Time, Mental Readiness, and Productivity

Time, Mental Readiness, and Productivity

Last September, Coley and I spent nine days at Redwood Forest Ranch. The ranch, located 45 mins off a dirt road between Fort Bragg and Willits, CA, was owned by an architect named Charles.

The land includes three houses, all built by Charles with the help of his family. They are powered entirely by solar panels he installed in the sunniest places. Additional heat and light are powered by gas lamps and a gas stove. Charles provides food to his guests that he, himself, grows on his land. During our visit, the fresh produce he offered included corn, grapes, Asian pears, tomatoes, asparagus, and much, much more. This is a truly sustainable style of life.

Our stay there really reminded me of how little we truly need to have a content and serene lifestyle. It also created a heightened sense of awareness around life’s details which are easily overwhelmed and muted by our daily stresses and interactions.

This awareness lead me to discover a different mode of productivity.

Grape leaves

Eschewing the Clock

Our trip wasn’t purely a vacation. It was also an opportunity for me to focus on finishing the first draft of my book. Despite this goal, one of the first things we did when we arrived at the ranch was to consciously remove all unnatural concepts of time. Luckily, none of the clocks in the cottage were working. We turned off the clock on the laptop and stored away our phones.

We had no real schedule and thus, no real need to know the time. But what I found every morning when I woke up, or every night when it first got dark, or when we felt tired, was that I had the urge to know the time. It took days to break this habit of associating wake/eat/sleep with time.

The Workday

Once I got over the time-checking reflex, I found that my mornings moved in a much more natural way.

On a typical day, I woke up whenever my body told me to, walked outside in my pajamas and stretched in the sun with the grass underfoot. I picked some grapes from the vines hanging from the back porch and maybe ate a pear or a bowl of cereal. Some days, Coley and I would go for a short forest walk before I returned to start my writing.

Then, whenever I was ready, I sat down in my “office” to begin my workday.

Contrast that day with a typical office one.

You wake up to an alarm clock. Groggy, you get dressed, maybe have something to eat (many skip this step), then drive into traffic or enter a crowded transit service. Within an hour or two of waking, you’re sitting at a desk and reading email (if you hadn’t already started going through your email on your phone or on the laptop next to your bed).

Being Ready

Although I worked for fewer hours on a daily basis, I found that I was able to enter flow almost immediately. I got a lot more done in a shorter period of time than I normally would have—so much so that I did finish my first draft during our stay at the redwood cottage.

Of course, I can’t discount the fact that being disconnected from phones and the internet drastically increases my ability to concentrate. However, I am also certain that part of my productivity was due to my mental readiness. Rather than waking up and jumping straight into work, I was in a mindset where I was ready.

The question is, how can this be applied to a regular day-to-day work schedule in San Francisco? In order to wake up when your body feels it should, setting aside 2-4 hours for stretching or walking to get into an optimal mental state before arriving on time to a 10am meeting, we’re talking about a 10pm bedtime the night before. I know some people actually do this, but I can’t picture it in my own life.

To find a solution, I looked to the most obvious example of morning readiness preparations that I know of: Japanese morning radio exercises.

They’re called rajio taisō or radio physical exercises in references to the NHK radio broadcasts that accompany the morning exercises. In this article about the practice, they pinpoint exactly why I felt there was a level of mental readiness lacking in my day-to-day:

According to the National Radio Exercise Federation, morning workouts have an awakening effect. It takes around three hours for someone to fully wake from sleep, but with the radio exercise, which airs at 6:30 a.m. daily, nerve functions are activated and the blood gets circulated to muscles and the brain.

I used to think corporate benefits like in-house yoga classes were excessive or unnecessary (just give employees gym membership benefits) but now I look at these in a new light. What would an office be like if, in place of the morning status meeting, the first thing everyone did were basic stretches or calisthenics?


  1. Saly Carson · 19 Jan 10

    Hey Kevin. Wow, beautiful place! And congratulations on finishing your first draft, that’s great.

  2. Dan Soltzberg · 20 Jan 10

    Your post is a good reminder of how much we ignore our physical selves during our “normal” working routines. There’s a yogic concept of harnessing the rising energy of each day: basically, getting up with sunrise. I’ve definitely noticed that time seems to move slower in the early morning than it does later in the day. And it makes sense that without the artificial divisions of clock-time it’s easier to get into a flow state.

  3. Willo · 20 Jan 10

    Great article, Kevin. I too have been really watching how I process my days… my to-do’s and where the anxiety vs flow comes in.

    My staycation over Christmas was so incredibly healing for me, because I did a lot of what you did on your trip… gave myself space to not live (let alone work) on a time-based schedule. The clarity and peace of mind that gave me (space away from to-do’s and all the expectation that often comes with them), recharged me like I haven’t felt in a long time. (I think this is simply called vacation… concept on that one! haha)

    Great points on slow-start mornings, though. I’m like most SFers (and yourself I think) who hit flow/productivity swing in the afternoon/evening.

    But I dig the info about rajio taisō. This is yet another great reason to take public transpo to work (and walk to/from stops). :)

    p.s. I love the Apture implementation! I had forgotten about that tool. I’m going to look into adding that to possibly my site or a clients.