21 Dragons

In Search of Wisdom

Top 10 Plus 1 Productivity Lessons of 2008

The top 10 productivity lessons I learned in 2008 that helped me work faster, better and happier. The short version for the busy folks:

  1. Work at What You Give a Damn About.
  2. Knowing is Not Doing.
  3. Decide What Has a Place in Your Life and What Doesn't.
  4. Multi-Tasking is a Big Fat Lie.
  5. Create, Don't Freeload.
  6. Tackle the Small Problems First.
  7. Respect Your Unconscious.
  8. Money is Renewable, Time is Not.
  9. People are not Schedules.
  10. 80% of Value is in the Habits.
  11. Make Ideas

And here we go with the long version!

1. Work at What You Give a Damn About

I find that I've done my best creative work when I do stuff that has real meaning for me. Maybe I'm a spoilt knowledge worker diva, but I can't do banal, uninteresting stuff that doesn't make a difference.

But beyond personal satisfaction, this is about making personal meaning – and this is real regrets-at-your-deathbed level stuff here. It's just stupid to be productive for productivity's sake; do you really want to run faster and harder up a ladder that's propped up against the wrong wall?

Find out where you want to contribute to most, and then productivity the heck out of it. Now cue quote from famous person, in this case Steve Jobs:

I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

2. Knowing is not Doing

A big mistake, especially for a nerd like me, is assuming that just because I've read something, I know it. Big mistake. You don't know unless you do, and unless what you know gets translated into action, you're just indulging in some serious mental masturbation. Which is summed up in this Papua New Guinea proverb I love:

All knowledge is only a rumor until it's in the muscle.

3. Decide What Has a Place in Your Life and What Doesn't

In a world of finite time, energy, attention and the 80/20 rule, I've found that when I procrastinate on what things mean to me and what to do about them, that's when I create lingering anxiety over what needs to get done in my life.

On the other hand, when I make quick, hard decisions over what has a place in my life and what doesn't, i.e. what deserves to take my time, energy and attention, that's when I free up my time, energy and attention to only do things that have meaning for me, and that translates into increased clarity and peace of mind.

This isn't about being a Negative Nancy and saying no to life's opportunities. It's about knowing where you want your life to be headed and cultivating what will add to that vision and ruthlessly pruning what won't.

4. Multi-Tasking is a Big Fat Lie

Maybe I’m getting older and brain cells are dying, but I can’t multi-task as well as I used to. Or maybe it’s because I’m a man and we’re not supposed to be as good at it as women. Or I’m focusing much better at work now and finally feel the negative effects of doing a lot of things all at the same time.

Either way, multi-tasking was a big no-no for me in 2008. Instead of doing many things at once, I realized what multi-tasking really was; shifting attention amongst many things really quickly. And that didn’t lead to doing good work. Doing good work came from taking long, deep moments without distraction, focusing like a laser to get into flow.

5. Create, Don't Freeload

It’s way easier to sit back, relax, and wait for things to happen than to go out there and sweat to make them happen. But in the real world, ain’t no one gonna hand you a million dollars for being a zero contributor.

To be honest, I’ve been a slacker before, which is why this was one of the big lessons for me in 2008. I would bitch about problems at work, stupid rules and regulations, point out holes in people’s ideas – a regular Negative Nancy. Until I realized that this was helping none, and essentially, bitching was just mouthing off at the problem and expecting someone else to take care of it. There was no personal power in that.

So yes, 2008 was the year I realized that I had to be the change I wanted to see in the world (Gandhi). To give what was missing (Marianne Williamson). To contribute instead of mooch (Steve Pavlina). This involved change on my part; assuming that nobody else would do it if I didn’t, to offer suggestions together with criticisms, to cut the bitching out of my life.

Don’t be a Negative Nancy, no one likes a Negative Nancy.

6. Tackle the Small Problems First

When I was a kid, my math teacher used to say that in an exam, we should always skip over the hard problems first and do the simple ones first. That way, we don’t waste valuable cycles on stuff that we might not even complete.

It’s a big duh, but I never thought about applying that to the working world until recently. Got a big project I have no idea how to start? Stop the paralysis of analysis and break off small chunks to work on. This article giving me too much grief? Skip to the next one that I can dash off much more quickly.

Oddly enough, the small hits of achievement from doing the smaller, easier tasks help boost morale, motivation and inspiration to tackle the bigger ones.

7. Respect Your Unconscious

I get stuck on ideas sometimes, and since my full-time job is a writer, writer’s block is something that I’ve had to deal with a few times in 2008. But I’ve found that unless I was on a tight deadline, it was okay to be stuck. It was okay to go an unproductive day where all I churned out were shitty first drafts. It was okay because I recognized that shitty first draft days weren’t permanent, that they didn't mean I was a shits writer and my life wasn't all shitty because of one shitty day.

I can’t claim to know how the brain really works, but I’ve found that sometimes when the conscious mind is really stuck, it’s totally okay to take time off doing whatever project and just go do something else, because the more unproductive response is to keep throwing your mind at it.

(A definition of insanity? Keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. If the definition works for mental institutions, it’ll probably work for the workplace hur hur.)

Sometimes a great idea hits me when I’m doing something totally unrelated. Sometimes, by the time I’ve come back from a tea-break/sleeping on it/whatever, the block clears up and the ideas flow a lot more smoothly. I don’t know how it works, but I figure if I’ve got two minds (the conscious and unconscious), might as well put both of them to work.

8. Money is Renewable, Time is Not

I kept thinking that I work for money, and money is good and important. But in the longer run, money is a renewable resource, while time is not. So for me, I’d rather make money to free up time, not burn more time to make money.

9. People are not Schedules

Plans can be made carefully and thoughtfully, but they will always be waylaid by other people. The question is; is what this person wants from me now more important than what I was planning?

People are not tasks and schedules. They’re thinking, feeling, fellow human beings, and there are a lot of people I love and that love me. If someone I love wants to keep talking over lunch and that means I get an hour less to write on my blog, damn the blog – I’ll keep the human being.

10. 80% of Value is in the Habits

This is a big one, but a long one (double entendre!) which is why I’ve left it to the end.

The Pareto Principle says that 80% of your results, or the value you create, come from 20% of your effort.

The numbers in real life aren't that hard and fast, but the numbers aren't the point. The principle in effect is.

The 80/20 rule was something I thought about really hard in 2008. Was what I was doing right now giving me the most bang for my buck? What was I doing where 80% of my effort was only giving me 20% of value? How could I get more by doing less of the 80-effort/20-value (80e/20v) stuff and more of the 80-value/20-effort (80v/20e) stuff?

And I discovered that while I could stop doing the 80e/20v activities, the real life-changing results came from hacking systems and habits. This I discovered because I found out it was really hard to do.

As an example of a 80e/20v activity, I realized that one of the biggest time wasters in my work was transcribing interviews. A half-hour interview could take me as long as a day or a day and a half to do, all for a one-page article with most of the dialogue chopped off to fit, that most readers skimmed over anyway (80e/20v, lots of effort, little value created).

I experimented with hacking this first by hiring someone else to do the job, but there were three problems. One, while it freed up my day to do more 80v/20e work, it was money out. Second, the finished manuscript wasn't completely usable, as tech interviews can involve a lot of terms that a normal listener would miss. Third, I still had to edit the transcript down to a usable one-pager – still work!

After hacking around with various ways to do transcribing myself, I discovered that it was a lot easier for me to just do it myself, within certain variables. One, experience counts. While doing the interview itself, I had to talk, while highlighting in my head the parts I could use in the interview and the parts I couldn't. Two, I had to keep the interview to an optimal length, I found that half an hour was usually more than long enough. Talk enough, don't talk too much.

Three, I had to do it as soon as possible after the interview, so the dialogue was still fresh in my mind, and I knew where the hot points were without having to re-listen to the whole interview again. Fourth, it helped tremendously to begin with the end in mind. Before transcribing, I had to have an idea in my head already of what the finished interview would look like. Fifth, it used less time to listen over entire parts first, to decide whether they were worth transcribing, than to transcribe the entire part and then decide whether it was worth keeping.

This kind of activity-based optimization I found the easiest to install.

As an example of hacking 80e/20v systems, I realized that my previous blog Life Coaches Blog no longer had strong relevance in my life. It was a nice to keep, but under the ruthless 80/20 lens, it was clear that it wasn't giving me as much value as I was putting in.

It was an entire system that had to go, and I label it a system-wide change, because as soon as I decided to stop giving it time, energy and attention, a whole bunch of activities – writing, editing, designing, generating ideas, moderating comments, marketing – stopped.

I've discovered that a system change was much easier compared to a habit change. Once you dis-engage the system, a whole bunch of stuff just stops. 80e/20v habits, though, were a lot harder. Habits are there for a reason, you're used to doing them, they're ingrained and most of the time, like driving on a familiar route home, you do them without being completely aware you're doing them. The lights are on but you're not fully home, the muscle memory is sapping the time, energy and attention for you.

Because habits are so prevalent, this is an area for huge potential growth. Going for my weekly yoga lesson is a great habit. So is reading while commuting. Reading email two to three times is a great habit. These are all 80v/20e habits that I locked in 2008.

Surfing blogs and YouTube endlessly while procrastinating at work was not a good habit. There was a point at which I had to work on doing that, but after the starting threshold and enough repetitions it became a mindless habit. Besides being familiar, habits are also often oh so fun, which is why they hang around for so long.

The hard question for me in 2008 was; was I willing to sacrifice 80% of my time, energy and attention that could be spent elsewhere, to get this 20% of value?

11. Make Ideas

This is the idea economy. Anyone can be a spellchecker, but not everyone will come up with unique, creative and profitable ideas.

This is all stuff I'm still working on.