stevemedcroft.com
13Jan/190

Design your ideal work habit

Can we program our brains like a computer to do the work that will get us to our dreams?

Create a repeatable daily process to get your most important work done

What were you put on this earth to do? What is your purpose? What do you want to accomplish with your precious, albeit short, life? And are you doing the work you know you need to do every day to realize your dream?

If it only took intelligence or raw talent to achieve our goals, success would be so much easier. But because (except for the extremely fortunate) success requires that we apply ourselves and work really hard for our dreams, they seem out of reach at times.

My biggest challenge is that even though I know what I need to do every day to pursue my lifetime goals (write, publish, and promote my work), I battle with myself to get my work done. I wake every day with the intention to write, with a long list of ideas and even professional writing commitments, then I open my phone, check email, look at what's new on YouTube or Netflix and before I know it, my intention is buried under a day's worth of distractions. Without a process to get the necessary work done every day, reaching my goals is taking a very long time.

When I avoid those distractions and lean into a block of writing time, I am actually productive. I use the Pomodoro method to work in twenty-five-minute bursts of intense focus. I can make 2,000 words of progress on my novel, stay well-ahead of my copywriting deadlines, even draft, polish, and post an entire blog post in one two or three-hour early-morning writing session. So long as I write before I do anything else that day.

I could blame the world for my lack of progress -- it is filled with distraction after all (damn you high-speed Internet access!). I could blame my family (we all need to eat and have that pesky roof over our heads after all). I could blame my job (why do they need actual results for the money they invest in me?). But none of those things are the reasons I haven't achieved my writing goals.

No one is going to hand your dream to you

No one else in the world cares if we accomplish my personal goals. It affects no one. At the end of time, what we chose to accomplish or not accomplish with my flicker of our lifetimes won't make a difference to how it all ends. I alone need to accomplish what I feel I am on this earth to accomplish. I need to do it because what I am asking to happen only affects my life's experience.

It comes back to intention. I talk a good game, but unless I follow up my intention with actual work, I will always fall short of my ambitions. Successful people apply their talents and skills in clear, repeatable, and consistent ways. Accomplished people have a process to follow so they get things done. They are disciplined. They show up and do their work. They learn and iterate They stay their course.

Since intention is not enough for me to avoid my own productivity traps, I need to create a system, a process to make sure that I do the right things for myself every day. But how? How do you do create a work process that overcomes your lazy habits and programming?

This tattoo on my forearm is a reminder to work every day toward my writing dreams.

The epiphany for me was to think of my mind as a computer. In computing, algorithms (software code) are used to make computers perform all kinds of repeatable tasks for us. The computer is not smart or talented or focused, it is simply a machine executing the tasks programmed into it. Computers aren't subject to self-doubt and distraction, they just perform the commands given them. What I wanted for myself was a computer-style program I could run in my brain every day, an algorithm, a set of instructions to execute in a repeatable loop that led to a specific result (writing work output).

Re-writing your brain's programming to get shit done

To create the most-efficient work process, we first have to know ourselves. What time of day works best for us (are you mentally freshest in the morning or does your creativity flow best after everyone else is asleep)? How much time do we need to make progress (Can you spare an hour? Two? Five? What feels like the right amount of time you should spend on your work each day?) What environment suits you best (solitude and silence in the perfect home office, or the background bustle of a coffee shop).

We also need to know how we work. Are you task-oriented (make plans and lists and derive satisfaction from checking off tasks)? Are you goal motivated (thrive when there's a tangible reward at the end of the work)? Are you social (work best within a collaboration with lots of feedback) or introverted (need a cone of silence around you to work)? We need to design our process around our best flow. For me, it's tasks. I am most at peace when I get to check off a big list of things I needed to get done. I also enjoy the process of planning; set a goal, create a strategy for accomplishing the goal, create the tactical plan (tasks) to achieve the goal.

The final piece of the puzzle is to anticipate the potential barriers there are to the sustainability of your program and prepare in advance to manage them. For me, I needed to thwart what Steven Pressfield in The War of Art calls The Resistance; the inner voice that is constantly pulling us away from our creative work. I wanted a process that was so pre-planned, so clear a set of clear instruction, that it required me only to sit down at a certain time and follow it without overthinking. I want a recipe to follow, a formula, a paint-by-numbers approach to writing.

With my intention set, the best working time of day established, an understanding that I need task orientation, a calculation of the hours I can dedicate to writing, and an acceptance that the Pomodoro method is an ideal focus method for me, I wrote the following algorithm to reprogram my brain:

<PRIME - BEFORE BED> - Before I go to bed at night, I review my master writing task list (a OneNote page with lists of all my writing ideas). This master writing list contains every writing idea I have. Whenever I have a new writing idea, I add it to this list. They include copywriting and marketing assignments I need to deliver to clients, blog post ideas, article ideas for a personal project I'm developing, as well as fiction projects. The list could contain first-draft writing, editing, polishing, publishing tasks, any kind of writing work that leads to finished writing projects. Each night I set a specific intention for the next day to focus on five 'on deck' priority projects, sorted in order. Before I go to bed, I make sure I know exactly what writing I'll be doing in the morning, even typing up rough, bullet-point outlines. Planning the night before takes away all thinking in the morning. All I have to do is show up, put my fingers on the keyboard, set my timer, and write what the list says is next.

<START = WAKE UP> - This is the logical first step in my work block. I set Wake Up as the first step in the routine so that when I go to bed the night before, I know that when I wake up, I am immediately executing the writing algorithm. If I don't start at wake up, then I might allow myself to get pulled into distraction.

<MAKE THE BED> - I make my bed when I get up in the morning to declare to my mind that sleep time is over. It is a psychological act. I am also immediately priming myself by checking off a task that the time to complete tasks has begun.

<SHOWER and DRESS> - Again, this is psychological. I could wait to shower and dress until after the writing session is done, but by taking care of it first, I approach the writing desk ready for the rest of day. It becomes one less thing I have to stress over. Showering before working also gives me a few extra minutes to come fully awake, more time for my brain to prime for what's coming. And by avoiding any media, I give my mind fifteen minutes to ponder what I already know (because I prepared the night before) are the first writing assignments for the day.

<COFFEE> - I take a couple of minutes to make coffee before I sit down to the computer. Ritual? Need for caffeine? I don't even know at this point. All I know is that I like coffee, I draw satisfaction from the rhythm, and routine of making it, and by doing it before I start writing, I don't break my writing momentum by doing it halfway through my writing session.

<WRITING LOOP> - I use the Pomodoro method to focus when it's time to work. I've written about this before, but essentially the Pomodoro method is a system for removing all distractions. You set a timer for twenty-five minutes, work with complete focus on one task until the timer goes off, take a five-minute break, then start the timer for another Pomodoro. My first Pomodoro always starts with a handwritten page in my notebook/journal (about whatever is on my mind). For me, this opens the creative flow. I then switch straight to the first task on the 'on deck' writing list. I do five pomodoros in an unbroken block, working only on tasks from the master writing list. During the five-minute breaks, I get up and move around; let my mind work on the writing and let the blood in my body flow. I reward myself with five lovely marks in my notebook to record the session. And I get to check off any completed projects on the master writing task; both blissful, satisfying feelings.

<END SESSION> - I finish my writing algorithm with five minutes of filtering the email in my inbox. Checking and filtering email before I leave the house for work lets me commute without email stress. If I didn't have a plan to get to it, email would be on my mind all morning. I'll wonder if there is an important message waiting that must be taken care of right away (there ever is, but until I know for sure, the possibility creates anxiety)? By knowing that I have a specific time to check email before I move on to anything else for the day, I hold off that anxiety. My mind is at ease simply because I know I am going to get to it.

The whole routine takes me three hours from the moment I roll out of bed to the moment I walk out the door for work. That means I need to get up at 5:30 to leave the house at 8:30, which is not ideal for a non-morning person like me, but by sticking to this routine, I have had the least stress and most productive writing month of my life.

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