How to Create a Personal Productivity Scaffold

A scaffold is a temporary structure that supports tools, materials, and people while erecting or repairing a building. A similar construct can be used to improve your personal productivity. Much like wearing braces to reposition crooked teeth, a personal productivity scaffold is something you temporarily insert into your daily routine to help create and establish new habits. Once those habits are conditioned, the scaffolding can be removed.

Suppose you’re having trouble staying focused at work. Your days keep getting away from you. You go to your desk and start checking email. From there you visit your favorite web sites. Then you check email again. Before you know it, it’s already lunchtime. After lunch you check email again. Then it’s back to web surfing. Perhaps you finally begin doing some real work, but only from boredom with email and web surfing. Since you’ve wasted so much time, you can only address the urgent items with no time left for doing anything remotely significant. You end your workday feeling disappointed and mildly depressed. Your evening is no more exciting. Then you repeat the process the next day.

If you don’t break such bad habits, before you know it, you’ll have wasted years of your life. This is entirely preventable, but wishful thinking and broken personal promises aren’t the answer.

When you find yourself stuck in the undesirable pattern of wasting time, it’s similar to having crooked teeth. Imagine if you kept promising over and over again, “I have to straighten my teeth! This time I’ll really do it!” Will that fix your teeth? Of course not. They’ll probably just get worse. The solution is simple though. Get yourself some braces. It will require a small sacrifice, but it will fix the problem. And it’s temporary — you won’t have to wear them forever.

A personal productivity scaffold is like wearing braces. It’s a way to redirect your time and energy back onto the “straight” course and away from the crooked one. Once you’ve set it up, it’s fairly easy to maintain, although you may still regard it as a small sacrifice.

Perhaps the most important function your scaffolding must perform is keeping your attention focused on what you want and off of what you don’t want. Who wants to waste hours a day on email and web surfing? No one that cares about having a life. But it’s way too easy to fall into this pattern by mistake, just as it’s easy to get crooked teeth.

I had to wear braces for 3 years when I was a kid, but I’m glad I endured it because my teeth remained relatively straight from then on. I’m even more grateful for the personal scaffolding that has helped me stay focused on my goals.

A sample scaffold

Perhaps the best way to understand a scaffold is to simply look at one, so I’ll share one I’ve used from time to time. To keep myself focused each day, I insert a scaffold around my workday, one hour at the start of the workday and one hour at the end. I don’t work longer hours — the scaffolding replaces what would otherwise be part of my workday. Here’s what it looks like:

Start-of-workday scaffold (60 minutes)

  1. Review and update long-term plans (25 minutes)
  2. Write a journal entry about what I expect to accomplish today (10 minutes)
  3. Review today’s task list, and visualize a successful and enjoyable day (5 minutes)
  4. Meditate and listen to any guidance that comes through (15 minutes)
  5. Breathe deeply to clear and focus my mind before beginning work (5 minutes)

End-of-workday scaffold (60 minutes)

  1. Record my morning workout results in progress tracking spreadsheet, plan next day’s workout (5 minutes)
  2. Process paper inbox, update project/action list and calendar (15 minutes)
  3. Equalize office (decluttering, filing, organizing) (5 minutes)
  4. Conduct a postmortem of the day in my journal using my assessment template (10 minutes)
  5. Plan next day (15 minutes)
  6. Water plants (< 5 minutes)
  7. Breathe deeply to clear mind and release work for the day (5 minutes)

I normally insert the morning scaffold at 8-9am and the afternoon scaffold at 4-5pm.

Your initial reaction might be, “This is way too much. I can’t take two hours out of my day for this, especially not for weeks on end.” I’m not saying you have to use my particular scaffold — this is something I created for myself, and it may not make sense for you at all. But you’d be amazed at how productive your days can be when you create your own daily startup and shutdown routine as a wrapper around your day.

The intent of the scaffolding above is to help me stay focused. I don’t always use it, but when I find my focus drifting and notice I’m spending way too much time on minor things, I return to my scaffolding and effectively straighten myself out.

The startup process gets me focused on my long-term goals and plans, so at 9am I’m jumping straight into my most important task. I feel relaxed, alert, and highly motivated.

The shutdown process is where I close out my workday, so at 5pm I’m totally done with work and ready to spend time with my family, attend a Toastmasters meeting or a kempo class, or go out with Erin.

Together these two pieces of scaffolding create a productive wrapper around my workday. In the morning I enter “work mode.” I get my work done, starting with the most important tasks for the day. Then I get out of work mode and into family mode. This works very well, and the two hours it takes doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice at all.

If two hours seems like too much to you, you can certainly shorten it. Just a few minutes on each end can make a difference, even if you do nothing but breathing exercises. Through trial-and-error, I learned I get great results with the hour-long brackets. I am in fact getting some work done during those scaffolding periods, including planning, processing my inbox, doing record-keeping, evaluating results, and of course keeping my plants from dying. These are daily tasks anyway, so I find it useful to include them in the scaffolding.

How to create a personal productivity scaffold

To create your own scaffold, you need to identify where you’ve become “crooked” and what needs to be done to straighten yourself out. Almost always this will require crafting a process to refocus your attention. For example, you may want a morning scaffold that puts in the state of mind where you’re so focused on your goals that you wouldn’t even consider wasting your time on idle web surfing.

Design simple activities to funnel your attention towards a particular state of mind. Do you want to be motivated? Relaxed? Creative? Whatever state you want to induce should be addressed by your scaffolding.

Scaffolds work best when they’re naturally attractive to you… perhaps even fun. Think of them as bait. Ideally they should be inviting enough that you feel inclined to do them without too much resistance. By the time you come out the other end, you’re immersed in your desired state of mind, feeling you could sustain it for hours.

The best scaffolding components are those which yield an additional benefit beyond their temporary focusing effect. For example, daily meditation can help you clear and focus your mind, but it’s also known to have long-term health benefits, including a 30% reduction in the rate of death from cardiovascular disease and a 49% reduction in the rate of death from cancer (figures are from a study of transcendental meditation practitioners). Regular journaling can be hugely beneficial as well, helping you avoid problems and gain greater clarity.

Creating good scaffolding is largely a trial-and-error process. Take a stab, try something, and observe how it works for you. Every time you run through your scaffold, see if you can improve it. Was it attractive enough for you to actually complete the steps? When you came out the back end, were you in the desired state? If you do this every day, will it make enough of a difference to compensate for the time it takes?

Even when you come up with a good scaffold that works for you, it’s a good idea to mix it up every once in a while to keep it from growing stale. Reorder the steps, or insert a new activity now and then.

You can use scaffolds for just about anything, so don’t limit yourself to work-related productivity. You can use scaffolding to motivate yourself to exercise, eat healthier foods, or to psyche yourself up for selling door to door. The main idea is to create very simple, easy-to-establish habits that serve as the framework for installing much more significant habits.

Once your new habit is established, try reducing or eliminating your scaffolding, and see if you can still maintain that habit. Keep whatever scaffolding continues to be effective, but feel free to drop it when it’s no longer necessary. I frequently find myself returning to productivity-related scaffolding, but when it comes to exercising regularly, I don’t seem to need it.

Scaffolding and 30-day trials

Scaffolding is a terrific fit for the 30-day trial concept. Once you design a basic scaffold for yourself, commit to testing it for 30 days. At the end of each day, tweak your scaffolding based on your results. Consider sharing your scaffolding in the forums, and invite feedback and suggestions from others to help you improve it.

A typical scaffold used in building construction can be a rickety, ugly, paint-splattered structure, but it gets the job done. Similarly, your personal productivity scaffolding can be equally ugly to the naked eye, but if it helps you get where you want to go, you’re golden.