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I gave up time management and became insanely productive. Here’s how…

“Blue sand falls in an hourglass on a rocky beach” by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

I’m certain this single insight could help double your productivity. You will find this most useful if you’re a creative freelancer, but whatever your specific situation, understanding this system is sure to be a great help. Let me explain:

Time is a system for synchronizing people in large numbers.

This is how the typical 8-hour workday came about. The hours 9–5 were considered optimal for getting a productive day from the masses. But if you’re a freelancer, you’re not one of the masses. You’re alone. So why work with a system which isn’t built for you?

In fact, why work with time at all?

This may seem a bizarre suggestion. Please bear with me. I found, when I made this switch, I could easily fit a day’s worth of work into a couple of hours.

Last year I did roughly $60,000 of business (no, I’m not a millionaire, but I survive), wrote a novel, took off every Friday afternoon, never worked weekends, and never worked past 4.30pm.

What’s more, I also go boxing, swimming or weight-lifting around noon each workday. (But that’s actually part of this new system. You’ll see how in a moment.)

Obviously there are other factors working for me. However this, I’m sure, is the biggest. And if you put it to work, I am certain you’ll see startling improvements to your productivity. First, let me ask you…

Have you ever had those moments where you’re ‘in the zone’? When your whole universe is aligned and the work just seems to happen in a flash? 30 minutes in this state is more productive than an entire day sweating at your desk. It’s as if something else is working through you. Some other force. You turn out your best work, and you do it fast.

How does this happen?

Well I spent the first 5 years of my advertising career pondering this question. I hated the uncertainty — the not knowing if a breakthrough would arrive. Tasks which I’d allocate minutes for could end up swallowing the day. Meanwhile, other jobs I thought would be an ordeal seemed to get done-and-dusted in a few hours.

Time did not offer a reliable way to plan my day.

Instead, I realised my success depended on something else:

I had to match my task to my mood.

Yes, you need to stop managing your time. Start managing your mood. And the first step is to recognise what mood you’re in. I discovered how to do this when I saw Dr. Liz Miller’s book Mood Mapping. As she outlines:

Your mood can be divided into 4 basic states — a combination of high energy/low energy. Feeling positive/ feeling negative.

Here’s a quick breakdown of how they work together.

  1. High energy + feeling positive: You’re happy. You feel pumped. This is great for hammering through admin tasks, or creating content. However, you might be too excitable for serious creative problem solving.
  2. High energy + feeling negative: You’re stressed. Restless. This is probably the worst state for creative problem-solving. But don’t worry. I’ll show you what to do about it in a moment.
  3. Low energy + feeling negative: You’re feeling depressed and hopeless. You cannot see the answer to anything — or even the potential for an answer. This, obviously, is also a pretty bad place to be.
  4. Low energy + feeling positive: This is my favourite state. The ‘creative’ state. You feel good, but you’re also relaxed. This is when creative ideas are most likely to emerge. You are able to tackle your biggest, scariest tasks.

Here’s a quick diagram to sum up the 4 types of mood:

(You can divide your mood into 4 basic states. Understand your mood and you can pick a task to match it.)

 

As I’ve explained, once you recognise your mood, you can pick a task to match. But that’s only half the process. After all, you cannot work according to your internal whims. You’d get nothing done. It’d be too unreliable.

So here’s the second breakthrough…

…You can also pick tasks to change your mood.

When you know what you’re doing, this becomes a massive breakthrough.

Trouble is, most people don’t know it. They fail to recognise it. So their day actually becomes a long, arduous act of self-sabotage. It can begin from the moment you wake up.

The morning, you see, is likely your most creative time of day.

You are relaxed. Provided your personal circumstances are normal, you probably feel positive. The morning, for most people, is a terrific window to get stuff done. But what do over 50% of people do before they even climb out of their bed?

Check their phone!

This drags you away from the relaxed state. It always raises your energy. And if you see something unpleasant (bad news, an angry email, a Facebook troll etc), it throws you into a negative state as well.

Here’s what your phone does to your mood when you wake up:

(Your phone sabotages your most creative time of day by raising your energy. What’s more, if you see anything negative, it can send you into the ‘stressed state’ as well. This is the least productive place to be.)

So you can pick tasks which sabotage your productivity. Great. Now we know that, can you do the opposite?

Can you pick tasks which enhance your productivity too?

Yes. In fact, I do this every day.

You see, I write copy for a living. I have to stay in the relaxed state while I’m working. However, by around noon, my energy has picked up. I also have to deal with administration work I hate. This often makes me feel negative, sending me into the ‘stressed’ state.

This is why I go to the gym in the early afternoon.

I lift weights, box and swim until I’m worn out. It lowers my energy, while sending those feel-good endorphins to the brain. When I return from the gym, I can get a bit more creative work done before wrapping up for the day.

This is what exercise does to your mood when you’re stressed:

Exercise has the opposite effect on your mood. If you already go to the gym, or do any physical activity, shifting this to the middle of your workday could be a huge productivity breakthrough.

Here’s what I tend to do depending on each mood:

  1. Happy: Smash through administration work, or create content and plan what else needs to be done. Grab a pen and paper, and play with ideas for problems I’m trying to solve.
  2. Stressed: Go for a run. Hit the gym. Or jump into the boxing ring and get the crap punched out of me. Burn it off!
  3. Depressed: This doesn’t happen to me very often so, if possible, I stop working. I go to the cinema. I take a long walk. Getting outside is a huge help. If I have to work, I try to pick tasks which don’t require me to be in a certain mood. Administration work, for example. Or research. If I have to do creative work, I make a cup of tea. I say: ‘Write one thing. Just one thing.” When I do this, I pat myself on the back for getting started. I can usually find some flow from there.
  4. Relaxed: My favourite state. Take advantage of this. Don’t squander it. Don’t check emails and social media. This is the mood which saves you the most time. Solve your biggest, hairiest problems. The ones you’d love to avoid. (Once you’ve made a habit of doing this first thing each morning, it is actually effortless.)

You’re probably thinking, ‘doesn’t this make your day a bit scattered? Unpredictable?’

Actually, I’ve found the opposite is true. Once you pay attention to your mood, and how each task affects your mood, you should find it’s pretty consistent. All my working days are virtually identical. Here’s a quick walk-through of how my day goes.

6–7am, relaxed: I start writing. I take on a big copy task, or creative problem.

11am(ish), happy: I start clobbering all those admin tasks I hate. I check emails and take care of other tasks like research.

12–1pm, stressed: All those admin tasks have worked me up to a frenzy. So I go to the gym. Burn some energy.

2pm, relaxed: I try to cram another couple of hours of creative work.

4pm, happy: I start wrapping up. I note down what needs to be done tomorrow, and shut down for the day.

I’m not claiming this is a perfect schedule. I’m sure, as my life and demands alter, it will need to change. The point is, this is a schedule which is working well for me, because it matches my mood.

You can do the same. Start paying attention to your mood, and think of a schedule to match.

All my best,

Alex

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