Mindful (un)productivity

10 minute read

I started working at Automattic in September 2018 (God, time flies!). It took me about six months to get to a place where I am more or less familiar with how things work and where I don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of information or paralyzed by the lack of simple and easy to follow instructions. Don’t even let me get started with the messiness of our data. DO NOT assume anything. EVER 😅.

There are some things I have learned about myself and about the nature of our job that have helped me to feel a lot better and more productive. I will share them here knowing that what works for me doesn’t have to work for everybody and hoping I get some tips back from other folks too 🙂

Distractions are the root of all evil.

Do you want to get more done? do less.

I learned the hard way that I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s hard to accept it but I can’t multi-task. I gave up trying to write code with one hand and reply emails with the other. I really really want a laptop with three monitors but I know it’s just going to make more unproductive. I gave up the extra screens, the multiple keyboards and the trackball mouse. What works for me? One single application in fullscreen mode. Hidden menu bar, for sure.

I have two laptops. There is nothing personal in my a8c mac. No documents, no tv shows, no email, nothing. All that has to be done in my personal laptop, which I don’t carry often.

Put the damn phone down

Do you want to pick up the lowest hanging fruit right now? switch off notifications. Everywhere. As much as you can get away with. From your work laptop, your personal laptop and especially your phone. Here goes the list of things to do with your phone by the level of difficulty.

  • Switch off notifications in all socials. Don’t even think about this one, just do it.
  • Switch off notifications in whatsapp groups and non-work slack.
  • Switch off notifications in everything non-essential (I keep them for banking apps and stuff like that)
  • Take a look at apps like AppDetox, AntiSocial and Space
  • Block socials for working hours (whatever that is for you)
  • With one of those apps give only 15 mins a day for you favourite social network.
  • Delete social apps. Yes, delete Facebook from your phone. I still have the account and I check it in my personal laptop.
  • Delete social accounts. I am not there yet, there are contacts I would rather keep.

Now, all that are just pre-emptive measures. Making it harder for you to get distracted. Next level is being pro-active:

  • Put your phone on Do Not Disturb or Airplane mode while working.

Here is an extra neat trick. Hide your phone. Our brain is weird. Having the phone off is not enough. If you suddenly see it, you are going to grab it and fall into that pit again. For how long? who knows. Anywhere between ten seconds and an hour. Which is not the biggest issue for me, a one-minute break would be nothing if it didn’t totally messed up my brain with a full context switch. Now instead of a mental map of all the functions in the program I am trying to write I am going to be wondering about the Game of Thrones spin-off somebody just mentioned or the fact that a random friend is in Hong Kong and their pictures of pecking duck look amazing. I am getting hungry, maybe I should take a break.

Emails can wait

Ok, I said it. This is it.

I admire the people that reply every comment within seconds and still get their stuff done. I don’t know how they do it, I can’t.

Ral-time email notifications? Gone. Boom, scattered brain syndrome decreased by 30%.

Then I had my email client sync only once an hour. That was a lot better, plus turned out the company was doing ok even without my realtime supervision. Shocking, I know.

After that I just closed my email client. Easy, no more notifications. scattered brain syndrome took a massive plunge. Now emails don’t rule my life. I go take care of them when I am mentally prepared for that overload.

This is just a personal observation but I have realized the timing of email consumption affects me a lot more than the sheer size. I thought that going through emailss first thing in the morning would set me up for success during the day (I am an Inbox zero kind of person). Turns out doing that takes my scattered brain syndrome to a next level. Give it a try, go for a day without emails and then read those messages in one go early in the morning (between 50 and 80 for me at the moment). Just loading the 5 things I have to do in my brain gives me decision paralysis.

What works best for me at the moment is to go through emails as the last task of my day. Reply to the things that do not require further analysis and put the rest in my todo list. I use this little Things app that has a keyboard shortcut and easily allows me to dump items from my brain there.

What does not work for me: reading emails before going to bed. Bad mistake, reading them after 9pm puts my brain in motion and then takes me longer to fall asleep.

What a good day in my work life looks like

  • 08:00am : wake up, stay in bed, do a short guided meditation, breath for 15 mins.
  • 08:30am : make coffee (grind grains, boil water, etc), check slack and calendar. See if there is anything urgent.
  • 09:00: Do a short work out and shower. I do Freeletics which is basically doing burpees until you get dizzy.
  • 10:00: Have second coffee and breakfast, 90% of the time I eat Müesli with fruits. Do some light work: standup meeting, check to-do list, see what to tackle for the day, get things ready, maybe internal posts I have flagged, etc
  • 11:00 am: Arrive to the co-working space after a 10-min walk, say hi to friends, pet a puppy. Lately I work on a standing desk. Open up shop:
    • Phone into airplane mode and kept in my backpack.
    • Active noise cancelling earphones playing some cello or piano covers.
    • Slack on Deep Work, notifications off for the next two hours.
    • Email client off (note, I still haven’t checked it for the day)
    • Connected to sandbox, synced, code open.
    • Werk werk werk
  • 01:00pm : ask friends if anybody is up for lunch somebody wants to do it late so I order a big bowl of Acai. I read some articles I have in my todo list and eat my bowl in the lounge maybe talking to friends.
  • 02:00pm : Another 2 hours deep work session. This time I am understanding a bug or trying to do something new.
  • 04:00pm : I go get fish tacos two blocks away.
  • 05:00pm : Open the email client. Go through 60 messages. Most are just P2s I follow. I reply 5 where I was mentioned. I put on my todo list 2 items from there.
  • 07:00pm : Some friends want to do Ramen, I bring my backpack home and head to the restaurant. Another 10 min walk. I am still full from tacos so I only get some Nigiris.
  • 08:30pm : People want to go play pool, I go to catch up with an old friend and bail out at 9:30pm.
  • 09:45pm : Get home and watch something light on tv. Could be an anime episode of One Piece, John Oliver or Game of Thrones if it’s Monday.
  • 11:15pm : Get to bed. Do some breathing or guided meditation
  • 00:00 : Fall asleep and do solid eight hours.

Tech Tools

  • Mindful use for the phone
  • Productivity
  • Wellbeing
    • Fitbit: I am so grateful to a8c for random things like this!! I didn’t have many reasons to buy it but the sleep tracking has helped me considerably.
    • Calm: Meditation app
    • Freeletics: Intensive short workouts
    • Spotify: My thing are instrumental covers (think Sweet Dreams with cellos).
  • Code
    • SSHFS: View remote dirs in sandboxes as local dirs
    • Atom: Code editor with great plugins for style, visual cues, git support, etc.

Life Hacks

  • No commuting: I know, surprising 😆. I do go out of my way to live in cities/neighbourhoods that are pedestrian friendly. I also don’t live far from a nice coworking space and prefer districts with restaurants and markets. There are whole weeks where I don’t ride cars.
  • No drinking during the week: Alcohol affects my sleep quality. A couple of glasses of wine make me sleepy but I don’t wake up as refreshed.
  • Exercising is good for you: I hate to admit it but regular exercise is one of the best things for my mental health. Since I have always seen it as a waste of time I found out short intensive work outs at home are my best option.
  • Sleeping is good for you: another shocking revelation. Tracking my sleep patterns helped me realize I was underestimating how much time I needed in bed before falling asleep and after waking up. I have to allocate 9+ hours of bed time to make sure I get 8 hours of sleep. Sillicon earplugs are very good. Get custom made if you can. An eye mask helps. This is less of an issue in old rich countries with real walls and windows but can be a nightmare in places like Mexico or Thailand.
  • Meditation: Do you imagine people in a lotus position becoming one with earth? Bullshit. Meditation is about slowing that inner voice that never shuts up, fighting that relentless stream of thoughts, stop replying past moments, stop worrying about future outcomes. It’s freaking hard. Awfully difficult. My mind is like a kid ALWAYS throwing a tantrum.
  • Simplify clothing: I phased out colour from my suitcase. I can’t do the one-outfit cultish choice yet but I aim to have clothes where I can mix and match any piece with the others. My whole suitcase is now below 15kg. Also, get one tailored white shirt that goes well with everything.
  • Simplify eating at home: I pretty much always eat the same. Müesli with fruits for breakfast, rotisserie chicken or beef steak with arugula salad for lunch or dinner. They are both delicious and don’t take more than minutes to make. I never have sugar, sweets, chips, sodas or unhealthy snacks. It’s simple, when they are there I eat them so I just don’t buy them anymore.
  • Simplify finances: I automated everything that can be automated. Salary goes in, three days later chunks go out for everything. Savings, investments, social charges, rainy day fund, etc. I have 8 accounts and 1 of them is my pocket money. I use an online bank for my discretionary spending and I don’t have to think about it. That is money I can spend anyway I want. No need to track anything or budget things.
  • Read a lot, learn form others : Another shocking revelation, pretty inspiring for sure 😆. My only tip here is that if you have a limit on how fast you can read then you should try audiobooks. By dialling the speed up slowly you can train your brain. My goal is to do 5x.

  • Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
  • Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day
  • The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love – Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits
  • The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less
  • The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done
  • Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win
  • The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment