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Everything I know about productivity

Here, I attempt an exhaustive list of my thoughts on productivity. I think I started writing it because I was procrastinating something else.

Most productivity porn focuses on how to do things, so you read it, try and copy the tactics, and sometimes they stick sometimes they don’t. It’s more helpful to understand why to do things. That way, when a tactic doesn’t stick, you can adjust it to suit your needs. So I’ve tried to focus on the principles and strategies instead of the mechanics of productivity.

Treat this like a work in progress.

  1. Establish a definition of productivity. Not “get more done” but “make progress on the things that matter.” Sometimes our brains are dumb and can’t tell when we’re treading water and when we’re swimming towards something we want. Doing one hour of work that contributes to your goal is more productive than doing ten hours of busywork.
  2. Make small changes to existing behaviors. Learning about productivity is procrastination until you are able to change your behavior. When it comes to behavior change, it’s tempting to try and take on a bunch of new habits (that inevitably fail to stick). Instead, focus on your existing habits, and make small modifications to them. For example, if you’re trying to list your top three tasks of the day every morning, don’t treat it as a brand new behavior. Find something you do every morning (e.g. drink coffee) and prepend it to that habit. Now, you don’t drink coffee until you’ve come up with your top three tasks. Choose simple and repeatable tactics. They’re easier to cover to habits.
  3. Simplify and apply tactics you learn about. Many of my favorite habits come from books and bloggers. I used to try and create carbon copies of their habits and plop them into my life. Over time, they’d either stop working for me or I’d slowly adjust them to fit my needs. You increase your chances of success if you can simplify the tactic and apply it to your life by attaching it to one of your existing behaviors.
  4. Know your top three tasks every day. Before you do anything else, make sure you know what your top tasks are. I do this first thing in the morning. Others do it right before bed.
  5. Eliminate distractions in the morning. Cut out social media, meditate, have a nice calm breakfast without multitasking, go for a walk or a run, whatever you need to start your day with a calm and happy mind.
  6. Stay physically healthy. Stop eating breakfast, cut out carbs, count your calories, exercise every day, eliminate snacking, whatever makes you feel light and energetic. Think about the last time you were sick with the flu. Remember how fuzzy your brain was? A bad diet and exercise leads to a chronic fuzziness of the brain.
  7. Understand what time of day you’re most effective, do your most important task then. For me it’s the morning after I’ve meditated and had some coffee. Other people do it late at night when everybody else is asleep. If you don’t know what your time is, experiment a bit, but once you find it do it every day.
  8. Eliminate everything that isn’t working. Spring clean your obligations, habits, distractions that don’t seem to ever make their way into your top three tasks.
  9. Say no to most things. Productivity is usually framed as getting more done with a fixed quantity of time. That implies there’s no possible way to find more time. That’s baloney. We have so much waste in our lives--especially at large corporation where meetings suck away most of the day. Figure out what obligations you can say no to, and never do them again.
  10. Make procrastination productive with fallback tasks. I think procrastination is mostly unavoidable. Sometimes you don’t want to do things, so you do something else. Instead of banging your head against the wall trying to get motivated to do something you don’t want to do, identify another task that’s important to you. This is your fallback task. Whenever you don’t want to do your primary task, just default to your fallback task. For example, I might say my most important task of the day is revising our pitch deck for investors. When I procrastinate that, I could stream Netflix, I could read a book, or I could write some code that might get us more users. Some are obviously more productive than others.
  11. Put your anxieties on a “watch list”. Worrying about stuff takes mental resources--resources you should be spending on the tasks you’ve identified for the day. Instead of letting them come up and bother you whenever they feel like it, put them all down in a list. It can be physical list on the wall or in an app. Just knowing that they’re there will help. My watch list has things like: family, girlfriend, friends, personal finances. These are the things that never got “resolved”--things that you want to keep a pulse on because you care about them. For me it’s often people.
  12. Batch communication. I’m so bad at this, but ideally you should turn off your notifications for everything and look at your email, chat, and messengers twice a day. Once after you’ve finished your most important task, and one in the late afternoon after the “work day.” It might not feel like it, but email and communication fragment your attention.
  13. Choose the right thing to work on. Many books have been written about this, but finding the right thing to do is by far the most important thing for you to do. It’s hard to know sometimes, but the way things make you feel should lead you in the right direction. If you feel effortless production, a never-ending well of inspiration, then you should probably keep exploring that area. If you feel drained and bored... try something else. Loving what you do is the greatest gift, but just like romantic love, it can elude people for most of their lives.
  14. Continually design your environment to suit your needs. Sometimes literally--like putting a notepad on your nightstand solely for your top three tasks or putting a yoga mat in your living room to make it easier to exercise every day--sometimes not.
  15. Change one thing at a time. The pursuit of productivity is endless. The most important thing is to start experimenting. The best way to experiment is to pick one small, simple thing and do it consistently for a week. Then keep doing it. Once you feel confident that it’s working and sustainable, pick up something else and toss what’s not working.

Sometimes it’s overwhelming to think about how much work we have to put into getting good at stuff, managing happiness, and getting things done. Why can’t we just reach a point where we’re happy and coast along? Why do we have to carry this burden of continuous self improvement?

Part of this is that it feels bad when we don’t. We’re familiar with the sensation of feeling unproductive. Tony Robbins famously said, “the only true security in life comes from knowing that every single day you are improving yourself in some way.”

The other part is that it feels good when we do. Not for the sake of just getting random stuff done faster, but for making progress on things we care about, and minimizing the time and energy we spend on things that we don’t.

It’s important to remember that productivity is an individual sport. There’s no need to try and “keep up” with people. That mentality tends to lead you to the bad, soul crushing type of water-treading productivity. Instead, think of it as a continuous practice of empowering yourself with the beliefs and habits you need to do the things you want to do.

Leave me a note in the comments with what strategies or tactics have had the biggest impact on your productivity.

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