Workaholics United : Upgrade an Unproductive Day by Mentally Rehearsing a Better One

There’s no going back in time, but there are ways to learn from the past rather than live in it.

Every day we walk through a minefield of potential distractions, sometimes arriving on the other side unscathed, sometimes not. One digression leads to another, the cycle repeats, and hours later we wonder where the time went. It’s tempting to criticize ourselves for getting nothing none that day, and even if the criticism is somewhat accurate (it’s unlikely that nothing got done), the diagnosis itself is idle — which is to say, “So what?”

Figuring out the obvious moves nothing forward. On the other hand, recognizing the problem implies recognizing the solution. When I run into this situation, I ask myself to process questions:

* How did I get nothing done today?
* What will I do differently tomorrow?

Since a day’s accomplishments, or lack thereof, is the sum of many behaviors, neither of these questions can be addressed by a single answer — at least to have the level of precision necessary to make a substantial change.
Mental modeling

It’s not enough to know our worst practices in general. To make tomorrow a more accomplished day than today, we need to rewind the film strip to the precise moment where we got derailed.

For instance, I noticed that whenever I boot a computer and don’t seem to get straight to business, the problem usually starts at boot time. Since I can’t do anything on the laptop for two or three minutes, I start to zone out. What I would be doing if boot time wasn’t a factor is doing a daily review on the IPhone Desktop, looking at each of my action lists.

Asking myself, “What would I do differently?”, it took about 10 seconds to realize that I needed to have my lists — especially my @Computer list — available before the computer was. So I started scanning my todo’s on my cell-phone, so that by the time the hourglass on my computer’s screen disappears, I can hit the ground running.

I have introduced daily standup meetings on my team at 9:30 where we one by one describe the tasks that we have planned for the day and thereby get a chance to both think the day through at its beginning, but also to use the team to share problems or ideas.
The basic idea is to mentally step through the day, looking for the forks in the road that compelled you to do X when you know in hindsight that you should have been doing Y. When was the precise moment what your attention shifted to the path of less resistance? What precisely was the distraction?

I believe the sequence of behaviors is critical, and that the earlier ones have the most leverage. If you can maintain a chain of focused activity in the first few hours, you create the momentum necessary to minimize the effects of distractions later on.

Sometimes the problems aren’t necessarily distractions, but behavioral patterns that yield predictably regrettable results. Having too many sugared foods or beverages in the morning leads to an energy crash in the afternoon. Driving past a great bookstore on the way home from work leads to the unbearable lightness of wallet. A change of environment or route may be in order.

After reviewing the dysfunctional day, mentally step through what a focused tomorrow would look like, moment to moment, from morning to evening. What better practices will you be implementing? Which behaviors will you avoid doing?

Always make tomorrow a better day.

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