Lessons in Productivity from Birds and Worms

You probably already know what the saying is that you’ll hear just from the title above, and you’re on the right track. We all know the famous adage that has been told to us by our parents weekday and even weekend mornings. This same phrase gets touted by productivity gurus around the world:

“The early bird gets the worm”

The earliest version in print appeared in 1605 in a book of proverbs by English author and historian, William Camden. It sure has a good shelf life judging by the amount of times in our lives that we hear it said.

The real questions we are going to uncover are what exactly does the phrase mean, and why is this a fundamentally wrong statement for a bulk of the population. Time to do some myth busting!

45 Second Origin Story

It’s not difficult to unpack what “the early bird gets the work” means. Worms tend to roam around at night because it is cooler and darker. Cooler is good because they need to feed (and survive) on moisture which they gather from the ground surface. Darker is especially good because there are a lot less worm-eating enemies at night.

As night turns into day, the worms burrow back underground to stay cool, moist and safe. There’s a rather simple Darwinian approach to it all.

Birds that are lucky (and instinctive) enough to rise early will get a chance to grab up some tasty breakfast for themselves and their babies as the locate some delectable worm goodness which has not been fast enough at getting below the surface.

The Human Origin Story

If you get up early, you can get to a task earlier. Earlier task completion means better productivity and goal achievement. Quite simply, you will get more done by the end of the day by getting up early. It’s simple math for the most part.

Our parents used to bang on the bedroom door at 6:45 AM to make sure we were up for school, and then at 7 AM on the weekend because “we need to get some stuff done”, right? And as your 15 year old self who rather adored extra hours of sleep tried to muscle through the noise, you were inevitably told “hey, the early bird gets the worm…if you want to make something of yourself, you have to start early”.

What isn’t covered in the math and the noisy parental wakeup lessons about task management ideals is the different patterns of productivity which have now been studied and proven out among many people both formally and informally.

Rising Early - Good for Birds, Not for Worms

If you follow Jocko Willink on Instagram you will recognize his daily post at around 4:30 AM which is marked by a photo of his watch as he gets up. Jocko made a life out of surviving and thriving in the military using structure, regimented procedures, and being task and productivity oriented with a goal of being done much of his work before most people even hear their alarm.

For Jocko, that translated to how he led himself and his platoon in and out of combat. There is no doubt that for Jocko Willink, he’s a well-fed early bird. Earned and deserved.

His tasks are the early worms. The productive goals that are checked off with fervor and passion so that his own mind and path to productivity is fed by those poor unsuspecting worms…I mean tasks.

So, if you’re like Jocko Willink, you thrive on getting $h*t done, and he proves that it leads to good outcomes.

Late Worms Who Outdo the Birds

What doesn’t get told in the famous saying is that once you have a few early worms snapped up by hungry birds you have the perfect opportunity for the productive and resilient worm. Don’t read that you’re a worm because you start later and work later. It’s unfortunate that we have a worm as the example, so let’s just keep that in mind as we think of a worm as the “later is greater” worker.

Every species as a circadian rhythm which defines their sleep and wake patterns. Many (if not most) humans follow a work pattern that also aligns with the daylight cycle. Our financial markets run a strict daytime schedule, as do most “traditional businesses” which is where we got the “9 to 5” mentality from.

Stepping outside of the 9 to 5 work schedule lets us see that a lot of people may be able to let those early birds get their first feeding done and then a productive worm can work diligently through the day and into the evening or even well into the night if desired. Those tired birds are in bed already and then the real worm work can begin!

What Jocko Willink does not tell you is that he’s probably in bed by 9:30 PM on a regular basis in order to recover and fuel his 4:30 AM wakeup the following day.

Productive Hours and Personal Rhythm

There are parts of the day which are often referred to as golden hours. There are also personal patterns and work rhythms for quick tasks and deeper tasks that require specific attention and types of focus. As I’m writing this, I have to fight my inner desire to whip over to social media to see what’s happening in the world, but by spending 9-10 AM today writing this article I will prove out my mildly late worm productivity pattern is good for my personal rhythm.

Taking stock of your productivity style and personal sleep and waking rhythm is definitely going to have some variations. You may find that carving out the end of your day for deep work is better where I tend to use my early to mid-day periods for that. Your sleep pattern may look something like Jocko’s or it may be more like that graphic artist friend you have where they find they start gently and a little later but enter into an incredibly creative mind state late in the day or evening.

Having a family will certainly influence your productivity and schedule. This is the reason that a lot of people with young children have split routines for productivity. In other words, you put your much-needed attention to your kids after work and up to their bedtime 100% towards them, and then do a few things after they go to bed to knock off some productive tasks before you wind down for the night.

A Personal Lesson of Fantastic Late Worm Productivity

My roommate for many years would get up later than me and arrive at his work well into mid-morning. For some reason, my myth-filled mind of early bird wisdom used to always struggle with that because I took it as a weird personal insult that I was “up and at it” every day in a business environment and I wondered whether his work style would allow him to succeed.

The funny thing is that I really wanted him to succeed. He is a fantastic person who deserved by his own ability and effort he put towards things to be successful. What I struggled with was that we had very different productivity patterns. I was in IT operations and he was an application developer. We had different job focus, and in looking back, I realize that there were personality traits that create successful outcomes in different ways using alternate productivity schedules.

Years later I finally came to terms with how wrapped around the axle I had been on the idea of mapping to a “standard business schedule” and I only wish that I has been much more forgiving and supportive of a different work style back then. I’m happy to say that he went on to found a company which employs many people and has earned a well-deserved success as a result.

Now It’s Your Turn to Find Your Inner Bird or Worm!

Take a week or more to map out what your daily patterns are. It’s helpful to understand where you are spending your time today and then deciding if changing your sleep/wake schedule will help you to unlock additional productivity among your natural waking hours.

Take note of when you feel the greatest ability to tackle larger tasks. When do you find you are “in the zone” and able to concentrate on deep work that needs attention and focus? For some people this may be at 11 PM or even later. For some people that may be 5 AM or 10 AM.

The point of the exercise for you is to measure how you work in general today and then we can experiment with modifying that rhythm a bit using some science and peer coaching to help you unlock the right schedule for your personality, and then open up better use of that schedule to get more out of your day.

Thinking of Instead of Thinking About - Why Todo Lists Inspire Creativity

How much time to you spend thinking about things that are nagging at you?  These can be little things like "don't forget to get the card for the party Saturday", and "remember to pull the stuff out of the freezer to be ready for dinner" or something even more mind and mood straining like "I have to get my taxes done".

If you really think about how much time is spent thinking about things that are really just reminders, it's kind of frightening.  Much of your day is being wasted reviewing and revisiting basic list items or project items that are subsequently made of of tasks.  This is what we refer to as "thinking about" things.

Why Thinking About Things is Killing Your Productivity

You have too few hours in a day to be spent revisiting repetitive thinking.  It's both time wasting and mood killing when it's happening.  You can probably imagine right now that cyclic feeling as you roll through your todo list and the stuff that is coming up on your schedule in the next week.  It isn't a good feeling, right?

Even when it does feel fine you are still wasting time.  These nagging tasks and thought patterns can break up your deep thought work which is necessary and healthy.

What is "Thinking Of"?

Imagine the times that you are working on an idea, or coming up with a plan, or collaborating with a colleague on a project.  Just imagining it is inspiring me already!  I love when new ideas are forming and plans are being created.  It's a beautiful and freeing feeling.

The mental effort of thinking of new things is much greater than that of just revisiting lists of items.  That's both good and challenging.  It's good because it unlocks a part of your brain that really opens up excitement and amazing creative results.  It's challenging because it requires attention and focus and reduced distraction.

Thinking of things is building something from nothing. It's going from zero to one.  It's making value from ideas.  It's a fantastic feeling as it's happening and when you get to see it through to creation.

How to Use Todo Lists to Elevate Productive Thinking

That time you are wasting on rethinking your task list is literally something that should be done a couple of times a day.  You should be reviewing lists instead of carrying them around in your head.

Here are your big ticket DOs and DON'Ts to

  • DO write any tasks in a todo list
  • DO prioritize your top 3 tasks for each day
  • DO revisit your todo list a few times a day at specific times
  • DON'T get caught in repetitive thinking - easier said than done at first
  • DON'T load up too many priority items - you can only do one thing at at time and a few priority tasks a day
  • DON'T lose focus when deep work is needed

Losing focus pulls you out of deep work and deep thought and causes you to have to context switch.  That means the ramp up to getting back into deep thought takes time and effort which is both difficult and time consuming.  This is time well spent when done with purpose and intent.  It's wasted when you are doing it reactively because you lost your focus because of a distraction.

We have more coming on how to get into that deep thought and deep work focus level.

Get Started Now!

You can start today by setting up your todo list and setting specific times of the day that you allow yourself to look at it.  Try a few times like 9 AM, Noon, and 3 PM for daytime review and updating of the todo list, and at 8 PM you should reflect on your day and review the list. This technique lets you move towards a more focused approach and to create habitual behavior using natural and very achievable methods.  Small bites and regular wins.

Even as simple is "read the blog" can be a task.  Because you made it here, you can mark that one completed!




4 Mentor Personalities to Avoid

Our team has been focused on mentoring in practice for well over 2 decades.  Having lived experiences as both a mentor and a mentee, you will find that this tips surface over time.  It is important to know and spot them before they have a chance to impact your mentoring experience!

What is mentoring?

Before we can effectively look at the benefits you can derive from mentoring programs, it is first essential to understand what mentoring really is. Mentoring is simply the process wherein people are helped by a person or an organization for their personal and professional development. The person who is doing the supporting role is called the "mentor" while the person being supported is called the "mentee". This relationship may sometimes because complex because there are many types of mentors, just as there is many types of people.

You can expect the mentor to be somewhere between being a "trusted friend" and a "counselor". But how exactly, can a mentor be defined? Well, we came up with several categories; your mentor will most likely fall into one of these categories. Read on to know what kind of mentor you should choose and which ones you should avoid:

1. The crowding mentor

This is the type of mentor who seems to be ignorant of the term, "personal space". This mentor may not necessarily be your choice but he or she was assigned to you by your organization.  Organization-driven mentoring engagements can be especially challenging because you may have someone thrust upon you that is not by choice or by a proper match to your needs and personality.

2. The impossible mentor

Meanwhile, the impossible mentor is simply someone who you are not comfortable being with no matter what you do or what the mentor does. This happens more than you can imagine as people are just lumped into a mentoring program simply because of time in the job or the title they have.

3. The younger mentor

In some cases, you might encounter a mentor who is younger than you. You might be more experienced than he is on work-related matters but this mentor was assigned to help you nonetheless. You find it difficult to take such a young mentor seriously though. This is not always a problem, but is often raised as an issue when assessing the success of a mentoring engagement.

4. The ardent researcher

Your mentor would be someone who puts a big emphasis on academic research and theories. While this characteristic may not be a fault in itself, you might discover that it is hard to schedule important meetings with this mentor because they always put research as their priority. In addition, this type of mentor might not believe that teaching the mentee is important so you are low in his priority. Data is good, but only when the mentor relationship is the priority and data is the bonus outcome.

What does a mentor actually do?

So after you know the type of mentors you should avoid, it is time to take a deeper look at what a good mentor should actually do:

  • Be available for a chat over the telephone or face-to-face contact
  • Be optimistic about the mentoring program and the development process of the mentees
  • Help mentees feel good about their achievements
  • Help mentees stick to deadlines and schedules
  • Know someone who can aid their mentees when there are cases that they can't
  • Aid the mentees in their work plan. For example, they should help the mentees write realistic goals, deadlines, and the strategy on how these can be achieved.
  • Give feedback on the work. They should give their opinions about the menteeís performance so that the mentee will know which areas they should improve on.
  • Help the mentees look at the feedback of other people. The mentees should take a serious look at the opinions of other people so they can determine their weaknesses.
  • Make learning possible for the mentees. The mentors should provide the necessary resources such as time, effort, and space so that their mentees can learn even during their day-to-day work.
  • Motivate their mentees. The simply act of asking how a person is doing is an act of asking how a person is doing can be motivation for them to improve their performance.

RapidMatter participants have learned this both as mentors and mentees.  Hopefully you can use this as a quick guide to make sure that you aren't getting wrapped up into a mentoring relationship that will make you think mentoring is a failure.

Good mentoring is about finding the best match and working from there.