VANTI - Developing Sustainable Work Habits

Heyyyy... Some stuff about DIY-ing your own system for sustainable work habits. Video (with subtitles), audio, and transcript, obvs. Chat about it over on The Slack, por favor.


Here's the audio - you can download it (by clicking the download link on the right, duh).

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[Note - this is a word-for-word transcript so yes, there are lots of run-on sentences. Spoken communication is messy!)

Hi, this is Andrew. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about things I think of as productive work habits. In the old days we used to call this time management, but it's really about how do you function in the midst of loads and loads and loads of demands on your time and energy and attention, and what are the general principles that you can use in order to move a little bit further away from things like overwhelm and procrastination. And there's three major things I want to talk to you about. 

My history with this kind of stuff is: I used to teach time management when I was a soft skills trainer more than 15 years ago. I know I was just a child. And then I was also the lead trainer in this slightly weird but not terrible productivity program called Mission: Control. , and then I've also explored various other productivity stuff along along the way, including Getting Things Done (GTD) which is pretty popular. I'm also a recovering procrastinator. I used to be a chronic procrastinator and I clawed my way out of that hole. And so I've got... I've done a lot of processing of this kind of stuff over the years and what I've been able to do is to draw out some general principles that are in pretty much any system that you're going to come across. So I wanted you to be able to DIY your own system. So again, I'd like to, similar with the difficult conversations video, I'd like this to start a conversation to have these things be suggestions/thoughts/seeds for you to begin to think about how do you function inside Vanti. This is just from my perspective. 


So the first thing that we need to tackle, if you want to move beyond overwhelm and to feel like your kind of semi-in-charge of your life is: we make the mistake of wandering around with all this stuff in a head and some things on unread emails and emails you've marked as unread and using your inbox as a to do list and then there's your Slack inbox and then there's some paper and then there's some stuff you're holding in your head. And one major, major key to this is - I think of it as capture - is capturing all of that in one place. What that really means to begin with is one long ass list. I think of it, and this is a term that you'll come across sometimes, it's a Master List, a list where you have everything there is for you to do. 

If we really gonna go to the purest principles, I would say this needs to be for your whole life, not just for work, but for your work life and your non-work life. And it's everything that you not only have to do - I'm going to talk about things you 'have' to do - but also things that you want to do, things you've dreamt of doing, anything you want to read, see, fix, do, anywhere you want to go and see your dream of learning... Everything. You capture it in one long, long, long list. That's not the end of the process, but that's the beginning and having everything in one place, once it becomes a reliable habit, it closes loops, it stops you burning cycles trying to remember things or feeling like things are falling through the cracks. And for me, unless I've captured it in wherever I am currently capturing things, it doesn't exist. I never try and remember something and this was a habit that I'd built up years ago and I've always stuck with it ever since. 

So what that really means is you need to have a way of capturing things wherever you are, whatever you're doing. And that probably means one of two things, either an app on your phone or a notebook. A set up that I used for a long time, and I still semi-use is having Evernote and then I've got a widget on my home screen which creates a new note in a particular folder and I just... I have a different note for every action. So whenever it's like, 'Oh, need to go to post office to put the dual fuel discount on the electricity key,' [makes typing motion] Done! It goes and it lives in that folder and everything there is for me to do work-wise, 'Record video for Vanti' goes in there. Even the recommendations of things to go and look, to go and watch all go in there. So I know there's one bucket where everything lives. 

The thing I would encourage you to experiment with is that this also applies to email and Slack messages. That means you have three capture places and I would encourage you to read the mail or the Slack message and if there's an action for it to put it in your capture place. This doesn't mean that you don't still have a project source of truth like Asana where all of the actions are, even if they've been assigned to you, I would still encourage you to be capturing them inside your system. If there's something that also exists for a project that you've come up with, it may be that it needs to live there as well. I don't really know enough about Asan to know whether you can use it as your capture tool, a personal use for it but you need to find something. And I currently use a notebook even though I have fears about losing it. Something about the analog process is working really well for me. And I've been using the Bullet Journal system for a few months just to experiment. And I'm feeling like it's really helping me get my stuff together. But my productivity systems morph every six months to a year, depending on like what I've developed into and how I am. So that's the first major-major recommendation from someone who's been thinking and reading and writing about this stuff for 15 years is: Have one place to capture everything. 


The second thing we need to think about is there's this long ass list of things you could do and then there's your monkey body and brain sitting in the space-time continuum and with, goddammit, limits. And so the second thing.. If the first thing is capture, the second thing we need to look at is capacity. How much... like, you've got this big possibility than you've got a very, very small bucket that you're able to put things into for the day. And your capacity during the day, during the week is limited. I know there are times when you have to really, really stretch that and there's times when you're working really long hours and we need to think about that as Vanti goes forward, but even if you didn't sleep ever, my very, very, very strong suspicion is that you have way more on your list than you could ever get done even if you didn't sleep. 

So there is something around looking at what you've committed to and working out - and this is a major thing of movement beyond overwhelm -  is working out what you're not going to do. And that's a major thing because we're not thinking about... yes, there's the priorities and the things that are your job because that's your job, but there's, like, this, no matter the fact that other people have assigned this to you, there's also your capacity and only you can know your capacity. So you're still... it's still your job to be able to go, this is what I'm gonna do, this is what I'm not gonna do. And also maybe having some conversations about capacity, and if you report to people, that's also a thing to be able to go, 'Look, I'm looking at this, this or this... Which is the thing to prioritize right now?' and working with either your peers or your teammates or managers, whatever, to go, 'How do we choose what goes into my day, my week, because this is my capacity.' 

Available time

So the first thing you do is you look at what capacity you have, you look at what time you start work, what time you finish work, what's already in there; if you've already got meetings and firm fixed commitments in there and looking at what else is free. That's really only the first... and then kind of in theory, you would go to your list and estimate times for things, and, you know...  

But, that's only... that's not enough because even if you have five hours a day free or eight hours a day free, each of those hours is not equal.  And there's... for loads of reasons. Here's four.

1. Biorhythms

One is for one is your energy rhythms. Are you a morning person? Are youan afternoon person? Are you an evening person? When are you most DING! awake?  Because,  I think most people have one or two times in the day which are really golden hours for them where they're really, like, awake and on and their brain is switched on and so you think about what goes into those golden hours. And those are not the same for everyone. So monitoring your rhythms, through the day, through the week, through the month, can really, really help you to understand yourself more, have more compassion for yourself when you feel... when you're not making headway and stuff, but also then begin to be more conscious about what goes into your diary and into your day and when.  

2. Transition time

The other reason that just looking at your free time isn't enough is because,  we have to transition from one thing to another and so we need transition time. You can't just put things back to back to back because you need to shift gear, move away from something, and, depending on how energizing or draining you felt that thing was, sometimes you need just like some time to decompress from it before you move on to the next thing and even if you were to try and shift from one thing to another, there's a thing called attention residue, which means that part of your brain trails behind/part of your mind trails behind you and still is involved in the previous tasks. So, we need to be aware that...  and a lot of what I'm talking about is the fact that you're not a robot and that's the way we sometimes treat ourselves. But if we want to build a culture here that's very human and humane, we need to be aware that people are not robots. 

3. Surprises

The third thing that, that, if you only look at what free time is available, whether that's not accurate is because it depends how many surprises arrive in your day and sometimes we can predict the amount of surprises because of the type of thing that's going on. 

If you're someone who's answering the phone, then that's the thing that that's going to mean that you can't always plan exactly when... but you might need to look at how much time you do spend on the phone and go, 'Well, I actually need three hours or four hours or whatever a day because that's statistically how much time I spend answering the phone and dealing with phone calls.' Are there things which arrive on your plate which you couldn't have predicted at the beginning of the week, even the beginning of the day? Is that the kind of job you've got? (which I think is the case for a lot of people have Vanti) Or are you able to control those surprises? And there is an element of once you become conscious, then you can change things, but I always think it's important to embrace the current situation and look at the truth of now and then aspire to change it later, but change takes time.  So if you're noticing that you have a lot of surprises (and sometimes those can also be distractions) then, yes, you're able to shift things so that you have fewer of those (potentially, depending on what your job is and how much those are related to your job) but you need to look what's true now and I'm going to recommend something later on for you to work that out. 

4. Willpower

Then the fourth thing, which is really, really important and often overlooked.  I've been looking into some of the research around willpower and we spend willpower, whenever we do something... whenever we don't do something we want to do. So that could be you want to look at the notification on your phone, but you don't. That could mean you want to stay in bed for longer, but you don't. That could mean you want to eat some very sugary thing and you're working on eating healthier and so you resist doing that thing.  It could mean you'd really like to switch off, but you have to be very focused. It could mean you would much prefer to be quiet and on your own, but you're out with lots of extroverts. It could mean that you really want to talk about something but you're having to be really quiet because of the situation you're in. It could mean that you're having to be really patient with someone,  who's a going through a thing, who's maybe annoyed or something and you're having to be patient.  It could be just that you're doing something that requires a lot of focus and concentration.

And here's the thing that is really important out of this research is... almost all the research points towards that we have finite amount of willpower every day. Once it's gone, it's gone. So once you've spent it, there's no willpower left.  So your ability to be in control of what you're doing and make decisions...  you do become less throughout the day and you can only renew willpower in two ways. One, temporarily, by eating if you're hungry, so sometimes that reintroduces a little bit of executive function. And the other way is sleep. So that's another thing to bear in mind if you're not sleeping very well, your willpower isn't getting renewed and so therefore your capacity is reduced. And I think this is really, really important. If you're going through a stressful time, if you're spending a lot of willpower at home on stuff that's happening at home, outside of work, if you are transitioning into a new job or a new aspect of your job or things were changed around you and you're using willpower getting used to that, your capacity could be reduced, maybe majorly reduced. And so just looking at the amount of free time isn't enough because we also need to think about budgeting willpower, and where you're gonna spend your willpower today. And then once it's gone, it's gone. 

Energizing, Neutral or Draining

And I was looking at something came up on my feed on Facebook the other day about classifying tasks as Energizing, Neutral or Draining-  END was their  acronym - and if things are neutral or are particularly, if you've experienced them as draining, what that means is you're spending willpower doing that thing. If you're looking at your list and everything's draining, probably need to have a conversation with someone about the type of work you're doing.  Because there's a difference between those things. If you're not building in enough energizing things into your day, particularly your work day, then there's a problem. 

And if it's draining outside of work and draining in work as well, then that's also an issue. 

So those four things really need considering in terms of your capacity. So your own rhythms, that transition time is required to move from one thing to another,  how much of your day is taken up by surprises, and then also,  where are you spending your willpower?  

Deep Work

And there's a little bit of something as well that was reading a book the other day or listening to a book called Deep Work and it was thinking about our capacity to spend uninterrupted time thinking and doing deep work without distraction. And even really experienced deep workers only have four hours a day of that capacity. And most of us only have about an hour, hour and a half of it a day. And we're training, we're sabotaging our ability to do deep work by having notifications and stuff occurring all the time. So that's also something worth bearing in mind. (that's easy for me to say!) that your capacity... you don't have eight hours of undistracted brain capacity to go really deep into something, that you pretty much only have three or four hours and that's all very, very experienced at deep work. 

So: capture - one long ass list full of everything there is to do. Capacity - which really means also looking at your diary and thinking about when you're going to do things. And some people actually literally schedule things in,  some people just, like, look at what's free time, look at their list and then work out what they're going to do, which is the third part. So capacity... Capture, Capacity and Reflection and Review - or Review and Reflection - is the third part that seems to be necessary in order to make this work. 

Review and Reflection


Review really means daily or. like, intra- daily, like during the day, also a weekly review, so that you're able to go, 'Today and this week, what items on my list need to go in, what's my capacity? Am I over committed? (Probably, yes). So do I need to have difficult conversations with...  do any have conversations with people about that commitment? Do I need to talk to my team? Do I need to talk to my manager?  Do I need to talk to my peers about the ramifications of that? And choosing what's going to go in and what's going to go out. And then as the day goes through to be able to go, OK, I was gonna do that, between this time and this time and now I'm not able to, that's going to have to go into tomorrow or on what ramifications does that have and there's a real consciousness that's required.  And there was a loop that I used to go around with people when I was teaching this productivity thing where people would have this list and they would look at their diary, they would realize they were way over committed by, like, big numbers and then they would go, 'But I have to get that done. I've committed to it!'  It's like, OK, that's cool when you're going to do that. And they go, I really don't know but I'll just find the time. OK, that's cool. Let's find the time. Let's look at your diary and work out, like if we were to schedule it, when would you do that? Well,  I'd do a bit there and a bit there, I just don't have enough time in the next two or three weeks to do all this stuff that I've said that has to be done.  OK. But I will find the time. OK, let's find the time. Well, I can't find the time, but I'll have to find the time...

And there is a waking up that needs to happen sometimes where you go, my God, I'm really over-committed.  And there's stuff that absolutely needs to happen, but I've only got a certain amount of capacity, so therefore do we need to get together as a team or even a company,  to think about that because we're one thing that humans are really not very good at doing is estimating our own capacity. It's even harder for someone else to look at the capacity of a team and decide what's possible. It's even harder for the customer to decide what needs to be done and deadlines and capacity is a major thing, that I know that we're working on here, but it's also your responsibility to look at what's in your capacity to do and seeing what's in and what's out. 

So there's an element of daily reflection. Something that I do is I look at... I have a list of all the different areas of my life. The stuff I want to do daily, like running and meditating and reading, writing, that's all part of my job so I can record videos like this. And then all the areas that I think of as ongoing. So coaching, team culture stuff, friends, recording videos, volunteer projects that I'm part of, all of that. I have a list in the front of my notebook and I do over my cup of tea in the morning, I do what I think of as strategic staring. I get that list out daily, weekly, monthly, and then ongoing. And also have a list of all my coaching clients and my culture clients and I just slowly go through and for 10-15 minutes I sometimes set a little alarm so I know when I've done 15 minutes and I just look at it and get a feel for §what's the shape of all this? 

What's the flow, how am I doing? Is there anything I'm forgetting? Is there  anything I'm neglecting? And then going through The List as well and looking at the list to go - sometimes I'll do this after strategic staring when I begin to go, OK, right, what needs to happen -  to go through the list and go, What open loops most need closing? What are the most urgent loops and then looking at my capacity and working out when I'm going to do them. So having that sense of: there's a space to put things in your capacity is not the same as free time and then just doing this really complex ongoing dance between commitments and capacity is really hard and yet it's required for you to be able to have some peace of mind and to be able to switch off and to not be overwhelmed by your life, which includes your work. 


So that's the review part. There's also a reflection part - which I think is important that once a week, maybe once a fortnight or something, I don't know, but particularly when you're implementing stuff once a week would be good - is to reflect on the process. So spend some time, Monday morning, Friday afternoon, Sunday night, whatever, whenever the thing is that you do and not only look at the content, not only look at the list and the capacity, but also reflect to go, Is my capture method working? Am I being really stringent about capturing everything?  Is my method of judging my capacity working? How is my capacity? Am I matching my expected capacity with my real capacity? How is my estimation of time going? When I estimate how long things are going to take, how accurate am I being? Is that working? How is my ability to spot things that are turning into what a client of mine calls cold porridge - you know, they're not getting any warmer and they're congealing and they're not going to go away - so are there things.. How is your ability to spot those kinds of thing? And being able to reflect on the process of this can be really important. How it's my review going? Am I reviewing every day? How is that process of review going? How am I having capacity conversations with the people around me?  And do I need support in that and how is all this fitting together? 

Time log

So there's one thing that I would really recommend, which is a pretty standard thing when you're looking at your ability to build more productive work habits, sustainable work habits, is doing a time log. So having a thing next to you - and you could do this in a notebook or whatever- I'd recommend that you have something that reminds you to fill it out -  that you just every 15 minutes record what you're doing for two or three weeks -  just so you're able to look... almost like as if you were billing. I work with lawyers and they bill every six minutes so they have 10 six-minute sections and they have to work out what they're billing to who and it's almost like that. I think six minutes is overkill, but every 15 minutes just to log, to go 'Oh, had a chat, worked really hard on this, sent emails, responded to this phone call, lunch, had a break. Facebook...' And to be able to map all the stuff that you're actually doing because you'll learn really interesting things about yourself when you do this, even for like a couple of weeks. And I think it's worth revisiting every now and again to go, What do you end up doing? What's the sequence?  And you begin to notice things like biorhythms, like transitions, like how many surprises turn up in your day...

I use an app called Daylio, I think it's called - D A Y L I O -  which is actually a mood tracker.  (But that's also kind of interesting, you can do mood tracking can type things in and it keeps track of it) but I know you could just do it with a bit of paper and set up a template and just fill in for the day.  

Taking this further at Vanti

I also wonder whether we can begin just having conversations about this inside the company and whether we can think about capture capacity and revenue and share tips and talk about it and maybe build it into your daily stand-ups or your weekly meetings, to be able to have conversations about how you're dealing with this and how are you're dealing with capacity, because Vanti is, like, touch wood, only gonna get bigger and better and we need to have a real grasp around the human size of being able to persist inside a system and thrive, and everyone taking both personal responsibility for what they're able to, but also checking in with each other about how their capacity's doing and how they're doing with capturing and, you know, how do we make this vision happen and that only happens in one minute segments, you know, like how we get things done. 

So I hope that's useful. I'm really, really, really obviously open to us discussing this more. If you want more details of anything or if you're like, yeah, but how's this going to work? That's my job. Talk to me.  Let's put some stuff in the comments on slack about this. And let's build up some capacity and see how can we create systems that work for each individual but also work for Vanti.