Some thoughts on working more effectively

A watercolor I painted 12 years ago. No perfectionism here!

Below are a smattering of thoughts on productivity, efficiency, and just getting things done. I’ve been obsessed with order, process, and planning for almost all my life. I used a planner in middle school. I made a spreadsheet of my budget in high school. I currently help run operations for rapidly growing media company. My qualifications on this topic are that I’ve applied the ideas below to my life with good effect.

However, all advice is given through the lens of the advice giver. Oftentimes, they think their advice is correct (otherwise, why would they give it?). I recognize that this is just one way not the only way. Take what you want and leave the rest.

The most important part of productivity is focusing on the right things. After that, it’s the speed and volume at which you can get those right things done.

Tactical Things

-If you are new to all of this, read Getting Things Done (GTD) & Seven Habits of Highly Successful people. There is a reason they are bestsellers and referenced ad nauseum. They are good.

-If you are a productivity geek (i.e. you have all the to-do apps, have read all the books above, etc) but still feel like you don’t get anything accomplished, check out Atomic Habits, Better than Before, and The Power of Habit. These focus on habit formation, which is a key part of productivity.

-Choose a system to write stuff down and stick with it. Do not flip between Evernote, your email, and a piece of paper. That is stressful & you’ll have too many open loops & spend more time wondering what you wrote down to do rather than doing it. I personally have tried many apps and I always come back to a single Notepad document on my computer or a Google Doc.

-Per GTD principles, try to only touch something once. When you get an email either respond, ignore, or forward on. This is called do, defer, or delegate. If any item will take you less than 2 minutes to do, just do it.

-I’m a huge fan of followupthen.com which allows you to forward emails for yourself on a specific day. Simply BCC nextweek@followupthen.com (or any time period) on an email you don’t want to forget and on that set time, it comes back to your inbox. I pretty much use this system exclusively for reminders. It is free and awesome.

-Use a password manager because copy + pasting passwords and remembering them is a huge time suck.

-Automate repetitive things like bills, deliveries, savings, etc. Learn a few keyboard shortcuts.

-Get plenty of sleep, drink water, and exercise. It is incredible how being healthy and well-rested can really give you an edge up.

The advice below progresses from work to personal life.

Hiring good people

People say they want to hire good people, but many organizations have employees that make you think, “how the heck did you get here?” A bad hire brings the vibe of the whole team down and is a real bummer. When hiring, look for people smarter than you and that you respect. This can be hard because hiring is hard. This Tweet, and this article are good pieces about hiring.

& delegate to them

You don’t have to have someone work for you to delegate to them (delegate to a spouse, a friend, a family member). You need to realize that you cannot do it all and, even if you could, there is value in giving other people the joy of learning a new skill. You want to be a force multiplier, lifting up everyone around you to be better.

If you find yourself doing something that you think, “God why am I doing this?” you should immediately identify someone to whom you can delegate that task. It is painful in the moment to teach someone a process that “only takes you 5 minutes,” but that 5 minutes is slowly eating away at you and killing you. Take the 60 minutes now to teach someone and you’ll be freed for the rest of your life. Do this with everything else you can think of. Now you have time to think of new cool things to do. Beautiful.

Say no ruthlessly

I don’t have many obligations. For clarity, I’m operating off a more negative definition of obligation: “doing something you don’t really want to.” Almost everything I do in my life is because I want to do it. It is very freeing and a huge contributor to my productivity. It’s much easier to get things done when you’re doing what you want to do, not doing what you have to do. Take a look at your calendar and your life. Are you doing things just because of social pressure or an expectation from someone else? When is the last time you told someone, “No thanks, I’m not interested.” You don’t have to be rude when declining people’s offers but you can’t live your life on someone else’s schedule.

Let things that don’t matter go, no perfectionism

A lot of successful people are perfectionists which can be beneficial in some ways (think of Steve Jobs’ obsession with design and the customer) but can often manifest itself negatively. Perfectionism is the killer of productivity because you continue to work on something that was probably good enough, ergo wasting your time and the time of everyone around you. If you’re a manager, your perfectionism could rub off onto your direct reports and now you’ve just slowed down an entire department. Follow the Pareto principle and be confident that you took it as far as you could within reason. This is easy for me because I’m a satisficer, not a maximizer. The biggest compliment I ever received from a colleague who is the epitome of a perfectionist was when she chatted me and said, “Cynthia! I pulled a you. I turned something in and it wasn’t perfect.” Love it.

Most decisions are reversible, start making more

Decision making is closely related to perfectionism. There are people who are SO stressed about making the “right” decision whether that be where they move, what they have for lunch, or who to marry. There are very few things in life that are not easily reversible. The things that come to mind are tattoos and babies. Most everything else can be undone, even if it costs money or time.

A key part of productivity is the volume of things you get done. This isn’t to say that working on one important thing isn’t productive, it definitely is. But life doesn’t usually let you work on the one important thing. You need to work on lots of things and lots of decisions need to be made. The faster you make decisions, the less time you spend deliberating, and more decisions you make the more feedback you’ll get on your decision making as a skill. The best way to improve a skill is a lots of reps and immediate feedback. You want to tighten that loop. I have many times said, “Do XYZ and if you get in trouble, tell ABC that it was my idea” just so that we could move forward on a project. You know how many times ABC has come after me? Zero.

This post sums up the feedback loop nicely. I haven’t finished reading Thinking in Bets but that is another good book on decision making.

Believe in your work & enjoy the process

It’s a lot easier to get stuff done if you actually care about what you’re doing. If you think your work is pointless or doesn’t have meaning, try to identify who you are serving in your job. Where I work, I help the sales team. I get a lot of joy out of seeing them succeed. Who are your customers? Who are you helping every day? It’s been proven that helping people makes people happier, so try reframing your work that way.

Another aspect of enjoying your work is enjoying the process of getting work done. This is called the “progress principle” and it’s crucial to your happiness. It’s hard to stay motivated when you’re just keeping your eyes on the prize. For example, if I save $10,000 for a trip to Bali, just keeping that picture of Bali on my wall wouldn’t be enough while I ate rice and beans for 6 months. I’d be miserable every day. But if I learned to love the daily process of being frugal, walking to work, and coupon clipping, that sense of progress towards of my goal would bring me joy every day. You need to love your work, not just the result of your work.

Be clear in what you want and write it down

This is my current favorite Tweet because it sums up office life so well. A huge inhibitor to productivity is not knowing what to work on. As a leader it is your job to set the vision and make sure everyone is executing it it. However, the vision is probably fuzzier than you think. Now that you have all this free time from delegating you can actually sit and think and then write it all down.

The process of writing things down is a forcing function because in your mind you’ve jumbled a lot of ideas together that aren’t actually that clear. But brains are really good at filling in gaps and so in your head it is all very cohesive. Until you sit down and realize that your ideas are jelly and need a lot more work. Clear writing is clear thinking.

Now imagine being someone on the receiving end of your non-written, non-thought out ideas. You’ve made a lot of assumptions when communicating to them and now they are also making assumptions as they hear your instructions. Next thing you know, no one is really sure what should happen or what success looks like. Write it down.

A tactical, necessary thing related to writing it down: Process documentation. Does your business have basic processes written down and documented? How are new hires onboarded? By reading useful guides that direct them through the basics of their job or by oral tradition? If you don’t have basic processes written down for people to follow you are literally burning time. Take the 60 minutes to write up the processes so you aren’t reinventing the wheel every time do you do something. Another benefit to writing it down: You can get everyone’s agreement that this is the official way to do things. You’d be amazed about how once you write a process down everyone chimes in about how they do it a little differently. Yikes, that doesn’t sound very efficient to me.

Understand yourself, your ambitions and stop making excuses

Are you reading this and nodding but then excusing yourself for not doing certain things because you don’t have enough time or some other unique reason for why this doesn’t apply to you? That could be one of your issues. If you consume a lot of “productivity porn” and nothing is changing you might want to look inside yourself. Why aren’t you sitting down and getting work done? Maybe you don’t actually want to be productive? That’s okay too. But you need to introspect.

This first comment relates well to this, “In other words … it’s obvious that many people don’t want to be successful, and if they were to introspect deeply, they would see this clearly. In fact what they want is to be somewhere comfortable in the middle of the herd, not having to do too much work.”

None of the above matters if you don’t have the building blocks in place

Ultimately, in order to live a productive life, you need to have your values aligned with how you live your life. If you are reading this and agreeing with it but are in crushing debt, barely get 5 hours of sleep, in a job that you hate — you are not embodying these values. Your mind and body are not in harmony. This relates to the elephant/rider metaphor from Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis (which I strongly recommend.) The elephant is your primal, emotional, animal brain. The rider is your rational brain. The rider is on top of the elephant and can coax the elephant, but not steer is completely. This is why even when you resolve to do something you sometimes don’t do it. The elephant strikes again!

There is a reason why “making your bed” is popular advice for being a happier person. You need to be in control of your physical and mental environment to get the most out of what I have written above.

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