Most people think about productivity as little hacks that can be added to their days. Things like sleeping at the same time everyday, waking up early, planning your days, and setting objectives are all commonly touted productivity advice.
While these are good tips, it’s only one half of the pie. It misses the equally if not more important opposite half:
Becoming productive is about doing less, not more
The best way to improve your productivity is to identify the habits that are interfering with it and to eliminate them entirely. Doing this frees up more of your time to spend on productive habits and makes the current time you spend far more efficient.
The following are 3 common habits that interfere with productivity and how to eliminate them.
#1 Trying to Work in Marathons
One of the biggest productivity mistakes that people fall into is working in marathons.
Let’s say you’ve set a big goal for yourself on a project. You figure out that the project will take around 10 days of work to finish. Most people would plan out a marathon to finish the project, making a grand plan of what they’ll do each day. Milestones are set and you know exactly what’ll be done and by which date. You’ve set up a marathon of work to finish the project.
There are a few flaws with this marathon strategy:
- It’s overwhelming. When you plan out a big project, you’re putting a lot on your plate. 10 days worth of work is quite difficult and even discouraging to look at. You’re shooting yourself in the foot before even starting.
- Hard planning. Planning out 10 days (or more) of work is a serious challenge. It’s hard to predict what will happen in the future. What if step 1 fails or you find a better way by step 4? Your long term plans aren’t flexible enough to be able to handle this, there’s no room for adaptability.
- No improvement. With big plans, there’s no room for improvement mid-way through. Your plan is too brittle to adjust course midway through if you were to find a better method and get customer feedback. You haven’t accounted for any improvements or optimizations you might make along the way.
The overall theme here is that marathon planning is too big and too brittle. We need something smaller and more flexible. The answer is to use sprints.
A sprint is a small, time-limited burst of work. Rather than making a grand 10-day plan, you’d break down your objective into 10 small 1-day plans each with their own mini objective. This structure has a number of benefits.
- Bite-sized. When your work is planned in sprints, it becomes a lot easier to handle mentally. It doesn’t seem so daunting anymore. The simple fact that it looks more achievable will give you the confidence to achieve it.
- Easy to plan. Another positive of the work being smaller is that it becomes easier to plan. Big marathons force you to predict how things will be far into the future after many intermediate events have passed. Sprints on the other hand serve you with a much smaller planning task. You only need to plan a few days or even hours.
- Flexible. Smaller sprints are more flexible than bigger marathons. If you have a marathon of 10 days of work, then you can only look back to correct your mistakes and improve at the very end, one time. But with 10 one-day sprints, you get ten opportunities to coarse correct and improve.
The next time you have a major project or objective, ask yourself:
How can I break this big marathon down into small sprints?
Answering that small question upfront before diving in will give your clarity and make your work a lot more efficient and productive.
#2 A Bad Environment
A hugely underrated part of productivity is your environment. Even the smallest distractions can be massively destructive as they throw you off the rails.
It’s 2020 and the century of never-ending cries for attention. Text notifications on your phone, people yelling in the background, YouTube on your computer, and every other little thing that jumps up at you while you’re working. These distractions are pulling you away from productivity.
Unfortunately, many of us wrongly believe that we can cope with these distractions. We think we can ignore all of those notifications, or the background noise, or all the entertainment we have around us. No one has that much will power. Many of the digital distractions that pull you away have been carefully engineered by world-class marketing teams to pull you in. It’s 1000 of them against 1 of you — and they’re using your natural human tendencies to check those notifications against you.
The only way to fully free yourself from those distractions is to cut them off entirely by changing your environment. Don’t cope with the distractions that derail your productivity, remove them completely from your life.
- Put your phone on silent and put it in a completely different room when you’re working.
- Block websites on your browser by installing browser extensions like WasteNoTime.
- Go to a different room and close the door to work. If people still frequently walk in, put on headphones. Even if you’re not playing anything, it acts as a simple deterrent to signal to people “hey, I’m in the zone!”
If you want to drastically improve your productivity, get serious about setting up the most optimal environment. Work in an environment that’s perfect for productivity with no distractions.
#3 Doing Things That Don’t Matter
So far we’ve focused on improving our productivity by making our work better and more efficient. We’ve found ways to work faster, harder, and more focused. But equally important to the thing we work on is the things we choose not to work on.
There’s a limit to how much work you can get done. You’ve got 24 hours a day, 7 days a week not counting sleeping, eating, and other basic tasks. You could have the most perfect environment and method of working in the world, but you’ll still always have limited time.
As such, you’ll want to spend your time on only the most important things and throw away the rest. Think of all the things you might be wasting time on every day:
- Doing extra favors for people because you feel pressured. We often feel obligated to do favors just because the person is a colleague or friend, or just says “please.”
- Working on “procrastination tasks,” things that look like work but aren’t actually moving you any closer to your goal. If you’re a writer, this might mean that you’re reading lots of Medium articles to say that you’re “learning how to write” instead of actually writing.
- Planning out your calendar or schedule over and over again, rather than getting to work
All of these things have one trait in common: the actions being taken are not properly aligned with your main objective. They don’t really matter, they don’t really move the needle or get you any closer to your goal.
You need to make the uncomfortable decision of only working on things that are in line with your objective.
- Will the favors you’re doing pay any dividends down the road? Or do you just feel socially pressured? If it’s the latter, don’t fall into that trap. Such work is just a time suck.
- Instead of being a consumer all the time by reading, make sure you’re balancing your time with creation too. It doesn’t have to be all creation, but you definitely need to be aware that you’re not overconsuming and using it as a procrastination device.
- Instead of planning all of the time, focus on taking action. Action is the only thing that moves you forward. Make sure that every action you take pays you something back in terms of productivity.
You’re not going to achieve peak productivity while doing work that doesn’t align with your objectives. Everything you do, every action you take should have a tangible output that moves you closer to your goals.
Take This Home
Achieving peak productivity is a never-ending journey, a constant striving for self-improvement. But there are a few things that we know will be slowing us down along the way:
Working in marathons
Working in a bad environment
Working on the wrong things