A few weeks ago, K. Anders Ericsson of deliberate practice fame released a new book (which I haven’t yet read) called Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. The main challenge with reading these types of popular science/psychology books is taking action. They are written to be enjoyed, but there’s nothing forcing you to make any life changes once you finish the last page.
One way to avoid the passive reader trap is to maintain an idea list. Advice books are packed with words and stories, but are usually built around a few core ideas. Many of these ideas come up repeatedly in different books and articles. So as you come across them in your reading, maintain a master list of ideas that seem useful. The purpose of this list is to serve as a reminder of practices that you find effective. Try them out one at a time, and adjust as necessary to fit your work style.
Items on this list should be more actionable than guiding philosophies like “You don’t have to live your life the way others expect.” But they shouldn’t be too specific, or your list will get unwieldy. This isn’t the place for tiny life hacks about secret Gmail features. The goal is to make a list that will remind you to follow principles that you have found to be effective.
With that in mind, here’s my list:
Run Your Own Experiments
You can read other people’s ideas about productivity principles, but the only way to know for sure what works for you is to experiment. An experiment will ensure that 1) You are putting ideas into practice, not just reading about them, and 2) You are getting some benefit out of an idea, not just using it because it seems to work.
A 30-day trial is a good way to structure your first experiment with a new principle, or a principle that you used before and want to start using again. Although thirty days may not be long enough to form a new habit, it it enough to give you some information about whether a practice is going to work for you. For example, you could spend 30 days using the Pomodoro Technique to break up your work day.
If you want to keep getting better, it’s important to approach your work with an experimental mindset. Inertia is a powerful force that will encourage you to keep doing things the same way.
You can get some value from an experiment just by trying out a new practice. But it’s more useful if you can collect data about how the practice affects your productivity. For example, you could measure how many hours of focused work you get done per day before and after using the Pomodoro Technique. If you have a way to measure your actual work output before and after, that’s even better.
While experiments and measurements naturally go together, measuring your productivity is also useful outside of an experiment. For example, measuring how many daily hours you spend on a project gives you a regular short-term goal to shoot for, which can help you make consistent progress. It also gives you historical data that can alert you when you’re not putting as much time in as you normally do.
Track Short-Term and Long-Term Goals
A daily work hour target is an example of a short-term goal. Committing to focus without distraction for the next 25 minutes is an even shorter-term goal. These types of goals keep you focused and help maintain a baseline level of productivity. They also provide bite-sized work that you can accomplish even when you’re feeling challenged by your longer-term goals.
Task-related goals at the day or week level provide structure to your work life. By looking over these goals, you can verify that you’re working on the right things to accomplish what you need to in the medium term.
Big goals at the year and multi-year level help ensure that your short-term goals are moving you toward the right destination. These types of goals are where you put your big projects and crazy ideas.
It’s important to have goals that cover different units of time. While you want to be guided by long-term goals, it takes thinking and planning to figure out how to break these big goals down into daily or hourly activities. The output of that planning process is a set of small goals that you can tackle throughout the day, without having to do the planning process in real time. It can be overwhelming to constantly think about your long-term goals. Most of the time, you need short-term goals that you know are important and you can start right away.
Allocate Blocks of Time
A list of short-term goals tells you what to work on, but it doesn’t tell you when to work on it. Deciding when to work on something is harder than it sounds. Getting started on a difficult task requires overcoming inertia. Having a pre-defined slot for that task can provide enough of a push to get that task moving with minimal wasted time. A simple example: imagine that you have decided to work on one programming puzzle every day. If you schedule time from 6-8 (AM or PM, depending on your schedule) every day to do that work, you’re more likely to do it consistently than if you plan to do it whenever you have some free time.
The advanced version of “allocate blocks of time” is known as Plan Every Minute of Your Work Day. I can’t claim to be the type of productivity ninja who follows that advice literally. But I also don’t deny the benefits of such a system. By deciding exactly where each tasks belongs in the day’s schedule, you can squeeze the maximum amount of productivity out of the time you have available. (Assuming you can convince your colleagues to go along with your plan).
It’s not easy to consistently apply the suggestions in this list. It requires practice and a willingness to keep adjusting your processes. One way to improve your chance of success is to cultivate habits. Like the daily plan that reduces the effort of switching from task to task, a habit reduces the effort of deciding to turn off your email to increase focus, start a daily practice session, or take some other action that you know is important.
Even established habits require effort to maintain (or restart). But after the startup effort, it’s a lot easier to maintain a few habits than to make the equivalent number of conscious decisions to keeping doing the actions that those habits are targeting.
Prioritize Focused Work
The goal of all of this experimentation, measurement, goal-tracking, day-planning, and habit-creating is to free up your day for focused work, aka deep work, aka the important problems of your field. Learning to do that type of work is another challenge, but it’s more likely that you’ll be successful at it if you create and maintain a list of the practices that work best for you.
(Image credit: Boris Anthony)