448 days since this post was last revised. Specific details are likely out of date.
TL;DR: learning how to focus and applying that focus is the key to not only productivity, but greater happiness in general.
Here are some, occasionally related, ruminations that have led me to that conclusion.
Social media is a waste of time
My life has three tenets; family, work and recreation. Social media doesn’t serve any of them. At home, social media robs me of time and stops me being present with my family. Social media disrupts my concentration at work for little gain and causes more misunderstanding than clarity when it comes to social interactions. It’s my conviction that social media makes us less happy, not more. If your about to counter that social media is how you keep up to date, I’ve anticipated that.
Use RSS feeds. Compared to social media, blog posts are more reasoned, more informative and enjoy greater longevity than the stream of drivel spewed up on social media. If you subscribe to good RSS feeds, the articles are more worthy of your time and more likely to feed back in to improved productivity in the future.
Just move forward
A quote of Michael Chrichton’s that stuck with me from the writing profession:
Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten
It’s a notion that I believe holds true for almost any creative endeavour.
Stop procrastinating and just start making it. Over time I’ve accepted that being productive isn’t just the end product. It’s the process. Start something so you have something to change. Expect initial attempts to be hopeless, rough and flawed. But regardless, start something and keep moving forwards.
Ditch your ego
Learn to let go of your ego. Accept criticism when well intentioned. Actively look for quality feedback on your work. Conversely, give your knowledge and candid feedback freely to others when you can. Learning to take, understand and garner feedback can be incredibly productive.
Plan but plan loosely
“No plan survives first contact with the enemy”
That’s a quote attributed in various forms to Helmuth von Moltke. I love the practicality of it. It’s not that you shouldn’t have a plan, it’s that you should expect to adapt it. That way, when reality reveals itself, it shouldn’t throw you quite as much as it might were you expecting things to go to plan.
Write down what you know
I’ve never been very good at mathematics. In my youth, when facing a mathematical problem, my Dad drilled into me: “WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU KNOW”. Writing down what I know about a problem has always helped me order my thoughts. More often than not, it has also moved me towards the answer. While it might seem obvious and at times pointless, when stuck on any problem, take the time to write down everything you think you know about it. Don’t over-think it. Just scribble it down on paper or in a blank text file. Then thank my Dad when your brain subsequently figures it out.
Learn when your brain needs to breathe
If you are the sort of person that finds it hard to walk away from a problem, learn to know when your brain just needs to breathe. When it feels like you are just bashing your head against the problem, and you’ve already written down everything you know: stop. Go and make a cup of tea/go for a walk/eat lunch/shower. More often than not the solution, or a route forward, reveals itself when you let your mind breathe.
Learn to know what your problems are
Before you learn a new framework, adopt a new build tool, start writing in this years hottest meta-language, or choose a new piece of technology or methodology, really think about whether it is solving a problem you actually have. Analyse whether it does what you need. Don’t just choose it because it is popular. Other peoples problems are not necessarily your problems. Learn to analyse your own problems. Be more productive by only solving problems you actually have to solve.
Don’t ignore thousands of years of human evolution. Your body needs to move. If you have a sedentary job make getting exercise a priority. There will always be work requiring your attention but prioritise your daily exercise beyond everything else. Regular exercise will keep your mind and body more able to work in the long term.
To that ends, be economical in the digital world, not the physical. Don’t combine any journeys you need to leave your desk for. Take the longest path to fetch water or use the toilet. Park a little further away from your workplace if possible; better still walk or bike to the office if viable.
Make best use of ‘dead’ time
Long commutes can grind you down. If that’s your reality, invest in audio books and/or listening the many quality, podcasts available. In what used to be ‘dead’ time, you can be learning something new, broadening your mind with unrelated fiction or simply keeping up with all that has happened in your field recently. Now your commute is dedicated time for you that no-one can take from you.
Learn your editor/core tools
What tools do you use? Don’t bother answering. I don’t care. I care whether you can use them well.
To exemplify this point for people in my own field, who write code for a living: at some point, spend a little time with each of the more popular text editors. Get a feel for their respective strengths. Then pick one, stick with it and learn it’s core features to the best of your ability.
The most productive and effective programmers I know don’t switch editors and have less than a handful of plugins installed. They spend their time solving problems and making new things, not trying to micro-optimise their working practice.
Write a log
On my OS desktop I have a
diary.txt file. Almost every day I write a couple of paragraphs describing anything significant from the day. Problems encountered or solved, decisions made or pending, and any important conversations I might want to recall in the future.
Plus, at the end of a day, if I’m in the middle of a problem, this file provides a mechanism to document my current predicament and walk away (letting my brain breathe). I’ve found this practice invaluable and it is more than worth the time it takes to write.
Say no without guilt
Do fewer things. You can be more productive with the things you do when you do fewer of them. When someone asks you to get involved in their new side-project, be happy to say no. This shouldn’t be at the expense of decency. I’m a firm believer in repaying favours, but be protective of your free time. The more things you have going on, the less time you will have to be productive in. Learn this skill as soon as you can. With age and responsibility, your free time diminishes rapidly and saying no allows you to concentrate on whatever you have deemed truly important.
Most of these points relate, in some form, to focus. It is my conviction that the focus of effort has the greatest contribution to productivity. Learning to silence the ceaseless cacophony of modern life and navigate the many demands on your time will provide you with more opportunity to focus and be productive in your professional and personal endeavours.