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Productivity 101 For Beginners

I'd like to believe that I'm pretty productive, and people seem interested in how I do it.  Previously, I had written "How I Am Productive"and it became one of my most popular essays of all time.

The real secret is that, in the past, I wasn't nearly as productive.  I struggled with procrastination, had issues completing assignments on time, and always felt like I never had enough time to do things.  But, starting in January 2013 and continuing for the past year and a half, I have slowly implemented several systems and habits in my life that, taken together, have made me productive.

I've learned productivity, and I want to try to teach it to others.

When I wrote "How I Am Productive", I kind of brain dumped everything that I knew in one place.  To do better, I should help people go one step at a time.  I also focused a lot on particulars of my situation -- to do better, I should be more general.  The aim of this -- Productivity 101 for Beginners -- is to try to make a general, step-by-step guide to increasing people's productivity.

...It's basically what I would do if I somehow had to start over.

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Disclaimer: This is still advice based on what works for me.  I've attempted to validate it by trying it on a couple of other people and integrating feedback.  I've also tried to improve it based on what I've learned in the year between writing this and writing "How I Am Productive".  But your mileage still may vary, and I'm not a professional coach.

 

 

Step One: Get some goals!

...So here's my step-by-step guide to being productive.  ...Start on step one.  Focus on step one.  Do not move on from step one until you're done with step one.

Most people think productivity starts with "how", but I always find that it starts with "why".

Why do you want to be productive?

...If you could do more, what would you do?  Would you try to exercise?  Would you practice programming regularly?  Would you start writing?

Action point for this step: Carefully pick two goals -- two things that you want to accomplish that you're currently not doing.  Focus on them and how awesome it would be if you could get those things done!

Avoid this common mistake: Do not pick more than two goals.  Only focus on two to start small and simple.  You can add more goals later.

You can progress to the next step when you've picked two goals that you're excited about.  These are the reasons why you want to be productive.

 

 

Step Two: Track Your Time!

So you have your two goals now.  (If you don't have your two goals, go back to Step One.)  We now know why you want to be productive.

Now we have to make some time for your goals.  But in order to do that, we have to figure out where your time is currently going.

Action point for this step: Using paper and a pencil, Google Calendar, Toggl, or some other time tracker, map out roughly what you do on a given week.  If your week is atypical, wait until a more typical week.  If all your weeks are atypical, just track one and we'll work with it.

Avoid this common mistake: Don't stress out about timing.  You can do rough estimates (I started out with fifteen minute intervals, but half hour intervals are fine) and if you miss something, it's ok.  It might take a day of practice.  Remember to have your timer with you (carry your notebook, get Toggl's mobile app, etc.) so it's easier to track things.

You can progress to the next step when you have at least three days of usable timelogs, preferably a week of timelogs.

 

 

Step Three: Timebox

Now you have to figure out when you want to accomplish your goals.  Timeboxing refers to making a box of time in your calendar when you'll accomplish something.

Action point for this step: Look in your timelog to see if you have any time that you're not spending the way you want, and make that the time you do your goals.  When I started out, I found that I would read the internet aimlessly for two hours a day.  I cut that down to one hour and then used that free hour to exercise.

You might find that good times include right when you wake up, right before you go to sleep, after class, before work, after work, etc.  Lots of different times work for different people -- just find a time that works for you!

Avoid this common mistake: Don't cut out too much suboptimal time.  Breaks are important for rest!  Maybe you can set a timer (implicitly based on agreeing only to watch one TV episode, or an actual timer that rings), take a break for that amount, and then do what productive thing you want.  Remember how excited you are about doing it, and how bad you'll feel if you watch that second TV show!

You can progress to the next step when you have a concrete time in which you will accomplish both your goals.

 


Step Four: Commit!

We've long recognized that we can't get our goals done ourselves -- weakness of will is just too strong.  You need the power of a commitment device if you actually want to accomplish your goals in the long-run -- there is no other way.

Action point for this step: Bind both your goals to some sort of commitment device that works for you.  Go to the gym with a friend and don't let them let you cancel.  Sign up for Beeminder.  Sign up for HabitRPG.  Bet a friend.  Start making checkmarks for every day on track and don't let yourself break the streak.  Do more than one of these things.  Do whatever it takes to get yourself on track!

Avoid this common mistake: Don't use a commitment device that doesn't work for you.  If you'd lie to Beeminder, don't use it.  If you'd lie to a friend you bet, find some way to increase their oversight so that you can't lie.  You have to make your commitment device inescapable.

You can progress to the next step when you have a commitment device that has successfully made you stick to your two habits for five days in a row.  If your commitment device isn't working, get a new one.  If your time isn't working, choose a new time.  If you find yourself still failing, maybe your goal isn't important to you?  Focus on why you want to do this goal, or consider switching goals.

 

 

Step Five: Keep Going!

Don't stop now!  Keep your habit up!

Action point for this step: Continue to stick to your two goals.

Avoid this common mistake: Do not add more goals.  You must focus on your current two goals in order to make them stick.  It's worth it in the long run.

You can progress to the next step when you have stuck to your goal successfully for three weeks.

 

 

Step Six: Build!

Congrats on getting this far.  Now you're ready to add more goals as you see fit and dig into more advanced productivity advice.

Remember to keep things going slow.  Productivity is a marathon, not a sprint, and the same rules apply.  Minor setbacks don't matter if the long-run is an improvement.

You have reached the end of Productivity 101, but I'd be glad to help you further.  I'd love feedback on how it went for you.

...I'd also love feedback if one of the steps didn't work for you, so I can improve this guide for you or others.

Comments (3)

Comment author: yboris 10 December 2014 12:53:46AM 2 points [-]

Re: Step Two: Track Your Time!

If you spend a lot of time on the computer, the best software I have found is ManicTime which automatically tracks all your tasks, allows you to tag the time you've spent, and shows you fine statistics about what you spent your time on (which pages, which document, how long/each, per day, per any time period).

Comment author: Gina_Stuessy  (EA Profile) 23 December 2014 08:05:48PM 0 points [-]

I read through all the steps but haven't actually done more than step 1 yet (will do step 2 after Christmas when I'm back to a more normal week). I foresee getting stuck on Step 3, though. One of my goals was to do more activism things. This could involve tabling at festivals, leafleting, whatever else. It's not something that I would do on a regular basis on a free hour each day. If I find a free hour, I could possibly use that time to plan the activism things I'll do, but I imagine it'll be hard to not do that in the mix of the activism-related emailing and planning that I'm currently doing, and to set that aside to a specific time.

Maybe my mistake was that my goal isn't something I'm not doing currently, since it's an "I want to do more of this" type thing.

Suggestions?

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 23 December 2014 11:23:22PM 0 points [-]

One of my goals was to do more activism things. This could involve tabling at festivals, leafleting, whatever else. It's not something that I would do on a regular basis on a free hour each day. If I find a free hour, I could possibly use that time to plan the activism things I'll do

That's fair. There's no requirement that your goal take the form of something done daily or weekly. You might make a commitment to X actions per month, or something. Or you can get more elaborate -- Y instances of this action, Z instances of that action, etc.

You can still timebox, it just looks more like "I'm going to devote this time on Saturdays to activism" than "I'm using this free hour for activism".