Productivity and efficiency have been passions of mine from a young age, I’m not sure why, but achieving as much as possible, as quickly and efficiently as possible has always driven much of my thoughts, actions, and plans. I was around 10 years old when I learned that there were people that specialised in worker productivity, which led me to researching process design, why restaurants are setup the way they are, the psychology of work and motivation, and a variety of other related topics.
This resulted in a life-long love of psychology, a passion for usable technology, countless hours studying and understanding user experience, and an almost obsessive focus on productivity improvements as a manager.
Inspired by a recent Twitter post, I’d like to share my thoughts, struggles, success, and tools that I’ve found useful over the years.
One of the best things you can do for yourself, and for others, is to invest the time to write, and do so in detail. I’ve written before about the importance of writing, and the choice of where you write, though I’d like to offer some specific points for this discussion.
Writing notes for yourself, or to be shared with others, is critical to being productive. Spending a few minutes during the course of your day can make a remarkable difference in terms of clarity, and your ability to come back and refresh your memory. Look at your notes as an extension of your mind, a way to gain additional storage of details, beyond what your mind can do alone.
I’ve used nearly every major note taking tool on the market, with varying degrees of success.
- Logseq - This is my tool of choice, and I’m a huge fan. It’s open-source, all storage is local (but can be synced in a number of ways), and evolving rapidly. In short, it’s a form of wiki that runs locally, it’s an outliner, so everything is a bullet-point list, creates daily journal notes, and it’s all in Markdown for easy editing. This just scratches the surface though, I can’t recommend it enough, if you haven’t tried it, you should.
- Roam Research - Before moving to Logseq, this was my tool of choice. It’s similar to Logseq in most of the important ways, though everything is hosted on their servers, and there’s essentially no transparency when it comes to the security of your data. Moving from a traditional note taking tool to Roam was a life changing experience, though a poor mobile experience, constant delays on promised features, and a bizarre and aggressive approach to dealing with users drove me away.
- Standard Notes - This is a hosted, but highly secure, solution for your more traditional note taking needs. I’ve been following the effort from its earliest days, and played a role in their first security audit - everything I’ve seen has been impressive. While it didn’t end up meeting my specific needs, I still highly recommend trying it.
- Evernote - I’ve used Evernote since 2009 (at the latest), and I still have a substantial amount of content in it. While their security pales in comparison to Standard Notes and Logseq, it’s a robust tool that is extremely useful, especially for certain use cases (such as searching with PDF files). It’s this ability to search that keeps it around in my digital life, though in a steadily diminishing way.
I’ve also used pen & paper (not having it away from the office became too annoying), GoodNotes on my iPad, and even a ReMarkable (which tends to just collect dust for weeks at a time). There have been numerous others that I’ve tried, though didn’t use enough to make this list.
What’s important, is that you find a tool, workflow, something that works for you, and use it consistently. Notes are only valuable when you are consistent in taking them, and referencing them, you have to stick to it to get the most value out of the time invested.
Brevity is the enemy of clarity. When trying to convey a point to another, brevity isn’t a positive attribute, it opens the door for incorrect assumptions and misunderstandings. I’ve written about the need for effective communication, for respectful communication, and will be writing about communication again soon.
While talking about taking more time when communicating may seem counter to the goals of an article on productivity, it really isn’t. Ineffective and insufficient communication take far more time, attention, and effort to correct than just getting it right the first time. Good communication takes time, time to write, time to read, time to understand - but in the long run, it’s a valuable investment.
The ability to focus on a task and see it through to completion is critical to being productive, and that’s not possible with constant meetings and interruptions. I strongly suggest that everyone should set 1 day a week aside on their calendar just to focus and get things done. No meetings (unless they are critical), avoid instant messaging, and check off as much as possible on your todo list.
For me, this day is Monday. There is an event on my calendar that blocks the entire day, the details of the event are public, and it’s listed as “Important meeting only please” - making it clear that in an emergency, I’m available. This gives me a full day to work on larger tasks, without the normal stream of interruptions.
If you work remotely, put your lunch break on your calendar. This ensures that you have time to eat, relax, refresh, and recharge. When working remotely, and especially across time zones, it’s difficult for people to know when they are stepping on lunch or other breaks, blocking that time on your calendar ensures that it’s respected.
I also have 15 minutes at the end of each day blocked out to update my notes, todo list, and prepare for the next day. This is essentially a wind-down task, allowing me to perform a brain dump before stepping away. The serves to ensure that I make time to do it, and is a reminder that it’s time to call it a day and wrap up.
The other benefit of blocking out time like this is it creates accountability, if only to yourself.
Time is precious, and so is mental bandwidth - to make the best use of both of these, prioritise tasks and limit what you try to focus on to just a few things, and the most important things, at any time. Once those are done, look at your list and prioritise again.
If it’s not that important, if it doesn’t move the needle, move it down to a lower priority. If you are trying to work on too many things during a day, you are likely setting yourself up for failure, frustration, and burn out.
If it get’s moved down too far, just drop it completely. Not everything is going to happen, some things are just going to get dropped.
Ruthless prioritisation is difficult, and it requires being able to say no, to push back, and to accept the limitations of your time. This is a skill that is developed over time, but an important one if you actually want to get things done.
You have natural, biological rhythms that define when your energy peaks and when it drops, and you need to understand these rhythms. You want to tackle your hardest tasks when you are at your peak, and save the easier tasks for the valleys. This ensures that you are at your best when you are tackling the hardest challenges.
For me, I use RISE, an app that tracks sleep, sleep debt, circadian rhythm, and other useful bits of data. This level of insight has helped me to better plan my days, and improve how I work.
You are an amazingly complex being, and most people really don’t understand how or why they do what they do. For example, why do people play the lottery? Because random rewards (intermittent reinforcement) are more effective than predictable rewards. Just as random punishments (intermittent negative reinforcement) can create a culture of fear and doubt more quickly than consistent punishments.
If you feel like your work is making a difference, the time will be more productive, where if you feel like it’s pointless or meaningless, it’s likely that the work will take longer and the time spent less productive.
If you suffer from an anxiety disorder (something amazingly common in the security industry), you may avoid tasks that would otherwise be simple and straightforward, because it’s uncomfortable. This can cause delays (which cause further issues), result in communication failures, and a variety of other problems. You need to understand how this impacts your work, how it impacts your motivation, and then you can begin adjusting for it.
If you suffer from ADHD, there are a variety of issues that can pop up, all of which impact how you work. You may be subject to hyperfocus, which causes you to get lost in a task, at the cost of all else. You may find it difficult to stay focused on a single task, causing you to jump around constantly. You may find it difficult to stay organised and manage time efficiently. As with the impact of anxiety, you need to understand how these symptoms impact you, so that you can adjust your day and your planning to compensate.
Only with an understanding of how you work can you optimise for what drives you, what holds you back1, what makes you want to start work in the morning, and what makes you count the minutes till the day is over. You are the only person that can build a workflow that’s suited for you, and makes you as productive as possible.
If a task is only going to take a few minutes2, just do it now. Don’t write it down, don’t add it to your list, just get it done and move on with your day. These little tasks take up mental bandwidth, slow down prioritisation, and add to the burden of making real progress.
Whatever you’re doing, you can afford those few minutes, and it’s an investment in making the rest of your day easier.
Don’t start with the hardest tasks, either your day, or a new project, start instead with easy wins, the low-hanging fruit. As you work through the easier tasks, you build confidence, understanding, insight, and context, so that when you do take on the hardest parts, your mind is in an ideal position to tackle it.
Saving the hardest for when you’ve built up confidence sets you up for success (a tip I learned from an art conservator), and when aligned with your peak energy for the day, you’ll find that it’s easier and quicker than expected.
When you are working, minimise distractions, focus on specific tasks, take breaks to refresh, and move on to the next. When you are working on a specific task, try to avoid instant messaging, email, Twitter, and anything else that will draw your attention away. Focus as much as you can, and move on. While this can sometimes be a challenge, avoid distractions is a key to improved productivity.
When possible, group your meetings so that you can power through them, and then go back to focused work. Having meetings scattered through the day, with 30 minute breaks is a great way to generate a lot of wasted time.
When you are done working for the day, be done. Step away, go do something you enjoy. As a workaholic, this is certainly something I struggle with, but working more hours doesn’t translate into getting more done - working more hours just means that you are more tired, less focused, and less productive. You need to get away from work and do other things to recharge to be as productive as possible.
Dedicate time to hobbies and passions, make time for the activities and people you love.
I call out anxiety and ADHD as I live with both of these, and have had to find ways to manage the symptoms as best I can. Sometimes I do this effectively, sometimes I’ve utterly failed. It’s a challenge, but you must understand yourself to be able to change things in a way that works for you. ↩︎
Some say the cutoff for these do it now tasks should be 2 minutes, others say five minutes, what matters is that you set a limit that works for you, and follow it as consistently as you can. ↩︎