’m being productive being lazy. Epic.

Anyway, I have to finish this. I’ve managed 15 minutes and just caught myself staring at a luggage rack on the train. I’m off to grab a coffee, a yoghurt and review blurred backgrounds.