Sunday, November 04, 2007

Hummingbirds, speeds, concentration and focus...

Recently (and by that I mean the past few weeks if not months) I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the paradoxes of being a hummingbird. I am capable of doing numerous things in a very short period of time. I speed-read, touch-type at an amazing speed, have photographic memory and seem to have mastered the art of multi-tasking.

However, I have also noticed recently that some of my former strengths, for some reason, have abandoned me (or I've just shelved them somewhere). You'll see, I used to be really good at doing "to-do" lists. I had everything organized and tackled my projects one by one. More recently (and I'd say this is maybe in the past few months) I have tended to use the "firefighter" technique, in many ways, just trying to get things done but not with a well laid-out plan.

I realized that in doing this (abandoning strategies that made me successful in the past) was pretty much self-sabotaging. So I've decided to go back to my roots, to being my usually-organized, intense, hard-working, strategic self. Not to say I haven't been working hard, but instead of working harder, I think I could work smarter.


  • Write down everything in a handbook. An old Chinese proverb reads that the faintest ink was more effective than the best memory. Sure, I do have photographic memory. But I also happen to memorize lots of stuff that probably need reallocation within my brain. So, having a notebook helps you organize your thoughts. It can also serve as a daily planner (I have to do this on Monday, this on Tuesday, this on Wednesday).
  • Book all your regular appointments on your calendar. I use Google Calendar, but for years I used Outlook Schedule to manage my day-to-day activities. I have volleyball (Saturday and Sunday), church, meetings with friends, everything on my online day planner. And because it's web-based, I can access it from anywhere.
  • One paper one time only. I read this strategy somewhere, and I can't recall where. I try to do this particularly with mail and other personal stuff (like banking, health insurance, etc.) I open an envelope, check its content, and then process immediately. If, for some reason, I can't process immediately I try to make a note about what I need to do with said piece of mail.
  • One e-mail, one process. This is something I have needed to work on, again and again. Since I am environmentally-minded, I try not to print e-mails (unless it is absolutely necessary) and instead, write in my handbook whatever I have to do with those e-mails. Other times (when printing out the email) I use both sides, and make notes about the process I need to follow on the actual printout. But I really try hard not to process the same email twice. Once read, I just engage in whatever process needs to be done or make my note and then mark the e-mail as read. This is sometimes a bit of a problem with GMail since it doesn't hide the e-mails that you've read (as our good friend Outlook Express does).
  • Always keep pen and paper handy. And by handy, I mean carry it with you EVERYWHERE. Even from one room to another. My apartment is tiny (really tiny) and sometimes, in walking from my bedroom to my living room, I get an idea or remember an errand I had to do and forget about it in the back-and-forth between room. That's not a smart strategy. With the gazillion things I think about every second of my life, I forget some stuff simply because I didn't write them down in time. So now I carry paper and pen everywhere with me. Jot down even simple short buzzwords. 'Safeway bread' may mean "do some grocery shopping at Safeway". One of my favorite shortcuts is "cc pay" (credit card payment). You can always make extended notes later.
  • Keep your intensity levels up. This may mean having a cup of tea or coffee right besides you and maintain your focus. I have noticed that if I simply don't leave my desk until I have my list of things to do sorted out, written down everything I require and then start working on stuff, then I get a lot more accomplished. It's easy to feel tired, woozy and sleepy, and to cave to the temptation of 'I'll just have a short nap' and then WOW, you end up sleeping in for two hours or more. What I have used to keep my energy levels up is to continuously drink tea and have a good meal before doing my to-do list. That means that I have enough sugar in my blood stream to work for a long period of time without having to get up and eat some munchies to keep your sugar levels up.
  • Exercise. This is the hardest part for me at the moment. With the rainy weather, and impossibly cold temperatures outside (remember, I'm not very good in the cold), I can't run outside. So what I am trying to do (not very successful at the moment) is to go to the gym in the morning.
  • Create a routine for work. Lately, my routine is as follows:
  • Sunday night
    • work on my to-do list for the week, answer e-mails, try to get some work done (easy tasks that I can just cross off my list) so that when I wake up, at least I have finished some small projects.
  • Monday morning
    • Print out my weekly and monthly calendars. Try to review if I've missed anything on my to-do list and insert where appropriate. The rest of the week proceeds as follows:
  • During the week:
    • First thing in the morning:
      • Open email (all four of them), check if any of those emails are high priority - if they are, answer immediately. If they are not, post-pone (flag or mark as unread).
      • Read blogs and news. Post comments on blogs.
      • Off to shower.
      • Breakfast (big breakfast, I don't do well with small breakfast - coffee and a muffin? Please! I am a firm believer that breakfast is the most important meal of the day).
      • Head into the office (or when I am working from home, dive into work).
      • Check to-do list and proceed with tasks.
    • Around mid-afternoon:
      • Check e-mail again to see if something has come up.
      • If nothing comes up, head for lunch. With my diet, I used to eat six times a day. Right now I can't do that, so I am working on the following: big breakfast, big lunch, very light dinner.
    • Early evening
      • I am really bad right after lunch (in regards to ability to think/write), so if I can, I schedule meetings with colleagues/friends/former students.
      • When I feel unproductive, I just read or blog.
      • Dinner is usually around 7. And lately I try to eat light. My commute is long so I try to get a nap on the bus.
    • Late night
      • This is actually my best writing and working time, so if I can, I put in a few hours of work at night, even if that delays my breakfast until say 10 am. I can do lots of work late at night (as I am doing now).
What I generally tend to do on the weekends is play sports and hang out with friends, but I also try to put in a few hours of work. Although sometimes it's important to just take a night off or a day off. My hope is that in the future, I'll be able to just do a 9-5 kind of work-life. I am not sure that'll happen, but I'll try.

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