A chimpanzee’s lesson about living a successful life

I’ve been having a problem with time management lately. Actually, I’ve been having this problem my whole life. When I was a kid, my Mom and my teachers used to say I “dawdled.” They used that word: Dawdle. Probably if I was a kid today rather than then, I would have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and jacked up with meds.

I’m glad that didn’t happen. I like being me, and part of that is being distractible. I’ve used my distractibility well in my career; my work has always required me to be able to manage interruptions and shift gears quickly.

And yet distraction has also hurt me. I seem to work a lot longer hours than most people. I get my work done. I’m actually very good at what I do. But I have not enjoyed success proportional to the hours I put in.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media are particular sources of distraction. I’m active on eight social media platforms. Eight! Facebook, Twitter, Google+, blogs, Instagram, SFF.net, LiveJournal, and FourSquare. A lot of this is my job, of course; it’s part of my responsibility to be on top of the latest in social media and be expert in their use, and I don’t know any other way to do that than to use them in my life. I enjoy them too. And yet there is some point where work ends and wasting time begins.[1. That point is probably reached when watching ferrets steal Christmas ornaments.]

Like most people, I beat myself up to work harder and stay focused. I do my best self-flagellation when I’m at my desk still working at 10 pm. But self-flagellation doesn’t really work.

This article really hit a chord: “If You’re Busy, You’re Doing Something Wrong: The Surprisingly Relaxed Lives of Elite Achievers.” It talks about a study done among violinists at the Universität der Künste inn West Berlin.

Psychologists asked professors to identify the best violin players, “the students who the professors believed would go onto careers as professional performers.” These were the elite players.

For a point of comparison, they also selected a group of students from the school’s education department. These were students who were on track to become music teachers. They were serious about violin, but as their professors explained, their ability was not in the same league as the first group.

Researchers looked at the work habits of the two groups, and found — no surprise — the elite players worked harder and were more focused. “The elite players were spending almost three times more hours than the average players on deliberate practice — the uncomfortable, methodical work of stretching your ability.”

But, interestingly, the elite players were not working longer hours. They spent about the same amount of time as the average players at work, about 50 hours.

It’s just that the average players spread out their work throughout the day. They spent a lot of time just dicking around.[2. I haven’t read the original paper yet, but I expect the psychologists did not use the phrase “dicking around.”]

The elite players ended up having more leisure time. They relaxed more than the average players. The average players were more stressed out. The elite players slept more, and better, than the average players.

Says I to myself on reading this article: Whoah. That is so me. I work as hard as anybody else. Harder, even. But I dick around more too. And that’s why I’m so often at my desk at 10 at night.

I read the article Saturday afternoon, and spent some time that evening figuring out how to apply this insight to my own life. How should I restructure my day?

Sunday morning, I was still thinking about it.

Sunday was going to be a busy day anyway. We were hosting our writer’s group meeting at our house at 1 pm. I needed to be up early so I could do my morning walk before the meeting. That’s 90 minutes on Sunday. Plus, even though Julie was taking care of organizing the house[2. And she did a great job with it — thanks again, Julie!], there were a couple of other things I needed to do.

What I really should have done is taken care of those things as soon as I got out of bed. And yet I couldn’t do those things first — I needed to have breakfast and tea first, to get the old brain going.

I had my breakfast and tea, and watched a little Internet video and checked Facebook and Twitter and read a couple of articles on my iPad, like I usually do weekend mornings. I spent nearly two hours at that.

And then a voice in my head said to me: “Well, that’s it. Breakfast is over. It’s time to get to work.”

And that’s when I realized the problem and solution: It’s not just that I’m not focused at work. It’s also that I’m not focused relaxing. I always seem to be only 75% one or the other. When I’m relaxing — checking Facebook or Twitter or watching Internet video — I’m always thinking about how I should be working.

Which leads me to the resolution: Instead of beating myself up about getting distracted, I made a bargain with myself. I’m going to give myself permission to relax 100%. Just kick back and check Facebook, or whatever. Several times a day. Then, after I spend a little time at that, I’ll get back to work and focus 100% on that for a while.

As I write this, I’ve spent less than a day at this new regime — but so far it seems to be going well. When I got up from breakfast, I was intensely focused on getting ready for the meeting. I got out of the house and walked, showered and shaved right away, and went to the store to get milk and Diet Coke for the guests. We had the workshop meeting and when it was done — break time! Julie and I picked up a bit, we talked,[3. I hear you saying, “Wait, Mitch! You’re counting cleaning up after the meeting as relaxation time?” I respond: Spending time with Julie is relaxing and a responsibility. Don’t overthink this.] I read a little on the couch and checked Twitter and Facebook and so on.

Then I headed back into my office and focused hard for about 90 minutes. I quickly knocked out my blog post for The CMO Site on Monday (a duty I didn’t get to on Friday and had to catch up on this weekend). I did my daily quota of creative writing. I wrote a first draft of this blog post (that’s what I’m doing right now). I took a dinner break, and came back to wrap up a couple of things. Soon: Boardwalk Empire season finale! Not a thought about work during that time!

Starting Monday, I’ll give the new regime its first workday test.

When I was about 11 years old there was a poster my friends and I loved. It was a chimp sitting on a toilet.[3. Which is, I suspect, why us kids loved it. I mean chimp! Toilet!] The caption was, “When I works, I works hard. When I sits, I sits loose. When I thinks, I falls asleep.” I think that’s the key to a successful life.[4. Well, except for the part about falling asleep while thinking. And the monkey on a toilet is irrelevant. Don’t overthink this.]

Update 1:31 pm PST: I can’t believe I let this go out with the headline “An chimpanzee…. ” Good grief.

1 thought on “A chimpanzee’s lesson about living a successful life

  1. Laurie Riedman

    Hey Mitch. Funny post but serious subject. In fact I just finished writing a blog post for a client on a similar topic. I’m on my own search for how to find focus and greater productivity amidst my own information chaos and techo-distractions — and it isn’t easy. Interested to see how your experiment works out.


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