This is part 5 of my series on the hyperbrain. If you’re just joining us, please have a look at parts 1, 2, 3 and 4 before continuing. If you’re wondering why there was such a gap between parts 1-4 and part 5, try this.
When it comes to immediate distraction, you should do your best to block it by shutting down unnecessary browsers and chat, letting people know that you’re busy, and making an effort to keep focused on the current task. This standard advice applies to everyone, hyperbrain or not. At the same time, you should keep tasks closed so that when you inevitably do get distracted, it won’t cause too much damage.
However, there is a different kind of distraction that works on a much slower cycle. Sometimes it can be mistaken for a general low of energy (and sometimes that’s what it is), but very often, if you’re a hyperbrain, you’ll get progressively bored of a previously enthusing piece of work and basically not feel like working on it anymore for a while.
Confusingly, immediate distractibility will hit hardest at that time too - you’re bored of your main task, so almost anything (even perhaps examining some strange defect on the wall to your right), seems more interesting than what you’re supposed to be doing. Not only that, but because you’re supposed to do that big task and you don’t find the energy to do it, you end up not doing any other useful tasks either (after all, those other tasks are lower priority).
I have a technique to deal with that too, though it’s not so easy to apply consistently. Yet even when applied only part of the time, it is still useful, in my experience.
#4 The butterfly approach
Remember, back in the first technique I said that you should accept and embrace your limitations, while figuring out how to work with them in the best way.
So, you feel like you don’t want to work on your most important task. The natural response, what society tells us is right, is: tough luck. Just take it like a man and soldier on. And if you can’t, you’re a weak-willed loser. That’s the advice that we get throughout our childhood, and somehow it perseveres through adulthood (“when the going gets tough, the tough get going”).
Unfortunately, this approach stinks for hyperbrains. When you’re excited and “into” a task, everything is easy and you can chop through a forest in a few hours. But when you’re not into the work, when you don’t care for it, it will take a disproportionate amount of effort to get even the smallest thing done. What’s more, because you don’t care for it, you won’t do it well - and it will show, to others, but, more importantly, to you. This creates a negative feedback cycle where you feel even less like doing that thing (because you don’t like to do things badly). Feeling less enthusiastic leads to further strenuous efforts to get the smallest thing done, which leads to more fudged work, which leads you to feel even more dispirited, etc.
You have to break that cycle.
Here’s my advice: when you don’t feel like doing something, don’t do it. Do something else. Like a butterfly, when a task has lost its nectar, flit over to another. Keep that up, happily flying away from (closed!) boring tasks onto other ones that you find exciting.
It’s a very rational choice. Option 1 is to spend 10 units of effort to get 1 unit of result in task A (that you’re supposed to do). Option 2 is to switch to task B (the one that’s looking so much more appealing right now), spend 1 unit of effort and get 10 units of result in task B. If you want to maximise results, you have to take option 2.
Of course, if task A is what you committed to do for someone else, this will have negative consequences. And the solution to that is: avoid making hard commitments that will hurt you in that way. We’ll get back to that a little later.
The important practices are that you should be working on several loose “clouds” of tasks (some related, some not) rather than focusing on a single direction, and that you should allow yourself to switch between those things without guilt.
Notice I said loose clouds, not loose cloud. I used the plural because this won’t work if all your tasks are still sitting under the same umbrella (e.g. “stuff I’m doing to get the next release out”). There need to be vastly different sets of tasks in your available “task-space” - things ranging from writing a blog post to coding some new functionality, from doing a bit of business administration to planning your holidays. If you find yourself dispirited by coding, switching to a different coding task is unlikely to improve your mode.
Those tasks should all be “productive”, in the sense that you should feel like you’ve accomplished something when you get them done. This is important, because this is what will break the negative feedback cycle. If you don’t feel like coding something and instead you spend a few hours playing World of Warcraft, you won’t feel any better about yourself afterwards - you’ll feel worse. This will vary for you, but for me, “worthless” tasks include things like shopping (unless I’m buying something very specific), cooking lunch… interestingly, cleaning my office or the flat doesn’t feel like a worthless task - but rearranging it would be. You’ll have to figure out for yourself which task are productive. Generally, if it falls under the category of “time-fillers” or “busy-work”, it’s not a productive task.
You may not get back to task A for some time. Don’t feel bad about it. So long as you’re doing worthwhile things, that are accumulating value for you and make you feel productive, you will be working to negate the cycle of low energy. At some point, maybe the same day, or maybe a few days later, you’ll feel like working on task A again. Then, you’ll be able to chop through it at your best efficiency, and you’ll probably catch up with where you would have been if you had stuck with task A. But you’ll have the added bonus of having also done tasks B, C, D, E and F in the meantime, instead of agonising over a single task for days.
This, if you play it right, will make you appear fearsomely productive, as if you were working 20 hours a day - because every hour that you do work will be at full efficiency.
To make this work, it’s important to not be too committed to doing tasks by a certain date. You need to influence your environment so that people don’t care when exactly you got something done, just that it was done.
Of course, not all tasks have this flexibility, so you’ll have to make allowances for things which have to happen at a certain time, but those tend to be a minority in careers that are good value accumulators.
For tasks which don’t require you to commit to a deadline, don’t. Be vague if you need to be. If you tend to deliver great stuff, most people will accept some element of vagueness.
Some of your coworkers will really dislike the vagueness and you’ll have to manage them appropriately. The ideal way to do this, in my experience, is to under-promise and over-deliver. If people won’t take “I think I’ll get it done in the next couple of weeks or so” as an answer, give them a clearly defined answer that leaves you plenty of leeway. “I can work on this next week on Thursday, for sure.” But then, try to deliver it this week on Friday instead. If you do this often enough, in my experience, people will stop pressing you for deadlines, because they’ll be happy enough that you seem to get everything done quickly enough for them to be able to rely on you.
Important caveat: put bread on the table
There is a subtle but necessary addendum to this technique: you must keep in mind which of those activities put bread on your table. It’s great to follow your interests and be super-productive every day, but it’s not so good if you end up starving. So when choosing tasks you should always bias yourself towards tasks which are fun and productive and also earn your salary.
This is actually the hardest part of this technique… because it’s easy to turn a bias into an overriding order - and then you fall back into the mode where you feel compelled to slog through the task that you “must” do at the expense of all the others. And yet, at the same time, you have to pay attention to your bread-winner, because otherwise you won’t earn money. I don’t have any specific tips for how to do this - this is something you have to play by ear, I’m afraid.
Beating the cyclical highs and lows is not easy, but you can really help yourself by following this advice:
- Have many unrelated “clouds” of tasks that you can switch to at a moment’s notice
- When you feel like your energy for a specific “cloud” is gone, switch to a different one
- Don’t feel guilty about doing this
- Avoid committing to hard deadlines where possible so that you have maximum flexibility to switch
I hope you find this useful. As always, your comments are welcome.
Use the following link to trackback from your own site: