Productivity 101

Last night I shared some productivity tips with my Toastmasters club, so I thought it would be a good idea to share those tips with you as well.

These tips are not complicated, but they’ve proven very effective for myself and countless others. You’ve probably heard these before, so if that’s the case, consider this a refresher/reminder to put these ideas into practice today.

1. Work in a field you love.

“Do what you love” is perhaps the most basic productivity tip of all. You’ll be much more productive when you do work you enjoy. Unfortunately, this tip is as obvious as it is ignored.

Doing work you love is not remotely the same thing as doing work you find moderately pleasant either. When you’re working in a field you love, your motivation is usually high because you feel passionate about what you’re doing. You don’t have to push yourself just to get going each day.

When you enjoy your work, you’ll tend to enjoy a fast tempo. You’ll also do better quality work, and high-quality work is more efficient than low-quality work. Low-quality work generates inferior results and often has to be redone.

Don’t waste your time trying to become more productive in a field you don’t enjoy. Such a struggle is a complete waste of your life. You deserve better than to subject yourself to such punishment.

I’ve heard hundreds of different excuses for why people claim they can’t do what they love — not enough money, no time, not good enough, wife won’t let me, etc. They can all be condensed down to two words: “I’m scared.”

The people who are doing what they love were also scared. They could all come up with the same excuses. But at some point they decided it was unacceptable to have their lives dictated by fear, so they opted to face their fear and push through it. They decided to overcome their problems instead of turning them into excuses. Those who remain stuck still allow their fear to rule them.

Ultimately it’s a choice. Either you commit to doing what you love, or you don’t. Which side do you think involves the most suffering?

2. Take advantage of audio learning.

Make a habit of listening to educational audio programs, ideally every day. It’s so easy to fill in the gaps in your day with education time. Listen to audio programs when you’re driving, shopping, exercising, preparing meals, or just walking around. Load up your iPod to capacity, so you’ll always have them on hand.

You don’t even have to pay for the audio programs. There are tons of free educational podcasts online, including mine. Your local public library should also carry a selection of audio programs that you can check out for free.

Just by adopting this simple habit, you can gain the equivalent of multiple college degrees. If you want to expand your knowledge and skills, this habit is an absolute must. It doesn’t even cost any extra time if you combine audio learning with physical activities as already suggested.

The benefit of listening to educational audio programs goes far beyond the content. The simple act of feeding your mind with positive information will help you stay motivated and upbeat as well. If you feel depressed, lazy, or unmotivated, it’s a safe bet you aren’t taking advantage of daily audio learning opportunities. They will help you feel much more positive and driven.

When I was in college, I used to listen to educational audio programs on cassette tape with a Walkman radio. I listened while walking to and from school and in the short breaks between classes. In a typical day I might get through two hours of material. I learned some good ideas from those tapes, but the habit also kept me thinking positively. This practice was extremely instrumental in enabling me to graduate with two degrees in three semesters. Back then everyone around me said I would fail; no one was very encouraging. But I drowned out all that negative feedback by constantly plugging in to positive, can-do messages. Those tapes kept my mind thinking about how to achieve my goals instead of wondering if I could achieve them. So the benefit of audio learning is not just for the educational content; it’s also for the attitude adjustment.

3. Eliminate interruptions.

If you do any creative or information processing work, it’s imperative that you set aside blocks of time where you know you won’t be interrupted. This means no external interruptions as well as no interrupting yourself. You need serious blocks of time (2-3 hours minimum) with no email checking, no instant messaging, no web surfing, no phone calls, no drop-in visitors, etc.

Just knowing that you won’t be interrupted makes it so much easier to enter a flow state where you can get a lot of highly productive work done. Every time you get interrupted for a few minutes or longer, you can expect it to take at least 15 minutes to return to the flow state. A few seemingly minor interruptions each day adds up to a huge amount of wasted time every month — and for no benefit whatsoever.

When I’m working on a project or writing an article, I don’t check email. If the phone rings, I let it go to voicemail. I lock my office door and put up a Post-It note that says, “Writing Troll – Get Back!” which has a picture of a troll on it. When Erin and the kids see the troll, they know not to disturb me unless there’s a serious emergency. The troll is a warning. They know if that if they bypass the troll, they’ll be confronted by an ogre.

I routinely write new articles at a rate of 1000-1500 words per hour, measured from the time I get inspired by an idea to the time I click Publish. To write a 5000-word article might take me about 4 hours total. If I think I might be interrupted, I can’t write nearly as fast. I have to tune out the whole world and put myself in a place where nothing else exists but the topic I’m writing about. When I enter that flow state, writing becomes effortless. I’m usually not even conscious of the fact that my fingers are typing.

You set your own boundaries, so don’t even think about trying to blame others for your lack of productivity. If other people don’t respect your time, it’s because you’ve trained them to behave that way, if only through the mechanism of silent approval. Start showing more respect for time, and clarify your boundaries with others. You don’t have to be an ogre about it, but you do need to be firm. On the other hand, if people refuse to comply, then you have to ask yourself why you’d even want such disrespectful productivity vampires in your life.

When you use your work time wisely, you’ll have more free time to invest in your personal life. Erin knows that when I’m done writing this article, we’ll enjoy watching a movie together tonight (The Wrestler), and I also promised her a glorious foot massage. If she interrupts me and it takes me longer than expected to finish the article, we don’t get to spend as much time together.

4. Log your time usage.

For a few days in a row, keep track of where all your time is going. From the time you wake up to the time you go to bed, log your time usage. Whenever you switch activities, write down the time and the new activity. You don’t have to go high-tech here unless you really want to. A pen and paper works just fine.

At the end of each day, take note of where your time went. You’re sure to notice many inefficiencies, so it won’t be hard to find areas for improvement. If you’re like most people, don’t be surprised to discover that 50-75% of your time each day is essentially being wasted.

You’ll likely discover that you spend way too much time on low priority tasks, you succumb to too many distractions, you task-switch way too often, and you waste a lot of time online.

Don’t beat yourself up when you see how you did. Use this information to make improvements, not to blame yourself for wasting time.

Try different approaches to managing your daily routine. Try some experiments to see if you can boost your efficiency.

The mere act of measuring your time usage will probably raise your productivity more than enough to compensate for the time logging activity. So even if you don’t make major changes based on what you learn, just log your time usage to raise your awareness. You’ll find that what gets measured gets improved.

Even if you’ve done time logging before, it’s a good idea to return to it every few months, at least once a year. You’ll discover that new inefficiencies and bad habits spring up like weeds, and you need to pull them out from time to time.

5. Use timeboxing.

Timeboxing is a great way to deal with tasks where you’d otherwise procrastinate. With timeboxing you only commit to working on a task or project for a fixed length of time, normally 30-90 minutes. 10-15 minutes is perfectly acceptable.

Once you get past the first 15 minutes, you’ll often want to stick with the task. Timeboxing is a good way of coaxing yourself through the initial task resistance. You tell yourself, “It’s only 30 minutes. How bad could it be? I can handle anything for 30 minutes.” But then when you get through that first 30 minutes, it’s easy to keep going.

This past weekend my kids and I decided to clean out a closet under our staircase. The closet was overloaded with waist-high piles of stuff. There was a Star Wars marathon on that day (all 6 episodes), so I figured we’d work on the closet until the end of one of the episodes — a fixed period of time of about an hour. Then we could stop and work on it some more at another time. No one wanted to clean out that closet, but at least we could make a reasonable dent in the task.

What actually happened is that we got so into the task that we finished the whole closet and completely reorganized it, including installing some shelves. That took us 3-4 hours. Then we did another closet. And then some drawers. And then another room… and another. Then we proceeded to clean out and reorganize the garage. By the end of the day, we’d put in a solid 12 hours of home decluterring and re-organizing. Erin was at a conference that day, and when she returned home around 8pm, she said she thought she had the wrong house — she didn’t recognize the garage when she pulled the car in. 🙂

This momentum even carried into the next day, with Erin and the kids doing more home organizing for several hours.

This was a major project, and if we thought about putting in 18-20 solid hours into it, it would have seemed too overwhelming, but timeboxing was a great way to get started because we could say to ourselves, “It’s only an hour. Then we can stop.”

You won’t always want to go longer than the initial time period you decide upon. That’s perfectly fine. You must give yourself full permission to stop. You can always kick off another timeboxed period later and make another dent in the task. If you keep working on it little by little, eventually you’ll finish.

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These are all pretty basic productivity tips, but they’re very effective. These are proven winners that have withstood the test of time. When it comes to productivity, simple habits tend to be much more effective than complicated systems.