In a previous post, I shared my experience with upgrading my living space, and as I mentioned then, the experience has inspired me to take a closer look at productivity as a whole. Although I am already fairly organized, I know there is still plenty room for improvement.
And as I dive down the rabbit hole and nerd out on productivity tools and frameworks over the next couple of weeks, I will share ideas on how to improve how we get stuff done and stay on track with all our concerns.
I find myself asking questions like. What does my workflow look like now? How do I stay on top of everything? How do I become more effective and efficient? How do I ensure I do the things that usually tend to fall through the cracks? What systems do I have in place to capture all the ideas, tasks, requests I have and be able process them well?
How do I read more and retain information? How do I gather my notes in such a way that it is easy to access and apply those insights? How do I keep up to date with all my projects and make sure they are moving forward?
A lot of questions I’m sure I will have a lot of fun trying to answer. But even now, there are some quick ideas I can think of to help take your productivity to the next level, and make yourself even more effective.
Have a prep/planning day
If you don’t already do this, then you need to set a day and a time to plan your week. Every week.
If you are able to build the habit of checking in with your goals, intentions, tasks and priorities weekly, you stand a much better chance of staying aligned to it over the long term.
This is the time that you take to review the week that has passed and look over the one coming. You can do this on a Sunday before the week officially starts, or on Monday morning, or whenever really. As long as it happens every week.
In this time you get to empty your mind of all the reminders, and tasks and requests that have been swirling up there and objectively sift through them to prioritise the most important things to get done in the coming week.
This is absolutely crucial if you want to keep your plates properly juggled.
Make your calendar your best friend
I’m not yet great at this, but in my research, I have seen quite a few people swear by having a calendar. It is a vital component to your productivity and time management.
The idea is to make sure that every appointment, call to make, birthday, event to attend, you want to make sure all of that is captured in your calendar so you don’t forget. Instead of having to keep all of that in your head, all you need to do is pull up the calendar and be reminded of what you need to do by when.
Another powerful use of the calendar is to use it to time block. You can actively plan your day hour by hour the day before according to your prioritised todo list, and actually block off time for each task. So when you start the day, you have a clear game plan, and at any point in the day, you know what you should be working on.
Obviously you can move things around as you need them, but having a plan in the first place is invaluable in putting you in control of your day. It eliminates distractions and keeps you focused and accountable.
Organized productivity boils down to a few main principles
When trying to be organised and productive, people often worry about the details – what tools to use, what apps to download, what is the best notebook, etc. But truth is, the tools are less important than the underlying system and principles.
There are a few main principles to getting things done, those boil down to – capturing, filtering, scheduling, evaluating. You want to be able to reliably and consistently data dump all requests, tasks and ideas into appropriate apps and notes. You want to be able to filter and prioritise all that stuff. Then you need to be able to schedule the most important tasks or steps of your ongoing projects. And you also want a system where you can monitor what you are doing and review and adjust as needed.
Once you have these main things in place, it doesn’t matter exactly what tools you use, just that they work for you.
Invest in your tools
Whatever you do for work or creativity, there are the tools of your trade that you use regularly. You probably use a computer, you might need a camera, or a ring light, or some notepads and pencils. Evaluate what you do, and what you need to get it done. Invest in improving your tools from time to time. Get things that are durable, as top of the line as you can afford, as nice as you can afford. If you enjoy using your tools, you will enjoy your work.
The day I switched from a PC based set up to Mac was a game-changer for me personally and I haven’t looked back since. Getting an extra screen boosted my workflow and productivity. The Logitech MX3 mouse I started using this weekend is already having quite the impact on the way I work and design.
Invest in your tools and leverage them to become better at what you do.
It is all about reducing friction
I mentioned this already in my post about upgrading your environment, but it bears repeating here. What being organized and improving productivity is all about is making it easier and more fun to do what we need to get done.
Having a neat and clearly define place for everything allows you to easily find what you need when you need it. Using your calendar allows you to free up mental space to actually be creative or problem solve with the peace of mind that nothing is falling through the cracks. Having a proper note taking system allows you to access the information you need when you need it. Designing and fine-tuning your workstation to your needs make its easier to plug in and get things done.
Keep evolving your productivity practice and finding ways to reduce friction and you will find it easier to breeze through your work and reclaim the time and space you deserve to enjoy life.
Over the past two weeks, I have shared some ideas I’ve learned around time management. But now let’s turn our attention to the actual time we spend working. How can we supercharge those sessions so we get the most out of them?
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about the fact that our attention spans as humans have been negatively impacted by the plethora of opportunities for distractions we have. Our digital devices are especially guilty of this, keeping us returning to the feeds, looking for notifications, mindlessly scrolling for pings of interest.
As a result, it might be hard for a lot of people to sit down and really get hard things gone. This can feel like a herculean task. For you however, the intrepid creative, the entrepreneur, the professional, it has to be a skill you cultivate. These are table stakes.
For our success, we need to do the work, and we need to do it well. And the quality of our creative or productive output hinges greatly on what we are bringing to the table. It depends on our working and creating habits.
In Cal’s words:
To succeed you have to produce the absolute best stuff you’re capable of producing—a task that requires depth.
How we engage with the work would be different for everyone. We all have different jobs and responsibilities. And from our school days to our career years, we develop our own styles of being productive and getting things done. However, we can always improve.
Let me share some ideas, that might help give you the edge.
Set aside the time and space you need
This is a fairly obvious no brainer. Of course if you need to get things done, you should set aside the time and place to do them. How else would you get anything done? The work requires your focus and complete attention, you have to make space for that.
The time you set aside for the work should be protected as such. If you need to go deep, you will need no distractions, and nothing barring an emergency should pull you from this sacred time.
Lately, I have found it useful to time block my calendar. So when I plan my week, I am able to set portions of each day that are dedicated to certain activities. These times sections I block away to work are sacrosanct.
As a person who dictates his own hours, having these set times dedicated to work allow me to fully step away from work when I’m outside that time. As long as I’m respecting the work time and making the most of it. I can enjoy my down time guilt free. And when I’m on the clock, I’m free to completely throw myself into the work.
You must also set aside the space. You need a room, a table, an area that is dedicated to your work. There you keep your tools, your materials, all you need to get things done. Once you are in this space you are primed for work and productivity.
You could work from anywhere you like but if you are constantly working in spaces not set up for productivity like a living room or your bed, you will dilute the energy of those spaces blurring the lines between work and life.
It is important to set up a dedicated work area in a way that inspires and enables you to do your best work.
The aim is flow
To have a truly excellent work session, what you are really trying to do is to get to the state of flow – that mental state where you are fully engaged. A place where the work isn’t too hard or too easy. It is the right amount of challenge and it holds your focus.
Once you are locked in this state, your fingers glide over the keyboard, your brush strokes move of their own accord, your ideas emerge freely. This is the state of flow. This is the place where you do great work.
How productive our work sessions are, are dependent on how quickly we can get into flow, and how long we allow ourselves to stay in that state.
If we know how to activate our flow state regularly, then we are able to readily access a deep well of productive energy.
The key to this is a distraction free environment, or at most the right level of distraction. We have to make sure that we are not disturbed. So switch off the phone, switch off the TV, get off the apps, and give your full attention to what you are doing.
Be prepared. Have everything you need around you when you get started – tools, books, paper, snacks. Then get to it.
Over time you will even build a pre-work routine, a ritual that says to your subconscious, we are ready for business. It could as simple as brewing a cup of tea, or having a quick 5 min meditation session to put your mind in the right frame to dive in.
Have a clear agenda / Aim at one thing
Now, you could just jump into the huge pile that is your task lists and just start doing stuff. That is certainly one way to get things done. And if there are not too many things to do, eventually you will get to the end of your todo list.
But often we have numerous balls in the air, multiple projects running, things to worry about and get done. There is no way we can clear out every thing in one sitting. How we do make the most of the time we have to work?
Well you have to be organised as you would imagine. You would need a clear picture of all the things that you need to get done and how they fit to the larger picture.
So for today, for this session, you would need to decide what is most important and prioritise accordingly.
What are the things you could do that would pay the most dividends in the future, or would make things easier or more streamlined? What actions or tasks will actually move you forward? Decide what that is and then get it done.
Being organized and having your priorities clear will have you aimed at the right targets and directing your energies across the right lines. So when you sit down to work, you can confidently dive in, knowing that you are working on the right things.
Take breaks / Stop when there’s still more in the tank
Once you start getting into flow regularly, it gets tempting to stay in that space for as long as possible. It can get addictive. But to be able to work consistently over the long term, we have to respect breaks.
Over the years, many productivity techniques and methods around this idea have sprung up, like the Pomodoro method which advocates that you cycle between 25 mins of work and 5 mins of break for about 4-5 cycles at a time.
A rhythm like this can be useful while barrelling down a day of productivity. But the actual time spans are up to you. Decide what a healthy chunk of work time is for you. It should be just long enough for you to make tangible progress on a task. For me that tends to be about 45 mins of work balanced with 15 mins of break.
Many of us spend all our times in front of screens or seated on desks. The breaks allow us to move the body a bit, stretch and get the flow pumping. Consider getting some sun, or a quick workout in.
Ernest Hemingway in an interview about his creative process, advocates for writing until ..”you get to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.”
It could be worth the try, leaving something in the tank everyday, so the next day you have a clear springboard to launch from, a state to continue the work from.
Make it fun
Once again, make it fun. Find ways to make your work time enjoyable.
You could do it with snacks. rewarding yourself with candy or crisps after each task is done.
You could do it with friends, finding ways to turn the work into a game and compete for something. Or perhaps work along to your favourite music, or play something you don’t have to focus on in the background – an old show, a documentary.
A favourite of mine is playing video game retrospectives in the background while I work. Some of them can be up to 3 – 5 hours long and I get to learn about a game series and its nuances while I’m focused on something else.
Always improve and kit out your workspace. Make it nice, make it inspiring, make sure you are equipped with the things you need to succeed, as much as possible.
This would make it fun and enjoyable to be in your space. The more you do that, the easier it would be to work and be productive. The easier it is to create your best work.
In part 1, I shared some ideas on how to manage your time as a creative, or even as any working professional. These were more principle based – high level concepts to consider, ideas like making the time, managing energy, and using time blocks.
This week, I’ll go a little deeper and share some more, granular tips on how you could manage your time better or squeeze productivity out of the hours you already have.
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Respect the Pareto Principle
The Pareto Principles states that generally speaking, 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts. So, for instance, 80% of our income probably comes from 20% of our activities or clients. In lieu of this, we have to take stock of our activities and efforts and figure out which ones actually bring in results and learn how to maximise those.
This is very similar to the idea of the ‘One Thing‘ from Gary Keller. Amongst all the different things we have to do, there is probably one thing in the mix. The one thing we could do that would make everything else easier or irrelevant. The one thing that would move things forward the most. The one thing that would have the most impact.
We all have many things we have to do in a day, from the important and the urgent to the little niggling admin details of our lives. The more we can focus on and put our best energies on the most effectual tasks of our day, the more success we will encounter.
Reclaim lost time
So if you really wanted to be that guy and squeeze more out of the hours of your day, you could consider making some of the things you do dual purpose at least. The easiest spaces to do this are with things like travelling, cleaning, laundry, relaxing – activities that keep your hands busy while your mind has the space to wander.
That could be the time to get some calls in, or listen to a podcast or ebook, or follow a course.
Or if you are working on a big project and have chunked it down to its component parts and tasks, you could fit some of those smaller pieces into little pockets of time that you find empty like waiting at the Doctor’s office, or in between meetings.
Make your down time productive
An idea I learned recently from Captain Sinbad was this concept of making your down time productive. And you do this by connecting the thing you do for fun or to relax to what you do productively.
As a YouTuber, he is interested in film, and everything that goes into the process of making movies. So on his down time, he likes to watch specific movies from directors he admires. While he is enjoying some time relaxing, he is also watching out for tips, dissecting cinematic styles, and learning as he is watching.
As an entrepreneur you could favour movies or fiction books about business people or great people of history as a way to inspire yourself while chilling. Or you could watch documentaries for fun. That is a great way to relax and learn something new.
Beware Parkinson’s Law
Parkinson’s law states that tasks will swell up to fill the time allocated to it.
If you have 3 months to write an essay, it will probably take you all that time to write the essay. Unless you are truly disciplined and able to manage your efforts properly, you would probably procrastinate to the last moment and then get it all done in an all nighter session the day before it is due.
One way to combat this human tendency is to set artificial deadlines and limit the amount of time you have to do certain things. The shorter the time, the more you are forced to strip the task down to its core most important bits. You have no time to dabble and dwaddle or try to noodle and make things perfect and just so. With limited time, you just have to focus on getting things done.
Make it fun
This is another tip from Ali Abdaal. He maintains that the key to productivity lies in learning to enjoy what we have to do, or find ways to make it more interesting. That could be from inviting people to work with you or join efforts, to discovering ways to gamify the experience.
It could be as simple as pairing your work with the right music, so you are jamming along with your favourite tunes as you create. Or watching items on your todo list get scratched out as you knock out task after task.
You could also do this by building out your environment to be an awesome inspiring space that encourages you to do good work. Making it fun to be in your productive space.
All these little tricks and hacks can help us become more productive, more effective in the time we do spend working, and allow us the space to fit more of life and build a more fulfilling existence.
Looking over the past few weeks, a theme is emerging in regards to what I have been thinking and writing about. That theme seems to be around the subject of creativity – from reconnecting with passion, to reclaiming creativity for ourselves, to the different levels of creative thought we engage in.
I have been thinking about a lot about creativity because well, I am a creative, and it plays a big role in my career and in my personal projects and aspirations. Also since I’ve started to put out content on a regular basis again, I have been reflecting on the nature of creativity and creative production. Today I am focusing on time.
Time management is absolutely important. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, and the same 7 days in the week. Some people are able to fit in a crazy amount of work and productivity in that time, while some of us squander most of our time or at the least we don’t direct its use properly.
If we want to be successful and creatively fulfilled, we have to do the work. And there is a lot of work – researching, discovering, prototyping, producing, pitching. Doubly so if we are building a stack and have a lot of things going on.
How do we manage our time in a way that squeezes the most of the moments we spend on the grind? How do it do it in such a way that preserves our time for rest, our empty space?
The answers will vary from person to person, but here are some principles to think about.
Reject the ‘I don’t have time’ myth
I have a whole blog post on this, and shout out to Ali Abdaal’s productivity course for hammering this idea even further home for me.
The usual knee-jerk reaction or reason as to why we are not getting stuff done is the idea that we don’t have time. We reach for that excuse and mentally conjure up a fog of activities, meetings, and commitments that are preventing us from doing what we need to get done.
More often that not, it is really just that, an excuse. All we have is time, the real reason is that we are not using it properly. Sure, you might really have so many commitments and pressures on your time that it is hard to find time. But you have more control than you think you do.
You have to shift to the mentality of making time. You know what needs to get done. Make the time for it. Do an audit of your time. Discover all time you waste and redesign your schedule. Prioritise what is important. Say no to something else. Steal time somewhere. Wake up earlier. Go to bed later. Delegate stuff to someone else. Run away from the world for a bit. Do whatever you need to do to make the time.
Protect the downtime
We are not fine-tuning our productivity and managing our time better so we can spend all our time working. Quite the contrary, we are trying to make sure we get things done while still being able to enjoy our downtime, our play, our leisure guilt free.
You need the cycles of productivity and rest to work at peak levels over the long term. If your work swells up to swallow up every second of your time, leaving you no time for yourself, no time for rest, for play, for contemplation, then you are probably doing too much, and not managing your time and energy well enough. Speaking of energy…
A lot of time management is energy management.
It doesn’t matter if you are an early riser or a night owl. What matters is understanding your energy patterns, your circadian rhythms and as much as possible aligning to that. Work when your energy is up and rest when your energy is low. Do the most important and focus requiring tasks first and out the way, then do rote things when you are a bit tired and fatigued. It is that simple.
Most people are freshest after waking up, do your most important work (the actual creative work that will move you forward) within the first 2-5 hours of your day, then schedule the more routine stuff like checking email, processing admin, having meetings to later in the day.
You can also batch similar tasks together and optimise your processes for greater efficiency. But direct your best energy to the most important things.
Build your life around the core important things
In The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Steven Covey likens our schedules to a jar, and our priorities as rocks and sand of different grades. If you put the sand first, then the rocks on top, you would not be able to fit in as much as if you had put the rocks in first then poured the sand in. It is a great analogy to the idea of scheduling your most important things first, and everything else around that.
What is truly important to you? What will actually move you forward? It is probably your work, the quality of your creation, the quality of your study, of your networking, of your habits and day to day. Make sure these things are scheduled into your life on a weekly basis. A block of time – an hour, or two, or six, whatever you can manage. This keeps you on track and makes sure that those important things are actually getting done.
Find a way to chunk and bake the steps to your goals and projects into your daily routine.
Block the time, protect the work
In our attention-deficit world, the ability to focus and get things done is more prized and more important than ever. So, put the phone away, shut off the internet if you can, close the door, let people know to leave you alone for a while, and then just get things done.
It might be difficult at first if you are not used to it. The desire to check the feed, to distract yourself is powerful. But substitute that with the eventual pull that is the flow state. As you learn to settle into your work and focus on it, you will learn to enjoy it more. You will find yourself creating, exploring, learning, until you are sucked in so far, it legit takes a lot to pull you out and distract you.
Those are 5 quick principles and ideas to help supercharge your productivity. In the next blog, I will explore at least 5 more more granular tips and tricks to help you manage your time more effectively.