1. Planning - Todo List
Before you can start on work you need to know what you’re working on.
In order to know your goals for the day, you need to know your goals for the week etc. Ultimately you need to know your long-to-medium term goals and how best to work towards those in the short-term.
Things may change and you should be willing to adapt but having a daily todo list, based on your longer term goals, is a good place to start. When dealing with huge long term goals, the best place to start is to break them down into milestones that might be monthly or weekly and then break those down into smaller and smaller tasks until you have something that fits into a daily todo list.
Focus on the big items first. Don’t get lost in the nitty gritty small stuff.
The parable of HBS:
A very famous professor, was invited to Harvard Business School to give a lecture on Time Management His audience consisted of 15 of the most senior CEO’S of US firms. The lecture was one of five lectures in a daily workshop, organized by the Harvard alumni, for the CEO’s, all Harvard University graduates.
Standing in front of this group of elite executives, all anxious to hear his lecture, the professor looked around the room and quietly said : “we are going to do an experiment “ He put on the table in front of him, a medium sized empty glass aquarium.
Then, he put in the aquarium a dozen granite rocks, each a bit bigger than the size of a tennis ball. His admiring audience glanced at him quietly. When the glass container was filled with the rocks up to its top ,the distinguished professor looked at his audience and asked; “ IS THE CONTAINER FULL? “
All as one, agreed: “Yes ! Sure !“
The professor had this little cynical mysterious smile as he bent down under the table and raised holding in his hands a big bag full of rubble stones. He poured the content of the bag into the container, shook it in order to allow the rubble to penetrate between the bigger stones. When the rubble reached the top, he stopped. Now, the professor looked at his audience and asked again: “IS THE CONTAINER FULL? “
A confused whisper was the reaction and someone said; “ I think no !? “
“That’s correct “ said the professor. again he bent down under the table and raised holding in his hand another big brown bag filled with white sea sand. he poured the sand into the container , while shaking it well , the sand immediately filled all space between the rocks and the rubble. Here again the professor looked at his distinguished audience and asked : “IS THE CONTAINER FULL? “
This time the reaction was synonymous: “We think not!“
“That’s correct “ said the professor smiling… again he bent down under the table and raised holding in his hand a big jar filled with plain water. he slowly poured the water into the container , while shaking it well , the water was absorbed by the sand and immediately filled all space between the sand, the rocks and the rubble till the top.
The old professor looked at his students and asked: “what truth can we learn from this experiment?“
One of his bright students immediately responded: “In Time Management , even if you think you are over loaded with tasks, with some effort you can always squeeze in some more to do. ‘No, NO!!!’ Said the professor with impatience, “the big truth is quite simple, if you do not put in the big rocks first, you can never add them later on“
The professor stared at each of them quietly, and asked : "what are the big rocks of your life: Is it your health? Is it your fortune? Is it your career? Is it your family? Is it your vision and dreams? Vacation? big house? Sports car? Friends?"
“Imagine”, said the professor , “you are alone in the woods and you have only an axe to cut your way out. A smart man would dedicate his time to sharpen his axe first before he starts cutting. A stupid one will say he does not have the time to deal with the axe as there is too much work to do.
“ Therefore, as managers you must plan ahead and ask yourself: What are the big rocks at my work? Why am I here ? What is the purpose of my Job? When you find the answer to these questions, put them in first ! “
The old professor looked with compassion at his astonished students. Gave them a big smile and said: “set priorities ! do not waste your time on trivial matters…” He waved to them and left the room.
-- Source: modern day folk tale (text from here)
On most days we will have a lot of things we want todo. But only a few big milestones we want to cross. If we do every little thing first, e.g the email and the admin. We won’t have time left for the big tasks. The best technique is always to focus on cracking the big things early in the morning (when one's brains is most alert). Once all that is done then working on the smaller admin tasks should be easy.
Sometimes we also have to accept what’s irrelevant and cut that corner. Liberate your time. Occasionally we will have to say no to a useless meeting or just tell someone we’re too busy.
3. Just start it
Journey of many miles starts with a single step. The hardest thing is just starting
The hardest thing is often starting. After that the work flows relatively swiftly. I am however in the lucky position of mostly enjoying my work.
4. What to start? Micro todo list
Naturally, start with a prioritised todo list of everything for the day.
If I’m really struggling I make it as granular as possible. A micro todo list. E.g:
- Open Chrome
- Open documentation website
- Go to folder I’m working on
- Open relevant project files
- Open most recent dataset in excel
Writing the list is easy — you don’t have todo any of it. Just write the list and then get a cup of tea.
When you come back the list is a bunch of tiny tasks that are all trivially easy. Ticking those off builds momentum. Each task nudges you into the correct mindset to focus on the main task.
Once you’ve opened everything you need to work on, you have slowly begun to think about your work and now you should be left staring it in the face with no distractions.
The only thing left to do is work on it. Or is it…
5. Procrastination - Put that phone away!
Distractions are everywhere; but they don’t have to be.
Workout what your distractions are and put them away. Leave your phone in a different room. Mute notifications. Enable "Do Not Disturb" mode. Close WhatsApp web. Leverage "Screen Time" and other apps to limit your access to certain websites while you’re trying to focus.
During work you might hit a difficult period. At this point, unless you maintain focus, anything around you might start to seem attractive. When staring into the face of something hard and stressful, you will naturally tend to gravitate to what is easier and less taxing instead. Procrastination.
6. What is procrastination?
It stems from a natural instinct to protect our sense of self-worth. When we procrastinate we put off a big task we’re scared of failing. We may fear the negative emotions associated with failing. By putting off the task we avoid failing by never starting in the first place.
Checking social media is wired to be a fun escape. Other apps like news and email are especially difficult because they give us the false sense of being productive when actually we’re wasting time.
As deadlines loom and time passes this self-preservation tactic of procrastination becomes increasingly untenable. Often resulting in a last minute rush, cutting corners to produce something that we’re not ashamed of.
If only we had started on time and not delayed things so much:
- The work would be better
- The work would have been done earlier
- We would be less stressed
- We would have more time to relax and do things we value
7. Distractions – Background music?
People often change this up by listening to the radio or podcasts too. While on the one hand this can genuinely help to drown out other noise. Gripping podcasts or engaging music can become distractions in their own right.
With that in mind, good noise-cancelling headphones and listening to something that isn’t distracting can be a great way to drown out external distractions; and to prevent your mind from wandering too much.
Good background noise includes things like:
- Podcasts that aren’t too engaging
- They’re talking about something you already know about.
- A podcast you wouldn’t otherwise go out of your way to listen to.
- It’s an episode you’ve already heard.
- Background-music that isn’t too engaging
- General background noise
Some people say it also helps to tell colleagues that when their headphones are on it means 'do-not-disturb', please email or message instead. This is not always popular, but it can be an effective way to help avoid distractions from team-mates.
8. Deep work
Optimal work produced in a distraction free environment is what Cal Newport calls "Deep Work"
“Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
In his book he clarifies that anything worth doing requires this state of distraction-free focus, knuckling down and working on a task for ~4 hours without distraction. Really dedicating time to understanding and solving problems, expanding your mind and applying yourself.
Every time you get distracted you break your sense of flow and to start working again will take you a while to get back to your previous state
In short, working on a hard task for 4 hours straight will get it done. Working on it for 20 minutes at a time, while broken up by meetings and conversations will mean in aggregate it might take several days.
On the flip-side to deep-work sometimes it can be hard to just sit down and work for 4 hours straight. For example when writing this piece.
Another technique that can be helpful for starting is to just set a short timer and work for that duration before taking a short break. Normally this might be working for 25 minutes and then taking a 5 minute break. This is the pomodoro method.
Ideally regular breaks mean you get over the initial hurdle of starting work, as you have a break coming up soon.
Problems arise in that it can be hard to find something refreshing for the 5 minute. With social media it can be easy for a 5 minute break to become 20. Similarly it can sometimes be hard to start focused work immediately when the timer begins. In the worst-case an unproductive 25 minutes of work may result in only 5-10 minutes of tangible work followed by another 15-20 minute break.
To try and prevent this I usually start with 1hr 15m of work followed by a contained 5 minute coffee break. This can often help to get things started in the day. To be followed later in the day by 2 hour "pomdoros" that begin to facilitate deep-work.
Epilogue - why did i write this piece?
As I sat here being unproductive, it seemed like the perfect time to talk about productivity.