Hurray! Another tech dude feels the need to share his daily struggles and what is working for him. Just what the internet needs /s. But here is the thing Silvan (that's me), I'm writing this for me. But even if a single idea helps another person, then hey, at least I didn't just sit my ass down for nothing.
The Things I Struggle With
Let's get real, life isn't a highlight reel of instagram-able moments. Here you have it, my personal list of struggles:
- Addiction (smoking a pack a day)
- Un-/Self-diagnosed ADHD (or some form of attention span issue)
- Building habits and routines
- Finding that damn "flow"
- Imposter syndrome and self-doubt
All the books you read about being more productive and getting your shit together are well meaning, but at the end of the day, I don't believe that most of the authors truly follow their rules to the teeth. Time for an experiment.
The "Great" Survey Experiment
Who's better to ask than my peers? Those folks who, at least on the surface, look like they've got everything figured out. I created a mini survey in a Google Form and asked them to share their secret sauce.
The results? Everyone is struggling and just winging it (I'm sure there was a meme on adulthood about just that). You can only take it day by day and if you fuck up, just try again the next day. Don't be so harsh on yourself, you have to carry that meat-bag you are every day for the rest of your life.
So what actually does work for me?
First of all, implementing and sticking to habits is hard, especially if your brain jumps on the next shiny book, app, idea in a matter of minutes. Don't fall for the trap to change your entire life over night. I used to try this with eating habits, not drinking/smoking, working out and getting organized. You guessed it, I failed miserably, every single time. Adding or changing routines and habits, all while keeping your sanity, only seems to work every 4-6 weeks for me and only for a single thing at a time, not two or three things, but a single little change.
Good sleep: the magic pill
No, I'm not using any sleeping pills. Sleep used to be my nightly battle until my wonderful SO discovered that I'm suffering from sleep apnea (more about it in my first newsletter). Enter the CPAP machine. This bad boy transformed my uncertain nights into restful slumbers. Before I got diagnosed, I would "sleep" for 8 hours or more, but every night was a gamble whether my batteries would actually be recharged or if I was in for another day of grumpy grogginess. This lead to anxiety, because on a really bad day, I might have promised myself (or worse, a client) to work on a complex feature or tinker with a difficult piece of code and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get it done.
This all changed with the CPAP machine and I can now count on my sleep most nights. I might look like how an AI would imagine a sleep diver, but I can't express how happy I am and how energized I feel every day, all day.
I've set a routine: bed by 21:30 and sleep by 23:30. To ensure I can fall asleep properly, my last hour is (color)-screen-free, with an audio-book or Kindle as companions. This helps me to get consistent sleep and so I can get up between 5:30 and 6:30 without an alarm. One of my pals noted in the survey:
I usually get up at the same time, between 06:00-06:30... Focus mode until around 09:00/30.
Daily Rituals for Well-being
My morning rituals to set the tone for the day. Ágota and I started walking daily in mid-July. We do 3 - 4 km (1.86 - 2.48 mi in freedom units) every morning after coffee and if we feel like it another 3 km in the evening to clear our minds and have time to talk.
On top of that and because I absolutely can't be bothered to get a gym membership or actually go to a gym, I do "snack workouts" – quick push-ups and squats in the kitchen while the coffee brews, just to get some exercise. Similarly, a friend shared:
Morning time is my flow zone, wake up 5, go for a 30-45 min walk.
My Strategies for Work Productivity
As I mentioned at the beginning, I might have some un-diagnosed form of ADHD, which can make focusing especially on boring tasks more difficult. Ever since I read my buddy Claudio's personal take on "Focus and ADHD" and my brother Claude kept telling me about his journey with it, I was wondering how it might be affecting my life? I'm always super excited for new things (shiny object/project syndrome), I switch task management apps more often than my underwear (not really, that would be gross, but you get the point) and everything work related that I don't write down, gets lost in a sea of thoughts. So let's have a look at what is helping me keeping focus even for the necessary boring tasks:
Strategic Meeting Schedules
Meetings are a major disruption in any productive workflow, especially because I often can't get much done an hour before and after an important meeting. As I mentioned in my previous newsletter, in September I started an experiment to limit my availability for meetings to Tuesdays and Thursdays between 11am and 5:30pm.
So far my limited meeting availability has been great and all my clients respect my new schedule. This experiment allows for longer focused work sessions on other days and really helps me to get things done.
This is one of my key takeaways from the excellent book "Deep Work" by Cal Newport. I can highly recommend you grab a copy to get more focus time for the things that really matter to you.
Breath-Holding Trick for Momentum
Starting a task, especially a boring one, can be the toughest part. On those days, I take a deep breath, hold it, open all the necessary apps and simply start typing, which somehow puts me into a state that I just keep going. It's a simple yet surprisingly effective kick-start and it works for me about 60% of the time.
A more complete technique, that was way too complex for me, gave me the idea to try this, here is the link to the complete PoWeR technique:
Pomodoro Technique as a Challenge
You probably heard of the Pomodoro technique or timers. Basically, you set a timer for 20-25min and get to work. After the time is up, you either keep going with another session or reward yourself with a short break. After 3-4 sessions you should take a longer break.
For me, the Pomodoro technique gamifies less interesting tasks. I challenge myself to get as much done as possible of a given task within the 25min window. Combined with the breath holding technique, I struggle way less with procrastination of mundane tasks that need to get done.
I'm using the beautiful Session app for macOS through a Setapp subscription, but any timer app will do the trick.
The Shutdown Ritual
Since I work from home most days and because my brain never seems to shut up, I always had a really hard time to commit to a proper end of my work day. Until I found this weird gem "The Shutdown Ritual" – another key takeaway from "Deep Work" by Cal Newport.
This is how it works for me: At the end of the work day (between 5:30pm and 6:30pm) I go through my inbox one last time and reply to any email that doesn't take more than two minutes to write. Next I'm drafting a to-do list, on paper, for the next day and cross off anything that I got done on today's list. Any notes or possible tasks that are still bugging my mind go into the to-do app. I close all the apps for work and say out loud: "shutdown complete". Time to put the computer to sleep and step away from work.
At first I felt like a complete idiot. What a weird way to end the working day, but after about a week it stuck with me and I realized that I'm not checking my work email or chat apps after I completed the ritual. I now have more quality time in the evening and feel way less distracted.
Life is unpredictable. While plans are great, adaptability is the key. Some days, I shuffle tasks based on my energy level or what I feel like working on. It ensures I work in sync with my personal rhythm.
As I mentioned before, we all have off days, the days when nothing seems to work. For me it became essential to practice self-compassion and not beating myself up. If a day goes south, I remind myself that tomorrow is a fresh start and allow myself to walk away, sometimes for an hour, sometimes until the next day. Too many times I tried to force myself to get something done. The result? Stress and a mediocre outcome at best. Giving myself the mental space to step away works wonders for me. And the next day, I get the thing done with ease and in half the time.
Community and Accountability
Together with my buddies Andrew and Noel we log our routines, share wins, and uplift each other to keep going. We tried fixed accountability before, giving an updating every Thursday night, but it felt forced and we didn't stick with it. Now each one of us has a personal group chat. In these chats, mine is called SilvanLog™, we post whenever we feel like it and surprisingly it works much better.
For anyone who's still with me (kudos!), and is craving more, here are some reads I can highly recommend:
- Focus and ADHD, a personal blog post by my good friend Claudio
- The book "Deep Work" by Cal Newport
- Extra Focus: The Quick Start Guide to Adult ADHD, a book by Jesse J. Anderson
A huge Thank you
Thank you Michael, Velthy, Pascal, Noel and Andrew for sharing your insights in the survey, it was eye opening. Thanks to my wonderful fiancée Ágota for not thinking I'm completely crazy and thanks to my brother Claude for not letting me off the hook about the way my brain functions. You all have enriched this post and made me more self-compassionate, calm and productive ❤️.