Last time, I shared with you a couple of hard-earned, concrete tactics that I deploy in my quest to remain productive, focused, and fulfilled. As a result of those and other habits, I’m mostly successful in reaching my work objectives.
I promised that I’d explain the overarching, undergirding system at work in my methods of concentrating and being productive. That makes up the second half of this post, but first I think it prudent to explain how I measure the first downs of my working routine. (The painfulness of that metaphor relates directly to my superficial knowledge of sports, especially American football. Bear with me, folks. I’d never leave such a clumsy figure of speech in a manuscript, but the imagery seems to fit this topic.)
Work toward Output, Not Time
Lots of productivity guides suggest setting time goals. The very influential Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day is one of them, and I do suggest that dissertators check out that book. The logic is this: once you get started on an unintimidating, timed goal (e.g., fifteen minutes of writing), you’ll keep going and achieve your big dreams. This is undeniably much better than never starting a project because it is too daunting when taken as a whole.
At times, that strategy has worked for me. Usually, however, I have to work toward an output goal: writing two hundred fifty words, editing five pages, drafting one blog post, emailing three university presses.
Working toward output instead of time keeps me project focused, which allows the work itself to motivate me. And that means that I enjoy myself in the process of an assignment, not just in its completion.
I do still utilize time to structure my productivity, but my method is quite the reverse of the Pomodoro Technique, for instance. I set a timer during my breaks, not during my work. Instead of beleaguering my working mind, the of the fruit-shaped kitchen timer on my desk ticks annoyingly only while I’m playing hooky.
I often use this reverse-Pomodoro tactic to restrict the breaks during which I’m reading my RSS feeds, which can go on much longer than intended. The alarming buzz of the timer shakes me out of my daze and helps me understand how quickly time passes when I’m, well, wasting it.
Receive, Engage, Produce (REP)
To be totally honest, I’m not happy if I’m just editing all day. I’m also not happy just to read all day, or write all day. I want to do all of these things, and I’m no good at one if I don’t do the others. I think of these kinds of work as receiving, engaging, and producing.
Henceforth, I pronounce my system REP. (It’s a grammatical shapeshifter, too. REP can stand for “receiving, engaging, producing” or “receive, engage, produce.” Impressive, no?)
Maybe your go-to trinity of receiving, engaging, and producing isn’t the same as mine. Let me brainstorm some other types of REP in which I and others may engage:
- Receiving: reading, watching MSNBC, attending a lecture or civic discussion, scanning blogs, looking at pretty pictures on the Internet, seeing a film
- Engaging: editing, teaching, public speaking, participating in pub quizzes (trivia nights), emailing a colleague, networking, discussing politics, volunteering, rich socializing (i.e., deep conversation)
- Producing: writing, painting, baking, detailed planning, designing
You’ll notice that I haven’t included processing activities—sorting this, transcribing that. That category of tasks is important, but it doesn’t necessarily require concentration. All three levels of REP work, on the other hand, are more demanding of focus and thus, I think, more rewarding. Processing is something I do when I’m avoiding REP.
My point is that whenever my focus suffers, when motivation wavers, I can take stock of the REP proportions. Maybe I have been doing too much reading and consequently feel unproductive; perhaps I’m so hungry for engagement that both reading and producing feel hollow.
Because I’ve already established for myself that every piece of the pie—the receiving, the engaging, and the producing—is worthwhile and depends on the others, switching up the mix of REP work in my day or week recaptures my focus and reconnects me to the feeling of being useful.
What conceptual device do you use to regain concentration?
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