More on Being Untouchable

I had a great conversation today with usability expert extraordinaire Francis Beaudet about Monday’s post on how to be untouchable, and I thought I’d keep the rest of you in the loop.

Our discussion centered around a post from The 99 Percent entitled What Happened to Downtime. In it, the author discusses how before constantly-connected technology sparked its way into our lives, we used to have a lot more downtime — time to let our minds wander, rather than stay consciously focused. Now that we have smartphones and ubiquitous internet, that downtime is instantly converted to productive time, and our creativity and quality of life suffer as a result.

Give Yourself Permission to do Nothing

This is a thought Francis mentioned in passing that really resonated with me, because it’s really the core of what I was getting at on Monday and what The 99 Percent is referring to as well. We’ve reached a point in society where, by default, you are expected to be doing something productive all the time*. We really have to force that disconnect, that chance to think passively and reflect and really free our minds of intentional thought.

The 99 Percent piece elaborates quite a bit on the benefits of disconnect, and offers some suggestions for working these important breaks into your life. It’s a great read, you should really check it out.

* Francis notes (correctly) that there is a cultural bias here. In many other cultures, it’s common to do nothing for a few hours at a time; something that is easily seen as lazy or unproductive here in North America.


Motivation Hack: Be Untouchable

I had a busy summer/fall. I was on a lot of projects at work, plus writing blog posts, working on a whitepaper, speaking more than usual, buying a house… and there was something about a wedding in there, too. At times, this could get completely overwhelming. But I found a neat hack to ensure that I was focused, motivated, and in a good mood every morning when I got to work, and every evening when I got home to my then-fiancée. It helped me survive. One simple trick made my tasks easier, and my day more enjoyable. Here’s what it was:

I took the bus to work.

Yeah, that probably doesn’t sound relaxing or motivating to you, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First let’s read into this a little to see why it worked so well for me.

What makes me untouchable?

My commute to work is about 25 minutes by bus. So in the morning, I have a 25-minute ride to work, and in the afternoon, a 25-minute ride back home. In this 25 minutes, I’m only doing about three things:

  1. Listening to music.
  2. Looking out the window.
  3. Breathing.

…And that’s all. What’s probably more telling is what I’m not doing:

  1. Worrying about traffic.
  2. Checking my mail.
  3. Planning my day/next task.
  4. Writing, or doing any work of any kind.

In fact, I just sit there, headphones in, staring out a window — totally spaced. This is what I call my “untouchable” time, because nothing can get to me in that time. I’m relaxed and not paying any attention to anything important, and that completely loosens me up. It clears my head. And whatever was stressing me out when I got on the bus is forgotten by the time I get off. So when I stroll into work in the morning, and when I arrive home after a long day (ready for a long night), I’m golden. I’m calm, happy, and ready to start on whatever’s up next.

Now I’m willing to accept that most people do not associate taking the bus with a calming, almost meditative experience, so let’s look at some other options.

What makes you untouchable?

Everyone has something that gives them that Zen-like, tuned out feeling. And if you just do whatever gives you that feeling once or twice a day, it will have a big impact on your mood and productivity. Here are some ideas to help you find your untouchable trigger:

  • Read. No news, no tabloids. A real, physical book.
  • Meditate. This isn’t my thing, but it works for plenty of people.
  • Take a nap. Just be sure to set a timer.
  • Lounge out in a comfy chair, with a cold drink. I do this too.

And of course, just as important, here are some things to avoid:

  • Don’t do anything that will trigger dopamine. Internet, games, TV, etc.
  • Try not to strain your eyes. Close them if you’re tired and avoid screens.
  • Resist the urge to plan and organize. You’re on break.

A good rule of thumb is if you’re doing something productive, you’re doing it wrong. You can afford a small chunk of time every day to be non-productive. When you’re not super-busy, this happens naturally. When you are super-busy, it’s your responsibility to make sure you still get that downtime. You need it. Trust me.

Your turn.

Do you already do something like this? Tell me about it. Do you have other ideas for making yourself untouchable? Share them.


Productivity Hack: Find Yourself a Canary

Back when mining was in its heyday, workers would bring a canary down into the mine with them. They did this because air quality within the mine could degrade and become poisonous, and this was an obvious risk to the health of the workers. So the canary was brought down to breath that same possibly-pernicious air, and if the canary ever died, that was a sign that the workers had to instantly drop everything and get out of the mine.

At work, I sit next to Seb. While the hours I work vary slightly from one day to the next, Seb always works the same general shift and leaves the office shortly after 4pm every day. While I’m not as consistent in my hours, I always work until at least 5pm and often an hour or two later than that. So, Seb always leaves the office when I have an hour or three left in my day. Do you see where this is going?

Seb is my canary.

When Seb leaves for the day, that’s a reminder that my day is coming to a close. If I wanted to get four things done today and I’m only on my second task, it’s a reminder that I have to drop everything and sort out the rest of my todo-list. And much like the workers rushing to grab their belongings and get out of the mine, if I’m really far behind I really have to get my ass in gear.

I’ve had decent results with this so far. I’ve only been sitting next to Seb for a month or so, and it took a little while for me to catch on that when he leaves is a good time to review my day’s tasks. But I’ve already had a couple of days where I probably would have forgotten about a task, or at least not recalled it in time to get it done, were it not for my canary reminding me that I was running out of clean air time.

Find your canary.

You may not sit next to a coworker with a fixed schedule, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a canary for yourself. Try setting a daily reminder on your phone or calendar software that will ping you when you have a couple of hours left in your day (I’ve started doing this when Seb works from home or takes a day off). Even if this doesn’t help you remember a task you would have otherwise forgotten, it saves you the trouble of keeping your eye on the clock to see how much time is left in your day.

And best of all, since this isn’t very intrusive or difficult to maintain, what do you have to lose?