5 ways to work with the flow

I was supposed to sit on an airplane right now and spend the whole day travelling. I don’t. They cancelled my flight and instead I’m on the balcony in my house. Nobody knows yet. I will fly all night instead so it feels like I have been given an extra day in life.

I could have been upset about the fact that I had to change my connecting flight, that I was arriving a day later, that I had to write my clients about a sudden change in work availability. It wouldn’t have made any difference about the actual situation, but somehow we often get stuck in negative and unfruitful reactions to things that happen to us, and spend a lot of energy on something we can’t change anyway. Once you realize that it really doesn’t change anything, it seems like such a waste of time.

The situation got me thinking about how working with the flow of things helps me keep a more balanced state of mind in everything I do – but especially when it comes to my professional work.

Working with clients – and with people in general – demands you to let go of control. This could potentially stress me out a lot. When I was younger I would often create a huge amount of mental stress by obsessing about the outcome of my efforts. So much that I would often feel paralyzed in my actions because I was too afraid of something going wrong or things not working out exactly as I envisioned them. I have become much more aware of these obsessive patterns and how they don’t serve me, but sometimes they still show up.

waterfallThe other day I went on a daytrip to a waterfall with a friend, I was mesmerized by how graceful the water moves. It always makes its way, but doesn’t try to penetrate or move the obstacles on its path. And that is exactly why it can be soft and still keep going with an innate power and drive.

My friend and I are both self employed and we talked about how to work with clients, be successful in what we do and enjoy our work. “I’ve heard the key is to work towards a goal without being too attached to the outcome” I told him. Sounds right, but how do you actually do that? We asked ourselves.

A big part of it is to let go of wanting to control everything.

Here are five ways you can try to work with the flow and not against it:

Let go of what you can’t change
Use what is given to you
Work with great discipline but be flexible
Respond constructively to the situations that arise
Use the circumstances that inspire you to fuel your work

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Everyday is Sunday or is it? – how I manage my work

Being self-employed comes with great freedom; I decide the hours I want to work, and since my work is online I can decide whether I want to work at home, or choose one of the many coffee shops in town – or even go for a nice walk while solving a problem. The backside is that I can work everyday and anytime which means in some ways I am never really off.

Learnt by trial and error I have four rules of thumb that help me manage my work.

1. Get things out of the head
An essential tool for me is to keep lists; to note down what would otherwise take up immense space in my mind. I keep a weekly schedule and daily to-do lists, these are dynamic and I revise them everyday; I update, cross things off and move things around. I use both an old school notebook and my iPhone when things come up; thoughts, emails I want to write, inspiration or to-do’s. I immediately note them down, this helps me keep track of task and ideas – and remain focused on what I am working on.

2. Prioritize
The list of ‘To-dos’, ‘Must-dos’, ‘Want-tos’ and ‘Would-be-nice-to-dos’ is endless when you are self-employed. So I have to prioritize. I look at my list and ask myself, what is most important to achieve at the moment. Which task will help me get there? I put these on the list. I look at what I have to do for my clients. I put these on the list. But the most important thing for me has been to make peace with the fact that I will never finish completely. There will always be more work to do. So it really comes down to focusing on what matters most.

3.Set boundaries
I have learnt that it is crucial to set boundaries: to stop checking emails at some point and to start the day without checking emails as the first thing in the morning. In some ways it is too easy to be online and available all the time, I find that I tend to prioritize work over everything even though I don’t want to. One way I’ve managed to balance my life is by setting hours for work but also to schedule time for exercise, self-care, play, quiet time and time with friends and family.

4. If it only takes five minutes do it now
I’ve experienced that I often feel more overwhelmed about the workload when I’m actually away from the laptop or not workbalanceing. I build up mental tension about all the things I have to do in the near future when I have days away from work  dedicated to my Qi Gong studies, photography or other activities. I realized that by spending 5-15 minutes revising my lists and sending off a couple of emails that are important, I can actually enjoy my time away from work much more.

Managing my time is a constant act of balance that I am (still) learning to master. These four rules of have helped me, I hope they will help you too.

Why music can be a good work companion

Writing this post I am sitting in a coffee shop at the airport, immersed in a cacophony of sounds; bossa nova music from the speakers and the almost rhythmic repetitive voice of the waitress saying hello and asking the customers what they would like. Some people are having conversations and the guy next to my table is playing on his iPhone creating the characteristic descant and bouncy gaming sound. On the other table a woman is watching a Chinese movie on her iPad with the volume out loud. There is the regular sound of coffee beans being grinded, the click clacking of the coffee dispenser and the loud noise from the espresso machine steaming milk. Wooden chairs are being moved back and forth as people come and go and as the waitress cleans the tables. Someone coughs, and someone else slurps the last sip of ice coffee through a straw.

It is very easy to get distracted by all the sounds.

Not a surprise if you ask sound consultant Julian Treasure who says, in his TED talk, that we are “one third as productive in open-plan offices as in quiet rooms”. He gives a basic rule of thumb: move away from unpleasant sounds and towards pleasant sounds. However, sometimes we can’t change the environment we have to work in. So his advice is to carry headphones, and whenever we have to work in spaces with lots of noise; like open plan offices or a noisy coffee shop like the one I’m sitting in, we should plug in the headphones and play soothing sounds such as birdsongs or ocean waves.

I like to listen to music while I work.

Reading on the topic I’ve found that there are different views on music and productivity and basically the effect of using music to increase productivity is still inconclusive. However my experience is that music can energize me; I like to start the day of with happy, upbeat music that helps spark my mood, and it’s a great companion to making to-do lists. I can’t listen to that kind of music for too long, because it takes up too much of my attention span. Instead of supporting the work I’m doing it will become a distraction. Listening to music is basically some form of multitasking, since the brain is aware of the music and is working on the task. For some tasks I prefer silence; if I have to come up with new solutions, when I brainstorming or during heavier tasks that require a larger amount of brain capacity.

Most times smooth and soothing music provide me with a nice backdrop of calm while writing or researching – the rhythm of the music helps me work in a steady and productive pace.

MusicTo pin it out, I find that music

  • is useful to drown out distracting background noises
  • has a positive effect on my mood
  • can help me get into a state of flow
  • is better when simple, not too complex or loud in its expression
  • without lyrics is better, when I have to write or do other word related tasks
  • has to be turned off once and a while

To make sure music doesn’t become a burden, you have to choose the right kind of music for the different modes of work.

These are my top 5 albums to listen to while working:

  • Sigur Ros “Takk”
  • Andrei Krylov “Sky Lake. Classical Guitar. Zen. Mediation Music”
  • Steve Reich “Music for 18 Musicians”
  • The Album Leaf “A Chorus of Storytellers”
  • Miles Davis “Kind of Blue”

What are yours?

 

5 apps I wouldn’t live without

 

It might be a slight exaggeration to say I wouldn’t live without these apps. However, I use them on a daily basis and they help me stay balanced, focused, organized and inspired.

Insight timer
Insight timer is a mediation app. It is very simple and allows you to set a desired time to meditate. It will start off your meditation and let you know when time is up with the sound of a Tibetan singing bowl. It keeps statistics so you can keep track of your daily practice. It makes it so easy to begin the day with a meditation session, and I love the beautiful sounds it displays. My daily meditation practice is essential for me to keep a balanced life and reducing the feeling of stress.

Task
In some ways I am still quite old fashioned. I like to write things by hand; like to-do lists, and I especially enjoy crossing the tasks of when done. With Task I can get the same feeling of accomplishment by swiping the task of the list when done. This app has a very simple layout, and you can list all your activities on the days you plan to do them.

Toggl
With Toggl I track the time of the tasks I work on during the day. I can name the the task, assign it to a specific project, and it will be listed with the time spent and the exact time and date it was done. This way I can se the actual time spent on individual tasks for one project, and I can even send a report off to a client, showing the time I have spent on his projects.

Downcast
I use downcast to manage my podcast subscriptions. I can easily discover new podcast by browsing through the topic listing. I enjoy listening to podcasts to get inspiration, learn new things and get ideas. It’s a great way to give your eyes – who are constantly at work otherwise – a break, or to fuel your creativity by drawing while listening to a podcast. Love it.

VSCOcam
I like photography and all things visual, so this is a perfect app. I just recently discovered it, but it is a great place to look at beautiful photographs, get inspired, edit your own pocket shots, and share images on different social media platforms.

Which apps do you use everyday?

Remember to breathe!

 

It is so easy to get caught up with stress, to be busy and to feel overwhelmed. However the best tool to manage stress is something we always have with us: the breath. It is actually so simple, and yet we tend to forget it. We rarely pay attention to our breath during the day.

The last weeks I’ve been reading “The Art of Communication” by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk and Zen master, and it really got me thinking about how much power lies in our breath. If we use it consciously, it can help us reduce the feeling of stress and acquire a greater sense of calmness.

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to be more mindful in everything we do. The first step is to pay attention to our breath; by paying attention to our breath we bring the awareness back to our body and to the situation we are in right now.

What often happens when we work is that we tend to be so focused on our thoughts, ideas, and the problems we are trying to solve. On our plans, emails, conversations we have had, and meetings we are going to have. We move from one task to another without any kind of break. Quickly the day passes and our mind is galloping away like a wild horse.

 

“Breathing in I am aware of my body, breathing out I release all the tension in my body”  T.N.H

 

It often feels like it is more productive to act fast and get as much done as possible. However I have found that by taking short breaks, looking away from the computer screen, breathing, and changing my seating position, I can work more consciously. I get better at distinguishing between things that are important and things that can wait. It stops me from merely reacting to whatever lands on my plate, and instead I have the opportunity to choose to respond. When we react we are often driven by our emotions, whereas when we respond we act from a more conscious place.

 

“Whenever the phone rings, you can hear it as a bell of mindfulness and stop whatever you are doing. Instead of rushing to answer the phone, you can breathe in and out with awareness three times before answering the phone to make sure you’re truly present for whoever is calling.”  T.N.H

 

It is all about changing your way of seeing things. By consciously trying to be aware of your breath, your body, and your actions throughout the day, you get less carried away by the stream of inputs, demands and pressure that meet you.

 

“When you breathe in mindfully, there is a happy reunion between the body and mind. This doesn’t take any fancy technique. Just by sitting and breathing mindfully, you’re bringing your mind home to your body. Your body is an essential part of your home. When you spend many hours with your computer, you may forget entirely that you have a body until it’s too achy, stiff or tense for you to ignore. You need to take breaks and return to your body before it gets to that point”  T.N.H

 

I invite you to try breathing like this:

Inhale deeply, feel the air going through your nostrils down the lungs, expanding them and expanding the entire trunk of your body; lung, stomach, lower back and waist. Then open your mouth and exhale fully in an even and gentle way. Feel your breath going out, and releasing a wave of relaxation through your entire body from the top of your head and all the way down to the tip of your toes. Notice your scalp, your forehead, your eyes, your temples, face, throat, shoulders, neck, arms, chest, stomach, back, hips, pelvis, legs and feet.

Breathe deeply like this three times, and notice how you feel afterwards. Notice how you come back to your body. How the activity in your mind has slowed down. How the tensions in your body have loosened. How whichever emotion you were feeling before is less strong now. Breathing deeply is such a simple exercise, but the effect is great, and you can do it anytime and anywhere.

 

“Breathing in and out three times is enough to release the tension in the body and smile, and then we can continue our work.”  T.N.H

 

I would love to hear, how it feels when you take time to breathe deeply and consciously throughout your day.

How using desire paths will spark your productivity

 

Do you often feel that what you have to do is not aligned with what you feel like doing? And then you end up in an unproductive and destructive work pattern? I used to experience this a lot.

The other day I watched a TEDx talk by Chris Bailey, the creator of the project ‘A Year of Productivity’. In the talk he mentions the University of California at Irvine and their different approach to design. He tells how they waited some time before building actual sidewalks during the construction of a new campus. They looked at the paths that the students created spontaneously by walking around the buildings, and then built the sidewalks on top of them. They chose to use the students’ desire paths.

I immediately loved this concept of desire paths. It was exactly what I had been looking for to describe, how I have managed to become more productive: by integrating my desire paths into my work schedule.

Let me give you an example.

I used to plan to have one morning a week for writing blog posts. I had this idea that I work best in the mornings and, therefore, it would be the first thing on my schedule. But, what really happened was that I prolonged the morning by surfing aimlessly on the Internet until at some point I forced myself to look at the blinking cursor in an empty word document while lacking inspiration. I would end up feeling frustrated because I had procrastinated too much and was behind schedule.

I started paying attention to when I felt inspired and what would get me writing. I realized that I was more likely to concentrate on writing when I allowed myself to start the day by taking a walk and getting my mind to flow; then read some articles and maybe watch an inspiring talk to fuel creativity. Slowly, a topic for my new post would form in my mind, and when I actually sat down in front of the computer, my hands would start typing almost as if by themselves since I would be bursting with ideas.

What it really comes down to is to work with your personal flow and not against it. I am not talking about just following any desire you have. You should really look at what energizes you, what ignites your creativity, and then do this. Thereby, you can eliminate the patterns that drain you and keep you from being productive.

How to map your own desire paths:

  • What activities do you constantly choose to do at a different time than planned, or skip altogether? Notice why this happens. Could you schedule them at another time of the day?
  • What tasks do you always feel resistance towards doing? Notice why there is resistance. Notice what helps you do them and what doesn’t. Incorporate the things that help you into your schedule.
  • What sparks your creativity? Plan this activity to take place before you have to write a blog post/brainstorm/create a new product.
  • What calms your mind? Plan doing this activity before you have to perform/teach/work on difficult tasks.
  • What gives you confidence? Plan doing this activity before you have to talk to potential new clients/sell your products/meet with collaborators.
  • What energizes you? Plan doing this activity before you have to do dreaded but unavoidable tasks.

This way you are able to plan your work with awareness and increase productivity. In the comments below, I would love to hear, how you use your desire paths when planning your schedule.

Get inspired!

I’ve always found that I get inspired and energized by new knowledge – and especially if it is conveyed by passionate people. I want to share with you some of my favorite TED talks that have thought me valuable lessons – for work and life.

The Happy Secret to Better Work, Shawn Achor


“If happiness is on the other side of success, your brain will never get there.” Shawn Achor argues that happiness inspires productivity, not the other way around. He includes practical tips to increase your happiness. A great talk.

Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, Amy Cuddy


Amy Cuddy talks about the connection between brain and body postures. You’ll get great tips for giving talks, presentations and build confidence. A new approach to ‘fake-it till you make-it’.

Forget Multitasking, Try Monotasking, Paolo Cardini


A humorous short snippet that reminds us of the importance of monotasking in a world that preaches multitasking.

How schools kill creativity, Ken Robinson


A TED classic and my all time favorite. Great reminder for everyone of the multiple types of intelligence that we inhibit.

The Transformative Power of Classical Music, Benjamin Zander


Benjamin Zander is absolutely passionate about classical music and it’s hard not to get caught by it too – and he shares intriguing insights: “I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. And you know how you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you’re doing it.”

Which TED talks have inspired you?