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.

9 replies on “Motivation Hack: Be Untouchable”

I totally agree with you! I never really knew how nice it was to spend a little time on the bus until I started working full time. I would only replace staring out the window with people watching! And my relaxing task to chill out at home: folding socks.

Back in Halifax I took the bus to/from work. It took a half an hour each way and I used to love reading books for pleasure on the bus. I was averaging about a book per week that way. I wish I could go back to that type of transit but for now I’ll have to be satisfied with listening to audio books in the car. Sadly I still need to pay attention during my commute and can’t completely become untouchable.

Simon, it’s funny you should mention reading — I was thinking of switching to books for my commute when I move in the spring (my bus ride is going to be about twice as far). Similarly, I might end up driving instead and if that is the case I’ll be sure to give audiobooks a shot. Thanks for the tip!

I just remembered (with the talk of the bus and reading) that during my University bus commute, it would be really annoying when you’d run into random high school* colleagues on the bus at like 7:30am when you just wanted to zone out. One of my friends and I kept meeting up and making small chat, then one day I suggested we just ignore each other so we could enjoy our bus ride. It was totally awesome from then on.

*on my first pass I left out the word “school”. Much funnier that way.

As a corollary, it probably helps to define periods of ‘untoucability’ at work too.

As a developer sitting in a cube and approaching the in-the-zone state, my efforts take a hit when (among other things)
– people walking around discussing stuff
– people discuss stuff with others who are not in the adjacent cubicle
– somebody from my team runs down, or calls to ask about something i may have worked upon in the distant past

Specifically for a developer, find out when at work you’re most productive … and define that as your ‘zone/untouchability’ period.

Abhishek, that’s a very good point. It can take a while to hit that in-the-zone state (often called “flow” in productivity-jargon), and once you’re there, it can be very frustrating to suffer an interruption.

I really like the idea of booking off your most productive time as untouchable- or flow-time. Booking time for yourself is already a good way to stay productive, but optimizing that time to match flow would have even better results.

Thanks for your thoughts!

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