The pursuit for productivity
The pursuit of productivity is a never-ending quest of mine. The constant drive for that sweet dopamine hit gained from checking off an item on my to do list; there’s nothing quite like it.
It seems that I’m not alone in that way of thinking either. If you take a moment to browse the internet for productivity tips and tricks, there’s certainly no shortage of YouTube videos, Medium posts, and podcasts offering advice and best practices to aid you in achieving your goals. All while competing for space on your own content consumption list where a checked-off task from you means ad revenue for them.
There’s obviously value there. In our always-connected world where tools sync our tasks on every device we own, the tasks we need to complete are always present in the background like a neighbour playing a bass-heavy dance track late into the night. This has only been made worse in the pandemic as the tasks that could be constrained by the confines of the workplace, are now available to you 24-7 as the workplace bleeds into our home spaces.
Regardless of the tools at our disposal and the advice we have available to us, we would all benefit from being productive both in our own lives, and at work. For me specifically, I’m interested in three things; why do I want to be productive, what am I going to chose to be productive on, and how I’m going to do it?
Start with why, always. If you haven’t got a clear enough idea of why you should spend time doing something, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. It may seem like a simple enough thing to achieve but if it was that simple, why do we spend so much time procrastinating?
It’s in our nature to want to be productive. It feels good to achieve something even if most of the time it’s for unglamorous, necessary maintenance like household chores. Aside from chores, the real productivity I’m interested in is related to personal development. If you’ve read my previous post on value, you have an idea of why it’s important enough for me to regularly reflect on daily pursuits and understand if a productive day is contributing to my growth as an individual or not.
When selecting what I want to be productive on, it comes down to a few things. Some tasks are more “required” as part of the transactional agreement of being a human in a civilised society; submitting taxes; paying bills, taking the bins out on a specific day; whereas others tasks make it on our productivity list because of some innate drive to achieve something. I can’t speak for others, but in the past my lists have tended to fill up quickly as an overexcited rush of blood to the head have lead to initiatives such as “Project Rollerblade” or “The Stilt Challenge.”
While there are some benefits to be had from those pursuits, particularly at parties, I was never convinced they were the best use of my time. As I’ve grown older I’ve become much better at selecting these projects, and I only tend to pursue ones that have a real-world application and builds on skills I currently have. For example, writing is something I do a lot in my day job, but I want to improve. A way to get better is through writing more, hence my blog is born. I find my productivity to be more effective when there is already a link to a strength I already have.
The best example of this would be coding. Way back in the days of web 1.0, I was a print designer. I was concentrating on inks and plates and special colours, all while the web was getting familiar with HTML and CSS. When I saw that things were going to blow up in that area, I decided that I should learn how to build one of these websites. It was taking something I know; design, and applying it to something I didn’t know; code.
This is happening again right now with Swift. I’m using Product Design as a catalyst to learn something new. While I’m positive Swift is the right area to focus on, there’s still some work left to do. Knowing the thing you want to spend the time on is one thing, finding the time and making it habitual is another. Application takes some work.
There are plenty of resources around that can help you to achieve productivity and as I’ve mentioned, YouTube is an obvious but effective place to start. Curiously, the channels I’ve found to be the most successful have common links with modern minimalism. There’s something about the restraint and discipline needed to be a minimalist that seems to crossover fairly seamlessly into the productivity world.
Books, audio or traditional are always a good place too. You can’t swing a Post-it on the Amazon store without hitting a book on productivity sooner or later. I’ll give some recommendations below.
Regardless of distribution platforms and consumption methods, it isn’t long before a few key concepts float to the top. The most prevalent and effective ones being systems. Let me give you an example.
A commonly-known system for productivity is the Pomodoro technique. There can slightly different ways how to use this technique but the basic premise is:
- Choose a task to focus on for the technique
- Divide that task into 25 minute blocks
- Set aside enough blocks in your timetable to achieve the task, adding 5 minutes in between each block for a break
- Remove distractions and protect the time
- Start the timer and focus exclusively on the task
The point of this technique is that you dedicate 25 minute blocks to a task where you focus on nothing else but that thing. Once the 25 minutes is up, you have a 5 minute break where you focus on anything but the task. If there are more blocks to complete, you carry on in this fashion until all blocks (and the task) is complete. The point is that you now have a system where you’re prepared to dedicate all of your time over a finite period, with organised breaks in-between. It gives you structure in the task and sets expectations for when you’re going to finish. You are time-boxing the task and focussing on it completely for that period.
This is just one example of a popular productivity system.
Personally, depending on what I need to achieve, the how might change in order to get it done more effectively. That said, the systems I have created use four key tools to help me facilitate any productivity process; automation, a to-do list, a calendar, and a reward.
Riffing on the Pomodoro technique, I use my calendar to block out dedicated chunks of time. I’m not as strict with 25 minute blocks, mainly because my work calendar may not allow me to be, but I do spend 15 minutes in the morning blocking out my calendar to set expectations for the day (and signal to others to leave me alone). This includes everything from spending time on operational tasks, to exercise and cooking dinner.
More often than not, my effort can bleed over the edges of the allocated time, but having dedicated space mapped out is a huge help and a great place to start when setting expectations for the day. It also allows me to reason with myself and sacrifice elsewhere if I find my discipline is slipping and I overrun.
A to-do list
Once the time is allocated in my calendar, I then have to use that time wisely. Keeping tasks on a list is vital for me to keep track of the things I’m doing, and the things I need to do. There can be so many things going on at once that if I don’t capture it right there and then, it’s too late.
The way I’ve used my to-do list has changed over time. I’d still say it needs some refinement, but it basically works like this:
- Anything that is a task gets put into Things
- If that task can be allocated to an Area or Project, then it does, otherwise it stays in the Inbox (which is rare). If that task also has a clear deadline then it’s set right away.
- Every morning I review the Anytime tab and mark everything that needs to be done today, giving me a clear picture of what I need to do
- Aim to check off all of those tasks by the end of the day - it’s crucial to be realistic here otherwise those task will perpetually stay in “today limbo.”
Automate where possible. Use reminders, iOS shortcuts, Slack integrations, whatever you need to keep you on track.
One example I’ve set up is every morning at 8am I get a Siri notification to run and iOS Shortcut I’ve created that asks me to add daily highlights to my todo list. This gives me time in the morning to reflect on the positive tasks that add positivity to the day. This could be as simple as reading more of a book I’m into, or something more exciting like meeting up with someone I care about. More often than not, days are filled with less glamorous tasks so having these highlights can be important to balance the good with the more mundane.
The ultimate way to get things done is by giving yourself a reward for completion.
For example, I have been trying write in the morning before work but more specifically before I have breakfast. It’s a simple and somewhat primitive reward system but it’s effective. I also find I enjoy my breakfast more now, knowing I’ve spent 30 minutes in the morning before I’ve officially started my day.
The reward can be more crude though. For example, I’m determined to progress my knowledge of Swift so every day I set myself the challenge of spending at least an hour coding, and my reward for completing this task is moving a small amount of money into a fund for a watch. One day I hope that when I have the ability to publish my first app in the App Store, I can count the time down to release on a shiny new Omega Speedmaster or Rolex Explorer.
The approach can be far more powerful when the system is chained together. Currently, I have set up a system as follows:
- Add a recurring daily event for Swift to my calendar
- Get the daily reminder for highlights, adding Swift in as one of the tasks I want to complete
- Actually learn Swift <- SUPER IMPORTANT PART
- Get a daily question notification asking if I’ve completed my Swift task
- If yes, automatically move money to watch fund and add a “completed” entry to my calendar.
I’m pretty happy with this approach so far, and it’s been wildly successful on weekdays over the last few weeks. As with anything I do, I will constantly evaluate whether it’s working and adjust accordingly, but this process in particular has been pretty powerful.
Productivity can be a loaded word; one that tends to focus on the number of outputs rather than the value of them. In the past I’ve been overwhelmed by the number of tasks I’ve loaded on myself and as a consequence, barely completed any. I’ve switched this methodology and prioritised the tasks that mean the most. I’d rather complete 3 valuable tasks than stress myself out from only completing 5 of 10 low-value tasks. This also relies on being better at saying no, but that’s a whole other post in itself.
Ultimately, productivity is important to me, but I only deem something to be productive if it brings value in some way. Bringing value doesn’t have to mean personal growth, it can mean other things. Value comes from clarity of mind from completing a mindfulness session, or from positivity from having a simple win like a clean bathroom. Whatever the task, the productivity is driven by the value, enabled by the process and facilitated by the design of the system.
Over the years I’ve devised a system of tools and designed a process that reminds me, incentivises me, and keeps track of the progress. It’s something that seems to work right now, but I will always look to iterate if the system is no longer fit for purpose.
I will continue to read more on productivity hacking and continue my search for the one process that rules them all. That said, as long as the why drives the process, the how is the fun bit that helps work everything out.
- Make time - Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less - Greg McKeown
- Getting Things Done: The art of stress-free productivity - David Allen
- Deep Work - Cal Newport
- The 4-Hour Work Week - Tim Ferris