A Simple and Dynamic Method for Consistent Productivity

Throughout my career, though I’ve managed to be productive in aggregate, I’ve always sought to be more consistent in my productivity.

How productive I am at a given moment seems driven by a combination of few factors:

  • How enthusiastic I am about the current tasks I’m supposed to be completing
  • Whether there are any upcoming strict deadlines
  • General life factors (have I slept well, have I been exercising, is there something stressful going on, etc.)

Since I obviously can’t rely on those things to always be in my favor, I’d like to learn to be able to make consistent progress on my tasks even when some of these factors are to my disadvantage. I’ve tried a lot of things, and some have worked for a time, but none of them have really stuck.

About a month ago I started a new system that I really like, and I hope I will stay with it.

The system is as follows:

  1. At the beginning of the day, create one goal that I have to accomplish that day. I write the goal at the top of a piece of paper. The goal needs to be specific enough that I can definitively say when it’s done, and it needs to be completely realistic for me to finish it that day, so that I can say “Yes, I can definitely do this. No excuses”. It also needs to be significant enough that at the end of the week, even if I only did those goals, I would still feel like I’m making some consistent progress. Typically the goals I choose are things that might take one to two hours of focused effort.
  2. Only do one thing at a time, and log what I’m doing as I go. Before I start a task, I write down what I’m about to do. When I finish the task, I check it off and write the next bullet point. If something comes up while executing the task, like realizing I have a question I need to ask someone, instead of asking them right away, I will write down a “TODO” in-line in my log and box it to come back to later. So if the task is “Check email”, I write down “Check email”, open my email, read it and execute only small tangential tasks (so, e.g., I don’t see an email about a code review and then get distracted and go do the code review), and when I’m done, I quit my email and check off my task. I do the same for Slack, which means I don’t leave it open in the background. If I take a break, I write “Break” and check it off when I’m done and come back to my desk. I write my big goal at the top of the page and when I finish it, I box it and check it off for some extra satisfaction. At the end of the day I write DONE and box it, to get some closure.
  3. Leave my phone in the other room while I’m working. It seems that I really do have to be physically separated from it by a significant distance to keep from being distracted by it.

That’s it! No need to plan my day in advance, or to block off specific times to work on things. I don’t pick my goals for the week ahead of time. I just sit down, choose my goal and write it down, and then start cranking. I think I’ve been more efficient for the past week and a half than I’ve ever been.

Here are a few reasons why I feel like it works well for me:

  1. Even when I’m on Slack or email, I’m focused on only doing that, so it doesn’t just feel like I’m messing around or bouncing around between things.
  2. Having to write down what I do before I do it makes me aware if I start to get distracted and do something I’m not supposed to be doing at that moment. Usually I catch it pretty quickly and get back to what I’m supposed to be doing. It also gives me a freedom from having to make any other kind of decisions at that moment.
  3. Checking things off as I go makes me feel great. It’s constant feedback that I’m making progress.
  4. It’s completely flexible. In the past I’ve tried blocking off my schedule in advance, but it’s impossible to predict exactly how long things will take. This way I just make consistent progress, no matter what. If I want to take a break, I do so, with no guilt, because that’s what I’m supposed to be doing at that moment, and I know that when I sit back down I’ll be back working and being productive and focused again.
  5. Knowing that I have a single thing to get done that day gives me some closure and a known stopping point, which both makes me work more than I might if I didn’t have a stopping point and also makes me feel better when I’m done, because I achieved what I set out to achieve. It also is motivating because even if I really didn’t feel like working I could say “It’s okay, I just have to finish this one thing”, but typically that’s enough to get over the hurdle and get into the zone. Also, if I finish the goal early, I feel more relaxed the rest of the day knowing that I’ve already accomplished what I set out to.

Overall, I’m excited, and hopefully there’s something in here that will be helpful for you too!

One thought on “A Simple and Dynamic Method for Consistent Productivity

  1. Riveting. I love checking boxes. I wish I could check them forever. Each one is like a long exhale.

    The last time I can remember working like this is grad school, which had a pretty different workflow. Every day I would wake up in a panic because I would realize I didn’t know anything at all, and would sit at my computer and say to myself, “Alright Alec, come up with something so you don’t piss off your boss.” That worked okay, I actually spun a lot of good material out of palpable fear.

    In the end I settled on quitting when I knew exactly what I’d do the next day. In your system it’d be like taking out tomorrow’s fresh page and writing that TODO at the top of it.

    If I get distracted I can’t work. That’s why I’m on my WiFi fast. I swear every time I get a text it’s like someone shuffling all the papers in my mental workspace. No, it’s worse, it’s like dragging their arms through my house of cards. I too need the physical separation because even the thought of receiving a text from someone I like can just fuck up the whole operation.

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