My productivity project

First, a disclosure: This entry's going to get a little personal.

For the last year, I've been frustrated by what I felt was a decrease in my productivity at work.  It wasn't from lack of effort.  I was still working about ten hours a day during the week.  I was busy all day.  I wasn't shirking my responsibilities.  But I'd still go home too often feeling like I hadn't accomplished anything really important or meaningful.  There were too many cool projects that were unfinished or not even started.  And in an effort to reclaim the personal life I gave up for much of the first ten years of Collegewise, I didn't want to start coming in earlier, staying later, or working for long stretches on the weekends.  That just wasn't the answer.   

But in the last month, I've gotten more done than I have in the six months before it. And this is in spite of the fact that I took a 7-day vacation during which I didn't do one second of work.  I'm feeling better about what I'm accomplishing every day, and it's showing in the quality and quantity of what I've been producing here. 

I am far from an expert on productivity especially since I've only recently started reclaiming mine.  But I thought I'd share a few discoveries I've made in the hopes that if anyone is feeling the same frustrations, maybe some of this will help. 

1.  Don't try to remember it–just write it down.

I've always been proud of my ability to keep everything in my head without writing things down.    I've never missed a deadline or an important appointment.  Remembering without writing it down has always worked for me.  Secretly, I thought it made me smarter than people who spent all day checking off to-do lists.  

But remembering everything was taking up an awful lot of my mind's space.  My IQ doesn't break the bank, and spending that mental energy recalling all the things I had to do meant there wasn't a lot of brainpower left to figure out the best ways to actually do them.  Writing things down has freed my average, over-worked brain from the responsibility of actually remembering.  Now I'm thinking about how to best attack the to-do lists, finding new approaches to the challenges at work, and dreaming up exciting projects I want to add to the list.  That–not the remembering–is the fun stuff.  And when it's all written down, I never feel overwhelmed, no matter how long the list is.  I can relax knowing that each item will be there waiting for me until I'm ready to deal with it.  I don't have to work at all to remember it.

2.  I've started recording voice memos.

Part of my "Don't try to remember it–just write it down" change is that now when I think of something I need to do and I'm not at work, I record a quick voice memo on my Iphone.  It takes two seconds to do it.  And then each morning, I listen to my voice memos and add them to my list.  Just like #1, it's a relaxing exercise to record it and not have to remember it. I feel a release of responsibility every time I record one.

3.  I close my email and turn off my web browser for 2-3 hour stretches while I'm working. 

Email wreaks havoc on my productivity.  I just can't resist reading a message the second it arrives, even if it's just some dopey reply to a Facebook thread I don't even care about.  I can't stop myself from responding to an interesting email right away.  I can't help but check my favorite blogs several times a day to see if there are any new posts (and yes, I visit Facebook more than I need to).  So the day becomes a constant stream of interruptions that kill my productivity, interruptions that I'm actually inviting into my life.

Now, I just eliminate the interruptions.  I shut off my email and my web browser for 2-3 hour stretches. It felt irresponsible to do that at first.  But then I realized something; I'm not a heart surgeon.  Nobody is going to die if an email to me goes unanswered for a few hours.  My favorite blogs (and Facebook) will still be there.  With all that shut off, I can do 2-3 hours of focused, door closed, get-after-it-like-I-mean-it kind of work.  Then when I feel my focus starting to wane, I'll take a 10-15 minute break and satisfy my email, blog and ever-present Facebook curiosity.   It's like a reward for myself before I get back to the work.

I can't understate what a difference this has made for me.  I'm not even popular enough to receive that much email, but even 2-3 messages an hour means 2-3 interruptions when the work and the focus just grinds to a halt.  I can't turn focus on and off like that.  I have to get into a zone and stay there.  And the best way for me to do it is to eliminate the things I know will distract me.

4.  For big projects, I'm using Cal Newport's Ice Bath Method.

When a project was so big and scary that I didn't even know where to start, I would inevitably leave it behind and divert my focus to more immediate things, like paying our bills, writing this blog, or ordering more coffee for the office (OK, that one really is critically important).  But the Ice Bath Method is working for me.  Here's the gist: 

  • Start with a half-hour brainstorming session where you think about the big ideas for your project.  Do it in an interesting place like a coffee shop (I use my office, but I close the door and open the blinds so I can look out the window).  Use only a pad of paper and a pen (read his post–there are good reasons not to use a computer).  For me, coffee is a big plus here, which is why I do this brainstorming in the morning.
  • Later that day, give one hour of hard focus to the results from your brainstorming session.  Make some short-term to-dos that need to happen first. 
  • Then leave it alone for at least a day before you come back to it and start attacking the list.

What happens is that instead of staring at an overwhelming project that you can't even imagine finishing, you build in time to actually think about the best way to approach it.  Then you can break it into little pieces and focus on what you have to do to move it forward, rather than being overwhelmed by how much you have to do to actually finish it.  Even a little momentum feels good.  Your results may vary, but it's working for me.  I have four big and progressing projects underway that I hadn't even started six months ago.    

5.  I'm figuring out how I work best.

Some people love to be busy all the time.  I'm not one of them.  Busy is great, but if I'm going to do good work, I also need some quiet time when I can think without distractions and focus hard on what I'm excited to do.  So if I need quiet time now, I take it.  I'll work from home some days when I know I need to make more progress on a project.  I'll take the 1-2 hours necessary to just think about a challenge at work and figure out how to best approach it.  Not everybody needs to do this, but it works for me, so I might as well capitalize on it. 

I'm not going to let myself off the hook by saying that I work ten-hours a day.  The number of hours you work doesn't mean anything.  I've worked at other companies where totally ineffective employees spent all their time talking about how many hours they were putting in, while the effective workers were getting a lot more done in a lot less time.  The hours don't matter; what
matters is how much I'm actually getting done, and how good the actual
work is.  So it's up to me to do whatever it takes to produce the best work I can.

I think most successful people can articulate how they work best.  Late at night, early in the morning, under pressure, without pressure, in teams, solo–the key is to find how you work best.  I've been thinking about that a lot lately and trying to spend as much of my work time as possible working in the ways I've found I can do it best. 

My productivity project is still a work in progress.  But I'm getting a handle on it now.  If you're experiencing similar challenges, this book and this blog were good starting points for me.