Tempo Giusto

How to Live Life at Your Own Pace (Part 3): Work and Study

When it comes to living life at our own pace, work is a major issue. Most of us will spend half of our waking hours working, and often enough, we won’t really enjoy it. And while it is inevitable to deal with some unpleasant tasks to survive, we often tend to exaggerate. In a perfectionist manner, we do not let go even of the minutiae, questioning our own capacities to handle them all. As everybody in the office does overtime, we join them because of our fears to look lazy. We create pages and pages of to-do lists full of unimportant trivia instead of focusing on those few things that would really have a positive impact on our life and work.

We shouldn’t continue like this forever. As far as I know, we only have one life to live – wasting it with boring jobs, choleric bosses and negligible tasks just doesn’t seem the way to go. It’s time to work at your own pace, and in this part of the tempo giusto series I want to share some strategies with you on how to do it.

Village in the Colombian coffee triangle1. Love Your Job

This is probably the single most important thing to do, and there are a whole bunch of writers emphasizing it: Love your job and you will lose your worries.
The short version of their blog posts and books is: If you’re still doing a job you hate, you’re losing your time. If you’re losing too much time, you’ll eventuallly lose your life.
Read these sentences again, because it’s important. If you spend your life doing something you don’t enjoy, you are really, really on the wrong track.

You may call this useless positive thinking that doesn’t change anything in real life. Beware, though. Your mindset matters, if you want to accept it or not. This includes your feelings towards your job. And, certainly, in an empirical and measurable sense, the context and the surroundings of your job and workplace. While I am writing this, I am sitting on a terrace in a beautifully restored colonial house that serves as a lodge, with a look over a small valley in the Colombian coffee triangle. We have about 25 degrees Celsius, and the hostel owners are listening to some classic Abba tracks downstairs. Every minute or so, a horse comes running down the street, people greet each other friendly. Eagles are flying in the blue sky, and there’s a delicious smell of freshly brewn coffee in my nose. Damn, I love my job. Do you, too?

2. If You Gotta Do It, Do It Right

But what about the unpleasant, yet inevitable tasks then, that really get on your nerves? First of all, remember that you are the person who decides what you really want (and have) to do. But the moment you decide to do a thing, whatever it is, just try to do it right, and do it right the first time.
This is particularly important for many students. They decide to visit as many classes as possible, but then they cannot cope with the quantity of materials they need to prepare, and fail to pass their exams. But it also is a common issue in many work settings. People will participate in too many projects without having the time or energy to really put the necessary effort into them.

Many business coaches advise you to overdeliver. While this is certainly a good strategy if you’ve got the means, it can easily burn you out. Also, to be honest, “overdelivering” seems to be just another superfluous buzzword – in most contexts, doing exactly what’s necessary is exactly enough. Or, in other words, there’s no need to overdeliver, as long as you don’t underdeliver. Just ask yourself: If you were your boss, professor or client, how and how fast would you like to see a certain task done?
Be realistic when doing this, as most superiors will be. And do your best from the start, so the first time you hand it in, it’s as good as it gets, and as good as it needs to be. By applying this strategy in everything you do, you will not only satisfy your bosses (or, I hope so, your blog readers), but also save a lot of time that otherwise would be lost correcting and enhancing what you didn’t do right the first time.

3. Embrace Simple Tasks

Many tasks are not unpleasant because they are difficult, but because they are too simple, repetitive, and boring. When I was working for a political science professor in Germany, at the beginning I was the copy guy. If someone had a book he wanted to copy, he would just drop it off in my shelf with a small note and I would have to do it. As you can imagine, this job wasn’t fun – but it wasn’t too tiring, neither. As many simple and repetitive tasks, the time doing it could easily be used for entertainment or mental activity. When copying entire books, I would just let my mind wander, and think about things, tasks and voyages to come. I would talk to my colleagues passing by. Or I would put some music on and relax. The book was finished within no time, and I got even paid to do this.

Of course, there are more mindful approaches to boring tasks than the friendly anarchistic one. Buddhist monk and zen master Thich Nhat Hanh puts an emphasize on this, for example when washing the dishes: “Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred. In this light, no boundary exists between the sacred and the profane. I must confess it takes me a bit longer to do the dishes, but I live fully in every moment, and I am happy.”

On the other hand, you probably wouldn’t want to engage in these kind of tasks permanently. As Corbett Barr writes, while somebody needs to collect the trash (or make those copies, for that matter), it doesn’t have to be you or me. In the office, my tasks got more interesting after a few months, and the copy work was handed down to the next office newbie. While I didn’t miss the job at all, I certainly learned something from it. Even apparently boring tasks can become a joy if you know how to take them – be it making copies, washing dishes, vacuum-cleaning a room, or weeding in the garden.

4. Limit Your Working Hours

You work too much. I work too little. Maybe we should meet in the middle. Of course, we have to use a part of our time to get our stuff done. But it’s also a good idea to consciously reduce the available hours to finish any task at hand. Even if you love your job, you still might want to free some time to spend with your family or friends, or to dive into dilettantic endeavors and nurture your rose growing hobby.
Just remember Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Most of you will know this from last minute work on papers and reports you had to deliver or slideshows and speeches you had to prepare. If you have to finish it, you finish it.
Make use of this fact in your daily life and limit your working hours. Instead of freeing up a whole day for any task at hand, set up a meeting with a friend in the afternoon and you’ll be done by lunch.

Also, take advantage of the tiny chunks of time that free up during your day and use them to work on nagging tasks that don’t allow you to relax or on any important project you want to bring forward. I wrote about this approach in my post on micro productivity, and there is a lot of inspiration on this concept over at the blog of Michael Nobbs.

5. Embrace Dilettantism

As you might know, I am deliberately dilettante. I’m a trained political scientist with a focus on political philosophy and Latin America. I love to write, paint, and photograph. But I’ll also program the occasional website, translate texts and speeches, work as a tour guide, or build a tiny pig farm in a village in Northern Colombia.
Of course, people are different, and there are the go-to experts in underwater polo who don’t want to do anyhing else in their lives. But then, there are other people, who like to experiment. Although you only have one life, you still might want to do more than one thing with it. Deliberate Dilettantism is the answer.

6. Leave Things Undone

Many of us have become GTD nerds. Day after day we pursue strategies to get more done, filling up our schedules with more unneccessary appointments and out to do lists with more boring tasks. In times when you are important and attractive if you are busy, GTD became a lifestyle. At the same time, we were losing time for the important things in life beyond work.

In my opinion, the solution to this problem is really easy, and can equally be summarized in three words: Leave Things Undone. LTU instead of GTD.

If you want to live life at your own pace, decide upon which tasks you’ll do and which you won’t. While some tasks cannot be avoided (as described in points 2 and 3), there are a lot of others that you can just skip or cancel without fearing negative consequences. Also, many of the ugly, but unavoidable tasks can be outsourced. Try companies like Get Friday to learn more about that, and be sure to read A.J. Jacobs’ entertaining article “My Outsourced Life“.

Remember: By leaving things undone, there will be less stress, less wars, less fights, less murders. At the same time, there will be more idling, relaxation, and happiness for sure.

7. Make Appointments Your Way

The above-mentioned professor of mine had a rule: No more than two appointments a day. I find this number very agreeable, as it allows me to schedule several important meetings over the week, but at the same time leaves space for the unplanned meetings that come up – and to work alone.

Of course, your mileage may vary, even depending on the day. Paul Graham has a theory that creative people generally need a whole day to get work done, while managers will encounter no problems segmenting their day into hourly chunks. While I agree with him that it doesn’t really work to become creative on a fixed schedule (“8-9 am: Write a novel”), I cannot confirm Graham’s opinion in its entirety. As mentioned in point 3, I get a lot of creative work done in smaller chunks of time that spontaneously open up during the day. Generally, I enjoy variety during each and every day. Instead of spending a whole day with clients and the next day with closed doors behind my desk, I enjoy a combination of solitary work, appointments with friends or colleagues, time at my desk and time at the beach, work in coffeeshops and work at friend’s houses, and so on.

The most important thing, then, is to find out your personal style of appointment management and integrate it as good as you can into your working time.

A good place to chill: El Valle de Cocora8. Take a (Long!) Break

Call it gap year or sabbatical, but fact is, if you are bored by your job or have some time after your graduation, you should get out and change perspectives. And even if you love your job, taking a long break can be quite helpful.

Don’t trust an idler’s word? There are way more productive advocates for this: New York based designer Stefan Sagmeister, working with clients like Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones, will close down his whole company every seven years to dedicate himself to fun projects that call his attention. Afterwards, he comes back with renewed energies and lots of inspiration for the next years of work.

By changing places and disconnecting from the usual grind, old ideas can come up again, and new ones can be imagined. By taking more time than the typical two weeks of vacation, you can also take steps to turn these ideas into something tangible. A sabbatical year will also serve you to find back to your real pace of life, without the need to perform in front of your teachers or bosses.

9. Fire Your Boss. And Get a Hobby Job

So you’re afraid of getting sacked by your boss when implementing tempo giusto strategies in your working life? You’d better be! This lifestyle is certainly not easily explicable to many superiors, and some of them might react a little annoyed once you get started. Be it as it may, remember that you’re living your own life, not that of your boss. Over the long run, adapting yourself to the pace of your company may cause more damage than the regular paychecks can fix.

Robert Wringham over at New Escapologist has the right mindset when it comes to jobs: “Treat your job as you would treat cross-stitch or stamp collecting: an enthusiastically-pursued folly that you only do in your spare time”, Robert writes, and it’s certainly valuable to remember that even as a simple employee you’ve got a lot of power. While it is true that your boss can fire you, you can do the same with your company. Got bored? Hand in your resignation and never look back. If you see your job as a hobby that accompanies and finances you as long as you wish, you can truly intregrate it into your tempo giusto lifestyle.

10. Frugality = Freedom

The other day, I read an enjoyable guest post titled “Why I decide to live off pennies” by David Damron over at Corbett Barr’s excellent blog Free Pursuits. While David works far more than I would like to (you notice it when having a look at his output on his minimalist blog), he is doing exactly what he wants to, at his own pace – and he embraces a frugal lifestyle in order to allow him to continue like this.

I myself have been living a good part of the last year on a $200 budget. Miserable, you think? I disagree. On this budget, I traveled through Venezuela and the Amazon, stayed two months in Bogotá, and hung out at beautiful beaches in the Caribbean and the Pacific while visiting Central America. The trick? Cook your own food, go to local (as opposed to over-priced tourist and hipster) bars, have a bunch of great people helping you to get cheap accomodation: Friends and family, couchsurfers and hostels.

David has the goal to have a bigger income and live on a higher budget. So do I. And so may you. The thing with this tip is that you can decide on what you need and what you don’t need – and your decision won’t be the same during your whole life. Stuff often enough converts into clutter and stress, so if you limit yourself to what you really need, you have to spend less time doing unenjoyable work, and got more of it to live the life you want, at your own pace.

Comments? Questions? Feel free to contact me at any time! Did you enjoy this post? Please help me spread the word by recommending it on Twitter or posting a link on your blog. Thanks!

Other posts in this series:
How to Live Life at Your Own Pace: An Introduction
How to Live Life at Your Own Pace (Part 1): Your Speed of Mind
How to Live Life at Your Own Pace (Part 2): Communication and Media

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Jeb May 13, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Really great post Fabian. I like the advice about ‘if you’re going to do it, do it right’. I think moving to the next level requires your best, and not loving what you’re doing at a given moment is no excuse to do it poorly. Do it right, or go find something else to do that you can give your all to. Otherwise, it’s likely you’ll be stuck in one spot for a really long time…and miserable all the while.

Fabian May 13, 2010 at 9:51 pm

Thanks Jeb, that’s exactly what I wanted to express. It’s simply not possible to avoid unpleasant tasks a 100%. So you better give your best to complete them, and then move on.

floreta May 13, 2010 at 10:18 pm

I too am living $200/mo budget. I survive because cost of living is cheaper in Asia and I was staying with family. Currently my accommodations and food are completely free. At a monastery retreat. Sometimes I feel I need to be doing more about this solopreneurship idea, which is more on the backburner but you’re right. Taking it my pace is needed and necessary. It will come together eventually. Here’s to career breaks and sabbaticals!

Fabian May 13, 2010 at 10:21 pm

For me, the $200 budget also only works out because of being in a cheaper area of the world. I would really to have an experience like yours in a monsatery one day for several months… surely a great way to find your own pace!

Peter Bryenton May 14, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Well expressed philosophies, thanks.

I used to be a perfectionist. I finally gave it up when I realised I could never get it exactly right. Life is way too short to be constantly setting ourselves superhuman goals.

Fabian May 14, 2010 at 1:05 pm

You’re welcome, Peter, thanks for stopping by!
Your turning away from perfectionism reminds me of my own journey… David Seah (http://davidseah.com) once described people like me (us?) as “perfectionist procrastinators”: Instead of delivering something imperfect, we just won’t deliver anything. This, of course, won’t lead us nowhere, that’s why I started to embrace dilettantism.

Ruben Berenguel May 17, 2010 at 1:39 pm

A quick question: How would you cope (w.r.t. limiting working time) with doing a research PhD thesis? This is a kind of work that not only tries to fill all available time, but in one you are *expected* to do so. It is quite tiresome to get rid of the feeling of not being working hard enough… When you should be doing it. Any word of advice from here?

Ruben

Fabian May 17, 2010 at 2:32 pm

Hey Ruben, that’s an important question. Actually, I began starting to work towards my personal “tempo giusto” (i.e. right speed for everything) while researching and writing my diploma thesis. While this project of course was a lot smaller than a PhD thesis, similar feelings came up. To cope with them, I used several of the strategies of this post. Concretely:

1. I loved what I did. While I could have chosen a much easier and faster topic to deliver, I decided to go for one that really, really interested me. Thus, I was curious on the outcome during the whole time I worked on it. This really motivated me to get to my desk or to the library each morning.
2. I limited my working hours by making fixed commitments with friends or non-thesis related stuff in the afternoons or at night. Thus, I would get my stuff done during the day and really relax afterwards. It works also the other way around, of course, i.e. doing other stuff during the day and then get active on the thesis at night.
3. When I worked, I WORKED, i.e. I tried to do it right the first time. I got a date to deliver, and I didn’t search for excuses to miss it. When I read an article, I took notes right away, thus avoiding to search for stuff later, and so on.
4. I embraced simple tasks. At one moment, one has to do the layout, fix the footnotes, stuff like that. When I was too tired to do the hard work, I would put up some instrumental music and do these simple tasks.
5. I left things undone. I didn’t read stuff that wasn’t useful. I didn’t WRITE stuff that wasn’t useful. I came right to the point, delivering surely one of the shortest thesis papers my prof ever got. It turned out to be a great strategy to reduce work for me AND for him. There’s nothing worse for an occupied professor than to read pages and pages of hot air.
6. I took breaks. When the weather in Germany got too bad, I bought a flight to the Caribbean and sit down at the beach whenever I felt it was necessary. Actually, I spent one week at a remote beach with no computer, no books, and no thesis-related stuff whatsoever, 10 days before my deadline. Coming here was a good decision, as it allowed me to really disconnect whenever I wanted.
7. I escaped the tentation to use an alarm clock to get up early. Disrupting sleeping patterns would only lead me to fall asleep while at my desk.
8. I worked based on realistic expectations. A diploma thesis is not a PhD thesis. On the other hand, a PhD thesis is not a state doctorate. I did what was expected from me, I did it right the first time, but I did not try to overdeliver – what easily can lead to burnout and/or perfectionist procrastination (“If it doesn’t get perfect, I won’t even start!”). Probably it’s good to point out here that I got the best possible mark for the thesis – just by delivering what was expected.

One remark on all of this: I also found out that most strategies that work for productivity bloggers did absolutely nothing good for me. For example, many people propose giving rewards to oneself for good work or searching an even more horrible task in order to get the second worst done (cf. http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/). This, to me, is absolute nonsense. In the end, I can get my “reward” whenever I want, and I know pretty well when I just “make up” a task.
The lesson: Everybody is different and has to find his own way of doing things. What we bloggers can do is only to propose ways that worked for ourselves or for others, but, unfortunately, we cannot give perfect strategies that work for all of our readers. That’s why I think that everybody has to experiment a little to find out what works for him and what not.

I hope this gives you a few ideas, feel free to get in touch at any time if something was unclear!

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