Survival Mode Vs. Deep Mode : The Fight for Effectiveness

It’s been almost a year. Eleven months to be exact. Eleven months ago, I started to write and described how important it is to take the plunge and just do it in my first post. When I started to write, I had very good reasons. I knew it was a process that, first of all, was part of my personal growth. So what happened? How could I let almost a year pass before I wrote another post? Well, as always — life happened.

Survival mode Vs. Deep mode

When I say “life happened,” I am actually making it easy on myself. It’s true that during the intervening months I got more responsibilities at work, my son grew and introduced new challenges and my wife returned to work — and balancing all of that is always a challenge. Come to think of it, maybe I am juggling much better now and making the most of my time like I never did before. So what’s the problem? Balancing and juggling can come at a cost, and for me the cost was my ability to step out of survival mode and engage in deep mode activities. What are these two modes? Well, these are the terms I use when I try to describe the feeling of two states of mind:

Survival Mode: 
The mode that is required to juggle responsibilities, push small and important tasks, and basically get things done. What I manage to accomplish while in survival mode:

  • Meetings
  • Keeping a 0 inbox policy
  • Sending mails
  • Pushing small-size tasks of my own — sending a summary, creating a deck, reading small-sized content items, etc.
  • Attending to my family routine needs, whether that’s making a sandwich for my son or calling the internet provider to fix an issue.

So, basically, most of my managerial concerns at work and managing the routine at home.

Deep Mode:
The mode that is required in order to deep dive into a context and maintain this context for long periods of time.
 What requires me to get into a deep mode state of mind?

  • Coding
  • Long term planning
  • (Really) Playing with my son
  • Reading & learning
  • Long-term vision and planning
  • Pushing some of my personal goals
  • Planning a trip for me and my wife
  • … and also writing blog posts!

I think that in order to create something meaningful of your own — whether it’s a concept, a blog post or a working piece of code — you have to get into a deep mode state of mind.

Deep Mode got knocked out

It’s been a few months since I started feeling like I’m managing to juggle my day-to-day activities and responsibilities, but didn’t manage to do much more. So I started asking myself:

“Am I constantly in survival mode? Could it be that the deep mode did not survive?”

The answer is not straightforward. The truth is, I still do things that require a deep mode state of mind, only far less and sometimes differently. For example, I found myself dedicating about half the time I did a year ago for reading and learning. When my wife returned to work after our son was born, I had to adjust my time in order to be able to pick him up early two times a week. And when I’m with my son, I try to be in a deep mode state of mind as much as possible, which is expressed by just being with him and not allowing any distractions.

No matter what the reasons (which some might even call excuses), I didn’t have enough of a deep mode state of mind for myself that would allow me to plan ahead, express myself and create. That’s a problem, because I want to be more than only a manager or a juggler.

How to fight the survival mode?

First, I must say upfront: I don’t feel I’ve solved the problem yet. I’m in the midst of the process of trying to address this issue, but cannot report any great success thus far. Nevertheless, there have been successful points along the way, so here are some of the things I read, watched, tried myself, and am still trying in order to fight the survival mode:

Step one: Admitting I am an addict
It might be a harsh thing to think, but I can now admit it — I am an addict to the survival mode rush. The realization that I’m an addict came to me while watching a great talk by Simon Sinek, “Why Leaders Eat Last,” w where he describes how actions and circumstances in life release different hormones to the brain — and thus impact our behavior and state of mind. When Sinek starts to describe the impact of dopamine and how addictive it is, I came to a realization:

“Oh shit, I’m an addict!”

There is nothing like the feeling of crossing off tasks from your “To do” list, or the thrill and sense of importance you get while running from one important meeting to the next. You feel like you are accomplishing a lot. Every time I started a “deep mode” task, the little devil helper of survival mode came and planted the following thought in my head: “Let’s just clear the table to get a fresh and clean mind before diving into the deep mode for so long…”

But guess what? The table will never be clean, and something will always pop up. The survival mode consumed my time and I got addicted to the thrill of managing and accomplishing small and urgent tasks. 
So what can you do to fight the addiction?

Tips & Tricks:

  • First, admit it
    If you feel the same, start with admitting that you’re an addict, just like me.
  • Eliminate distractions
    You’ve faced the facts and acknowledged your addiction. Next you need to make sure you’re not making it harder for yourself with constant reminders for the survival mode tasks out there.
    Turn off your mail, put your phone on emergency mode, go sit in a remote and quiet location, do whatever it takes to not get distracted.
     To accomplish the writing of this post, for example, I did all of the above.
  • START, and deep dive into the deep mode
    Personally, when I do start and get into the deep mode state of mind, it’s very hard for me to step out of it. I get really into what I’m doing, and don’t really want to leave it until it’s done. The starting point is always the most critical and hardest part, so make sure you eliminate the distractions and simply deep dive into the deep mode. Once you start, it will be harder to step out of it.

Step two: Priorities
The world is full of articles and suggestions about how to manage priorities, so I guess I don’t have something new to offer. What I can suggest is my take on it: Priorities are vital for work but also for life in general. This is why it’s crucial to have only one set of priorities. If you manage one set of priorities for your role at work and another for your role with your family, you will be doomed to constant conflict. You are one person with the same 24 hours to invest in a day, so your priorities should be in one list as well. I recently read three sources that helped me shape my approach about priorities: 
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephan R. Covey and two great posts by James Clear about the myth of multitasking and the “4 burners” theory. If you’re not following James Clear, start now — his ideas and writing helped me a lot over the past few years and always left me with food for thought.

So how do I combine the three together?
In the “7 Habits” book, Stephen Covey describes the concept of a personal mission statement that one should create in order to state how he or she wants to lead their lives. This personal mission statement should contain all the roles you posses, whether it’s at work, with your family or with your friends. Basically, the personal mission statement is a set of values you choose to live by.

So what does it have to do with priorities? Well, once you have your core values in place, you can align your priorities according to them. 
 The book is, of course, much more comprehensive and interesting than just this concept. But the personal mission statement was the most important insight I took from it, and the first thing I wanted to try for myself. I recently created a personal mission statement and what I can say for now is that it’s hard work a and a continuous process, which I am not quite ready to share as it isn’t mature enough. It’s still work in progress and I didn’t yet apply it to my day to day habits. But the process itself helps me with understanding what’s important for me and what are my core values. 
The “4 burners” theory presented in James Clear’s blog goes a bit deeper and describes life’s pillars — Family, Work, Friends, Health — and suggests you have to switch off at least one of them (some say even two) in order to be successful at the rest. Again, priorities and focus on what’s important in life — and not just in work — is just one of the aspects. 
The myth of multitasking describes the essence of the challenge: Multitasking is a myth, and in order to be successful, you need to focus your priorities — and for daily priorities, even choosing only one item.

Tips & Tricks:

  • Create a list of your core values
    It doesn’t have to be a personal mission statement — it can start with a list of what you think is important in life, in work, in other domains you have a role in. 
     What helped me was trying to think of how I would like to educate and raise my son: What I would want for him when he grows up? When you come to think of it, why wouldn’t you want the same for yourself?
  • Set weekly goals according to your priorities
    Both Stephen Covey and James Clear write about the importance of the weekly time frame.
    I have set a Trello board that is outside of my regular “survival mode” working tools for my weekly goals. I try to make sure the goals are set according to my values.
  • Measure and reflect your ability to act upon your priorities
    At the start of every week, I started a habit of reflecting on the past week and trying to understand: “Did I meet my personal goals?” “Were the meetings I attended effective in the past week?” “Am I investing my time and setting goals in accordance to my values?”
    I must admit, I haven’t managed to make this habit work 100% of the time yet. There are weeks that start with survival mode. And reflecting on these matters on a weekly basis can sometimes be exhausting. The important thing is to have the process in place where you can make sure your time is invested according to your values. So far, although it wasn’t perfect, I think the weekly cadence works best for me.

Step 3: Effective time management
This is another well-known issue that has been the subject of writings by smarter and more experienced people than me. I guess there is no magic here and it’s a struggle for almost everyone. This is probably the hardest step of them all: actually managing your time, which is the most valuable resource you have, and making sure you invest it according to your values.
The next step in the process for me is to create a time investment distribution chart that will reflect my values. My goal is to be able to look back and analyze how I invested my time, and hopefully see that it is close to the distribution of time that represents my values. 
But this is the plan for next week (and maybe also the next post). For now, here are the things I have been doing in order to manage my time more effectively…

Tips & Tricks:

  • Identify your most effective time and reserve it for yourself
    I guess that, with no constraints, my most effective time would be the evening, since I am not a morning person. Having said that, since my son was born I don’t have any choice but to be a morning person. So, recently I reorganized my day to have clear mornings with at least two hours of free time for myself and my tasks (thanks to Shani Raba who suggested this habit). On top of that, I also try to leave half a day free every Sunday (Israel’s first workday of the week) in order to reflect on the past week and plan the upcoming one.
  • Set daily MUST do tasks / goals
    Not something new, but I’ve been trying it more seriously for the past few weeks and think it improved my effectiveness and, even more importantly, my sense of effectiveness.
  • Analyze your meetings: Are they effective enough?
    Meetings can be exhausting, and when you find yourself with back-to-back meetings on a daily basis, you have to make sure they are effective.
    After reading this great post about “A new method to reduce the insane number of meetings you attend,” I started a weekly habit of going back over the previous week’s meetings and understanding which meetings were effective and which weren’t. I identified some meetings that regularly get postponed and others that I thought could be more effective. Even if you won’t find a meeting you want to drop, at least you will boost the sense of effectiveness, since you will get the perspective and understanding that your time is being well invested and not wasted.

What’s the verdict? Does “Deep Mode” stand a chance?

Did I manage to overcome my “survival mode” addiction? I guess that this post is evidence enough that I’m moving in the right direction. Luckily, I don’t have any other serious addictions on which to report. But I imagine that, as with other addictions, in order to prove first of all to myself that it’s under control, the key is consistency over time.

If I manage to write more posts, code more, plan ahead, dedicate pure, un-distracted time to my family and create value that has my mark on it, I will know that the “deep mode” stands a fighting chance.