Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (The 99U Book Series)
99U 99U Jocelyn Glei

Ended: July 1, 2013

Start with the rhythm of your energy levels. Certain times of day are especially conducive to focused creativity, thanks to circadian rhythms of arousal and mental alertness. Notice when you seem to have the most energy during the day, and dedicate those valuable periods to your most important creative work. Never book a meeting during this time if you can help it. And don’t waste any of it on administrative work! Use creative triggers. Stick to the same tools, the same surroundings, even the same background music, so that they become associative triggers for you to enter your creative zone.
Manage to-do list creep. Limit your daily to-do list. A 3” × 3” Post-it is perfect—if you can’t fit everything on a list that size, how will you do it all in one day? If you keep adding to your to-do list during the day, you will never finish—and your motivation will plummet. Most things can wait till tomorrow. So let them. Capture every commitment. Train yourself to record every commitment you make (to yourself or others) somewhere that will make it impossible to forget. This will help you respond to requests more efficiently and make you a better collaborator. More important, it will give you peace of mind—when you are confident that everything has been captured reliably, you can focus on the task at hand. Establish hard edges in your day. Set a start time and a finish time for your workday—even if you work alone. Dedicate different times of day to different activities: creative work, meetings, correspondence, administrative work, and so on. These hard edges keep tasks from taking longer than they need to and encroaching on your other important work. They also help you avoid workaholism, which is far less productive than it looks.
Building a Rock-Solid Routine GREAT WORK BEFORE EVERYTHING ELSE Do your most meaningful creative work at the beginning of your day, and leave “reactive work”—like responding to e-mail or other messages—for later. JUMP-START YOUR CREATIVITY Establish “associative triggers”—such as listening to the same music or arranging your desk in a certain way—that tell your mind it’s time to get down to work. FEEL THE FREQUENCY Commit to working on your project at consistent intervals—ideally every day—to build creative muscle and momentum over time. PULSE AND PAUSE Move rhythmically between spending and renewing your energy by working in ninety-minute bursts and then taking a break. GET LONELY Make a point of spending some time alone each day. It’s a way to observe unproductive habits and thought processes, and to calm your mind. DON’T WAIT FOR MOODS Show up, whether you feel inspired or not.
In short, committing to ignore distractions is rarely enough. Like Franzen, we must strive to remove them entirely from our field of attention. Otherwise, we’ll end up using half our mental energy just keeping ourselves from breaking our own rules.
While it feels easy enough to put one task on hold to start another, studies like this are a reminder that we find it very difficult to let go of unfinished challenges. They continue to draw on our mental resources even after we think we’ve switched focus. What’s more, attempting to ignore this mental tug drains us even further. If you can, it’s best to find a good stopping point on a project—one that frees your mind from nagging questions—before moving on to another task. That way, you’ll find it easier to achieve mental closure and apply all your energy to the next challenge.
What should we focus on to help us manage our time better? I think one of the biggest factors is progression markers. For many things, it’s hard to figure out how much progress you’re making. When you answer a thousand e-mails, you see every e-mail you answer. When you are thinking about a difficult problem, it feels like maybe there were thirty wasted hours and then finally you had a half hour at the end that was useful—because the idea kind of came to you. There isn’t a linear progression and a sense of progress. So I think the big question is: how do we make ourselves feel like we’re making progress? Because if you can create that progress, I think many of the other things would become smaller barriers. If you’re working with a pen, you have evidence of all the things you’ve done. You can see your path. But if you work on a computer, it’s just the current state of the work—you don’t have the previous versions. If that’s the case, you could think about some tricks to remind yourself about your progress. Maybe we should keep a diary? Maybe we should keep older versions of our efforts? Maybe every day we make a new version of a document we are working on so that we can keep a visible record of our progress?
Baumeister suggests many strategies for increasing self-control. One of these strategies is to develop a seemingly unrelated habit, such as improving your posture or saying “yes” instead of “yeah” or flossing your teeth every night before bed. This can strengthen your willpower in other areas of your life. Additionally, once the new habit is ingrained and can be completed without much effort or thought, that energy can then be turned to other activities requiring more self-control. Tasks done on autopilot don’t use up our stockpile of energy like tasks that have to be consciously completed. Entertaining activities, such as playing strategic games that require concentration and have rules that change as the game advances, or listening to audio books that require attention to follow along with the plot, can also be used to increase attention. Even simple behaviors like regularly getting a good night’s sleep are shown to improve focus and self-control.
When you value the power of serendipity, you start noticing it at work right away. Try leaving the smartphone in your pocket the next time you’re in line or in a crowd. Notice one source of unexpected value on every such occasion. Develop the discipline to allow for serendipity.
Be aware of the cost of constant connection. If your focus is always on others—and quenching your appetite for information and external validation—you will miss out on the opportunity to mine the potential of your own mind. Recognize when you’re tuning in to the stream for the wrong reasons. We often look to our devices for a sense of reassurance. Become more aware of the insecurity that pulls you away from the present. You cannot imagine what will be if you are constantly concerned with what already is. Create windows of non-stimulation in your day. Make this time sacred and use it to focus on a separate list of two or three things that are important to you over the long term. Use this time to think, to digest what you’ve learned, and to plan. Listen to your gut as much as you listen to others. With all the new sources of communication and amplification, don’t let yourself be persuaded by the volume of the masses. Nothing should resonate more loudly than your own intuition. Stay open to the possibilities of serendipity. The most important connections—whether with people, ideas, or mistakes that lead to key realizations—often spring from unexpected circumstances. By being fully present where you are, you let chance (and the curious universe we live in) work its magic.
DEFEND YOUR CREATIVE TIME Book time on your calendar for uninterrupted, focused work—and respect those blocks of time as you would any client meeting. FOCUS WHEN YOU’RE FRESH Tackle the projects that require “hard focus” early in your day. Self-control—and our ability to resist distractions—declines as the day goes on. KILL THE BACKGROUND NOISE Turn off your phone, e-mail, and any apps unrelated to your task. Even the presence of background activity (and temptation) can drain your focus. MAKE PROGRESS VISIBLE Marking progress is a huge motivator for long-term projects. Make your daily achievements visible by saving iterations, posting milestones, or keeping a daily journal. GIVE YOUR BRAIN A BREAK Alternate challenging creative work with more “mindless” tasks to give your brain time to rest and refuel. TAP INTO TRANSITIONAL MOMENTS Take a break from checking your smartphone during transitional moments, and open yourself up to opportunity and serendipity.
Purposeful action requires clear intentions. But we’ve all logged on to a social network without them. We may have been procrastinating and looking for a distraction, or feeling angry, annoyed, or frustrated and seeking to escape that feeling. Research shows that we actually get a small rush of endorphins—the same brain chemicals we enjoy after completing intense exercise—when we receive a new message. Talking about ourselves also triggers the reward center of our brains, making it even more compelling to narrate our daily activities.
With one eye on our gadgets, we’re unable to give our full attention to who and what is in front of us—meaning that we miss out on the details of our lives, ironically, while responding to our fear of missing out. For many of us, mindlessness is the default state. It takes a concerted effort to be mindful with social media—to be proactive instead of reactive. When we’re mindful, we’re aware of why we’re logging on, and we’re able to fully disconnect when we’ve followed through with our intention. We’re able to engage authentically and meaningfully, but we’re not dependent on that connection in a way that limits our effectiveness and our sense of presence.
We can start developing self-awareness by setting boundaries for how and when we use our technology, and then checking in with our intentions when we feel compelled to use it differently. This could mean signing on only at certain predetermined times and asking ourselves key questions if we feel drawn toward our gadgets in between those times. Those questions might include: Is it necessary to share this? Will it add value to my life and for other people? Can I share this experience later so I can focus on living it now? Am I looking for validation? Is there something I could do to validate myself? Am I avoiding something I need to do instead of addressing why I don’t want to do it? Am I feeling bored? Is there something else I could do to feel more purposeful and engaged in my day? Am I feeling lonely? Have I created opportunities for meaningful connection in my day? Am I afraid of missing out? Is the gratification of giving in to that fear worth missing out on what’s in front of me? Am I overwhelming myself, trying to catch up? Can I let go of yesterday’s conversation and join today’s instead? Can I use this time to simply be instead of looking for something to do to fill it? Do I just want to have mindless fun for a while? (That last one is perfectly valid—so long as we know what we’re doing, and we consciously choose to do it.)
Some of the most successful people I know have slowly nurtured small, engaged networks of people who provide tremendous value to each other. All of the most fulfilled people I know focus more on the quality of their connections than the quantity of them. They make it a priority to reveal their authentic self instead of struggling to build and maintain a persona. They take their connections to ever-deepening levels by partnering online, meeting at events offline, and giving those people their full attention when they do connect. And they remember that behind every professional mission, there’s a personal purpose.
KEEP THE LONG VIEW IN VIEW Post your complex, long-term goals by your workstation to keep them top of mind when prioritizing your tasks. BE CONSCIOUS OF YOUR BANDWIDTH Practice letting go of certain e-mail and social media conversations. There will always be more opportunities than you actually can take on. CHECK YOURSELF, OR WRECK YOURSELF Distinguish between compulsive and conscious behaviors. Are you acting out of boredom or blind habit when you could be serving a higher goal? HIT THE RESET BUTTON Make a ritual of unplugging on a regular basis. Turning everything off is like hitting the “reset” button on your mind—it gives you a fresh start. DON’T HOLD YOUR BREATH Be conscious of your body. Breathing deeply and regularly can decrease your stress levels and help you make better decisions. IN IMAGINATION WE TRUST Don’t trust technology over your own instincts and imagination. Doing busywork is easy; doing your best work is hard.
I try to do the most difficult things early in the morning. If I start with easy stuff, meaning if I start checking and answering e-mail, it’s very difficult to then convince myself to do difficult things later on.
The Creative Pragmatist Approach: I know there will never be an ideal time to begin so I set aside time to get started on one part of the process. When I get to that time, regardless of whether I feel like doing the work or whether it seems like the most urgent priority at the moment, I get started on what I can do now. At the end of that initial start, I decide when I will move forward on the project again. I understand that the first stage of working on the piece is messy and that the project inevitably will take longer and have more complexity than I initially anticipate. But that’s okay because I have time to adapt and adjust my plans and still meet my goals and create good work.
The Creative Pragmatist Approach: I define the meaningful end deliverables and then start to clarify the intermediate steps to create them. I look at how much time I have between now and my projected end date. By “time” I mean both number of weeks and number of hours during those weeks to move this project forward. Then I allocate my time budget to the incremental steps, weighted by the reality of the minimum time that it takes to complete the elements and also by the importance of that element to the overall success of the project. Then, as I move through the process, I push myself to keep pace with the goals I’ve set, producing good enough work within the time I have to spend and giving myself permission to circle back if I still have additional hours at the end. This will ensure that I don’t over-invest in less important items and then botch the finish.
DREAD OF FEEDBACK The Creative Perfectionist Approach: If someone points out a mistake, has a different opinion, mentions something I didn’t include, or has anything other than incredibly positive things to say about a piece, I feel embarrassed and like a total failure. I worry that my expertise and respect is in question and that others will think I’m incompetent and an impostor. The Creative Pragmatist Approach: I appreciate feedback because it helps me to test and refine my work. I may agree or disagree with the input and I can choose how I respond to it. If I never open myself up to others’ insights, I might miss out on something really wonderful. My work is improved and my world is expanded through the input of others.
advocate canceling your cable or satellite television subscription if you have one, and getting your video entertainment from services like YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix. With the exception of weather information, most news services carried by television networks don’t do the public any service. Having cable (or satellite TV) in your home while being on an information diet is like trying to go on a food diet with a magical sink that pours not only hot and cold water, but also delicious milkshakes. While you may have the will to resist it, let’s do what we can to increase our chances of success.
With a reasonable broadband connection, even if you purchase individual episodes of television at $2 an episode from a service like iTunes, you end up with a net annual savings, and many other benefits, including not having to watch advertisements, resulting in saved time. You’ll also remove the temptation to couch surf and mindlessly watch any show being provided to you.
For many, this will result in a net increase in our most non-renewable resource: time. A six-hour consumption day is truly terrifying for some, not because they’re afraid of no longer being connected, but because they won’t know what to do with the extra time. If you’re cutting five hours off your information intake time, you’re going to need to divert your attention to something else during those remaining hours. Try to fill some of those reclaimed hours producing, rather than consuming, information. Try writing in a paper journal, writing articles for a blog, taking up photography, or creating funny videos of kittens for the YouTube audience, if you must. As we discussed in Chapter 7, Data Literacy, the production of information sharpens the mind and clarifies your thought. You can also increase your social time, spending time talking with your spouse, family, and friends. Another good use of your time is giving your mind a chance to digest the things that you’ve read by taking long walks, spending time exercising, or even meditating.
Mass affirmation is the refined sugar of the mind — I’m not talking about the kind of relatively rare positive affirmation you get from friends or family, telling you that you’re loved and respected. Rather, it’s the mass affirmation: the affirmations you get that aren’t intended for you specifically, the stuff that television is best at, but also permeates through all of our information delivery mechanisms. The suppliers that make a living telling you how right you are are the ones you ought to avoid the most. I try to limit myself to no more than 30 minutes a day of mass affirmation, and strive to consume much less. It means making some tough choices, and letting go of some things you might enjoy. At a maximum of a half-hour a day, for some liberals, it means having to make the dreaded decision of choosing between Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and a regimen of DailyKos. For the conservative, it may mean having to pick between Fox and Friends for a half-hour
If you’re in one of the dozens of cities lucky enough to be covered by Everyblock, I highly recommend it as an important daily source of information. The site aggregates dozens of data feeds that come from local governments and turns them into an easy-to-read, relatively opinion-free way of seeing what’s going on at the block level — and you’d be surprised how much information there is about your single block.
Beyond Everyblock, your city may have its own data catalog available for you to peruse. Most major cities — like D.C., Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and New York — have them, and more are on the way. To find yours, do a Google search for your city’s name and the phrase “data catalog” and you’ll likely stumble upon it. If you cannot find one, try searching for the email address of your local government’s CIO (Chief Information Officer), writing to them, and asking them to make the data feeds that they have available online.
For news, reading your local paper, watching your local news when it’s on, or reading local blogs isn’t a bad idea, but keep in mind: you’re now becoming a secondary or tertiary consumer of information, and you’re more subject to succumbing to your own bias and other forms of misreporting. While this information is less likely to be as manufactured as what you’ll find in the national and international news, it will still require some work in order to make sure it’s trustworthy and verifiable. In order to consume this information safely, you must do the extra work of investigating source material, figuring out the intent of the person delivering that information to you, and determining that information’s effects on you.
It’s good to fine-tune your lists of friends and acquaintances and fortunately, all of the major social networks give us this ability. Facebook’s groups and lists, Google+’s circles, and Twitter’s list functionalities make it so that we can sort our friends and view our social networks through the lenses of what’s important. If you are a user of one or more of these services, take an hour or two and sort through your lists of friends. Create a group, list, or circle for family members, another for close friends, another for work colleagues, and another for people you’d like to get to know better, and read those posts consciously during set periods of the day, rather than plunging yourself into an ever-growing stream of incoming media that your brain will be unable to resist.
We’ve adjusted our information culture such that we now expect information to be free to the consumer. But that free information comes with a much higher cost: advertising. A healthy information diet contains as few advertisements as possible. The economics of advertisement-based media make it so that our content producers must draw eyeballs in on every piece of content, and that results in sensationalism. Sensationalizing content tends to degrade its quality. That’s not the only cost, though: because advertising persuades us, over time, to buy things that we wouldn’t ordinarily buy, the cost of consuming ad-supported content is higher than we think. I know I’ve ordered a pizza or two from my local pizza joint after watching a television commercial for Pizza Hut.
Part of a healthy information diet is respect for good content, and a disrespect for advertisements. We have to reward our honest, nutritious content providers with financial success if we’re going to make significant changes. I subscribe to and as a paying member because they provide good, high-quality, and mostly ad-free content to their subscribers.
Knowing that they’re circumventing the current advertising distribution model of information, Readability charges a minimum membership fee of $5.00 per month that you can increase to however much you want. It takes 30% of the membership fee as its own, then allocates the remaining 70% to the content providers that you read through the service. It’s an invisible, transparent way to support content providers without having to wade through advertisements.
The websites of all content providers are designed to keep you reading, and to expose you to the most advertising impressions possible. It’s why they split articles up into several pages, and why when you scroll down to the end of an article, you’re plied with more enticing articles to read.
A healthy information diet means affirming our beliefs only to an extent, keeping a watchful eye on our own fanaticism, and soaking up as much challenge to our beliefs as we possibly can. Getting perspectives that agree with you is one thing, but getting only perspectives that agree with you is bad for you — it may limit your exposure to good information and may cause you to suffer from the forms of ignorance I described earlier. Moreover, it’s through having your ideas challenged (and through the synthesis, analysis, and reflection of those challenges) that your ideas get better.
In other words, the only thing to be fundamentally opposed to is fundamentalism itself. To help counter this, I keep a bias journal on my computer, but you could just as easily have it written down on paper if you like. In it, I keep my firm positions and values — stuff I find to be absolute. It’s just a simple, noncategorized list of strong biases I may have. Here are some of mine: Affordable access to quality healthcare is a fundamental right Innovation in the private sector will always outperform innovation in government Large organizations are less interested in the individual than small ones Strong affinity for Google products (could be because I get invited to speak at their conferences) Strong affinity towards technical solutions for social problems Men who wear brightly colored Pumas are annoying Some biases are stronger than others, of course, but what’s important is that you’re honest with yourself about what your biases are. Some of them could be deeply private, but you don’t have to share your list. What’s important is that you keep the list, are explicit about it, and constantly look to find data and people that challenge your biases — and prescribe yourself enough time to encounter them.
It’s also important to seek out diverse topics of information, as the synthesis of information from different fields helps us create better ideas. It also helps keep us from losing our social breadth — so we have more to talk about than the specialized knowledge of our particular fields. Introduce some new ones into your information diet. I find three resources particularly useful in this regard. The first is the Khan Academy. Started by Salman Khan in 2006 in order to tutor his young cousins, the site now features over 2,600 small lectures on anything from basic subjects like arithmetic and European history to advanced subjects like organic chemistry, the Paulson bailout, and the Geithner plan to solve the banking crisis. Being an infovegan means acquiring the basic knowledge you need in order to understand what the data is telling you. The Khan Academy opens the door and lets you in. It’s not a good stopping point, but it’s an excellent way to pick up the basics of a subject that will give you the knowledge you need in order to conduct further research. The second is TED (Technology, Education, and Design), an organization that puts on a conference every year. It invites luminaries from a myriad fields to come and present what they’re working on, and then share the talks online via its website. TED talks — especially about things you’re not ordinarily interested in — are a great way to add diversity to your diet. The third is Kickstarter, which has effectively replaced the “Arts & Leisure” section of my local newspaper. Kickstarter’s purpose is to fund small projects and help artists and entrepreneurs get off the ground, but it turns out that it’s grown to be a good source of inspiration and entertainment as well.
Again, the point isn’t to visit these three sites as an endorsement of ideas, or a strict rule for your information diet. But in the frame of conscious consumption, they mean something different. You’re choosing to consciously visit these sites on a regular…
Building a healthy information diet means discovering what works best for you, and creating a routine that you can stick to. I built with this in mind. Reading this book is just the beginning of what is hopefully a larger journey towards better health, and as more people make more discoveries about what works for them, we can start sharing with one another what works and what doesn’t.
You might argue that stupid people, willing to believe whatever they want to believe, will always exist. You might further argue that evildoers will always be there to attempt to take advantage of them. You’re right. But the problem is getting more severe because the economics of how we get our information have changed so much that it’s not just the stupid people who are getting duped anymore.
The only way we can solve the problem of information obesity is to change the economics of information. And while it’s not going to solve itself overnight, it’s an issue that, with enough demand from the consumer, will begin to change. Just look at what’s happened with the healthy food and local food movements.
An information diet isn’t just something that’s good for you. An appropriate diet is a social cause that yields a better ecology of mind — one that’s more immune to contempt and hate, and to the tragic consequences of what those emotions beget.
we begin to demand an end to factory-farmed content, and instead demonstrate a willingness to pay for more content like investigative journalism and a strong, independent public press, we’ll not only force the market to follow our lead, we’ll build a better, stronger, and healthier democracy. The high-end consumer can drag the market along with it. If we make a healthy information diet as normal
With another divisive election around the corner, I’d like the consequence of you reading this book to not only be your going on an information diet, but also to your starting or joining a local campaign for information dieting with three goals in mind: To increase the digital literacy of our communities with the skills I outlined in Chapter 7: the ability to search, process, filter, and share. To encourage the consumption of local information that’s low on our metaphorical trophic pyramid. To economically reward good information providers, and to provide economic consequence for those who provide affirmation over information.
There may be an infodiet group in your area. Check out to see if one exists near you. If not, start a Google Discussion group at Name it something that’s easily discoverable by people in your community: “InformationDiet
The “sportsification” of federal politics has made it so we treat elections like athletic rivalries, vilifying the other team at the expense of doing what’s right for the country. If this was what motivated your constituents, would you listen to them? As Congress stops listening, people get more furious, building larger megaphones with which to shout at their representatives; and Congress, being unable to decipher what people are saying from the sheer volume of input, simply listens less. It’s a destructive loop that causes a great chasm between people and the functions of government designed to listen to them: a participation gap.
Finally, to keep your inbox from filling up with political advertisements, avoid signing petitions and signing up for regular campaign updates. As a cofounder of one of the larger firms on the left responsible for the drafting of these petitions and the software that runs it, I can assure you that the online petitions that you sign are not meant, primarily, to cause change. They’re meant to get your email address so that you can later be bombarded by emails asking for money.