This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 5: Eliminating, subscribe and buy here
As part of my work pattern, I regularly travel from my hometown of York (in the North of England) to London—a train journey of approximately two hours in each direction. This pilgrimage always makes me thoughtful about how the priorities we set ourselves—and the schedules we commit to—determine how successful or stressful our day turns out to be.
I’ve learned two key lessons from my repeated trips: the value of lifting your head when everyone else’s heads are down and the need to give yourself more time on days when you’re on the move. These two lessons have a surprisingly big impact on personal attitude and personal outcomes; they tilt the odds of success in your favor and create a positive reinforcement loop of achievement and positivity.
Let me explain how.
Lift Your Head
The first observation I always make upon entering the “rat run” is how self-involved everybody seems to be. Heads are down, shoulders hunched and almost without exception, there appears to be a steely resolve not to make eye contact, smile or yield in the hustling, bustling, jostling crowds that inevitably form in these circumstances. Everybody wants to reach their destination in the fastest possible way, and every other individual is seen as an obstacle or hindrance. Pushing and shoving are the expected behaviors; chivalry and courtesy have long been abandoned. The worst thing about this mob mentality is that it’s incredibly subversive. Spend 10 minutes being jostled in a crowd and you’ll find yourself doing the exact same thing to others.
How does this impact your productivity? Allowing your thinking to be subverted into this “push-pull” mindset switches you into a mode where your destination becomes your goal and every person who stands between you and your goal has to be “dealt with”. The task of reaching your goal in the shortest possible time becomes all-consuming and is inevitably accompanied by increasing frustration and feelings of failure every time your progress is impeded by a fellow commuter. Stress levels rise, peripheral awareness reduces and opportunities to make better use of this time are missing.
Spend 10 minutes being jostled in a crowd and you’ll find yourself doing the exact same thing to others.
The net result? You may arrive at your destination a few minutes earlier, but you’ll arrive stressed, ruffled and carrying a subconscious feeling of failure.
The antidote to this situation is to step out of the mob mentality. Instead of fighting the current of commuters, allow yourself to drift with it. Instead of surging forward and pushing past others, look for opportunities where the movement of the crowd will take you where you need to be. Flex and yield in response to the exertions of others; be fluid and allow yourself to take the meandering, indirect path that is inevitable when immersed in a crowd.
Lifting your head in these scenarios will give you a better sense of what is going on around you and make you more aware of what is happening at the moment. This, in turn, will enable you to seize the opportunity to enjoy that moment for its own sake.
If you can make a conscious choice to go with the flow, and accept the consequences of that choice, you will come to realize that it’s not critical when exactly you reach your destination. Your attention will be freed from the push-and-shove, instead of finding opportunities to drift in the right direction in a purposeful yet yielding manner. You will also discover that free from the stress of wrestling with your fellow commuters, your brain is able to do more constructive work, such as reflecting on the day to come, planning for tasks ahead or even more creative thinking.
Give Yourself More Time
When I’m on my London day trips, or even when I’m staying overnight, it’s tempting to cram as much in as humanly possible. There are many people I need to see, and often meetings to attend spread across different parts of London. What I’ve come to realize is that there is great personal and professional benefit to limiting the amount of “doing” in my schedule in order to give myself time in which to deal with the unexpected elements of the day.
When we think about productivity, it’s natural to think it means “delivering more stuff in a fixed window of time”. That might be a definition for some, but the Alpha Efficiency philosophy recognizes that it’s not all about getting stuff done, and the quantity and quality of output required at any given point is something to be considered and judged; it is not simply a case of “more is better”.
Most of us set high targets for ourselves, and schedules are no exception to this. We often fill our diaries with back-to-back meetings, overlooking the fact that we’re going to need time to get from A to B, not to mention bathroom breaks! What’s more frustrating about this is that having set ourselves impossible targets, we berate ourselves when we fall behind our unrealistic schedules.
It’s crucial to recognize that you control your schedule. Certain factors will be outside of your control—you can’t determine the start and finish of every meeting—but you can certainly define what commitments you will agree to, whether to stay at late-running meetings and how much preparation and travel time to allow yourself.
How does this work in practice? It starts with giving yourself plenty of time to arrive. This can be achieved in two ways: setting off early (easier for some than others) or ensuring that your first commitment is pushed back in the day. Trains will be delayed, tube stations will be crowded; it will take longer than you think to get to your chosen destination. Decide how you want to arrive: flustered, sweating, late? Or calm, reflective, on time with your beverage of choice in hand?
Decide how you want to arrive: flustered, sweating, late? Or calm, reflective, on time with your beverage of choice in hand?
A Four-Day Success Story
I’ve been reinforcing these behaviors on every trip I’ve made in the last twelve months. I get up early, give myself time to grab a coffee before my train arrives and I hold the door for others instead of scrambling to my seat. When my train is late, I smile and read the paper. When I get to London, I amble through the station and onto the Underground, safe in the knowledge I have plenty of time to get to my first meeting. I haven’t been late once this year.
I took this one step further with an extended visit to London; I consciously eliminated all sources of stress up front by carving big chunks out of my schedule and arranging to leave my luggage with various hotels, rather than suffer the stress of lugging it across the city with me. I actually designed an itinerary that would take me longer to get my tasks done because I knew it would allow me to do it more easily and with less stress.
Could I have crammed more into my time away? Sure. Would I have achieved more? Almost certainly not.
Positive Side Effects
These two lessons are principles that have changed the way I operate on travel days. By lifting my head and giving myself more time, I have significantly improved my mood and my output in those days. What’s interesting though is that the effect seems to have percolated into other aspects of my routine, too: Whether queuing for groceries or sitting in traffic, I’m adopting a more positive, almost easy-going attitude and treating these scenarios as opportunities instead of obstacles. The impact this has on my frustration, stress, and feelings of success are exactly the same as when I’m on my travel day.
A time will where you have a choice: lift your head and give yourself more time, or succumb to the temptation to pack your schedule in the name of “maximizing productivity.” Take the first path; you’ll find the results exhilarating.