I used to live in Northern California. The thing I loved about living there was that there were hundreds of hiking trails within an easy drive (or walk). I remember taking on Mount Saint Helena or Mount Diablo on a given weekend or just heading to Foothill Park with my dogs. There was always the choice of which trail to take. The well-trodden or the elusive deer trail, the steep or the flat, the fastest to the top or the meandering scenic view. There was always a choice to be made.
The same is true for your best work. You make decisions every day, every moment about doing your best work. There is the steep, arduous trail or the meandering poppy strewn path. The ball is always in your court on which approach to take. Whether it’s deciding on what to have for breakfast, whether to purchase that fixer upper house or working on your novel. How you approach these decisions is always up to you and there are ways to make it an easier, less stressful path.
So here are some ideas on the pathway to your best work:
1. Early. Getting started early in the day is critical. I know you night owls out there are rolling your eyes. You start the day with a hundred units of energy. Every day. And it is impossible to replenish those 100 units. Once those units are spent, they are gone for good. The only way to insure that you have the energy to spend on your best work means you need to start early so if the cable goes out or your boss calls an emergency budget meeting, you’ve already spent some precious units on your best work. Expect interruptions.
2. Space. Clear the space to focus. I wrote about this recently. Find a clutter free, pleasant, quiet environment to do your best work. Do you want to hike the rocky trail where you need to pay attention to every step or the clear path where you can stroll unencumbered? Physically clear your work space so that it’s a comfortable or find a space that is. I had a client once who went to the library to find a quiet space to study without interruptions. If you are over twenty, when was the last time you went to a library to do your work? Find some clear space.
3. Satisfice. This concept was proposed by Dr. Barry Schwartz and summarized by Emilia Lahti as “Satisficing simply means to not obsess about trying to maximize every single task outcome and ROI.” In the last 30 years, your local grocery store has gone from 9,000 choices of products to about 40,000 choices. That is an explosion of choices when the average person buys about 100 core products. I shop once a week. I make a list for all my meals for the week and then purchase them all on Saturday morning. I try and minimize the amount of time I am surrounded by the onslaught of choices and I’m OK if my bananas aren’t green by Wednesday. I satisfice.
4. Minimize decisions. In Daniel Levitin’s book, The Organized Mind, he wrote that when Warren Buffet travels he eats Oreos and milk for breakfast. He doesn’t want to think or spend time trying to figure out the optimum breakfast. So when he’s in a hotel in New York City, he has Oreos and milk for breakfast. Done. Now on to his best work. Don’t clutter your head with unnecessary decisions. I actually eat the same thing for breakfast during the week (a berry smoothie but I might need to give Warren’s a try). Don’t spend your energy on small decisions.
5. Sleep on it. Levitin posits that sleeping on something improves your thinking. Studies have shown that participants learning rubric’s cubes and Tetris exhibited improved performance after a night of sleep. Your unconscious mind works on it overnight and has the ability to make new connections in your neural pathways. The participants were able to double their success rates after one night of sleep. Maybe this is why the SAT exams are first thing in the morning? Now this isn’t going to happen through osmosis. Don’t put a Spanish dictionary under your pillow and cross your fingers. You need to spend focused time on the topic before sleeping on it. Grab your pillow!
6. Flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s book, Flow, is all about optimal performance. Flow is the state of consciousness where you are engaged, creative and completely immersed in your work. There are ways to set yourself up for flow. Find meaning in your work. Tie it to your purpose, make sure it’s challenging and that you feel qualified for the challenge. If I don’t think I can hike for 3 hours, or that my boots are on their last legs, I won’t be able to find flow.
7. Task. Only focus on the one task. As Levitin described, trying to multitask actually burns glucose in our brains. When we try to talk on the phone and go through our inbox at the same time, we are depleting nutrients in our brain. Our anxiety and cortisol levels go up. You end up feeling exhausted which leads to impulsive, poor decisions. Task switching just means you are doing more things only half way (or less). You never get to the top of the mountain if you are constantly switching trails. Stay on task.
I have to say that when I write, I follow these guidelines. I block off time on Saturday and Sunday morning to sit down and write. I spend several nights reflecting on what I want to write. When I’ve tried to write on a Wednesday afternoon after a long day of work or break it up over several days, the end product is not as good. I think I’ve found the right path. How do you do your best work?