Phillip Smith

Exercise, the body *and* the mind.

Reflections on turning 40


I had a not uncommon e-mail exchange with a long-time work colleague and friend the other day that went like this:

Friend: Thanks for flagging all this stuff Phillip. I need to take a reading break to get through it all. When do you find time to actually do your work?!

Me: Reading work-related information *is* work!

To some, I must be a paradox: I spend winters in Mexico, write about being a slacker, and “work” as little as possible to make ends meet; however, at the same time, I’m always busy with personal projects and keeping up on all of my current obsessions, most of which overlap with my line of work.

I remember something that Madeline Stanionis, founder of Watershed, once said to me while we were camped out several hours north of Vancouver at a gathering on one of the gulf islands: “I eat, breath, and sleep online fundraising.” I thought to myself, here is this super-cool individual (colourful dreadlocks and all), probably the most sought-after online fundraiser in the US, and – even though she’s completely obsessed with online fundraising – she still makes time to teach others, have a great relationship, enjoy her pet, and – eventually – to open a B&B on the Mendocino coast.

While I gave up ambitions to grow a company what seems like ages ago, I never gave up on the idea of being passionately obsessed with my work and living a balanced life that included learning new skills outside of my comfort zone, and making time for friends, family, and my health. It took a while to get there, but I feel like I’ve mostly made it.

The recipe wasn’t all that complicated. It looks like this:

  • I try to achieve six hours of “focused productive time” each day, Monday to Friday. Most days, that’s 11AM-7PM. Some days that time is dedicated to paid client work, other days it’s dedicated to personal projects or learning new skills. That varies week-to-week, but I try to strike a 60-40 balance and usually manage to hit 80-20 even if I have a lot of client work on the go. That means that I strive for two days a week of productive time invested in personal development that is not weekend days.

  • 8-11AM, I exercise my body and my mind. Like meditation, I try to work out everyday. I alternate running with simple exercises that I can do wherever I am: push-ups, sit-ups, squats, and skipping rope. Meditation and body exercise are done by 9, so I’ve got two hours to make breakfast and prepare for the day.

  • Between 9-11AM, or thereabouts, I invest roughly 90 minutes in obsession-related reading. This is the stuff that riles me up, so it’s not good pre-bedtime reading. I have a simple strategy that relies on the now-endangered technology called RSS (otherwise known as news feeds): for a very small number of sites and columnists, I use IFTTT to send new articles directly to my Instapaper account. In the morning, I open Instapaper on my iPad and read it as one would the morning newspaper. Typically I have anywhere from 5-15 new articles in the queue. Some I delete immediately without reading, some I scan, some I devour every word of and share with colleagues.

  • At 11AM (or a bit earlier if I’m heading “into the office,” wherever that may be), I close the iPad and move on with my day, comfortable in the knowledge that I’m working out my mind, everyday, and also that I’m limiting my obsession-related reading time to roughly 7 or 8 hours a week. Some days I write instead of reading. Some days I read at lunch. I’m flexible and intentionally not obsessed with monitoring the time. The key is to flex the mind’s muscle in a variety of ways each day.

  • I try to take a 1-hour lunch each day. Most days I succeed. I endeavour to use that time to focus on enjoying my food, and giving my work-mind a rest.

  • At 6PM, I start to wrap-up my day. I close the loop on pressing e-mails and phone calls, and then I open up a document in Evernote and give it the title of today’s date and make note of what I completed today, and what I’d like to focus on tomorrow. I once read “if you sit down at your desk in the morning without already knowing what you’re going to work on, you should just make a plan and start over the next day,” and I’ve roughly stuck to that idea ever since: finish the day with a plan for tomorrow. I do that as part of my “focused productive time” to avoid getting distracted by post-work activities.

  • 7PM marks the end of my “work day,” and I move on to personal pursuits. Confidant that I have already closed the loops on the most pressing items and have a plan for tomorrow that I can review in the morning, my mind can quickly find ease and “let go when my work is done.

Evenings are less structured. I like to cook, read books, visit with friends, and (probably with too much frequency) obsess with little personal projects, but I try to give myself that time off. The only structure is trying to fit in an hour of reading before bed, and it’s usually something light, like a novel.

I’m hitting that age now where many of my close friends have families that include multiple children, and I recognize that nurturing young minds as well as staying present in a caring partnership must present a whole different level of time-management challenges that I have yet to experience. But I’m pretty confident (in my ignorance, admittedly) that making time to exercise your mind, not just your body, everyday, with reading, writing, contemplating, and learning or exploring, will have a payoff that outweighs the initial time investment.

That’s my recipe. Your mileage may vary. Fork and improve it.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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