Mar 282015
 

Whatever you make of self-help, and whether you take this to constitute a form of it or not, I here present the top-most three means that I found over the years to get productive. I believe they are the simplest, yet most effective, of all methods to be productive and efficient. But do not limit yourself to any, this offers but good start.

Productivity is certainly relative. For our purposes a wide-enough definition would be an accomplishment what one needs, or has, to meet. That is, a task.

Self-help is an oxymoron of a special sort. It wants the benefactor, who is typically the customer of the self-help guru selling books, seminars, and workshops, to believe that they can help themselves. Assuming for the moment that one could help herself, it’s harder to imagine her doing so through seeking help from another. Perhaps self-confidence and empowerment are the first methods in the self-help industry’s repertoire.

While I don’t subscribe to the self-help movement, nor think it effective, I do believe advice borne of hard-earned experience can help the inexperienced and seasoned alike. My bookshelf betrays my bias against self-help and motivational material, which exceeds my bias against fiction and is only diminished by my bias against cargo cults. With this in mind, and with much reluctance, did I put to words these three points.

TL;DR: Read the headings and jump to the conclusion. (Bonus, read the intro.)

Introduction

One of the potent forces that underline anxiety and worry is lack of control. Control is an umbrella word that spans many aspects. We don’t have control over the things we don’t understand or comprehend. We also don’t have control over what we can’t change. Put together they make for an explosive force that drain motivation and energy. Complex tasks are notorious for being opaque and out of reach. In addition, they don’t give us clues as to where to start.

As we procrastinate and put off complex task, that often turn out to not to be nearly as hard or complex as we had thought, we lose valuable time. The impending and nearing deadline reminds us the magnitude of the task which, in turn, makes the deadline too close to be realistic. This vicious cycle is hard to break without actually getting to work.

Once we have an understanding of what we’re up against, what we need to accomplish, and where to start, we have gained — some — mastery over it. We have control. Anxiety, too, is more controlled. We feel confident not just because we’re familiar with the task and how to handle it, but we are also in a much better position to deal with uncertainty and surprises. In fact, this feeling of control and calm is so potent that it resembles the warmth we feel when the wind on a cold day winds down for a minute or two. It feels like we’re no longer cold, and relax. Forgetting that it’s still cold and the wind is bound to pick up. Don’t let the reward of breaking down tasks, planning, and organizing, as important as they are, substitute real progress on the tasks themselves. Remember that controlling anxiety is an overhead, the task still misses all the effort we ought to put into it.

No project or situation is ideal, of course, nor do all plans pan out as expected. This fuels the anxiety and gives more reason to put off tasks until past the eleventh hour, when we are guaranteed to fail. This three-point approach deals with both anxiety and procrastination by claiming control and managing tasks in a friendly way. It doesn’t try to change our habits of limiting leisure time, rather it paces the time we spend on productive tasks. It helps us understand what we have to accomplish and make us think about the steps towards that. Finally, it gives us valuable feedback to improve our future planning and to rectify biased impressions about what we spend our time on.

Ⅰ. Make a List

The first major step is the one that goes the furthest in helping us get a job done; enumerating it. By creating a list, we have to go through the mental process of identifying the steps necessary to get to our goal. This process of enumeration is, it turns out, one of the biggest hurdles in getting something done.

Before we start working on any task that we feel burdened by, we need to put it in perspective. I often find myself procrastinating and avoiding tasks that a few years ago would have been incomparably daunting, such as shopping for some hardware. I put it off longer than necessary, even though all I have to do is just browse a few candidates online, read a few reviews and compare prices and features, before hitting the magical button that will render a box at my doorstep a mere few days later. The fact that I listed what I have to do, ironically, makes the task sound as simple as it really is. But we all know how often we put off similarly simple tasks. Calling a friend, sending an email, working out, reading that book you’ve always meant to read but somehow it was uninviting, and so on with many cases.

Making a list achieves two things. First, it forces us to go through the mental process of visualizing what we have to do. This is a major effort in and of itself for more than one reason. Neuroscience tells us that by imagining or thinking about an act, our brain fires what is called mirror neurons. These neurons fire essentially exactly as when we actually carry out the act itself. Imagining a physical workout fires the neurons that would activate when we physically do the workout. This is what induces cringing when we hear about a painful incident, cry when we hear of a loss, and pull our limbs in when we see or hear of someone in harm’s way. By going through what we would have to do to get the task at hand accomplished, we literally make our brain go through it without any physical consequence. A simulation or virtual reality version of things.

The second advantage to making lists is the breakdown. Most non-trivial tasks involve multiple steps. These steps in their turn can sometimes be split into further sub-tasks or steps. This process of simplification of course is welcome. We can then avoid the large upfront cost of working on the task in one sitting or shot, which might end up taking too much time or just wasting quality time that could otherwise go into other important tasks.

I probably wouldn’t like wasting a beautiful weekend browsing online shops, say, to replace my router; it’s just too much work, at the expense of wasting an otherwise perfectly serviceable weekend, for something that isn’t nearly rewarding or fun. However, I can search for reviews of best routers of the year and quickly go through them for an initial survey of the market landscape. In another sitting, I can look up these top models on my preferred online shop to get a better picture of what buyers think and what the prices are like. In a separate sitting I can compare the features of the top 3-5 models that I think are within my budget and meet my needs. By this stage I should be almost ready to checkout and place an order. Having split the cost over a number of sittings I have gained a number of advantages. First, it wouldn’t feel like a major undertaking. Second, and more importantly, I would have much more time to think about my options. This latter point is hard to overestimate in importance. Our subconscious brain is very good at processing complex situations at a very low cost. When we consciously think about a problem we devote virtually all of our attention and focus to it. This is very costly and with limited time doesn’t yield nearly as good decisions as one would hope. Delegating to the subconscious, or “sleeping over” a decision as it’s often called, gives us valuable time to process by changing the processing faculty, which is almost like getting a second opinion of sorts.

But does sending an email really need a list? While it doesn’t necessarily have multiple parts to it to be broken down in a list, we still need to place it as a task among others that we have to do. Putting it in context makes it easier for us to see the work ahead of us and prioritize before getting busy. Another advantage is that we don’t have to send the email in a single sitting. If it’s an important email (or like this post, an elaborate one,) we probably need to treat it as a writing task. Then we can outline the main points in a sitting, flesh it out in another, and revise and polish it in a third, before we finally hit the send button.

Finally, if there are unknown steps, or the order of tasks is not clear, do not worry. Just add to the list what you think is necessary or probable to be done. Add comments to your notes so you can return to them as more information becomes available. Invariably, as we progress through a multi-stepped task, the more we learn about it and the better we understand what actions need be taken to accomplish it. Feel free to split tasks, replace them, or combine them; it’s all part of the process of organization and planning. The list will make these uncertain steps much more transparent and manageable.

Ⅱ. Limit it

One of the things that make us dread a task is the feeling of wasting quality time on something unrewarding. We’d rather watch that movie, browse the net for entertainment, play a game, etc. than to do the laundry, read a book, get some work done, or file our tax forms. The difference between these two groups is primarily their pleasure rewards. While it’s important to have clean cloths and get tax paperwork done, they are necessities that we would happily do away with if we could. The rewards they bring forth are the avoidance of negative repercussion. In comparison, playing a game or watching a movie have positive rewards and the negative repercussions, such as postponing cleaning the dishes, are minimal or could be easily justified.

Incidentally, the tasks with positive rewards are typically not called productive. This probably owes to the fact that such activity is best labelled play rather than work. At any rate, for our purposes, watching movies could also be a task, which is especially true if one is in the review business. It is up to us to decide what is a task and what isn’t, not society. But we should be conscious of the two competing groups, as there will always be tasks that we prefer to do at the expense of the one that we need, or have, to do. Procrastination is to find excuses to do the former rather than the latter.

A solution to this mental hurdle is to limit the time we are willing to spend on the more important, but less rewarding, tasks. This is in contrast to limiting the time we spend between productive tasks. It might seem more reasonable to limit the time we spend on entertainment rather than on productive tasks, but that only gives us an excuse to put entertainment first and procrastinate our way through the day.

It’s far more effective to cut a deal, so to speak, with ourselves. Spend no more than 20 to 30 minutes on the task at hand and then do anything of your choosing for another limited period. The only requirement is to prevent any distraction during those 25 minutes or so, including checking email, answering phone calls, checking your social network etc. Put your best into those few minutes and get as much done on the task. Once the time is up, switch gear to anything you like. Repeat.

This approach is often called Pomodoro after the tomato-shaped timer. Limiting time works because it puts an upper limit to our time investment and gives us something to look forward to. Once we are fully engaged with the task at hand, we might find it easier to finish it even if we overrun our time limit than to break out of the zone and be forced to start over. Because the cost of getting in and out of a zone, where we are most productive, is rather high, we avoid distractions that we might naively think instantaneous and therefore we could multitask on. A quick email check might take a second or two, but when we see a new email we can’t avoid reading the subject line, which makes us think about the sender, the topic, and what it might contain. At this point we’re practically out of our zone and have forgotten what we were doing. Going back to our task might take us a good several minutes to pick up where we’ve left of, often because we can’t remember where we had gotten and have to waste valuable time finding the exact point of departure.

This is not unlike what happens when interrupted while reading (if we don’t mark it immediately, that is). We lose track of not only the last thing we read (often the sentence is interrupted midway,) but more importantly where we were in the text. Marking the text on the screen is easier than in a printed book or even on a reader (and please, please, don’t dog ear any book — you are almost never its last reader). I’m often surprised by how off the mark I am when guessing where I was in the text when I try to resume, even when knowing the page. Like the legendary boiling frog unaware of the predicament, we too progress through a task in small increments that, like the water heating up the frog, feels seamless and continuous. We don’t notice where we are unless we step back and compare a previous stage to the current. Interruptions force us to repeat a number of steps or, worse, to jump ahead and, after wasting some more time, realize that we have skipped too ahead prematurely and promptly have to backtrack. This process is often repeated multiple times until we are back to the same mental state where we had been interrupted, only after wasting valuable time.

Ⅲ. Time it

Humans are notoriously bad at guessing and estimating. We are especially bad because of the illusion that we can pinpoint the value, duration, measure etc. of anything familiar to us. If you doubt this, try to guess the height of colleagues or friends whose heights you don’t know, but have met countless times. Write down your estimates and then ask them to measure and compare notes. Worse still is when you try to sort the heights of people you’re thoroughly familiar with. You soon realize how hard it is just to place them in relative order to one another, which should be vastly easier than putting a number on their height or weight. Try the same with virtually anything and you’ll see how short you fall from the mark. Of course we aren’t equally bad at all estimations, some are harder than others. The point is that if you were to say how much time you spent on emailing, surfing, chatting, etc. you’d find out that you aren’t accurate at all, that is, after you’ve timed these activities.

By timing how long we spend on different activities we get a more accurate picture of the costs of each activity. This enables us to better prioritize and manage them. It might feel that doing the laundry takes forever, but in reality it probably takes a comparable time to, if not less than, checking Facebook or Reddit. Even though the latter feels like a quick five-minute task, the reality is that we probably spend dozens of minutes at a stretch with no commitment for more than a few minutes. Laundry, on the other hand is certainly tedious and menial, but more probably than not limited in duration. Where the internet is open-ended and can end up taking us into its endless labyrinths and to bizarre corners, laundry, by comparison, can hardly vary much at all. Understandably, the latter’s monotony is the source of its being boring and the former’s open-endedness its source of intrigue and excitement.

By tracking the time we spent on different activities, even if imprecise and by means of checking the time before and after and mentally assessing the difference, the relative feel of how big each task is will change. I know it will take me a good 4 hours to assemble a brand-new computer from its boxed parts to getting to my mailbox, precisely because I’ve kept track every time I had to do it. Although it is a fun activity, I know by the end of it I’d be as tired as at the end of a long workday. Similarly, I know I spend far more time on email than it felt like before measuring. This made me think of ways to reduce this time. One solution that was very productive was to minimize both the number of times I hit reply and the length of my response.

Conclusion

There is no shortage of task management software or sites. But one doesn’t need anything fancy. In most cases one doesn’t need more than a simple editable list (a.k.a. a text editor, or a notepad,) and a timer. I’ve avoided making suggestions for software or sites because the research is part of the learning curve (but don’t procrastinate on it). It’s also best to find the tool one is best comfortable with. I will say thought that I’ve often used sticky notes and text editors to track daily tasks. They are as effective as the more complex project management tools, especially for short-term or daily tasks.

The above three points are as simple as one can get in terms of organization. Before you start a day’s work, go through the top things you need to accomplish and write them down. You can prioritize quickly if that is easy or given. Break down the more complex tasks into sub-tasks that you can accomplish in a stretch of 20 minutes or so. Tackle them one by one in Pomodoro sittings and keep track of how much time they are actually taking. Be conscious of distractions and make notes of them, preferably next to the tasks.

By planning, knowing where one is going, controlling the effort, and monitoring progress, we are as organized and methodical as we can be, with minimal overhead.

Try it out, and share your experience.

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Jul 172011
 

Some of us have to work a good 16 hours a day, or more. Some split this time between school and job, multiple jobs, job and hobby project or spend it on their one-and-only job or startup. After a while, waking up becomes a struggle. Disoriented, exhausted and sleep deprived. We work hard because we care. Because we want to make the best of our projects, be it personal, academic or professional. Here are some of things that I found improve this situation significantly when working on major projects for long periods. This isn’t be-all, end-all advice – there is no such thing. They are just good guidelines. I know, they are so simple and sound so obvious.

Disclaimer: I didn’t include exercise and other healthy activities. This isn’t medical or lifestyle advice. It’s just good notes to make the best of a major and important project. If this doesn’t work for you, don’t blame me.

Sleep

This is the single most important factor that can make or break. Get a good night sleep. It’s false economy to pull all-nighter and wake up late. Reverse it; sleep when you feel sleepy and wake up early. If you find it very hard to wake up and/or work, get as much done before sleep, but don’t overdo it. Try to improve your morning performance and shift your work hours towards the morning. Sure, sometimes we need to send some mail or prepare for a demo. Working for extended hours in those cases is probably fine, but make sure you make up for them soon. If possible, finish the absolute minimum before sleep and get the rest done in the morning. When we disrupt our sleep patterns by pulling all-nighters, it’s harder to make up for them.

The trick to good sleep is first and foremost to get in bed in time. Your body will give you the right cues, just pay attention. If you feel sleepy, go to bed, don’t wait 15 minutes to finish something. Be ready for it. Anticipate when your body will be ready to sleep, make sure you’ll be ready by then. Don’t do last-minute things like washing teeth, sending mails, setting up wake up alarms etc. right before stepping in bed. Get these done beforehand. If you miss that perfect time, your body will find it harder to get into deep sleep, which is the most regenerative type.

A sleepy mind with all the right answers will probably perform worse than an alert and fresh one with half the answers. Work hard only when you can afford being sleepy and slow. Never overwork before a big days like exams, interview, client meeting, project planning etc. Finish all the work at least 2 nights before the big day and make sure you get baby-sleep during the last couple of nights. Remember that our long-term memory needs deep sleep to accumulate new information. Last-night study will not only leave you sluggish and out of your zone during exam, but you won’t remember most of what you study a few hours later.

Exceptions are pretty much the norm. Plan for the long-term, not for every situation. Try to get an average of 7 hours of sleep per night during an average week. Figure out your natural average for yourself, it may be different. Sleeping also boosts our immune system.

Corollary

Alternatively, if you can’t fall asleep, don’t try hard. Either get some work done until you’re sleepy (at which point leave everything and go to bed,) or read a book in bed until you sleep (but don’t sleep with your glasses and lights on.) Don’t spend a couple of hours tossing and turning in bed, instead use that time to get something done. If your eyes are tired, try listening an audiobook or some music.

Eat

Nutrition comes next. When trying to meet a deadline we might skip a meal or two, get junk food or just go on coffee or coke. If you can plan your day, and you know it’s going to be a long one, make sure you make room for a good full-meal. If you can go out for lunch break, do so. You’ll be able to get a decent meal and give yourself a break. This will give you both physical energy and have a recreational effect. You’ll get back refreshed. Avoid going on bad diet for long periods of time. Minimize coffee if possible. Drink some fresh juice, tea, hot/cold chocolate and other beverages, including water. Caffeine, like alcohol, is diuretic. It dehydrates your body. It’s effect in increasing alertness doesn’t last very long either.

Make sure you don’t go on an empty stomach to important meetings. Being hungry makes most of us edgy and easy to get irritated. It’ll probably make you impatient as well, which isn’t a trait you want to have when making critical decisions.

Make sure your body is getting essential nutrients. Your immune system is at its weakest when stressed and sleep-deprived. Make sure you’re not malnourished as well when going on a spree. So the-daily-pizza has to make room for other -more healthy- meals. Lunch breaks with nutritious meals will more than pay back when you don’t get bed ridden for a few days on end, or drag yourself to work for a couple of weeks with a red runny nose, when the flu season hits.

Corollary

Don’t over eat! Not being hungry doesn’t mean having a 110% full stomach either. This is especially true if you have to do mental and/or physical activity (as opposed to mechanical and tedious work.) Eating too much will get you sluggish and sleepy. Moderation is the key.

Don’t Drink (too much)

It’s well known that a bit of drink after a long day is a good relaxant. This works best with soft liquors like wine, martini, champagne and beer in small quantities. Consume hard liquor or excessive soft ones at your peril. Alcohol is actually known to disrupt our sleep patterns. It’ll dehydrate you, leaving you thirsty all night and give you a nice buzzing headache in the morning. So not only you won’t get a good deep sleep, but you’ll wake up tired and hungover. The best way to use alcohol as a relaxant is, after dinning, to drink no more than 100-150ml (half a cup) and, once you feel a bit buzzed, go to bed. The difference between half a beer and a full bottle will probably cost you the next day.

If you must, drink on Fridays or when you can afford to take the next day off. But don’t drink like there’s no tomorrow.

Take a Break

During a long day as well as during a long project, make sure you get refreshing power breaks. The lunch break outside the office is one such. Try to do something unrelated, even if on the same project or subject. I take coffee breaks (but I avoid coffee as such) when I get stuck or between tasks. This forces me to get up and stretch my muscles as well as socialize. The chances that I’ll be distracted are extremely high, which is the point of the break. However, make sure you won’t be dragged into something extended. Limit the break to 15-20 minutes max but typically 10. Socializing in person is a great way to do this, but don’t get into a global warming argument! Even talking about work will be refreshing. I tend to read a few pages from a non-technical book like popular science. Watching a funny sketch, video clip or reading a blog article is also a good way to get away.

Take power-naps if it’s your thing whenever you can. For some people who like napping even dozing off for 10 minutes during the day gives them a great boost. If you can’t nap, try stretching on a sofa and relax. Reading or listening chill music can also help you get a grip during a hectic day.

Every so often, take an early leave or a day off. Go do something completely different and unlike your daily habit. Even if you stay-in and sleep or go for a walk and watch a movie, you’ll get back to your project much more refreshed and enthused.

Corollary

Be wary of getting out of your zone. If you’re making progress and things are rolling like a well-oiled machine, don’t stop! In fact, avoid distractions at all cost. Being in the zone is when we’re most efficient and productive. Switch your IM to “Busy” or “Don’t disturb” status. Check email and get back to colleagues later. Make it clear when you don’t want to be interrupted unless the building is collapsing so your colleagues will be mindful. When taking breaks or power-naps, be very aware of the time. Set alarms and go back to work when your time is up. If you’re too tired to work, then either go get some sleep, discuss work-related topics or do some other mentally undemanding and mechanical task. Any progress is better then idle chatter or web surfing (aka watching funny pics.)

Don’t Work Too Hard

In some professions keeping up with industry can be critical for success. Burying one’s head in some project for extended time might not be the wisest of decisions. Don’t neglect the rest of the world. Working too hard on your project will probably have diminishing returns beyond some point anyway. Instead, try to keep your proverbial finger on the trends pulse. Spend some time reading the news, read on similar projects, success and failure stories, blogs with insightful technical and non-technical information. Look for smart ways to take shortcuts and reuse other successful platforms or components. Look for good patterns and stories from people like yourself. Keep an eye on competition, both existing and potential. But don’t overwhelm yourself with news and obsessive competition tracking. Get back to your project and get focused.

Working too hard may not be the most efficient way to make a successful project. Be thoughtful of the alternatives. Having a well-rested and fresh mind will certainly help with this.

Bottom-line (TL;DR)

  • Sleep well: makes you fresh, active and in your zone. But if you can’t sleep, get some work done.
  • Eat well: replenish your energy and nutrients. But don’t overeat.
  • Don’t drink: not when you have to work the next day. But half a pint before sleep may help.
  • Take a break: refresh and clear your mind. But don’t get carried away.
  • Don’t work too hard: keep updated on news, competition and advice from others. But don’t overwhelm yourself.
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