I want to get more done. I constantly have unfinished to-do lists and projects I would like to take on, if only I had more time. Rather than simply aspiring to have more time (e.g. by living longer), it is equally valuable to do more living in the time I have. I see increasing productivity as converting time I feel is wasted into time I feel is useful, by either decreasing the time useful tasks take or removing tasks that are not useful. This post is a collection of things I have found to help with this, and areas where I am seeking to improve.
Things that I think work
If I am mentally or physically unwell, my productivity rapidly decreases. Keep health as a priority. Assess it regularly, and take time to eat well, exercise, and sleep. Follow good hygiene practices. When ill, make recovery the single highest priority.
Increasing productivity and focus first require that you actually start doing something productive. Whatever that is, learning, training, meeting people, or something else, I often find myself hesitating to start. Fears of failure may be reasonable or unreasonable, but not starting at all makes failure a certainty. Of course some projects are more risky; the costs are higher, the harms can be bigger, but generally the first few steps don’t require such a big commitment, and having started I will be in a better place to assess what can be done. Simply put, just start.
Solve what you need to do, not what is easy to do
Focus on what is important, and do not be distracted by what is easy. I think most people are familiar with a time when, rather than write a difficult essay, or make a difficult phone call, suddenly they were inspired to reorganise their desk or tidy their house (Tim Urban goes more into procrastination in this TED talk). I’ve lately been thinking about it in terms of the diagram above; trying to focus my attention away from the easy but unproductive tasks and towards harder but more useful tasks. A related concept comes from an anecdote about Warren Buffett advising Mike Flint about goal setting.
Example – Science
Easy Productive: Setting up experiment
Hard Productive: Interpreting experimental results
Easy Unproductive: Selecting nice colours for charts and plots
Hard Unproductive: Writing new spreadsheet software
Example – Writing
Easy Productive: Choosing a topic to write about
Hard Productive: Actually writing about the topic
Easy Unproductive: Selecting fonts, organising stationary
Hard Unproductive: Writing in an unknown language
Example – Fitness
Easy Productive: Signing up for a gym membership
Hard Productive: Actually using the gym membership
Easy Unproductive: Watching YouTube videos about how to exercise
Hard Unproductive: Making YouTube videos about how to exercise
Use technology effectively
Tim Ferris shared this article about how to use your iPhone productively. I was a little underwhelmed by the focus on apps and content to consume, rather than actual phone tweaks that help avoid distractions. Smart phones are powerful devices that can be highly detrimental for productivity. While I am certainly more productive with a suite of tools in my pocket at all times, I can also be distracted by the similarly immense collection of toys. Armies of clever people work to increase the amount of time users spend in their app or on their website, and they are often successful. Some things I have found useful:
Make your phone binary. Either it is a “toy” used for relaxation and entertainment or it is a “tool” to help you work more effectively. If it is a toy you don’t need it with you when you are working. If it is a tool then don’t install games or use it to browse content where the main purpose is to be entertained.
Put your phone in black and white. Screen technology creates images more vivid, and therefore more captivating, than reality. For the majority of useful functions, a phone doesn’t need a colour screen. Putting it in black and white makes it less attention grabbing.
Do one task at a time. Build a habit of telling yourself what task you are picking up your phone to perform, performing it, and putting the phone away again. Sending that text message doesn’t need to lead to browsing Instagram. Checking the bus timetable doesn’t need to lead to reading a news article.
Turn your phone off. When you don’t need your phone, turn it off. Notice how often you pick it up and stare at a blank screen, and put it back into your pocket. If what you need to do isn’t worth waiting a few seconds for the phone to start up, it probably isn’t worth doing at all.
Time spent checking social media is not particularly useful, but time spent looking at your own content is especially not useful. I learned that in the early days of LinkedIn, 25-35% of clicks were people looking at their own profile. The speculated reason for this, with some evidence, is vanity. I can certainly feel the urge to check posts for likes, retweets, kudos, etc. It is validating to have people consume your content and approve it. It is also not worth checking repeatedly. The few minutes many times a day adds up to a meaningful amount, the interruption disrupts flow, and the emotions (envy, insecurity, and even the validation from being “liked”) are broadly negative.
Multitasking in some situations can boost productivity, and in others just slow things down. Learn what tasks go well together for you, and which ones shouldn’t go together. I am sure this varies significantly
An example of good multitasking:
Listening to the news while doing steady state exercising. Not every training session should be hard, often I have less intense, putting-in-the-miles work outs. This is a great time to catch up on news.
An example of bad multitasking:
Listening to music while writing. I enjoy it, but changes in songs, and particularly interesting lyrics, tend more often to disrupt my train of thought than to drown out distractions.
Define “possible” honestly
Motivation matters. Setting the bar too high for what level of productivity I want to achieve, or putting too many things on a to-do list, leads to failure, and that failure can sap away confidence and motivation to do more. Be realistic with what can be achieved, keep the ego in check, and when things become overwhelming take time to pause, cut back, and start again with a lighter load.
Things I haven’t worked out
Consume content carefully
I read slowly, and I suspect inefficiently. There is so much content being produced at such an incredible rate, I find myself “tab hoarding”, filling hard drives with PDFs, trying to skim academic papers that I forget immediately, and buying books faster than I finish them. I think the problem is needing to be selective, and to learn to not be “completionist” in my reading, but rather focus on finding things that sit comfortably in my Zone of Proximal Development, and skipping things in a text that I already know, or are well beyond my grasp.
Keep in touch
I am still not good at keeping in touch with friends. I lose time I could be using to catch up with them (via a plethora of communication platforms) fretting about how much I have failed to meet my own expectations on frequency of correspondence. I suppose this is because I am not good at selecting which relationships I ought to prioritise, and effectively let random encounters define which people I spend time with. In not wanting to leave anyone out, I leave everyone out.
Long term goals
Finally, and most challenging to me, finding a major goal to unify my interests, my work, and my hobbies, so that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. I lack direction, and this means that many projects I begin and abandon which might not otherwise have been wastes of time, become so.
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