Learning Sprints

I wrote this almost a year ago, in May 2017. I’ve continued similar efforts — ways to develop structures and routines that foster creative work (yes, structure can INCREASE creativity sometimes! More on this later.) — and will be posting about them soon. But first: Learning Sprints.


“You and I have different ideas of ‘vacation.’”

This is the response I’ve gotten from a number of people when I’ve told them my “learning sprint” plan for my vacation.

I realized recently that it’s been at least six months since I last took a vacation from work. I checked my calendar for a week that seemed good for a week off, and spotted that the week before my birthday (on a Sunday) was a good pick. I’ve been really deliberately enjoying my home – the physical space, the neighborhood, the people, and all the more abstract ways I define “home” including my brain-home. So: staycation it is.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the pull toward the scattered, fleeting, reactive interactions with the world, and with ideas. I want to go deeper, rather than continuing to fall into the cultural undertow toward breadth and variety. I want to focus.

Thus was born my vacation concept of “learning sprints.” The idea is fairly simple: break my vacation week day hours into two-hour units, which will consist of 90 minutes of deep focus on a singular task, followed by a 30 minute break to do whatever short-burst activities I feel like. The focus portions will be free of interruptions – no texts, no e-mails, no Snapchat/Twitter/Whatsapp/GroupMe/Slack/Facebook/Instagram (those last two I’ve mostly given up anyway) – so I’ll actually be able to produce significant progress on chosen projects in that dedicated time. The ideal project would be one that requires cognitive work, so gets better results when I’m able to dedicate my brain to untangling more complicated ideas. For example: developing a TED-style talk, writing my first blog post, or reading a book that is too dense to be consumed by audio-book during my bike commute.

I really love this idea. A lot. But I’m failing. Kind of miserably.

Here was my plan:schedule1

I gave myself lots of flexibility to decide how much time things needed, and fill those “TBD”s as I went — that felt like a surefire path to success.

And then here’s how I actually spent my week:schedule2

Yes it’s color-coded to whether it was according to plan or not. As you can see, there’s a lot of red.

Here are a few reasons:

  1. It turns out it’s very hard for me to just flip the switch and start doing the kind of sustained focus that I never get to spend any time for. Since I started writing this blog, I’ve flipped over to other things (read a text message, chatted with a friend, remembered that I wanted to look at the course for the 5k I’m running this weekend…) and caught myself.
  2. I’m an extreme extrovert. Deep focus is an introvert activity. When I told a friend, mid-week, about my plan, we joked that I was giving myself a crash course in being an introvert. It’s complicated because I actually do love a lot of introvert-y activities; it’s a rare treat I give myself to just be alone for a chunk of time. But the strong pull of opportunities to be social is not one I’m in a habit of resisting.

Tactically, this has led me to create some more rules that I think will make my learning sprint strategy more effective, and more pleasurable:

  • Perhaps my breaks need to be more than 30 minutes, which regrettably means fewer sprints in a day, but also creates the opportunity to do many of the (often social) things that energize me.
  • I don’t need to decide or track what I spend my breaks doing — let those actually be whatever I feel like doing, whether it’s e-mail, YouTube, Netflix, Twitter…
  • I can’t do my sprints with other people around, no matter how hard they insist that they are also going to be focused on their work. The pull to notice them, to interact with them, to take breaks with them is too strong.
  • I need to find a way to be flexible to account for great opportunities that I didn’t expect without feeling like taking advantage is failure. I think the way to do this is to build into my schedule blocks of “surprise!” that can be moved around in terms of WHEN they happen, but are still timeboxed.

There are bigger themes to address in a more macro way. For example, I’m in a constant battle to create a definition of “failure” that is true to my own values and priorities, and is both more forgiving and more flexible. Step one is I do not want to feel like I’m failing at vacation. Most of those red failure blocks were spent having really interesting, satisfying conversations with smart thoughtful dear friends of mine. Dan and Meg were surprise visitors, old friends of mine and two wonderful thought partners. How can I color time spent with them as red??

The point in the week that I stopped and realized that I actually felt like I was on vacation was Wednesday night — the first day where I really let the timing element go (I also went to a very intense 85-degree boxing class, then had lots of delicious vegetables, then frozen yogurt, all with my best friend, which is pretty much an ideal evening in my book). After that, the days got both a lot more flexible and a lot more productive (although the visual might not make that obvious). I’ve done a bunch of writing, and feel like I have a long way to go but I can feel like I’ve met the approximate goals of my week off.

I’m not done figuring out how to build my own best schedule, where I’m optimizing for both productivity and joy, but this has been a great experiment! More than anything, it’s an exercise in testing approaches, seeing what works, and now I just need to keep iterating to make it perfect. Exactly how I want to spend a week off!

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