Posts filed under “Creativity & Productivity”

Productivity Tricks For Peace of Mind: Part 1 – Automation

This post, is a part of my thinking and research for my new book, centred around the tensions between productivity and creativity. You can follow other related entries here

Update: I’ve just realized that I posted a draft version of this post accidentally that included a few typos that I’ve corrected. Multiple tab fail!

One of the biggest detriments to both creativity and productivity is decision fatigue: depleting our limited reserves of willpower on making decisions. Research shows that when we spend  sustained periods of time making decisions, the quality of those decisions will eventually start to deteriorate.  According to Roy F. Baumeister, c0-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, “Making decisions uses the very same willpower that you use to say no to doughnuts, drugs, or illicit sex.”

That means every time you debate about what to wear, what to eat for breakfast, whether you should go work out, or whether you should have illicit sex –  you are tapping into the limited supply of decision-making prowess that you might need to make bigger, more important decisions later on in the day. In order to protect this essential energy-pool, we need to critically reduce the amount of decisions we make and only focus on the stuff that matters. I’ve been experimenting with two solutions: automation and batching.  In this post, I’ll go into detail about automation.

Automation: switching over to auto-pilot.

Automation refers to the practice of creating routines, doing the same thing so that you switch over to auto-pilot. Auto-pilot means the behaviour has become to familiar that you don’t even need to actively think about what you’re doing, preserving energy for when you really need it. Albert Einstein reportedly owned several versions of the same grey suit because he wanted to save his decision making abilities for important tasks. In a 2012 Vanity Fair profile, President Obama echoed the same sentiment. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” the President said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”


Clothing: I decided to try this. Last weekend, I did a giant closet purge and eliminated nearly half of the clothes in my wardrobe. Since I work from home, I have a lof of flexibility of what to wear, but I decided to simplify the whole process: black leggings, white or black t-shirt, a cardigan if it was cold, and a pair of navy blue TOMs. That’s my new at-home uniform, everything else got tossed. I got rid of anything that was old, falling apart or ill-fitting. As for my regular wardrobe, I decided to take inspiration from the always polished Parisian women I see around the city and adopt a minimalist strategy. High quality classic basics, with fun trend pieces thrown in. Not only did I have way more room for everything, but getting ready to go out has been a much more pleasant experience. I no longer open my closet, bursting with clothes and wail, “I have nothing to wear!”  This is definitely a work in progress.

I kept more than I should have, and could probably reduce it even further.  I have noticed a dramatic decrease in the low-level stress I would feel whenever I had to pick an outfit to go somewhere. Now that I have my list, I also know exactly what I need, saving me the time I spent aimlessly shopping.


Working Out: 

Another thing I automated was my workout regime. Having finally found an Ashtanga yoga studio and a kickass teacher, I was re-motivated to dive back into a regular routine, which is a good thing because Ashtanga involves practicing six times a week! Still, Ashtanga is a type of yoga that definitely embraces automation. You do the same series of poses every time and I really liked switching off my thinking and flowing into the routine of familiar moves. It’s been nearly three weeks now and I haven’t missed a single day.  Additionally, that now that I’ve memorized the sequence I don’t even need a video or anything to guide me. I can do it anywhere, so this is one habit that is travel-proof, a huge bonus for me. I thought I would get bored, but I’m finding the opposite to be true and that surprised me.


I’ve also been experimenting with cycling through a few recipes during the week for food. I eat the same thing for breakfast, since I am not a morning person at all, and lunch and dinner involve a 3-4 basic options made from the same base of ingredients. This way, I get variety but within a limited context so I’m not overwhelmed. Each week I change the basic ingredients.  LearnVest founder Alexa Von Tobel says that eating the same thing every, increases her productivity.

General Routines:

I took a deeper look at my calendar and implemented stricter control over my time. I now only take calls and meetings on certain days. I do the bulk of my planning during my weekly Sunday Check-In, to take into account the unpredictability of travel and client work. This ensures I can stick to my routines without having them fall apart the second something unexpected arises.


VERDICT: Overall, while I’ve been a fan of routines for a long time, automating some of the smaller tasks was something I hadn’t really tried before. I noticed big improvements in my productivity, but more importantly, my mood. I was happier, and I felt more at ease and less stressed out. I hadn’t realized before how much of my cognitive bandwidth I was wasting on these small-ticket decision items.

Other Resources I Found: 

This LifeHacker article suggestions making important decisions early in the day.

99u goes into more details about Barack Obama’s routine, including his 7:30am daily work out.

Time Magazine offers an easy fix for decision fatigue: making things fun.


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How I reclaimed my FOMO and saved my creativity

This post, is a part of my thinking and research for my new book, centred around the tensions between productivity and creativity. You can follow other related entries here

Everyone is so busy. And I don’t blame us. We live in a world where there is an endless supply of things to take up our time.  Meetings, phone calls, work, the Internet, Facetime, Social Media. We are drowning in a sea of possibilities where there is always another thing to read, another event to attend, another great friend to meet. And yet, the “busier” I got, the worst I felt.

There were days when I ran all over the place, caught up in meetings and coffee dates and social obligations. Answering yet another email about another event hosted by another great person.  Don’t forget to walk the dog, and hit the gym.  Not to mention upholding the minimum requirements to keep my Responsible Grown Up card valid: laundry, grocery shopping, house cleaning. What’s that? You want to take a hip hop class? Take a few music lessons? Learn to paint? Sure, I’ll just add it to the list.

But wait- what about the work? You know, the creative work that feeds your soul? The ideas that need expressing? The creative legacy you’re supposed to be building? Where does that fit in to this jumble of busyness? Why is it that at the end of the day, I sometimes feel like I ran a marathon but didn’t take a single step in the right creative direction? I had become too busy for my own creativity.

Figure out the Non-Negotiables

I realized that I had a budget of what I called “effort-points,” an energy currency that corresponded to the amount of effort I had to expend to do something. Let’s say I have 50 points. Going to the gym? 5 points. Each coffee meeting? 3 points. Cleaning the apartment? 10 points. Cooking an amazing dinner from scratch? 8 points. Waking the dog? 1 point. Writing is probably the biggest expenditure: 30 points. And this was only a tiny sample of the things I needed to do.

It turns out I was trying to spend way over my budget. I simply couldn’t continue to treat my energy like a never-ending resource because it was only leaving me exhausted and unhappy.  The distinction here is that we’re not being constrained by time, but by energy. I was wasting my points on small ticket items and leaving myself without enough points to fuel my creativity. That was a depressing realization, so I decided it was time to try another approach.

I made a giant list of everything that I needed to do. My own to-do list, combined anything and everything that was being asked of me. Whether it was a social obligation or an someone wanting to network over coffee, I wrote it down. Then I put that list aside for the moment.

I asked myself a very simple question: what are the 5 essential things I need to do each day in order to be healthy, happy and fulfilled.

These were my non-negotiables. They were the base that I needed to invest my points in, every single day. Mine were simple:

1) Write

2) Workout

3) Meditate & Journal

4) Eat Healthy Food

5) Stay Connected with loved ones.

The days that I did those things, I felt amazing, connected, happy.  Everything else needed to take be a lower priority. You’ll notice that doing the laundry or cleaning out my closet didn’t make it into my non-negotiables. Neither did going to conferences or networking. And yet I was so willing to spend my effort on the things that weren’t directly tied to my ultimate well being. (That’s not to say that I stopped doing laundry, I just got much better at prioritizing it.)


Face your FOMO

Then I looked at the rest of the list and asked: what am I afraid of missing out on? Everyone tells you to not have “FOMO,” as thought it’s something you can switch off at will. In reality, this behaviour is rooted in your emotional centre, a vulnerable part of you that is reacting to a set of beliefs and expectations. In order to get past it, you have to first understand what it is that you’re afraid of losing.  My FOMO was pushing me to go to events and attend meetings  because I was scared to be left out. I was afraid I would miss networking opportunities, fun experiences with my friends and inside jokes. I wanted to feel connected to my friends and my community. It’s not that I really wanted to go to all of these events, but I was letting fear motivate me, and that wasn’t a good way to spend my precious effort-points.

CC Flickr: kalexanderson

CC Flickr: kalexanderson

Could I schedule some of the things that I needed in a more deliberate way? I started being very specific. Face time calls with close friends who live abroad to maintain our bond, a few weekend getaways with extended family, picking key events to attend to network with people in my industry: small things that helped address the root cause of my anxiety, and helped me strengthen the bonds with the people I cared about.

I began to feel happier and more in control, which made it easy to say no to events or obligations that came up without feeling like I was missing out. I focused on quality of interactions instead of quantity.


Suddenly, I had a more points to play around with. I was getting closer to be able to afford my creativity.


Step 3: Focus on Missing Out

It was easy enough to cut out the things that I didn’t want to do, but now I had a much more difficult challenge: to say no to some of the things that I really wanted to do. Author Elizabeth Gilbert articulates the challenge of maintaining discipline from distractions, while pursuing a creative endeavor:

This was where I really had to choose, to prioritize the creative work that I needed to do in order to feel fulfilled. For me, right now it’s my novel (for fun) and my new book project (for work – details to be announced soon!) that have the majority of my attention.  Everything else (with the exception of my non-negotiables) has to wait. I still have some time, but I’m extra choosy about what I do. I’ve moved from  a fear of missing out, to focusing on missing out. I say no to anything that will make it hard for me to invest in my creative projects. It no longer feels like missing out, but on choosing to do something I know will be more rewarding in the long run.

Suddenly, I’m not that busy. I have more time than I ever thought possible. Blocks of hours on my calendar to actually get the work done. It’s been so liberating . Thanks to this system, I’ve made more progress on my creative projects in the past few months than I have in the past several years. Everything has a price, whether in time, money, or energy. Understanding the true cost of what you’re paying when you engage in these “busy” activities will help you make smarter choices, and, hopefully, invest in the things that really matter.


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