Freelancer Psy-Ops: when “getting things done” means getting out of your own way

I love me some technodorktacular lifehackery as much as the next guy. But there comes a time when we realize that the enemy of our productivity is not our tools (or lack thereof). The enemy is us.

My little contribution to this panel is about the psychology of productivity: how to de-cruft and optimize the “app between your ears,” in addition to your email client or filing system. I’m not a psychologist, but you don’t need to fully understand every nuance of your own psyche in order to be more productive. This is why I like the term Psy-Ops: You just need a sense of what buttons to push.

Here’s an easy one. We all know that physical activity is good for our brains, but how can you leverage that during your sedentary 40+ hours a week of “knowledge work”? Simple: question the “sedentary” part. Where is it written that sitting at a desk is the only way to write/brainstorm/edit/etc? A couple years ago I bought myself a standing desk (actually, a bar table from Target) and never looked back.

The point here is not that working while standing is “better,” morally or intellectually or whatever, than sitting. The point is that, for me, it’s more psychologically effective. One day I noticed that sitting down, especially after 2pm, seemed to enable/encourage a sort of mental “fudginess” that I didn’t find preferable for getting stuff done. So instead of berating myself for my laziness, or aimlessly browsing for some techno-magic-bullet, I just asked, “if that’s what tends to happen when I sit for long periods of time, and I don’t like it, how can I avoid sitting for long periods of time?” Duh, by standing! And what would make that easier? Getting rid of the sitting-desk and replacing it with a standing-desk, so I don’t even have the option anymore.

And that’s the essence of the psy-op: don’t waste time with guilt-trips or fruitless attempts to reprogram yourself into being some kind of perfect Terminator of productivity. Just do something simple and concrete to “trick” yourself into acting/thinking differently and then see if it’s effective. As freelancers, we’re in an awesomely empowered position to experiment like this because we’re our own bosses. If setting up your home office like a jungle gym (or a prison cell, or a deli, or a laboratory) enables you to mentally inhabit a more productive state more often, then hell, go nuts. But the point is that you’re actually “hacking” your mind, not your means.

So that’s my little preview. (And just so you know, none of the stuff I’ll talk about necessarily requires purchasing new office furniture.) Hope to see you there!


About John Pavlus

I'm a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics.
This entry was posted in Productivity Mind-Hacks, ScienceWriters 2010 meta. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Freelancer Psy-Ops: when “getting things done” means getting out of your own way

  1. I don’t have a standing desk, but I run for up to an hour three times a week. If I don’t do this, I’m at best 80% as productive, and sometimes it’s worse.

    I’ve also found that working at a coffee shop keeps me focused, because there is social pressure to work, from the busy people around me, but also because working at the coffee shop is book-ended by the 10 minute bike ride to and from it. This does as much for me (in terms of breaking up the day, helping me quietly re-prioritize, etc.) as actually being at the coffee shop.

  2. Also, the “learn to say no” overlap between “what we do well” and “what we can get paid to do” is haunting me. It pops into my head every time an assignment veers too far away from my core interests…

    • John Pavlus says:

      Oh man, me too. But it’s getting easier. Sometimes it helps me to think in terms of zero-sum opportunity costs. What will this gig PREVENT me from doing? If the answer is [shrug] or the equivalent, might as well take it. But it’s worth asking the question seriously.

      On the other hand, sometimes I try to short-circuit this kind of black-and-white thinking by reminding myself that everything is generative. Work begets work, all decisions (short of those that kill you!) result in learning. Taking something on that you could/”should” have said no to cannot subtract from your experience or knowledge. It’ll always add, although maybe not in an expected or pleasant way. Science (TM) has shown that human beings are psychologically wired to positively rationalize almost any decision or action in hindsight. But the overthinking, “maximizing” of hypothetical options, or just plain not-choosing– that’s what eats us up. So, when in doubt, “Pascal’s Wager of Productivity” might be: when in doubt, it’s in your best interest overall to Say Yes/Just Do It/[insert catchphrase here].

      Either way/anyway, I guess the key is just to act in such a way that you can look yourself in the eye the next morning with no regrets. Everything else is just details.


      • John Pavlus says:

        Plus, many wise folks have observed that patterns emerge only in retrospect (and are usually shaped by events beyond our control anyway), so being too “strategic” with your time/attention/career plans/project load/reward points reaches a point of diminishing returns rather quickly. More effective to stay present and follow your gut when in doubt.

        “You can only make one dot at a time.” – Brian Eno
        “…You have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” – Steve Jobs
        “Do or do not. Only wieners overthink sh*t.” – Yoda (paraphrased)

      • Maybe this is unique to me, but I’ve spent a significant span of my career doing things I was good at but not necessarily fond of. So for me at least, there is definitely a known “no-go zone” at the intersection of what I’m good at and what I can get paid to do. And it includes things like marketing. Yuck.

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