How To Stay Producive During COVID-19

Austin Gray
May 28, 2020
How To Stay Producive During COVID-19

The Highs & Lows Of COVID-19

If you’re like me, you’ve experienced both sides of the emotional spectrum during COVID-19 as it relates to personal productivity. 

The Productive Side

When the pandemic initially started, my productivity soared through the roof while I was working from home. I had a year’s worth of projects backlogged that were deemed “important” in my mind, but not “urgent.” This unique time of staying at home allowed me to focus on some of the “important” projects as some of the “urgent” tasks naturally slowed down. 


[1]


One of the important projects on my list since purchasing equity last year in The Perk Coffee Company has been to build an e-commerce leg of the business. This extended period of WFH allowed me to dive into the project with laser focus and almost zero distractions. I took a no-code approach and built a Shopify site, set up a recurring delivery function with Recharge, and automated the backend workflow with Zapier, Google Sheets, Slack, & Proof.  We launched at the beginning of April, and had 160+ orders in the first month. Business Insider even wrote a feature on us, which was pretty cool! 

The Unproductive Side

After launching the project, I quickly found myself bored. I began to skip out on my exercise habits, ate unhealthy foods, increased my nightly craft beer intake, slept worse, and began waking up later in the morning. The loneliness of working from home began to set in. With all the extra time on my hands, I began subconsciously asking myself the question, “What’s the point of doing anything at all?”

Why Do Anything At All? 

Luckily, I decided to pick up and read Cal Newport’s book, “Deep Work.” This book fundamentally changed my perspective on how I approach my work and even helped me begin to answer the question of “Why Do Anything At All?” 

Cal’s main argument in the book is that we find the greatest amount of fulfillment in our work when we’re 100% consciously engaged in producing creative work. Our attention and focus are increased when we place ourselves in a distraction free environment and set aside time for what he calls “Deep Work.” This space allows us to push the limits of our creativity and ultimately leads to moving the needle on our most important projects. In Deep Work, Cal defines two different types of work mentioned below:

Deep Work: Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

While highly desirable, Deep Work is likely not the style of work that naturally fills your workday. The type of work required to run a business, or for most corporate roles for that matter, require answering emails, customer support, employee drama, and non-work related conversation. Cal refers to this type of work as “Shallow Work,” defined below: 

Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” [2]

 Through reading this book, I realized that I thoroughly enjoy the process of being creative. I like solving problems and inefficiencies by creating new systems and frameworks. In a nutshell, I’ve always enjoyed the process of building something from scratch, and therefore, decided to double down on this concept of Deep Work by implementing a system to incorporate distraction free focus time into my workday. Here’s what I came up with: 

Assign A Project/Theme To Your Workday 

Ever felt like you have too many projects going at once? This was me two weeks ago. I was consistently feeling the need to move each of my projects forward every day of the week which ultimately led me to a state of consistent distraction. Bouncing around between each project was unsustainable for me personally, and quite unproductive for my businesses. 

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Square and Twitter, has developed an effective process to manage his time leading two of the highest powered tech companies in Silicon Valley. He does this by assigning each day of the week with a theme.

In an interview for Fast Company, Dorsey says:

“All my days are themed. Monday is management. At Square we have a directional meeting, at Twitter we have our opcomm [operating committee] meeting. Tuesday is product, engineering, and design. Wednesday is marketing, growth, and communications. Thursday is partnership and developers. Friday is company and culture. It works in 24-hour blocks. On days beginning with T, I start at Twitter in the morning, then go to Square in the afternoon. Sundays are for strategy, and I do a lot of job interviews. Saturday is a day off.” [4]

If you’ve heard about either company, you know that he’s obviously doing something right. Building just one of his two companies would be an accolade in itself, but two? This dude is on a whole new level of productive...

While Jack breaks his days down by operational focus, I felt it was easier to assign days of focus for each of my current projects. Here’s what I came up with:

Monday: Green Spaces Coworking

Tuesday: Perk Coffee Company

Wednesday: SEO

Thursday: Software

Friday: Reflection

Within these defined focus areas, I’ve dedicated 8am-12pm each morning to “Deep Work” for the given themes above. During this dedicated time, I’m laser focused on the day’s defined project and I’m answering one main question: “What can I focus on this morning to move (insert project here) forward?” 

I take a break to decompress from 12pm-1pm and then leave the rest of the work day (1pm- 5pm) open for completing any shallow work associated with the businesses. Answering email, scheduling calls, customer support, and rearranging layout all happen during my afternoons now.

Work In Productive Cycles

My hypothesis for moving each business forward is as follows: By dedicating three “Productive Cycles” to the given Project at hand from 8am - 12 pm, the project will move forward at the pace it needs to move in order to hit my outlined Goals for the Project. 

So, what are Productive Cycles? These are defined as highly focused intervals of deep concentration consisting of a well thought out plan, start/end time, clearly defined completion objectives, and reflection time. 

Structure

The actual time slots can be varied based on preference, but here’s the general structure I follow for hitting my goal of three deep work Productive Cycles per day. Schedules change and things come up, but this framework is where I start. 

60 Minute Productive Cycle

Plan my work: 5 mins

Distraction free, concentrated effort: 45 minutes

Reflection: 5 minutes

Break: 5 minutes

Plan Your Work

Knowing what’s important to work on is the first step to being productive. I’ve outlined the questions I answer at the beginning of each cycle below: 

Step 1: Plan

  • What activity should I focus on during this cycle to move the project forward?
  • What constitutes completion of this activity? 
  • What's the first thing I can do to get started?
  • What's my energy like right now?
  • Are there any other distractions? 
  • If so, how can I eliminate them?
  • Turn phone, laptop, and desktop on DO NOT DISTURB 

Set A Start/End Time

Clearly defining what time you’re starting and ending the cycle will help you work effectively. Parkinson's law  states that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” [3] Therefore, defining a time block for your task will give you the best chance of completing it within the time period. There’s no need to rush your work, but this process helps eliminate distractions and remain focused on the task at hand.

Here’s the structure I use when beginning the work portion of the Productive Cycle:

Step 2: Work

  • Start Time: (write in the current time)
  • End Time:  (Add 45 minutes to start time)
  • Use Siri to set an alarm on phone for the end time

Reflect On Your Work

It’s really easy to skip this portion, but this is where value begins to show up if you’re consistent with the habit. I find that dedicating 5 minutes after the work portion to answer the following questions helps to make the planning portion of the next work cycle more efficient. By clearly answering the following questions below, I know exactly where I’m at with the project. 

Here’s the questions I answer after completing the work portion of the cycle:

Step 3: Reflect

  • Did I complete the planned activity within the productive cycle time frame?
  • If not, what else needs to get done to complete the activity?
  • Were there any distractions during the cycle?
  • If so, how can I eliminate them before starting the next cycle? 

Take A Break: Let Your Brain Decompress

While sometimes appealing, working consistently for hours on end without allowing your brain to rest can quickly lead to burnout and low energy. I’ve found that making time for breaks after each Productive Cycle helps rejuvenate me for the next cycle. It’s nice to utilize this time to fill up my water bottle or coffee cup, use the restroom, do some push ups or sit ups, or go on a quick walk outside for some fresh air. 

Join A Community 

Schedule Productive Cycles With Others 

One of the aspects I miss most about playing sports is the camaraderie and accountability that comes along with being part of a team. As humans, we’re biologically programmed to be social creatures -- some more so than others -- but I would argue that to some extent, every human being needs some sort of social interaction to maintain a healthy state of overall well-being. 

I’ve tested this concept by scheduling Productive Cycles with some other entrepreneurs & founders who work out of Green Spaces. These sessions initially started with my friend Jorden House-Hey, who's working on building a real estate investment company. I’ve taken the framework we were using and have tweaked it to fit into a pre-programmed stack specifically designed for Notion or Roam.

We’ve recently opened Productive Cycles up to other founders and entrepreneurs who want to get more done in less time. If you're interested in joining our free session, you can register here.

I’ve personally seen a fundamental shift in my mindset towards all aspects of work. I’m now beginning to get excited the night before when I think about our Productive Cycle the next morning. I’m beginning to see the mindset I had during my athletic days resurface again for the first time in a long time. 

When I’m tempted to eat fast food, drink beers, or stay up late in the evenings, I’m reminded of the thought that I have a Productive Cycle to complete the next morning. And I’m fully aware that the decisions I make in the evenings affect my performance at work the next day. I’m beginning to see a more disciplined mindset come back, and I think it comes down to one fundamental principle: The Principle Of Human Accountability. 

The Principle Of Human Accountability

Thisl principle states that if another human being is present during an activity, effort will increase by 50%, due to the notion that one does not want to be seen as lazy or ineffective. 

(I totally made that up as I was writing just now, but it seems to be true in my perspective.) Ok, maybe the percentage was taking it a little too far, but it’s the thought that counts, right? ;)

Working with other people is similar to exercising with other people. Just like a weight room in a college athletic complex, there’s increased hype, energy, and effort when working around other human beings. 

The simple trick of working with another person has increased my output significantly over the past couple of weeks, and it’s also made work more fun and more enjoyable due the social interaction that comes along with it. 

Make Time For Social Interaction

After completing the 3 rounds of Productive Cycles, Jorden and I will oftentimes make time to chat either over lunch, take a quick outdoor walk, or sit in the lounge area of the coworking space. (all more than 6ft apart, of course.)

The face to face conversation whether over Zoom or in person simply reminds us that we’re human beings designed to interact with other human beings. Being laser focused on productive tasks in a professional setting can sometimes almost feel as if we’re turning into machines with the sole objective of completing tasks. 

It’s important to be reminded that we have a life outside of work and social interaction is a great way to quickly decompress from “work mode.” 

Shutdown Your Workday

Another key concept I took from Deep Work, was the value in separating work life and personal life. The author, Cal Newport, states in the book that he rarely works past 5:30 pm during the week, doesn’t work on weekends, and still manages to excel in his professional career -- and not just any professional career. Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown, author of multiple bestselling books, and contributes multiple academic papers per year. 

Jack Dorsey, on the other hand, has a different approach to his work hours. While he works 16 hours a day, the principle of shutting down and reflecting is still crucial to his routine. [5]

My work/life philosophy is more in line with Cal’s, as I aim to shut down at 5:30pm as well. My reason for this is because I enjoy spending time with my wife and engaging in outdoor hobbies more than I enjoy working. It seems somewhat contradictory that I spend over 8 hours working while splitting the remaining 3.5 hours of my evening between two more important aspects of my life. I think it goes without being said that this is part of the flaw of the “American Dream” and at a very minimum the least I can do for my personal well being and family is to be fully present after working hours. 

Before I shut my laptop for the day I answer the following questions:

#Shutdown

  • What got done today?
  • Did I complete the daily goal of 3 Productive Cycles?
  • What's the next step to move the project forward?

Once I answer these questions and shut my laptop for the day, I focus really hard to forget about work, be present with my wife and/or friends, and enjoy outdoor hobbies such as mountain biking, running, or fly fishing. I could stop all of these activities and arguably achieve my professional goals much faster, but to me the tradeoff isn’t worth it. I’d rather take the marathon approach and enjoy my personal life while building companies and achieving my professional goals.

References:

  1. https://www.artofmanliness.com/articles/eisenhower-decision-matrix/ [1]
  2. https://doist.com/blog/deep-work [2]
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson%27s_law [3]
  4. https://www.fastcompany.com/3017331/05square [4]
  5. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/08/twitter-and-square-ceo-jack-dorsey-on-his-personal-wellness-habits.html [5]


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