Downtime

Work and life comes to us in ebbs and flows. The “ebbs”, or “downtime”, can be a great opportunity for “slow thinking”.

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Have you been working on a large, challenging, long-term undertaking? Perhaps a startup, or a large corporate project?

You are probably going to find that there are up-times and down-times. Ebbs and flows.

There will be stretches of time during which you’re fully engaged and “in-flow”, i.e. you’re spending multiple hours of a day, perhaps 6 or even 8, and those times are fully engaging you, and you’re using most of your mental and physical capacities, and you’re engaged in the immediate problem at hand.

But you will also probably notice that there are downtimes. These will vary in length and frequency, according to the nature and kind of work, the industry you’re in, etc. For example, some industries are seasonal. Some corporations have periods where people are away on holiday at certain times of the year. Some consulting relationships go through periods of less direct contact/communication with the client.

These “down” periods could go for months or weeks at a time, or parts of the week (e.g. weekdays vs. weekends), or parts of the day (e.g. morning vs. afternoon).

It can be helpful to notice these downtimes and to spot the patterns in them. This is because, during these downtimes, you can perform activities, mental or otherwise, which are better suited to downtime. Activities which would be more difficult to do during “uptime”.

During uptime, you’re in a more “reactive” move, responding rapidly to events and situations as they occur. Whereas during downtime, you can do more of what I call “slow thinking”.

By “slow thinking” I’m referring to things such as strategic thinking or long-term planning. Taking a step back and thinking about the bigger picture. Asking what you’re trying to do. What are the broad goals? Are my day-to-day actions (when I’m in “uptime”) appropriately focused on, and contributing to, those goals? And, heck, am I enjoying myself? Is this sustainable over the long term? Are there strategic changes or tweaks I could be making? For example, could I be taking my effort in one domain and applying it to a different market, where it’s more sought-after or more valuable, or applying it to an additional market, so that I can increase my customer-base?

Using down-time in this way may not only be beneficial – it may be critical. It may only be in those slower contemplative moments that you identify a major problem or issue or risk to what you’re doing, that otherwise would have gone un-noticed in the hustle and bustle of “getting stuff done”. So it can be important to pull yourself out of up-time, if needed, and deliberately move into down-time, to give yourself a proper chance to have insights you wouldn’t have otherwise had the time and space to have.

The down-time can function as a kind of rehearsal for up-time, because, during down-time, you are preparing ahead-of-time for the decisions you’ll need to make and the actions you’ll need to perform when you’re back in up-time again.

During down-time I recommend putting yourself in spaces and doing things that mentally relax and inspire you. Perhaps visiting a calm and peaceful place such as a park or a camping site. Perhaps walking or exercising. And giving your mind a chance to “tick over” everything. Everyone has a different way and you might have your own way of creating a space. But whichever way you choose, it should give your mind freedom to contemplate, wander, retrospect, revisit and then be strategic about the future and the next steps.

Ship

Life doesn’t always go to plan. How might we think about plans in a way that keeps us motivated and moving forward?

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Have you ever had one of those “face-palm” moments in life, where it suddenly hit you that you had made a less-than-optimal decision? If you had known more, you might have made a different decision, or no decision at all!

The frustrating thing is, now you do know! Now you can see that X and Y are necessary, in order to achieve Z. But at the time you made the decision, you weren’t aware of this.

The problem is, at the time, you didn’t have the information or awareness to know what the problem with your decision was going to be, whereas now you do know. And I think this reveals something about how work gets done and things get achieved in time, which is: not everything happens in the order that we think it will happen.

We may have a model of the world in our minds, which is sequential and tied to certain dates and times, kind of like a flowchart. For example:

InYourMind

A leads to B leads to C and D, D leads to E and F, and E and F lead to G.

The way things actually work out, often is quite different. For example:

InReality

A leads to B. B seems like it will lead to C, but actually ends up leading all the way to Z. And it’s only when we get to Z that we then see the whole alphabet, and that the process involves all 26 letters, not just the 6 or 7 we started out with!

We can’t really change the fact that reality often doesn’t go to plan. However, we can offer ourselves some mental consolation and self-forgivenness.

We can remember how much we didn’t know at the time. Give that memory space. And give ourselves “permission in retrospect” to have not known everything. “I didn’t know, we didn’t know”. And because that time has already passed, we can’t go back in a time-machine and make it any different (at least, not until Elon Musk gets round to time-travel!)

So, in a sense, there wasn’t necessarily ever a problem. The project did go “according to plan”, but it was just a different plan than we had originally understood! Perhaps a larger plan, perhaps smaller. But it is a plan, and there is a structure to it. We simply need to maintain our awareness of the change, adapt to it and move with it.

As you go through this kind of change many times, over the course of a career, you develop mental processes and tools for working in this way. Rather than our plans becoming like a large structure, say a tower made of stones, which can’t bend or move, our plans become more like a ship, which can be steered in one direction, then steered in another, moored and unmoored, or taken to a warehouse, dis-assembled and re-assembled.

So a change in plan isn’t a catastrophe. It’s valuable information that we can use to steer the “ship” of our work and make new discoveries along the way!

Expand

How do you manage work-place stress? One technique I have found helpful is ‘expanding the problem’.

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Do you ever find yourself, at work, feeling stressed out, tense, a pit in your stomach, anxious and concerned, tired out? Work-related stress seems to be a common theme in today’s workforce, and it’s something I’ve faced myself.

Here’s an example of one way this can happen:

Suppose you have to deliver a report. You feel motivated, pumped. You’re going to focus on your goal and get the job done. Now the first step is to talk to Judy and then Mike, who have crucial information you need. But it turns out that Judy is on leave. So you go and talk to her manager, Beth, and Beth tells you that she can give you part of the information you need from Judy, but for the rest, you’ll need to get off Joe, in another department. So you go and talk to Joe and he emails you a link. But when you try it, it turns out to be password protected! So to get it unlocked, you need to talk to Jim in IT. All of a sudden, this initially straight-forward task of making a report has grown into a complex maze of people and information. Your to-do list is stacking up with items and you get to the end of the day, not having “completed” even a part of the report.

expand-diagram-1

You feel perhaps a bit agitated, restless, stressed our, or maybe tired or worn out or mildly depressed. You feel like you got nothing done. And that’s not a nice feeling!

This kind of stress/depression can occur even with relatively solitary activities, such as design or engineering. Nay, especially in those activities! Say you’re in the midst of a coding problem, you’ve been Google-ing for a solution, and you find something that almost works but not quite, and you go for a whole day and not really “finish” anything.

What can we do, constructively, about dealing with these situations?

I’ve found that the problem often is being too focused on the end-result, on the solution that I’m seeking. And because of that, I’m judging my progress (and perhaps myself) whenever I fail to meet that result. And by the end of the day, those failures and judgements have accumulated, and I feel a burden of, guilt, debt, etc.

So one mindfulness-inspired practice I have been trying is that of expanding the problem. Imagine the problem as a funnel, very wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. If you try to force lots of material through at once, it will inevitably be blocked by the narrowest part of the funnel. But if you were to widen the funnel – convert it to a pipe – then all the material could move through at the same speed, without blockage.

To apply this to your work mindset: you’re putting all your focus and energy on the wide part of the funnel – the solution. But the process of achieving the solution, the narrow part, is consuming your effort. So you’re trying to force a lot of effort through a very narrow space. But what if you were to mentally expand your work process. Giving it more attention and energy, and making it feel larger in your mind.

So for example, say you have to talk to Judy, and then go and speak to Jim in IT about getting the password, you can see that as part of your journey toward your solution. And it counts as work, and in fact, counts as a success and an achievement.

So, as you look at your ‘to do’ list, perhaps you see a line like this:

• Finish report

Scrub it out! And, instead, write:

• Speak with Jim in IT
• Email Jim password request

And before the end of the day, you can have those two ticked off!

Speak with Jim in IT
Email Jim password request

Notice that now you’re re-focusing on the actions and tasks you’re performing throughout the day, in order to get the result, and not focusing directly on the result.

And you’re expanding the problem-space. Perhaps you identify a whole network of people who you need to interact with, to get the job done. And then you discover efficiencies – ways you can shortcut the process or get extra value out of it, e.g. getting to meet people and learn about the organisation in the process. So, you might not have delivered the report by the end of the day, but you did learn who Jim was, and established a rapport with him, which could serve you well in the future.

By focusing on the problem, you achieve small incremental results on the way to achieving your big result. And you can leave work at the end of the day with a feeling of success and accomplishment. You can close that day off, get a good night’s sleep and come in the next morning with the energy and motivation to keep going.

Additionally, if you’re going through many tedious steps – a process – in order to achieve an outcome, chances are your work is, by nature, complex. Chances are that this complexity will re-appear at another time. So the learning and knowledge you gain from working through this complex process, if you hang on to it, can help you work through other complex processes in the future.

That’s the technique in a nutshell. Expand the problem, give the problem space. Perhaps try visualising it, through writing, drawing, diagramming, etc. Give yourself time and focus on each action/task, each step of the way, and let the solution come when it’s ready.