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Archive for the ‘Productivity’ Category

How to Keep the Creativity Train Running on Time

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Some days you feel like absolutely nothing can go wrong.  You’re on fire, unstoppable.  Ideas are flowing, confidence is high, and you’re walking around with your chin up and your back straight.  There’s no better feeling than knowing you’re at the top of your game.  The world is your oyster.  Everything you touch seems to turn to gold and you wonder how you were ever stagnant before.

Until the past few years, I had really only been able to identify these times when looking back.  Now I’m acutely aware of them when I’m in them and I grab onto them and try not to let go when that train is rolling.

But these feelings never last long. Maybe a day or two, maybe a little more. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a full week of this superhuman ability to create things out of nothing without obstruction.  Sooner or later things will return to normal and there’s no explanation why this happens.  You just can’t self-motivate like you were able to the day before.  Ideas are at a distance, just out of reach.  You aren’t feeling flow and a day’s worth of work is taking two full days instead of just three hours.

It’s crazy frustrating when this happens. You try and recreate the environment, the feeling you had, and you just can’t. Your mind has moved on, your thoughts are elsewhere, and your current experience has been altered in some inexplicable way. And you don’t like it at all.

What happened?  Well, nothing at all.  It’s perfectly normal for creativity to ebb and flow like this.  It happens to every single creative person dozens – even hundreds – of times throughout a year. It’s just not possible to keep anything running at its highest capacity all the time.

But are there ways to keep it running for as long as you can?  Maybe.  There are things you can do that will help but only in the sense that they may be able to prolong that window.  There’s no guarantee that these things will work every time, but if they buy you an extra few days or a shorter period in the downswing, it could be worth it.

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Downtime with Nature: What You Need to Reduce Stress, Increase Attention, and "Create Again"

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I’m writing this overlooking the Pacific Ocean with an iced coffee by my side, and a gentle breeze on my face.  I’ve spent the last week in Maui with my family, so please excuse the obligatory photos of paradise!


While on the island, I’ve been doing everything I can to unwind.  I’ve been devouring scones, French fries, margaritas, Oreos, bacon, Frosted Mini Wheats and other junk I don’t allow myself to even consider eating most of the time.  I’ve stopped tracking my habits.  I’ve exercised just once if you don’t count swimming and chasing my kids; a short run near the beach on our first day here.  I haven’t spent any time checking tasks off of my lists; in fact I had moved them all over to a "Post Vacation" category before we left the mainland so I wouldn’t even stumble upon them accidentally.  I haven’t done much writing, stretching, or flossing, and I’ve had a metric ton of Maui Coffee.  It’s been great!

Yet I’m not too concerned about slacking off, or at least not as much as my Type A personality would suggest.  Though I’m itching to get back into my routine, I’m not worried about what would normally be viewed as a setback.

Planned breaks like these are required to reset my passion meter from time to time.  I try and force myself to "unplug" from my (somewhat) normal intensity to help me remember why I do what I do to begin with.  It’s hard to hit the ‘off’ switch… it’s frankly just as hard as turning it back on again, but I try and view it as sort of like stopping at a gas station before a long road trip; breaks like this fuel me for at least a few months, and after six days of gluttony and objective laziness, I always realize that it’s not the permanent life for me.

But what you do for a few weeks out of the year doesn’t define the year, and it doesn’t define you.  It’s what you do most of the time, not just some of the time, that makes the difference over the long haul.  Have consistency in the fundamentals (modulo a week here and there) and personal growth is inevitable.

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How it Feels to Ship Stuff



If you don’t know what I mean by shipping, you might want to read Real Artists (Plan to) Ship first.

Shipping is hard.  It’s especially hard if you’ve never done it, or simply haven’t done it often enough to know what it feels like.  You suspect that ‘inspiration’ will pull you through it, yet in reality inspiration usually doesn’t last more than a day or two.

Inspiration is an ephemeral feeling that tricks you into thinking it will always be there.  Of course, it can’t be… and won’t be.

Inspiration has never shipped anything.  Grit is how you ship. If you think you’re always going to be inspired and that you can just “lean on” that feeling everyday to power you, you’re going to fail.  It doesn’t work.  Inspiration will disappear as soon as the caffeine leaves your blood stream, you get distracted, or you wake up with a headache.  You need a model for shipping, something that helps get you through the emotional dips you’re bound to experience.

When you’re inspired, you don’t expect to have dips in your motivation.  You’re above that.  You’re made of steel.  The feeling will last forever.  People who ship know better.

The art of shipping is the same the world over, no matter what the subject is.  Paint, code, words, chords, clay, whatever. If you’re creating anything from nothing and expect it to see the light of day, you’re looking to ship something. Creating something without delivering it may still be considered art by some, but it’s not shipping.

When we hire new program managers at Microsoft, one of the most important things we look for is people who are good at all phases of the product cycle.  We expect people to be strong at the beginning, coming up with creative ideas and unique approaches to solving tough problems.  We look for strength in the middle, people who are able to execute and get the team through the grind without giving up.  And we want people who can pull the team all the way through to the finish line, dealing with the (very hard) act of pushing something real out the door to a few hundred million users.

This means that the best people are the ones who can decide what to do, figure out how to do it with the team, and then start it, drive it, and ship it.

Anyone can have an idea.  And just about anyone can write a strongly worded email or document about how “obvious” that idea is and how everyone who doesn’t “get it” is an “idiot”.  But the people who are able to sell the idea, line the people up, and bring it all the way to the finish line, imperfections and all, and then do it over and over again are the real stars. 

The funny thing is how these people usually aren’t the same people who think they’re superstars just because they have some ideas.  The best people are too busy shipping to care what you think.

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Written by Mike Torres

March 21st, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Action Triggers: Getting Back on the Self-Control Wagon

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WagonWith every single bit of forward momentum, there will come a setback at some point.  It’s an inevitability that nothing good will continue uninterrupted forever.  This is the case with everything, human or otherwise, and is a fact of life that most unrealistic optimists don’t embrace early enough. 

If you think there won’t be speed bumps on the road ahead – if in fact, you don’t plan for them – when you hit one, the wheels are going to come flying off.  You’ll be done for.

When you look at self-control, or having the discipline to do the things you don’t necessarily want to do, there’s an expectation that it’s either on or off.  You’re either exercising self-control or you’re not; hot or cold, black or white, Reagan or Clinton.

The problem with this approach, as I wrote about in The Exercise and Science of Self-Control is that self-control is exhaustible.  Which means if you’re always on, you will eventually be off because your muscles, your self-control muscles, will become exhausted. 

If you know this, why not plan for it?

Lots of times these aren’t predictable dips in your self-control momentum.  They’re unplanned, unexpected, and unwelcome.  It’s the cinnamon roll instead of the gym, the Rocky marathon instead of Excel, the impromptu party instead of laundry and dishes, and so on.  It’s the feeling of failure – or just disappointment – that you weren’t able to hold true to the promise you made to yourself.

You spent all that time getting your self-control built up, just to have it come crashing down with a single mid-day cinnamon roll.

And if you’re anything like I am, once you break one or two promises to yourself, you might as well break them all.  For months on end.  It’s so easy… you’ve already proven that you’re not trustworthy.  That you aren’t strong enough to hold up your end of the bargain.  You’re weak and not worthy.  So why bother trying anymore?

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Written by Mike Torres

March 12th, 2011 at 10:45 am

The Exercise and Science of Self-Control

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Click for photoDo you frequently find yourself staying focused on a single task until it’s complete, or do you fall victim to the "I’ll do it later" or distraction mentality?  Are you able to walk past the table of donuts each time you see it, or do you give up and take a huge bite out of one?  If you’re someone who struggles with self-control, or the ability to regulate your actions even in the case of overwhelmingly appealing stimuli, you’re certainly not alone.  Most people the world over deal with the inability to self-supervise their actions on a consistent basis.  The exercise of self-control is hard.  Or at least people think it is.

It’s just so much easier to give in, isn’t it?  Hell, it takes real effort to fight the urge, especially if restraint isn’t something you’re used to.  More on that later, but first let’s take a look at exactly why self-control is important.

“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” — Jim Rohn

Self-control is the basis of all change; nothing can be transformed without first determining what needs to happen, and then being consistent and predictable in implementation over time.  It is, in fact, the most important skill to have when it comes to achievement.  Self-control is really the platform in which achievements are built upon.  It’s an essential ingredient in any high performer’s personality, just as impulsiveness and “action without consequence” is central to the self-defeatist.

If you want to start modeling success, the most important thing you can do is to start exhibiting self-control

Show me a successful person who doesn’t have a superhuman amount of mastery over his or her daily actions and I’ll show you someone who has benefited only from chance and circumstance – and that type of success is not repeatable or transferable.  Anyone can win the lottery or sign a book contract, but it takes true dedication to be able to maintain success over time.

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Written by Mike Torres

February 27th, 2011 at 4:10 pm

Give up on Work/Life “Balance” Now

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Ed. note: The real title of this post should be “Give up on Work/Life Balance Now Provided You Actually Care About Succeeding With Your Work and Having Fun In Your Life” but that felt too long and silly.

balanceYou hear it everyday.  People want more balance in their lives.  They’re tired of having to work long, hard hours without recognition or reward.  They end each and every day exhausted beyond belief and dream of spending their days diving the Great Barrier Reef.  They want more ‘balance’ (which usually equates to more television – sorry, can’t help the snark!) yet when you push them on what ‘balance’ means to them, they really mean “I want to work less”.  They probably don’t talk about wanting to work more while sitting on a beach in Tahiti counting the waves.

In today’s world, the work/life balance of the 1950s desk jockey is a pipedream.  Sorry, it doesn’t exist anymore no matter how hard you wish for it.  Pulling in your driveway every night at 5pm after a day of slow work for a supper prepared for you isn’t going to happen for most people.  The business world is more competitive than ever, we’re connected to the office via “direct neural interface”, and change is happening on a daily or hourly basis.  The pace has quickened to a dizzying point and we’re expected to keep up or get off the train.  And getting off the train means greater sacrifices than most people are willing to make.

How many emails do you receive away from the office?  How many tweets, texts, news items, calls, or meetings are you dealing with outside of normal work hours?  You know, during that time that you should be ‘living’ and not working.  Probably lots – and it’s just going to get worse, my friend.  Of course we won’t count the life stuff you do while at work, right? ;)  People tend to conveniently forget that!

Regardless of what we do or who we work for, we should just stop talking about balance entirely.  Ultimately contentment isn’t about balance.  It’s about feeling important again.  And it’s ultimately about having control and perspective over everything in your life and work.

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Written by Mike Torres

December 13th, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Mind the Gaps: Get a Little Ahead Each Day

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Be deliberately efficient or deliberately Zen.  Never be arbitrarily inefficient.

Click for photoI tweeted a version of that a few days ago and it pretty succinctly sums up my approach to "time management".  In essence, it’s saying do what you do and be 100% there… and do so in a way that isn’t randomly wasting precious time in the present moment due to sloppy planning or weak preparation.

How much downtime did you have today if you counted up the minutes?  10 minutes, 60 minutes, more?

If your house is in order you can use every minute to your advantage, whatever that means to you at that time.  You aren’t passing up the opportunity to use that time just because you don’t know what’s next or what you need to do – you can just seamlessly move from one thing to the next at a deliberate pace doing high-quality work or enjoying needed downtime.

Ultimately this approach goes back to having the right system for knowing what the open threads are in your life.  Getting Things Done by David Allen is one such system, hugely popular and very common sensical and intuitive, but there are others.  Assuming you’re already on your way to productivity black belt status and at any given moment can identify what you need in the moment, one of the best things you can do to act on this data is to start living in the gaps.

Gaps are those small 5-30 minute "in betweens" throughout the day that offer you some level of personal sanctity.  They’re part of your daily rituals – your commute, an afternoon walk, a 20-minute wait in the doctor’s office, time between meetings, the 30 minutes your spouse or partner is watching the kids, and so on.  They’re time periods in which you could choose to be productive or time you could use to disconnect and recharge.  Ultimately it’s up to you how you use it.

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Written by Mike Torres

August 24th, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Multitasking vs. Background Processing


Ed. Note: Sorry for the lack of activity lately.  We’ve had the trifecta of big change around here requiring a shift in my focus: new baby, new job, and new house.  Which means my normal writing time (during kid #1’s Sunday naptime) is no longer tenable.  I suspect my writing will be spaced out for a bit while I find a new rhythm, but it’s not going to stop!

Click for photoIf you’re reading this blog, chances are you fall into one of two camps:

  1. You think you’re a great multitasker and thrive on juggling a million complex tasks at the same time
  2. You know better

Folks in camp #2 should probably just move on to reading something else (here are some recommendations!)  If you’re in camp #1, I’d love a demonstration 😉

Multitasking is a catch-all phrase that’s used for a lot of different work styles and concepts.  First a few words about what it isn’t.

Multitasking isn’t having different areas of focus (family, career, health, and so on).  Multitasking also doesn’t incorporate doing unrelated (or somewhat related) things at different times of the day (moving from email to meetings to writing to reading).

Both views of multitasking are fine in that they’re normal behavior; stuff you won’t get penalized by the efficiency gods for excelling at.  If you didn’t have different areas of focus, you’d be a robot, a dog, or a Perl script without any emotional attachment or ability to "let go" of a single area.  And if you weren’t able to switch tasks to some degree throughout the day, you wouldn’t be the least bit effective at work or at home.

We need to be flexible, but we also need to be focused.  And like most things in life, there’s a fair amount of nuance in there.

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Written by Mike Torres

August 8th, 2010 at 1:02 pm

5 More Ways to Protect That Time!

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This post is a follow-up to Protect Your Time: 8 Ways to Stay Focused on Important Stuff.  Can you tell I care about this topic?

Refocuser palm clockI work with lots of people who are booked all day long, 8am-6pm, every single day of the week.  Most of these people complain that they have no time to do any “real” work since they’re “sooooooo busy” all the time.  Yet sitting in a meeting with a laptop open only half paying attention isn’t real work, and most people know that 🙂

Still, they let their time get abused left and right and don’t realize that they’re ultimately in control of the situation.  Heck, they may not even identify it as a problem to begin with.  They’re busy right?  Who has time to think about producing, creating, or <ugh> leading anyway?!

When you break it down, time is the purest and most ultimate resource we have for action.  We don’t own many things completely and totally, but time is one of the things that we get to choose how to spend.  And as we’ve discussed on this blog in the past, your life is the sum of what you choose to focus on – so spend it wisely, because you aren’t going to get it back.  How you spend your time is going to impact your life in ways greater than your money, relationships, or job alone ever could.

It’s easy to look at a situation like being booked all week and think it’s unavoidable.  If you’re in a role with a decent amount of responsibility, it’s also easy to assume that responsibility has to equate to meeting attendance and being “busy” all the time.  But of course, it doesn’t… and never will.

Having responsibility for something important means that you’re a decision-maker of some sort.  The best decisions are made based on experience, instinct, and data.  And there are ways to gain practical experience, hone your native instinct, and collect and synthesize data outside of meetings.  In fact, you could make an argument that the more time you spend in useless meetings, the less opportunity you have to gain that experience or practice your craft.

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Written by Mike Torres

May 9th, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Real Artists (Plan to) Ship

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Ed. note: This post is appropriate because we’re “shipping” our son to the world in just a few hours.  Wish us luck!  Posting may be slow for a little while as we adjust to a bigger family, but if you’re signed up for email updates, Twitter, or RSS, you may not even notice!

Click for photoIf you work in the tech industry, you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase, “Real artists ship”.  It’s a quote attributed to Steve Jobs, the founder and current CEO of Apple, as a motivator for the development team of the original Macintosh computer.

In this context, shipping means getting your product out the door and into the hands of the world.  But it could mean submitting your term paper, completing a big sale, or finishing a year-long boat renovation.  Life is full of projects like these that could go on indefinitely, but ultimately have to ship in order to make a difference. 

If these projects don’t ship, they’re just hobbies.  If they don’t ship, they were just fun ideas – and ideas are a dime a dozen… everyone has good ideas.  But shipping… that’s hard.  And the rewards of shipping are reserved for the few that are able to do it, not the people who first thought of the idea.

The “problem” with starting a project with the expectation that it’ll ship is that it imposes all sorts of constraints.  The technology isn’t where you need it to be, you don’t have the time you need to do everything you want to do, or you don’t have the people or money.  In order to truly think “outside the box” you need a team that’s twice as big with twice as much money and faster computers!  Of course that’s all bogus.

Constraints are why things ship.

If you didn’t have a deadline to submit your term paper, you could tweak it forever.  If you didn’t have customers waiting for the next version of your software or competitors breathing down your neck, you could add every feature you’ve ever thought of.  You need constraints to really think about how to best solve a problem.  Constraints are good.

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Written by Mike Torres

March 29th, 2010 at 7:50 am