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Reflections On This Year's Productivity Explorations
It's been an active year of productivity explorations for me. Rather than present conclusions - partially because I haven't gotten to a point of clear conclusions - I thought I'd share some of what I've been experimenting with. This post is part behind the scenes, part meta-productivity, and part assessment of tech options, so, if you're not up for that today, please go do something that gets you closer to where you're trying to go. :)
Some quick background: recall that the car accident Angela and I were in last year severely altered what would count as a normal workflow and we went fallow. I was in a lot of pain and had to do a fair bit of workflow modification to get any creative work done.
I also lost my iPad on a plane flight from North Carolina largely because I was in so much pain I needed to take prescription meds to make the flight. When I take prescription pain pills, I'm in a lot of pain.
In November, I found myself severely distractable. One of the reasons I had bought an iPad - aside from its eminent mobility - was because I was usually more effective if I unitasked. I had long since discovered that there were about 30% of things I couldn't do with my iPad that were part of my day-to-day workflow, so I didn't think that losing it would be that big of a deal.
I was wrong - at least, at the time. I noticed that without my iPad, I wasn't doing as much writing as I had been before losing it. I had used my iPad to trigger a context shift; iPad, habitually, meant creative work. I've never set up my iPads to be devices for Connecting and I avoid using them for games and random tech-foolery, so it was loaded with apps that were conducive for creative work - drafting apps, drawing/diagramming apps, mindmapping apps, and so on.
But it wasn't just that I worked on my iPad that was at play, for I also wrote outside of my office on the kitchen table. I had two creative anchors at play prior the accident: an environmental one and a technological one.
Will an iPad Rescue Me From The Loop?
After months of being caught on the Loop with my laptop and 27" Thunderbolt display, I decided that it was time to get the iPad again. Only one problem: I still couldn't create through the pain. Fail. (Timestamp: December 19, 2012.)
Fast forward a few months. After reading The Shallows and seeing that my own cognitive functioning had altered, I decided to start experimenting with spending far, far less time online than I had in the past. I accidentally set a goal of spending no more than one hour per day on the Loop, which meant I had to get serious about which activities counted as Loop and which didn't. My original intention was to spend no more than one hour online per day and that proved to be too much and counter to what I was actually trying to do. (It was an accidental goal because I only recognized later that a curious wondering - "I wonder if I could get down to an hour online per day?" - led to my inner autopilot implementing a test. This happens to me fairly frequently.)
One of the things that quickly became clear to me as I started shifting my work away from "online" was that my tools were all online in some way or the other, which is why that original query was misled. I was trimming undirected internet wandering from my workflow - not my work itself. It was striking to me to consider just how far I'd come with tools, for, just a few years ago, I had a device mindset as opposed to a cloud mindset. My devices just connect me to the cloud, but they aren't the primary focus any longer.
I was also still exploring the limits of unitasking and noticed how distractable I had become with my iPad. It just wasn't working for me as a writing tool any more and a major component of what I do is write. I still had the idea that I was going to be writing a book and knew I needed to get my writing workflow going. I was still fairly hopeless on my MacBook Pro, too, so I went to a different extreme and bought a tool that was only a word processor. (Timestamp: March 21, 2013)
A Simple Solution For A Complex Problem
Yes, only a word processor. They still exist. It didn't connect to the cloud. It was a keyboard with a teeny LCD screen. Its battery lasted 700 hours. The keyboard had a wonderful action. It cost me $120. Without further ado, the device was the AlphaSmart Neo.
I kept the Neo for about 3 weeks before I sent it back. While you might think that it was the fact that it was just a keyboard that made it a no go, the real reasons it went back (while I still had the satisfaction guarantee) were two-fold: 1) paragraphs are the basic unit of writing for me and thus, I need to be able to see paragraph flow and 2) it was a pain to get writing off of the Neo to where it needed to be. The inefficiency of the whole process outweighed any incremental effectiveness of it.
There was also the fact that it was causing too much decision fatigue in the morning, as I'd have to decide which of three devices I'd need and I couldn't carry all 3, not because I don't have a bag that would hold them, but because the accident made me more conscious of how much weight I was carrying. More than 15 pounds and I'd be in pain. Yes, I weighed my bag and ran some tests.
While you may think that my reasons for sending it back are obvious, they are only obvious in hindsight. The basic productivity principle that I was validating was that constraints are more reliable than discipline. Because it was impossible for the Neo to get online, I could take it and write for a good long time without having to inhibit habits that I had accrued. (Fast brain fact: inhibiting thoughts, habits, and behaviors generally requires more cognitive effort than other types of work your prefrontal cortex does; in other words, it's harder to force yourself to focus than it is to plan or do the work that needs to be done.)
My exploration with the Neo validated the constraint principle at the same time that it validated the fact that introducing a new workflow that has a bunch of additional steps only makes sense if end effectiveness is increased. Just because you're more effective at one stage of the workflow further upstream doesn't mean that the total workflow is more effective.
More simply put, working on a disconnected device made my total workflow less effective, especially since it negatively impacted the actual creative process for me and the post-creative work part of the process, too. It was clear that I needed to go back to the drawing board.
Back to the Drawing Board with the iPad
What I needed was a tool that was constraining and connected. That sent me back to assessing my iPad because, theoretically, it was both. I used my iPad a bit in observer mode - meaning, I was looking at how I was working as I was working (meta, I know) - and saw that the problem was that I had too many apps and choices, none of which were right enough. I had about 7 different writing apps installed on it, so every time I sat down to write, I'd hop through them until I found the one that was right for the task.
I spent an afternoon just churning words in different apps and eliminating the apps that were sub-optimal. I finally settled on the one I love the most for general writing: Drafts. If I need to write, I open Drafts. Blogsy - the app I'm writing in now - is just for writing on the blog. All was right in the world of writing.
If all was right in the world of writing, why has it been relatively quiet here at the blog? It so turns out that at the end of March, we released the Small Business Lifecycle and have all sorts of other phenomenal behind-the-scenes stuff a'brewing.
Non-tech Changes Have Changed Needs
My exploration with the iPad continues to take interesting turns. What I can say, right now, is that I'm not so sure that I'd miss it if it were gone. Sure, I'd be just as frustrated if I lost it, broke it, or if it got stolen, but that most likely has more to do with losing an asset due to mistakes than it has to do with the "necessity" of the device itself.
What's changed? Well, I'm not in as much pain as I was before and I've cultivated some new habits that allow me to focus more. I no longer drink coffee. I exercise more. I get up naturally between 5am and 6am and spend a good few hours reading, reflecting, and collecting myself. I bought a new, more ergonomic chair. We hired a Feng Shui consultant and it's really changed the energy and dynamics of our space. (Each one, I know, is probably worthy of discussion, and I may do so in time.)
In other words, I've expanded the exploration from tech modifications to all of the different factors that lead to peak performance.
Technology has also changed. MacBook Airs have come down in weight and price at the same time that using my phone as a hotspot is now a real option, just as using my MiFi is an option, too. An experiment in March reaffirmed that taking just the iPad with me on an extended travel trip severely decreases my productivity, and I'm quite loathe to take both my MacBook Pro and my iPad, even though I do enjoy reading on the iPad far more than the Kindle.
For the same weight - by the time you count the iPad's companion keyboard that's a must have for me to not go batty - and a few hundred dollars more, I could have a connected, constraining device (the MacBook Air) that'll have all of my micro-systems, preferences, and usability without having the iPad's workarounds. And, by the way, that device could connect up with my current monitor.
The Current Tension Point: Cloud-Based Collaborative Tools
Another change that's technology-related but more operational is the fact that I've been rebuilding Team PF this year and we're now using more collaborative, cloud-based software. While browsing has come a long way on mobile devices, we're still a long way off from being able to effectively create and edit online assets. You don't realize how many extra documents, tabs, and random stuff you pull into creating online until you have a device that makes it hard to do it. But unitasking aside, creating and editing web-based info on an iPad is an exercise in patience because they either have a gimped mobile interface or the desktop version doesn't work correctly.
I was talking to the brilliant Sierra Modro the other day about what she'd done to make her workflow fit her iPad-centric life. She was right on that, for her, she needed to force herself to use the iPad so she'd wean herself off of using her laptop as a crutch, and part of her exploration included selecting tools that worked with the iPad. After our conversation, I was motivated to go through the same experiment.
During the next morning's meditation and reflection, I recognized that, for me, that was looking at the situation backwards; in my context, the devices that I use need to be compatible with the tools that I use, not the other way around - especially since devices are currently easier to replace and switch than collaborative tools in a team setting. During my discussion with Sierra, we fully acknowledged the difference in our operations, for being a solopreneur and having a small team are different beasts entirely, with different advantages and disadvantages.
From a solopreneur's perspective, if it works for you, it works for your business and collaboration is an exception to the norm. On the collaboration front, I'm the opposite; me doing solo work is the exception, not the norm. On the other front, it's more like "if it really doesn't work for me, it doesn't work for the business," but that still admits a broad range of compromises, especially since the main metric of a team leader is how well the team performs, not just how well the leader performs.
I went to the Apple Store yesterday and talked with one of their business team reps to see what some of the newest options are. At one point, Adam - my favorite bizteam rep there - mentioned that it's starting to boil down to preferences about the touch screen when it comes to the iPad vs. Macbook Air discussion when you look at total device costs. "Some people prefer touch screen devices and other prefer the keyboard and monitor," he said. As I mentioned earlier, I actually dislike a touch-based interface and have been converting the iPad into a portable, connected monitor.
Despite how it may sound, I love having a workflow that works the way I want it to. I'm not there yet and don't know that I'll ever get there. In the meantime, I'll keep exploring.
What new things have you tried this year?