I distinctly remember the first time it happened. I was standing in the foyer of my flat in Reading and in a flash (just like a movie scene) I understood exactly how a particular software product worked - a boring systems management tool made by a company I hadn’t worked at in over five years. I stood there, stunned, wondering where that came from and why. This scenario would repeat itself many times over the next year.
Six weeks earlier I had quit my job, rented out my house, packed my bags and moved 5,000 miles away to England. After 10 years in the fast paced start-up world, frantically learning about every new product we were releasing, new ways of marketing as the internet evolved, the latest strategies for this, that and everything else, I found myself in a new country with nothing but time on my hands.
When I moved back to the US, I immediately launched into Go Mode again. England had felt like an extended vacation; it was time to be an adult again. It wasn’t long before I was back in that familiar territory of information overload and an endless loop of details playing in my head. I had done all the “right” things to guard against the chaos - flexible work schedule, not over scheduling my kids and regular vacations. Still, here I was, again. I accepted that this was the price of modern life.
My rebel moment finally came about a year ago. There had to be a better way and I was going to find it. But, wait, hadn’t I already discovered an alternative - in the stone circles of Avebury, on the busy streets of London, in the daily walks down Tilehurst Road and in conversations with the fish monger?
I distinctly remember those moments of unexpected comprehension and the unmitigated contentment I felt during that year in England. The answer I was searching for was somewhere in that experience. So, I set out to deconstruct my life in England. Was it a one-time event or was it a collection of field-tested formulas? Could I repeat the experience?
Those flashes of understanding felt like someone was feeding me answers through a secret earpiece. In reality, of course, the information was already in my brain and was rising to the top But why and why now? My theory was that for first time since I was a kid I had the luxury of
wandering and wondering. I had no deadlines. No quarterly goals to meet. No people to manage. No metrics to beat. No striving.
Unconstrained days are part of the equation, but the more interesting question is, what was I doing with this new found freedom? What did my daily life in Reading look like? What was so special about this particular set of circumstances? Which parts of my environment, routines and experiences contributed the most to creating this ideal life? While slogging through the details, the following themes emerged:
I didn’t set out to create an idyllic life in Reading. There was no “intentional living” or “lifestyle design.” I simply followed my natural rhythms, did the things I wanted to do each day and indulged my curiosity. I had unknowingly stumbled into my Life’s Playbook — the secret formula to a sharp mind and a contented life.
The question remains, can I re-create this experience today? My life is not as simple as it was in England. I have two children and I’m launching a new business. These realities — which I have intentionally chosen –dictate I make compromises and sacrifices I didn’t have to make before.
I’m far from having this figured out and I don’t know what the final result will be, but I’m studying the Playbook and I’m actively experimenting. Here’s how some of it’s coming together for me.
(Tools, resources and strategies I hope you can use)
Getting Things Done by David Allen
This has been a game changer. Allen’s overall concept: The key to productivity is clearing the mental clutter. To clear the clutter you have to build a system you trust. As Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”
The two most important practices for me are: 1. Creating a system to park and review my stack of reference materials and random ideas. 2. A methodology for breaking everything down into micro steps and next actions. This methodology gets the endless details out of my head and onto paper, electronic calendar, etc. in a way that ensures nothing falls through the cracks.
Allen doesn’t advocate for any particular physical or electronic system. What works best for me is a three-ring binder and a couple file folders. I have one binder for my family and one for my business.
Listening to my natural rhythms
I’m learning to honour my natural work habits. I excel at long sprints of intense productivity then I need an extended rest. I used to beat myself up over needing this rest, but I’ve learned the rest period is a critical component of staying mentally sharp, feeding my creativity and fueling my productivity. Rest for me isn’t a vacation or doing nothing. It’s a slower pace, plenty of room to think and no official “work.” I immerse myself in activities or projects just for the pleasure of it.
To accommodate my family’s schedule I try to plan for these extended breaks to coincide with my kids’ spring, summer and winter school breaks.
I’ve also been experimenting with a weekly micro version of rest. I’m not blocking these out on my calendar because I don’t want it to feel like a routine. Instead, I’m feeling my way into it. Because I work solo I have the flexibility to do this. If my work commitments change and don’t allow me to wing it, I will definitely schedule and fiercely defend these micro breaks.
If I can’t focus or things are way harder than they should be or I’m tired or just because, I give myself permission to take a break. Sometimes I only need 30 minutes of pulling weeds in the garden then I’m ready to get back to work. Or I might take an afternoon to sit with pen and paper and ask the “why not” and “what if” questions. And sometimes I simply get caught up on laundry because knowing it needs to be done is causing too much mental noise.
I’ve been doing this for a couple months now and it’s working beautifully. I’m less grumpy. I move my body more. My productivity and creativity have dramatically increased.
The tension is real. I manage it with one rule: There is a hard distinction between work time and mom time. Trying to do both at the same time is unfair to me and my kids. The logistics change with my kids’ ages, school calendar and my work load, but the rule remains firmly in place.
I remind myself: Choose Wisely. Trash in, trash out.
Being my own boss eliminated a huge chunk of inputs. It was promptly replaced by twice as much input either from or about my children.
When it comes to social media, the internet and email there are no rules or guidelines that work for everyone. I check my email first thing in the morning and it doesn’t ruin my day or make me less productive. I like to know what’s there instead of wondering if something is lurking. I rarely respond immediately. I just look at the sender and subject lines then I move on with breakfast and kids. It takes me 2 minutes tops and I’m not likely to look at email again for hours.
Everything else is either a work in progress or yet to be tackled. All in due time.
So, what about you? Do you have to quit your job and move across the world to discover your Life’s Playbook? No. One simple question holds the answer. Ask yourself:
Don’t over think it. Write down whatever comes to mind then put it away. Come back to the question often, adding to and refining your answer. Think in spans of weeks and months. Keep at it until what you’ve mapped out feels easy and sustainable and fulfilling — and exactly like you.
That’s it. Life’s Playbook, 1st edition.
Now, start! Given your current circumstances, what’s one change you can make immediately that gets you closer to your ideal? Do that. Try it on. See how it feels. Good? Ok, what’s the next one thing? Do that. Experiment. Repeat. Don’t be surprised if your small steps create major shifts and lead you to big leaps of faith. Small is big.
As you’re experimenting, consider Tim Ferriss’ advice to negotiate your reality, reminding us that “most limitations are a fragile collection of socially reinforced rules you can choose to break at any time.” (Tools of Titans, p. 594)
It might take you months, years, decades or maybe you’ll never fully achieve the ideal. But, you will always be one step closer, reaping the benefits of each incremental step.
One final reminder. It’s your book. You’re the author. You can write a new edition whenever you want.