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For the past year, I have been on a very particular kind of quest. The quest for the ultimate, productive, eight-hour workday. This quest started last fall, after I moved to Southern California. The summer prior, I had gotten myself into the ultimate routine, waking up at 6 am, running for 30 minutes, reading, eating healthy, and working for eight hours straight. I was able to do this thanks to a constant, never ending indoctrination in inspirational productivity recordings by Brian Tracy. The landscape of my mind shifted, and I was able to harness my full potential. For about two months.
Then I moved. And everything went out the window. Suddenly, waking up early became impossible. And as a result, running became impossible (running any time after the early morning meant crippling heat). Eating healthy and reading went out the window. I was back to square one. And I didn't know how to get back. I had gorged myself on so many inspirational recordings, that I couldn't stomach the thought of listening to one more. Occasionally I'd try, but the message was no longer new and inspiring - it was just a reminder of what I once had and lost. So, once again, it was up to me to figure this all out on my own.
To me, systems are perhaps the most important part of my productivity. If I don't have a good system in place, I can't reach my maximum efficacy, and my productivity suffers. So for the past year, I've spent every day trying, testing, and re-testing any system I could come up with to get me back to my ultimate routine.
I tried gradual implementation – waking up a little earlier everyday, exercising a little more everyday, etc. This somehow always failed me. The process was so gradual, that even though I'd get some good momentum built up in the first few days, maybe even the first week or two, eventually the bottom would drop out and I'd give up on the system. I'd always restart at the beginning, committing myself to sticking it out longer this time – but after months, I found myself always at the beginning, no better off than where I had started. It was incredibly discouraging, because after months of trying, I hadn't progressed at all.
I tried drastic change – forcing myself to wake up early or to stay up all night, which would force me to go to sleep early. Each time the expected result happened – my body would need to recover, and I'd wind up sleeping longer and later than before. I didn't try this method too often – it's effects are too harsh on my system, and it never works anyway, so what's the point?
It's now almost a year since I've tried to get back to my routine, and I found myself constantly trying to rationalize why I hadn't been as effective this past year. And one day, in the middle of rationalizing, I caught myself. I was going to be rationalizing bad productivity for the rest of my life, unless I changed something RIGHT NOW.
Suddenly, the answer hit me like a bolt of lightning. This entire year, I had put the system before everything else. My ultimate goal, the thing I put before everything else – was achieving the perfect system. But I stopped to ask myself – what was at the heart of this struggle? What was the MOST IMPORTANT thing I was trying to achieve? And the answer was simple. An eight hour workday.
My goal of waking up early, running, and eating healthy were all subsets of my larger goal of maintaining a productive eight hour workday. But by focusing so much on the system – and specifically, waking up early – the eight hour workday was eternally outside of my grasp. It always took second place to the goal of laying the foundation that would allow for it. But laying the foundation wasn't working.
So I decided then and there – my new priority is just working eight hours. That's it. Not establishing a system, not waking up at a certain time, not going to bed at a certain time, not exercising a certain amount or eating a certain amount or drinking a certain amount of caffeine. My only priority for the day was getting in eight solid hours of work.
The first day I implemented this mentality I, amazingly, actually did it. I got in my eight hours of work. After months of averaging around 4-6 hours, I finally got in my eight hours. The next day, I succeeded again. And the next day. And the next day. For the past two weeks, I've been able to maintain my eight hour workday, and all because I made the simple decision to prioritize it before everything else.
The interesting piece of this, is that as the days go by, I find myself building a system AROUND this top priority. I find myself eating healthier, drinking more water in order to maintain the energy necessary to sustain the eight hour workday. I find myself exercising in order to get my body active and ready to take on an eight hour workday (and finding a solution to the late-in-the-day heat problem – going to a gym, duh). I find myself reigning in what started as eight hours spread across the entire day, to a consecutive eight-hour system – because I now believed I could do it.
By focusing on the system, I achieved neither my sought-after eight hour day, nor my system. By focusing on my one precious goal of eight hours, the system is starting to fall into place on its own.
It's almost frustrating how simple this solution was, that I had to struggle for so long to come to such a stupidly simple and obvious solution. But perhaps the struggle will cement in my mind the answer. If I find myself struggling to accomplish something, I need just ask myself – what is the most important thing you are trying to accomplish? And then set that as my #1, exclusionary goal. Everything else will take care of itself.
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