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 which allows you to forward emails for yourself on a specific day. Simply BCC (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.

Show Notes: Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, and the Key to a Happy Retirement

I have been a longtime subscriber of The Mad FIentist and he recently did an interview with Cal Newport of Deep Work fame. Cal just released his latest book Digital Minimalism and this interview was a mix of many things I’m interested in: meaningful work, productivity, and financial independence. I enjoyed the podcast so much that I went back and listened to it again while taking notes.

My notes are below along with the timestamp of where that topic starts in the podcast. This is not a transcript just my interpretation of the interview. When a block of text is italicized, that’s me putting in my own two cents about how it relates to my life.

Listen to the full episode here:

0:00 Why Cal Newport on this podcast? His work has been incredibly influential to Brandon (The Mad FIentist) who has FIRE’d and helps ask and guide you on those questions of what to do with your time and what will bring you happiness. So not a ton of direct FIRE relation but tangential.

There are a lot of people in the FIRE community who believe all they need to do is retire and then they’ll be happy. So while Cal’s advice is not about living frugally or early retirement — it is about the other side of the coin: how to be happy by finding meaning in the things you do.

2:48 On pursuing your “passion.” The pursuit of passion is overrated and the advice of “follow your passion” is trite and overdone. This was basically the premise of Cal’s 2012 book So Good They Can’t Ignore You — where he delved into the dynamics of really loving your work.

So how do people end up loving what they do? As kids you’re sold this bill of goods. “Oh if you just follow your passion you’ll be fine” but research doesn’t support that people have preexisting passions. You career satisfaction is not a matching game and there is very little evidence that people who find fulfillment in their jobs already were interested in the topics

I’m an operations professional who has fallen deep into Salesforce — I can vouch for this being true. “This” being I wasn’t born with an inherent interest for this stuff.

5:48 If passion is bogus, then what? Happiness comes from getting good at something not doing something you think you like (it’s the craftsman mindset vs. the passion mindset). The more you work the better you get and then the more you like it. It’s a virtuous cycle.

People who report high satisfaction at work experience autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

7:24 Don’t ask people for advice, ask them for their story. You’ll quickly learn that they didn’t have some preexisting thing they loved. More often to not they fell into one thing or another and they got really good at it and that is what unlocked freedom, flexibility, etc. All the things that the FIRE community wants.

8:09 So FIRE enthusiasts might be misguided in “rushing to the finish line?” Most definitely, yes because they are probably giving up career capital and the work that actually might make them happy.

What are you trying to get to? That you have these passions and if you just had more time to do them you’d be happy? Well that isn’t what the research says. It is not a major source of satisfaction. You need sense of autonomy, impact and competence and that comes from meaningful work not from scrolling on Instagram all day.

There isn’t a term for it (maybe I’ll try to invent it, how about Flex FIRE) but instead of focusing on stopping work, try to get so good that you have flexibility and focus on work you want. Then you’ll have a high sense of satisfaction and be well compensated.

Autonomy + Impact + Competence = Happiness

11:03 Okay, so we need to get good at something to find our passion and be so good we can’t be ignored. How do I do that? This question sprung out of So Good They Can’t Ignore You and is what inspired the book Deep Work. Deep work is just concentrating without distraction and in today’s age of open offices, Slack, etc. this is becoming increasingly rare. Rare things are often valuable and the ability to put your head down and focus on something that matters is becoming high point of leverage. If you are one of the few people who can cultivate the ability to concentrate without distraction, you’ll have a huge competitive advantage.

Shutting down email, putting away Twitter, etc. It’s incredible how much you can get done when you shut off the distractions.

High Quality Work = Time Spent + Intensity of Focus

I personally am amazed with how much I can get done in just an hour when I put my head down listen to Lo-Fi Beats and have my phone physically away (in my backpack or a drawer) and Slack turned off. It’s scary.

A formula that works is batching deep work. So work undistracted for 2–3 hours and you’ll really get a lot done. What doesn’t work is the sprinkling your day with appointments. It’s really hard to ramp back up from even a quick little context switch and the way a lot of knowledge workers have set up their day makes them basically work with a self-imposed cognitive handicap. It’s like we’re taking a reverse nootropic that is making us dumber.

15:22 Less work & more relaxation doesn’t actually make us happier — which is sort of a troubling concept for the FIRE movement.

Choice quotes from Deep Work: “Relaxation does not result in happiness.” “People are happier at work.” “More flow experiences = more life satisfaction.” “Flow happens when your mind is stretched when you’re trying to accomplish something worthwhile and difficult.”

So all of the above could be at odds with the FIRE movement which basically wants to work as hard as possible so they can relax forever. But is that necessarily good?

People actually like doing hard, meaningful things and it’s just not true that we need to veg. Meaningful work is engaging and rewarding. Cal spoke with Mr. Money Mustache and The Frugalwoods — these people don’t sit around and watch TV. They fill it with difficult, engaging work (building stuff, pouring concrete, chopping wood, etc.) They actually didn’t crave more relaxation.

High quality leisure is key for satisfaction. So Cal recently picked back up guitar playing — which is a quintessential quality leisure activity: high-skill, requires concentration, not easy to do, yet done purely for the pleasure of it.

So as a knowledge worker, it’s not really helpful to think that if you could chill on the couch and scroll through IG all day that you would have a better life. You need to strive to get engaged in something and seek progress in it — that will make you happy. Even my hobby — pottery — is something that I wouldn’t say is particularly relaxing. It’s actually really hard but I derive a lot of joy and satisfaction on working on something difficult and seeing results.

19:35 Skillful management of attention and choosing what you pay attention to

There is so much stuff flying around out there and so your world is really constructed based on what you are concentrating on. If you are focusing most of your attention on things that are difficult to accomplish and meaningful to you, you’ll have a life that is higher in satisfaction. What you pay attention to really influences your attitude and outlook on the world.

Take the above and compare it against scattering your attention across email, lots of apps, content that is frustrating or alarming, etc. and it can be easy to feel like your life doesn’t have a lot of meaning or focus. So that is a hidden benefit of deep work — you’re only focusing on stuff that matters to you and focusing on what matters results in happiness. Which rolls in nicely into Cal’s most recent book Digital Minimalism.

21:50 Maybe I buy these claims about technology in our professional life but what about technology in my personal life? Thus Digital Minimalism was born.

A lot of Cal’s writing is focused on work, but people are addicted to their screens in their personal life as well. Minimalism says that it’s almost always better to focus on fewer things that are the most important (which ties in perfectly with the FIRE movement).

So Marie Kondo is helping you declutter your physical life and Cal’s book is helping you declutter your digital life. Essentially taking all the apps, etc. and rebuilding but only keeping the things that matter. Step away from all the technology in your personal life for 30 days (this helps reduce the compulsive urge to check apps, etc). But what you need to do during these 30 days is get back in touch with what you are really about: what you value, what you want to spend time outside of work doing. Because you’re not just mindlessly scrolling during any second of downtime you can now sit with your thoughts and think critically and answer these hard questions.

And once the 30 days are over, you evaluate each app and thing you want to bring back into your digital life and ask if it is going to help you works towards the goals that you have outlined during these 30 days. And if the answer is no? Be cool with missing out on it, because it is probably not making your life better.

Similar with the FIRE community where people give up lots of little luxuries (i.e. a panini press) because it is not at the core of what makes them happy and moving them towards their goal of FIRE. There might be some value there, but the little bit of value you get isn’t worth the tradeoff of being distracted, anxious, etc so you should just do without it.

This is a small example but I deleted my Snapchat account a couple years ago. I only sometimes used it but I still felt a pull to check it, post with it, etc. I deleted it and sure I might be missing out on some funny Snaps from friends — but overall I’m happier because it’s one less thing to deal with.

20:42 Connection between digital minimalism and the health and fitness industry

Cal has never suggested a “plan” for his readers prior to this 30 day digital detox and he realized that it was necessary because we’re just so inundated with apps, news, alerts, etc. Basically, it’s a fresh start. There are some parallels between our technological consumption and the hyper-palatable food that was invented at the second half of the 20th century. It’s no longer enough to say “just watch your portions” because this stuff (both technology and food) has been designed to be really engaging and addictive.

The people who are most successful with the health usually have a strong guiding philosophy (keto, vegan, paleo, etc) that helps them make consistent decisions. Cal’s aha moment was that technology forces are strong enough that people need a guiding philosophy around it as well. You have to have a strong change in behavior. You have to have the dramatic break to create a reset and create clarity in your choices.

32:00 Downsides of social media

I’m only interjecting in here to say that I think social media and the internet is a huge boon for humankind. The ability to connect with like-minded people that are thousands of miles away on esoteric topics has been greatly facilitated by social media. I personally have made lots of connections with really cool people because of it. With that said, I think it is important to balance your online and offline relationships but I want to go on record to state that I think on the whole social media brings a lot of good with it.

People are constantly looking at their phone and we are making the mistake that it is the phone that has us addicted but that’s not actually true. It’s the applications on the phone that have created this behavior, mostly Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Facebook was coming to their IPO and couldn’t figure out how to make money, even with the amount of users they have. And this is because social media was a static experience prior to them re-engineering the social media experience. It used to be “Oh, I’ll post something and maybe check to see if my friend has posted an update about their life.” The experience now is not about posting and reading other people’s posts but about creating a constant steam of social approval indicators. It has become an incredibly addictive formula to see if people are liking things that you do and because it is about you of course you are interested and it’s random. Sometimes you log into the app and there is stuff to see and sometimes there isn’t and that also creates desire for you to constantly check. The whole social media experience is a slot machine and there is nothing fundamental about the iPhone that makes you want to do that, it’s all because of social media apps.

We don’t need the constant companion model of social media. We are doing this for no real good reason and that is why people are getting frustrated with it.

37:50 Impact of social media on young people and our mental health

Cal spoke to a woman who worked in mental health services for college kids and she said that she has tons more kids coming in related to anxiety and anxiety related orders. She believes this is because these kids grew up with smartphones.

Jean Twenge wrote a book on this called iGen where she measured how the rise of mental health issues between Gen Z and Millennials and the key factor between the two was that Gen Z had widespread smartphone usage starting as kids. And Cal sees this as the digital canary in the coal mine — Gen Z does this behavior that we all do, but to an extreme. So if we start looking at what happens when this behavior is maxed out, when basically all discretionary time is spent looking at a screen, we see massive issues with mental health.

So the message we get out of this experiment is that our brain is not meant for this kind of consistent behavior and that constant low level sense of anxiety that we have is our brain crying out for help, “I’m not supposed to be doing this kind of high-octane, low bit-rate level of digital interaction.” This isn’t what the brain is supposed to be doing and it’s not natural.

But one thing worth mentioning: It’s hard to fill your time when you don’t have digital distraction. A lot of people use social media as a crutch so they don’t have to face the void, face themselves, answer the hard questions of “What do I want to do with my life?” So you need to get disciplined about high quality leisure activities and how you want to spend your time (like Mr. Money Mustache and The Frugalwoods and they got that straight before they added all of this free time to their lives).

Figuring out what you want to do with your life is harder than you think, especially if you don’t have the crutch of the screen.

For the FIRE crowd: You don’t want to work this hard to be “free” just to be scrolling and refreshing a screen. You better start thinking because otherwise you won’t be happy. It’s hard work to figure out what you want to do instead, but it is work that is really worth doing. These screens have been filling in for answer to this question.

Even without social media, humans have a drive to be social. Cal doesn’t have social media but still has a desire to talk to and interact with people. And that is one of the big costs of social media, you think you’re talking to people all day but your brain doesn’t recognize that as socializing and that is why we have these research studies of people saying the more they use social media the lonelier they feel. It’s because it displaces the real world socializing and seems just real enough that you think you’ll be satisfied with just internet relationships but that’s not true.

Another FIRE crowd shoutout: FIRE people are weird and willing to do drastic stuff to achieve their financial goals. Cal is sort of like that with his digital life (see: Why you should quit social media) Taking drastic steps digitally can also have massive positive impact on your life.

46:30 What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone who is pursuing financial independence?

Skill is your greatest weapon. If you relentlessly hone a skill that is very valuable you will generate more financial options. You’ll get flexibility and freedom. A magic elixir for career satisfaction is being really really good at something. Even if that requires an in the desert apprenticeship mindset. The better you are at something the market values the more control you have over almost every other variable.