This July, I had the absolute pleasure of leaving Indiana behind for a week to backpack through Yosemite National Park. It was a trip I’d wanted to take since I was a kid and finally got the chance. (You’ll be amazed what people say “yes” to when you remind them it’s for your 40th birthday.)
The trip was as good as I imagined it would be. No, better. Bear with me as I paint a picture of my life each day.
Wake up at 4:30a (7:30a my time), gaze at the stars, and listen to the silence. Unlike Indiana summers, there wasn’t a sound in the night air of Yosemite. Not a bird, frog, cicada. Nothing…just the sounds of silence I’d long forgotten.
As I waited for the sun to crawl out bed, I stayed in mine—reading a book by headlamp and watching by breath billow in the cool, crisp air. An hour or so later, I grabbed my camera and stumbled around in the darkness. While the moon was bright in the park, it was still a challenge traversing granite slabs to find the perfect spot to sit and look down on the rising sun. Yes, down on the rising sun. You don’t get that vantage point in the Midwest.
Once found, I’d sit and watch the neighboring rock faces come to life—from cold, grey stones to warm, golden boulders. (Before Yosemite, I never knew that rocks could find consciousness.)
After breakfast and more reading, I left for that day’s hike, scaling rocks, roaming through streams, and meandering through woods. Rough life. Six hours later and minus 3,000+calories lost in the most enjoyable workout ever, it was time for dinner and journaling by headlamp. The next morning, wake and repeat.
My point in sharing all this, you ask? Simply to explain how disconnected I was from the digital world, and how rooted I was in the natural world. Unlike other trips where I might attempt to unplug from email, texts, and social media, having no cell reception here made it unthinkable. And so I wasted no energy fighting off urges. That energy was instead invested in reactivating and exercising all five senses.
Then it was over.
A week spent staring with amazement at the high-def beauty that surrounded me was quickly replaced by a long list of action items seen through a less-than-thrilling lo-def screen. Journaling for fun turned to emailing for work. Clouds in the sky got pushed aside for a Cloud on the web. Bird calls left for conference calls.
It was a hard transition for me because there really was no transition. No metamorphosis. I didn’t allow myself much, if any, time to acclimate. Sober one minute and dripping wet the next.
I returned to reality and hit it hard. The problem was that reality hit back much harder.
And as far as I could see it, my only chance at survival was to be more productive. Success equaled marking off to-dos, and to do that, I simply needed to get organized, defer enjoyment, and work longer hours. Then, after I got caught up, I’d be able to enjoy life again.
It all sounded like a great plan—except for the fact that everything about it was wrong.
I spent the next two weeks obsessing over my to-do list, working early in the morning and late into the night, and bypassing time with family and friends. And the only result was more stress and more mess.
With my plan failing, I reached out to my wife, who fortunately for me does not succumb to procrastination, distractions, or inefficiencies, as I am prone to do. We had some hard conversations about my work and, more importantly, how I was approaching it.
Here’s what I had all wrong:
To me, a “successful day”—both in and away from the office—meant that I had checked off all my to-dos for the day. If I’d accomplished only a few, then the day was considered a waste. In my misguided mind, it wasn’t just a disappointment, but a complete and utter waste of a day.
It’s this definition of success that’s long plagued me. As I’ve talked about before, I’ve often struggled with perfectionism, where I approach life with an all or nothing mentality. Either I accomplish everything, or it’s as though I’ve accomplished nothing.
Realizing I’d fallen back into this way of life, I decided to stop and physically rewrite the definition of success in my life—renewing the principle that some done off my to-do list is fine and worthy of celebration—not dissatisfaction.
I was always setting the bar too high. I continually misjudged how long it might take for me—or 10 of me—to get something done. And so every morning was spent in disappointment, looking at the same list of unaccomplished to-dos from the previous day.
Now I try to be much more honest with myself when setting up my week. If I think something might take me 30 minutes to complete, I double it and compare it against my schedule for the week. I also focus on getting high-priority or deadline-driven items done first, instead of the fun stuff that used to tempt me.
I wasted far too much time on my task manager app going through a mind-numbing routine of checking off completed items from the previous day or rescheduling incomplete ones for that day. One hour…every morning…complete…reset…complete…reset. No more.
Now I take time just one hour a week—either on Sunday evening or Monday morning—to organize all the to-dos I need to look at for the week. Everything else gets hidden from my eyes. When I receive new, immediate items, they get added to the list, but things that can wait remain in my inbox until the following Sunday or Monday. This process gives me much better tunnel vision and keeps me from getting annoyed at having to reschedule incomplete items every day.
Lack of trust might be a more accurate subtitle for this “weakness.” I’d been hoarding to-dos on my list that others could have accomplished long ago—had I just trusted them. Instead, I chose to ignore my own pitiful track record for not getting things done and only trusted myself. Bad move. Today, I’m trying to stop ignoring the lifelines others were throwing out to me and lean more on my wife, my friends, and my colleague, Jeri—the glue behind Keyhole Marketing and Joetography.
Until I got caught up, I saw no time for downtime or exercise. Those weren’t necessities but privileges to be earned. Here again, I needed redirection. I’d lost sight of the importance of personal time—whether spent reading, journaling, praying, or meditating—and physical health—the great stress reliever. And while it’s still hard to block out time for these activities and acknowledge their value in my life, I’m trying and it’s helping.
These are just five ways I was killing my productivity. Any similar experiences for you?