Hanging out Online: Why it's Important for me [en]

[fr] Aux abonnés absents: le temps passé à trainer en ligne sans but précis. La faute à trop de travail, peut-être, à trop de structure dans mon travail, et à une fuite de l'ordinateur lorsque je cherche à me détendre. Il y a un équilibre à retrouver -- parce que trainer en ligne, c'est quand même fun, et c'est ce qui m'a amené à faire le métier que je fais!

One thing I realized shortly after writing my article on downtime is that I have stopped “hanging out online”. And I think that “downtime” activity plays a more important role in my life balance than I’d realized until now.

I think two or three things led to this.

First, I’ve had lots of work this spring (nothing new, but I like to keep repeating it). I managed to preserve most of my “off the computer” downtime, and I realize now that what I sacrificed was the aimless tinkering-chatting-reading-writing-hanging-out online.

More importantly, I started using Paymo in April to give myself an idea of how much time I’ve been spending on what — and how many hours of actual work I was doing. It’s been really useful and has helped me gather precious info on my work, but it has had a side effect: I have started thinking more about what I spend my time on, and being more “monotask” in the way I work.

When I know I have the timer running on preparing my SAWI course, for example, or working on LeWeb blogger accreditations, I don’t feel free to drift off into something else, or read an article or check out Tumblr while I’m working. This is kind of twisted, because the only person who cares how much time I spend on something in this case is me.

So, I’ve changed the way I work, and I’m not sure it’s entirely a good thing. I think I’ve lost my balance.

Using the Pomodoro Technique has made it “worse”. I mean, it has accentuated this trend. It’s been really good for my productivity, it’s been really good to help me be less stressed, and it’s been really good to help me beat my procrastinative tendancies. But I think it hasn’t been good for my overall satisfaction about my work. Something is missing — that’s what I’ve been telling people all these last months. Everything is fine with my work, I have enough of it (more than enough!), it’s interesting, but something is not quite right.

And I think that part of this “not quite right” is that I’ve become too focused on just getting the “work work” done (the one that pays), and I’ve neglected the fun part of work, which is my interest for the online world and the people who inhabit it. I also suspect this can have something to do with my lack of blogging — there hasn’t been much to feed that part of me recently.

So, maybe I have to come back in part to how I was working before. Find a balance. This is not a new preoccupation of mine: for a few years now I’ve been lamenting the fact that I’m not managing to set aside enough time to tinker online, write, do research. But I think it’s become more extreme since I started focusing more exclusively on my client work.

Maybe what I need to do is do tomatoes in the morning, and work more “loosely” in the afternoon (or the opposite). Tinker, get stuff done, write, whatever I feel like doing (including dealing with emergencies or “too much work” if I feel the daily rythm of morning tomatoes isn’t cutting it). Maybe I need to have “tomato days” and “non-tomato days”. Maybe I need to watch less TV (haha!) in the evening and spend more time hanging out online on Google+. Maybe I need to find a way to allow myself to multitask more (!) when I’m working. I’m not sure what the answer is yet.

What hanging out online does for me is the following, as far as I can make out:

  • gives my brain time to wander around (cf. Downtime post)
  • allows me to keep in touch with what’s going on in the social media world, and the people who are part of it
  • gives me food for thought a something to do with those thoughts (if all I do is work and consume fiction, chances are I won’t have much to blog about, right?)
  • it’s a space to tinker with tech and new toys (something I like doing per se)

And more importantly (this is something I think I’ve already written about somewhere regarding blogging and its relation to my work), “online” is a space I enjoy. I like being there. It’s part of the reason I made my job about it. So, just as it is a warning light if my job prevents me from blogging, it’s a warning light if the way I organize my work life prevents me from hanging out online.

Now, as I’ve already said: it’s all a question of balance. Spending my whole life tinkering online and working does not work either.

But these last months (and maybe years), the balance has been off. And right now, I think I’m starting to get unstuck, and am on my way to finding (building?) more balance.

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Trying to Get Organized (Again) [en]

[fr] Je m'organise: pas de nouveaux mandats de formation ou de conférences avant mi-mars 2012 (priorité à mes engagements existants, l'agenda est plein!), utiliser la Technique Pomodoro sur la semaine pour mieux évaluer la charge de travail que représente les affaires courantes et mes mandats existants, et travaillers sur des conférences et formations "standard" plutôt que de tout faire à partir de zéro à chaque fois!

I’m trying to figure out how to get organized over the next six months to do everything I need/want to do without working myself into the ground. Or behind the sofa, cowering.

This is part of the ongoing “how to improve the way I run my business” thinking.

One thing I have clearly pinpointed is the following:

  • almost all the work I do (including training and talks) is bespoke
  • when the financial means of my clients are limited (e.g. many schools and small companies) I need to find a more rational way of using my time

This means I need to get to work on the dirty little secret of successful businesses and freelancers: reduce, recycle, reuse (thanks for that one, Suw). I need to work on preparing a certain number of “standard” talks and training sessions, rather than doing everything from scratch each time.

Until the end of the year, I already have a significant amount of commitments (or commitments-in-the-making, because we’re still hashing out details or agreeing on a formal proposal). The good news around this is that I’m not too worried about paying my bills (I still have a way to go before I can relax completely about finances, though… but who can?). The bad news is that looking at my calendar for September/October/November is already making me feel stressed. (That’s the calendar including future and probable gigs, though, it’s not that bad.)

The other thing is that (probably overcompensating for too many years with almost no holidays) I am actually taking a large number of weeks off this year. I’ve counted, and I will not release the number, because it is somewhat indecent. It makes me feel a little better about being overworked when I’m here, though. And it does bring to my attention the fact I probably need to seek a little more balance between my “working time” and “holiday time”.

Holidays play two roles for me:

  1. allow me time off from work to recuperate
  2. allow me to see people I love and who don’t live in Lausanne or nearby

The first type of holiday clearly requires no working while I’m away. The second doesn’t. There’s no reason I can’t go and spend a week in London with Suw and Steph, work while I’m there and hang out with them. This would also have the advantage of giving me a week clear of meetings and phone calls and visits, where I can concentrate on “office work”. So, I’m going to plan some of those for 2012.

So, all that considered, if I look at my calendar now it’s pretty clear to me I don’t really have space for new speaking/training engagements until mid-March 2012 (except if they’re paid well enough to make me happy to sacrifice my week-ends — never say never).

That’s the wide-angle view for the year ahead.

On a more micro level, I’ve mentioned elsewhere (and in another language) that I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique recently and it’s really helping me. Here’s how it helps:

  • it gives me a clear amount of time to put my head down (like my “dashes” do)
  • it makes me take breaks
  • as I write down my Pomodoros, it helps me plan what I’m going to get done in the day/morning and adjust my expectations

The last bit is crucial. Specially when I have lots to do that is not deadly urgent, I have trouble setting priorities and get frustrated at how slowly I make progress. Now, if I know that during a 9-12 morning session I can do 5 pomodoros (= 5 times 25 minutes of actual work), it allows me to plan what I’m going to use them for. I might use one to make progress in my accounting backlog, one to make progress in a report I really don’t want to write, two to write a blog post, and one to deal with some e-mail, get back to people, and plan the next day.

Used this way, the Pomodoro Technique is a very simple planning tool that takes a lot of stress away from me and allows me to put my energy in actually working.

There is less overhead than Getting Things Done, too: even if you want to do things well, reading the free ebook that explains the Pomodoro Technique takes about an hour. And you can dive right in: just get a timer, set it on 25 minutes, work non-stop on something, then take a five-minute break, and start again. It’s deadly simple and is designed to be implemented in progressive steps (instead of degrading gracefully it upgrades gracefully). Check out the cheat sheet if you’re impatient.

I should be able to fit 12 Pomodoros in a full day of work, but to play it safe, I’m counting on 10 right now. That means I have 50 Pomodoros available on a five-day week. The Pomodoro is a unit of time that my brain can work with, specially after a few days of working in Pomodoro-length bursts. It’s much simpler than the hour, which is (a) longer and (b) divisible. (There is a rule that says “The Pomodoro is indivisible.”)

This is helping me see what I can get done in a day, and therefore, a week. For example, I might estimate that I need on average one Pomodoro a day to get organized, do my accounting/invoicing, pay bills, sort through e-mails. Not the same mix every day, but roughly one a day. Right, five a week.

Then, I estimate that on one of the projects I’m working on, I need 3 Pomodoros a week. On another, two. Another might take up a day of my time each week, which means my weeks actually have closer to 40 Pomodoros than 50.

If you do project planning, you’re familiar with this. It’s nothing new. But in my case, the ability to think “in Pomodoros” has been the key to allowing my brain to do this kind of exercise. As I write down my Pomodoros in advance and check them off as they’re done, within a few weeks I’ll be easily able to see if my estimates are off and adjust them.

One thing I’ve been terribly bad at this last year is protecting a sufficient number of “office days” where I’m not interrupted by errands and meetings.

So, in summary, what’s the plan?

  • plan “working abroad” visits for 2012 to reduce the number of non-working holidays while still seeing non-local friends and family
  • moratorium on new speaking/training engagements until mid-March 2012
  • continue working in Pomodoros and gain a better sense of how much time I need for my regular “ongoing” tasks and projects so that I have a “weekly framework of Pomodoros” to get organized from
  • work on standard talks and training offers (which will in the long run allow me to be more proactive and less reactive about finding clients)
  • block an “office day” per week (monthly average)

Off I go!

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Long Time No Blog [en]

[fr] De retour d'une bonne semaine de vacances, et très peu d'envie de trainer en ligne, même autour de Google+. Période de transition, pas tout à fait à l'équilibre. A tout hasard, je vais écrire un poil ici -- ça a en général bien marché par le passé.

Long time no blog, right? I have lots to write, but I’m also really enjoying my break from the online, and much tempted to spend most of my time away from the computer.

Computer = work, despite all, and after two months of work-overdose ending with a couple of nasty crises to take care of I really really am quite fed up with my work world. (Dear clients and prospective clients who may be reading this: fear not, I’m not going to disappear somewhere and start raising goats. I’m still here. I’m just enjoying the much-needed break. And you’ll enjoy my fresher brain when I’m back.)

Google+ is out, and even Suw is excited about it, but I just don’t feel like spending time on it. (I will, and have actually started but… I’m enjoying the break, remember?)

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I need to do to the way I run my “business” (= “work me”) and now have a plan, but I’m still in this slightly fuzzy place where although things are generally good, I’m not quite happy and know something’s gotta give. Like a chemical reaction that hasn’t reached equilibrium.

One of the things I’m noticing during this break is that I feel tired of documenting my life. Because it’s a lot of what I do: document. Maybe I’m going through a phase in life where I’m more “inward” than “outward”. Maybe I’ve just been working too much, had two difficult years, and need to breathe a bit. Time will tell. Something is tugging at me inside.

As often when things feel “not quite right” and I haven’t been blogging much, I’m going to start by writing here a bit more. I have a bunch of posts lined up — just need to write them without turning them into tentacled monsters.

 

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In Brussels With Solar Impulse [en]

[fr] A Bruxelles avec Solar Impulse, gardez un oeil sur leur blog pour me suivre durant cette semaine! Je m'occupe de leur programme blogueurs.

The week ahead is going to be busy: I’m in Brussels with the Solar Impulse team, taking care of their blogger programme and supporting them in their social media use. It’s great fun but a lot of work!

03.2012: photo has sadly been removed from Flickr by the person who uploaded it.

(photo by Delmi Alvarez, who took part in the blogger visit this morning — check it out on Storify 😉)

Keep an eye on the Solar Impulse blog and my Twitter account if you want to stay in the loop. And if you’re a blogger in Brussels, do come and visit us!

 

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The Freelancer and The Open-Ended Projects [en]

[fr] Les projets à long terme et assez ouverts peuvent être un piège pour l'indépendant, quand la charge de travail augmente soudainement pour plusieurs projets menés en parallèle.

Business has been good this year. 2007-2008 was pretty disastrous, 2009 saw me get back on my feet, and 2010 is really taking off. I’m happy.

With business taking off come more challenges for the freelancer. One of them is open-ended projects, which are especially tricky for the time-management-challenged soloist.

Often, these projects are exciting in nature, having a wider scope than more time-limited projects like “give a talk” or “a day of training”. They’re also interesting financially because they allow the freelancer to secure larger sums of money with a single client, or offer a monthly retainer (something anybody with monthly bills can appreciate).

But they can contain a trap — trap I’ve found myself caught in. The trap is double.

They go on and on

By definition, open-ended projects are open. They might have an end, but if it’s many months in the future, they might as well not have one. This means there is always something to do. They don’t have the comforting “after date X in the near future (next week), this is over”. It’s not a bad thing as such, but it can be stress-inducing.

They have variable workload

The workload for open-ended projects is spread over weeks or months, but it is not always constant. It might be light for a few weeks, and then suddenly require 30 hours of work in a week. This can easily conflict with other work engagements, especially if they are also open-ended, unless the freelancer plans very carefully.

A third trap?

I almost want to add a third trap to these projects: they are often ill-defined and subject to scope creep. Again, careful planning can limit those problems, but is your typical freelancer in love with careful planning?

I’ve discovered that having one or two open-ended projects going on at the same time is roughly as much as I can handle. Maybe three, depending on the degree of open-endedness. At one point this year, I had five in parallel, and that was just impossible.

So, with more work opportunities comes the obligation to start choosing better, and managing a balance between regular gigs, which give some financial security, and short-term ones, which are usually more interesting from a return-on-time-invested perspective.

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Brain Downtime [en]

[fr] On a besoin de débrancher son cerveau -- avez-vous assez l'occasion de le faire?

My brain needs downtime. So does yours.

We’ve managed to make our lives so efficient that we’ve removed all the downtime that used to be part of them. We can work on the train, listen to podcasts while we clean and cook, why, we even read on our iPhones as we walk through town.

Sleeping just doesn’t cut it. Of course, we need sleep (that’s also body-downtime), but we need awake-downtime.

What’s your downtime?

For me, reading fiction and watching TV series qualify as brain downtime. My conscious mind is immersed in fiction, though I’m sure a lot is going on in the background. Sailing and judo qualify to, as does riding my exercise bike if I’m listening to music rather than a podcast.

When I’m on the bus and reading FML or flicking idly through my Twitter stream, is that brain downtime?

When I’m walking in the mountains, drinking a cup of tea on my balcony, watching the sun set, taking a bath, or meditating, that’s definitely brain downtime.

Do you get enough brain downtime?

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Les trois équilibres de l'indépendant [fr]

Je pense que l’indépendant (créatif) a besoin de trouver un équilibre sur trois plans différents, histoire de ne pas se dessécher ni péter les plombs:

  • une “hygiène de vie” laissant suffisamment de place pour respirer semaine après semaine (avoir et respecter des plages de non-travail, prendre du temps pour soi, faire du sport, manger correctement, dormir, voir des amis, passer du temps avec sa famille…)
  • des coupures pour décrocher, week-ends prolongés mais aussi vraies vacances (on m’a dit que pour vraiment se ressourcer, il fallait compter minimum trois semaines!)
  • durant le temps de travail, assez de temps pour explorer, s’amuser, rechercher, bricoler — et ne pas passer tout son temps le nez plongé dans des mandats.

Pour ma part, le côté “hygiène de vie” fonctionne assez bien, pour les coupures, je suis en train de prendre des mesures, et concernant le temps de jeu/bricolage/recherche professionnel… ces temps, ce n’est pas du tout ça.

Saint-Prex 09

Hygiène de vie

  • Je défends jalousement mes soirées et mes week-ends, même quand le boulot s’empile, sauf quelques rares situations d’exception.
  • Je fais du sport, je vois des gens, je prends des moments pour moi, je ne mange pas trop mal. J’ai en fait pas mal d’activités “non-professionnelles” dans ma vie.
  • J’ai un lieu de travail séparé de mon lieu de vie.
  • Ça n’a pas été simple d’en arriver là, j’ai déjà écrit pas mal d’articles sur mon parcours, mais je n’ai pas le courage de les déterrer juste là.

Coupures

  • En 2008, j’ai commencé à prendre des week-ends prolongés à la montagne pour me ressourcer, et c’était une bonne chose. 2010, ça a passé à la trappe pour diverses raisons, mais il est temps de reprendre les choses en main.
  • Suite à des discussions que j’ai eues avec mes amis Laurent et Nicole, et sur leurs sages conseils, j’ai décidé de m’imposer au minimum un week-end prolongé (3 jours) par mois et une grosse bonne coupure (disons un mois, hop) par an.
  • Résultat des courses, j’ai établi un calendrier annuel de mes coupures. Ça ressemble à ça: je fais un break d’un mois en janvier (déjà un voyage prévu en Inde en 2011), en été, je pars une semaine en France comme ces deux dernières années, et en automne, je prévois une dizaine de jours en Angleterre pour voir amis et famille. En plus de ça, un mois sur deux je prends un simple week-end prolongé (lundi ou vendredi congé), et un mois sur deux en alternance, un plus long week-end prolongé (4-5 jours) avec option de partir quelque part.
  • J’ai posé toutes ces dates dans mon calendrier, jusqu’à début 2012.

Travail ludique

  • Je bloque un peu sur cette question: je dois prendre moins de mandats (clairement) mais du coup je crains pour le côté financier de l’affaire.
  • En fait, en regardant réalistement mes revenus (j’ai une grille sur la dernière année qui me les montre semaine par semaine) je me rends compte que je n’ai pas besoin d’avoir si peur que ça.
  • Une solution: moins de mandats qui paient relativement peu par rapport au temps/stress investi, plus de mandats mieux payés (je dis des choses logiques mais c’est pas si simple à mettre en pratique). Surtout, moins de mandats “open-ended” en parallèle, qui s’étalent sur la durée avec une charge de travail variable. (J’ai un billet en gestation là-dessus.)
  • Aussi, avoir confiance dans la dynamique qui me permet de vivre de ma passion: donner plus de priorité à sa passion attire les mandats.
  • Bref, avec mes petits calculs, je me suis rendu compte qu’en plus de mes mandats “réguliers” (annuels/mensuels), si j’avais une journée de “travail payé” (consulting, formation, coaching, conférence) par semaine je m’en tirais largement. Ça me laisse donc 3-4 jours, suivant la longueur de ma semaine, pour mes mandats courants, la gestion des clients, et ces fameuses “autres activités professionnelles pas payées” (dont ce blog fait partie).

Et vous, voyez-vous d’autres équilibres à maintenir? Avez-vous des solutions à partager pour ceux que j’ai identifiés?

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Warning Signals [en]

With the years, I’m getting better and better at identifying early warning signs. Human beings (I’m no exception) have this tendancy to dig themselves into holes now and again, but not realise they’re digging them or even inside them until the waters are closing on over their heads.

For the past month I’ve been looking at my calendar with increasing dread. I’ve barely been blogging. Things haven’t been spinning out of control, though, but I’ve been tired and more stressed than I like and kind of thinking “gosh, how am I going to manage all this”. At the same time, I’ve been refusing to make some hard choices regarding the things I want to do. Dropping one or the other was not an option.

I’m talking mainly about non-work things here. And things I do for me (as I might have mentioned somewhere before, I’ve become reasonably competent at not saying yes when I want to say no to other people, so I don’t end up with commitments I’d like to wriggle out of as often as I did a few years ago).

Yesterday, I realised that I was setting myself up for a couple of inhuman weeks before the end of the year, but that I was refusing to consider that I might have to let go of something. This is the cousin of “I really need a break now but there’s no way I can manage to take one“.

Something clicked. I realised that I was wanting to do everything. That clearly there was too much on my plate, that I was not Superwoman, but that I was refusing to set priorities between all these different things I wanted to do. So, I knew what I had to do: accept that I have to sit down and decide what is most important for me, and what is less important. I did that, decided to let go of something, and though it really saddens and frustrates me not to be able to do it (in addition to the umpteen other things I’m already doing), I feel better.

The important point here is the warning signals. If I look back at the journey of these last years, one constant for me has been to learn to spot warning signals that I’m leading myself somewhere I don’t want to go, and spot them earlier and earlier. And figure out what to do when I spot them.

And I’m happy to say I’m getting pretty good at it!

What about you? How good are you at recognizing your warning signals? When you recognize them, do you know what to do to keep things from going further downhill?

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Not Running (Firewalls and iPhone Alarms) [en]

[fr] Je ne cours plus. C'est un pas important: si on court tout le temps, on est toujours en train de remettre à plus tard, et ça ne nous aide pas à résoudre nos élans procrastinateurs. Une vie un peu plus calme est un bien meilleur terrain. Je me souviens de deux éléments importants qui m'ont aidée à changer ça: premièrement, délimiter strictement du temps non-professionnel, plutôt que de travailler tout le temps (un piège surtout pour les indépendants). Deuxièmement, utiliser les alarmes (multiples!) de mon iPhone pour rythmer mes journées et mes semaines (ne plus partir stressée au judo parce que je n'ai pas vu passer l'heure, mais avoir une alarme placée assez tôt pour que je puisse y aller tranquillement, par exemple).

This is the fourth post in the series. You might want to read the first three ones: Five Principles, Perfectionism, Starting, and Stopping, as well as Getting Thrown Off and Getting Unstuck.

At some point during 2009, I realized that I had stopped running. I had stopped being late, doing things in a rush, and being over my head in emergencies. As with all virtuous circles, not running was at the same time a consequence of my decrease in procrastination and one of the elements that led to it.

If I look at my life now, I see clearly that I am doing many more things immediately (they never end up on a to-do list, and therefore reduce the number of procrastinable items in my world) — and doing things immediately is only possible when you’re not already running for your life.

I’ve been thinking back and trying to understand how this change happened, and I can think of two important things that I started doing during the course of 2008:

  • strictly firewalling off “non-work” moments
  • using my iPhone alarms to structure my days.

The first, firewalling off “non-work” time, might not seem immediately linked to a decrease in running, but actually, it’s very important. To stop running, you see, you need to learn that things can wait. You need to teach yourself that even though you’re behind on the deadline, you can still stop.

Lots of people stay trapped in a life of stress and running by saying things like “I have to finish this”, “I can’t afford not to”, “I don’t have a choice”. We always have a choice. We always choose to stay up late to finish something a client is expecting, for example, rather than face the consequences of not doing it. Not much of a choice, you may say. But it’s still a choice. And being aware that you are actually making a choice, rather than just enduring a situation you are powerless over, will in fact making you feel better.

More importantly, it opens the door to revealing your priorities: I am staying up late to work on this project for the client rather than relaxing in front of the TV after an already long day of work, because it is more important for me to avoid having a pissed off client than having a healthy balance in my life. Sounds a bit guilt-inducing said like that, but the point here is: what does this choice reveal of your priorities? What is more important, the client, or you, or your health, or your relationship, for example? All the time, we make these choices, but our priorities are so hard-wired in that we don’t realize anymore that they are choices, and we end up being victims who “have to do it”.

The time I learnt to make time off work a greater priority for me was when I was organizing the Going Solo conference. It was a huge amount of work, and though I had a great support network, I was carrying the whole thing on my shoulders and doing more or less that had to be done. I was under a lot of stress. I would wake up in the morning, grab the computer from under the bed, and collapse in the evening after trying to squeeze in some food between two e-mails or Skype calls. I didn’t know what a week-end was anymore. I was exhausted.

One day, one of my advisors said to me something like “there’s only so much you can do in a day” or “at some point, you have to call it a day”. I can’t remember the exact words used, but the point was this: even if you have a ton of work to do, even if you didn’t do what you expected today, even if you’re behind… at some point, you have to stop. Turn off the computer, turn off work.

So, I stopped feeling guilty about calling it a day. I also started implementing mandatory lunch-breaks: I would leave the computer, set the kitchen timer on 45 minutes, and go about making myself food. 45 minutes was the minimum time my lunch-break was to last. Yes, at least 45 minutes.

And that’s where interesting things started to happen: I started cooking again, for one. In 45 minutes, I had time for more cooking than just grabbing a piece of bread and cheese — so I did it! I also started relaxing a bit in the middle of the day. I’d read something, or lie down. “Time out” like that is important, because if you’re using to your whole life being taken up by work, you tend to forget what living is really about.

If you’re less stressed, in a general way, you’ll be more fit to tackle your procrastination issues. You can’t tackle procrastination issues if you’re running around in circles from morning to evening. So first step: run around in circles only during “work” time, and have “non-work” time when you don’t run.

End 2008, I opened eclau, the Lausanne Coworking Space, and started working there. That was a tremendous help in the “firewalling non-work time” department. Without really trying to do so, I gradually and naturally stopped working at home, to work only in the office. I’d be able to relax better at home. I never implemented real office hours (and don’t want to), but I started going down there in the morning (it’s two floors below my flat!), coming back up for my lunch break (leaving my computer behind!), and closing house in the evening at some point when everybody else started going home.

And that’s the context in which I made my second big step: using iPhone alarms to pace my day. iPhones allow you to set loads of different alarms, repeating any way you like over the week. So I set a daily alarm at noon to encourage me to take my lunch break (otherwise, I would forget about it and end up without having eaten at 3pm — doesn’t make for a very functional Stephanie). I set an alarm in the evening at 6.30 to think about dinner, except on the days when I’d go to judo. On those days, I set a mid-afternoon alarm to remind me to have a snack, and one early enough to remind me to stop working, pack and leave. I set one to tell me when to get ready for my singing rehearsals. I even set myself a “go-to-bed” alarm at 23:30 and a “Cinderella” alarm at midnight, because I was going a bit overboard with late-night DVDs.

Of course, all these alarms worked because they were there to remind me of some important decisions I had made. I wanted to start getting ready for judo soon enough that I wouldn’t arrive late. I wanted to have lunch at regular hours and take lunch breaks. I wanted to be in bed by midnight so I would have enough sleep and still have a morning the next day. But as I know my sense of time is bad (and being in front of a computer is a killer), I used my iPhone to help me. It made my coworkers laugh that every midday, my quacking alarm would go off — but I knew it was an important crutch for me in applying my priorities to my life.

And that’s when the magic actually started to happen: I had the time to prepare my judo and singing things and set off without being in a rush. I had spare time during my lunch break — I would actually use it to do the washing-up. I even had a moment in the evening, in between 23:30 and midnight, to think about my next day and plan it a little (inspired by FlyLady). I would look up train times the evening before if I had to go somewhere rather than sometime in the morning, and then realize I was running late.

Gradually, some areas in my day and life started to slow down. It wasn’t chaos from start to finish. And slowly, that slowness started creeping into the rest of my life, including work. It doesn’t mean I do things slowly, though. But I take the time to do things. I’m not running anymore.

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Weekly Planning, First Attempt [en]

[fr] Cette semaine, pour la première fois, j'ai réparti mes tâches sur la semaine au lieu de travailler au jour le jour comme j'en ai l'habitude.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I felt the next step to take in my “work life improvement” series was to plan beyond the day, and start looking at my weeks so that I can start building in time for long-term projects. I’ve done this for the first time this week, and overall, the result is pretty positive. Here’s roughly how I did it and what I learned.

1. Define office days and meeting days

This has to be done in advance, obviously, or the calendar fills up. I usually have either two or three of each in a week (minimum one). Every now and again exceptions slip in and an office day turns into a half-baked errand/meeting day, but I try not to. I think I can still improve the way I plan and manage these days (for example: errands vs. meetings, laundry days, exceptions for “immediate” paid work…).

2. Define “areas” that next actions fall in

I’ve refined the list I brainstormed in my “balance in the office” post and come up with these four areas:

  1. things other people expect me to do (paid work, projects involving others, getting back to prospects…)
  2. longer term business development (taking care of my sites, creating documentation, direct marketing…)
  3. stuff I want to do more of (blogging, research, fooling around with cool toys, write ebooks and fiction…)
  4. admin and daily business (personal and professional, checking e-mail, emptying physical inbox, accounting…)

These are my areas — yours might be different. Suw and I chatted about this on Skype on Monday and hers are slightly different from mine. Just find something that makes sense to you.

Looking at my areas, it’s easy for me to see that “bizdev” and “stuff I want to do” are the two areas which will easily be left aside if I just work day-by-day doing things as they become urgent (in bad cases, call this the “Fireman Syndrome”). If you don’t do stuff people expect you to do, sooner or later they nag you or you get in trouble. Same with admin: forget your taxes or invoicing long enough, and you’ll get in trouble.

As there were almost no tasks in these two areas, I realised that to fill them up, I probably need to do a little longer-term planning. For example, what are the things I want to do in the “bizdev” department over the next 6 months? Over the next month? That will help me generate next actions. Otherwise… I’m just flying blind.

3. Sort upcoming next actions in those defined areas

The way I’ve worked these last months I would have one “master” next action list (in EvernoteI love Evernote) and I would regularly “pull out” the 3-10 next things I was going to deal with, under headings like “today”, and then “next”, or sometimes a specific day.

What I did this week is that I first sorted this “master list” into the four areas I defined. I just made four big headings in my list, and that was that.

4. Plan the week!

This is the fun bit, actually. I just made another 5 “day” headings at the top of my list (Monday to Friday) and then started moving items to given days, making sure the urgent stuff was in there, as well as a certain amount of less urgent stuff (specifically from my two “left aside” areas, bizdev and stuff I want to do more of). Two things to pay attention to:

  1. don’t plan to do stuff on errand/manager days, even if you see you will have some office time (a weekly plan is for the “minimum to accomplish” — if you have too much time you can always grab things to do from your master list or even… take time off!)
  2. remember that a fair amount of what you do in your week is going to appear during the week, so leave plenty of buffer time for the unexpected and the unplanned.

5. As the week rolls on…

One of the reasons I like having my tasks in an Evernote note is that they have these neat little “todo” checkboxes (keyboard shortcut: alt-shift-T) that I can check as I go along. Sometimes I’ll do something that wasn’t planned for precisely this day, or that is still on the master list. Well, I check it, and it feels nice. It’s also nice to see a day with a list of completely checked tasks by the time I leave the office.

My Tuesday was a meeting day, but I made the mistake of planning quite a lot of stuff to do on that day because it looked as if I was going to have enough time in the office. Big mistake. So halfway through my Tuesday, I grabbed nearly all the items I had placed under the Tuesday heading and dumped them under Wednesday (a full office day).

On Wednesday, I didn’t manage to do everything I had planned (unsurprisingly, as I shifted the “Tuesday problem” to Wednesday). So I checked the actions I did accomplish and left the others unchecked. This meant that Thursday, in addition to the rather modest list of things I had planned to do (buffer time, remember? specially at the end of the week) I was able to go back and check tasks that were leftover from Wednesday. But I didn’t move them over to Thursday — somehow it felt better to be able to start Thursday with a “clean slate” and catch up when I felt like it.

So, Monday morning, I’ll be wiping the slate clean and planning next week — looking forward to it!

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