5 Lessons from Learning about Productivity
Updated: Oct 29, 2021
I love schedules. I love the feeling of having all of my appointments lined up and my calendar full of different colors. For most people they feel like schedules restrict their freedom, for me it gives me back my time. As a kid, on my weekends I would write out a tentative schedule of my day and plan my meal times and when I would play on the computer or watch TV.
I would always try to stick with my schedule but I would inevitably get off track on another task, usually building LEGOS or playing outside. Once I got into middle school I began using a planner and used it religiously to track my assignments, quizzes and exams. My first idea of a "system" was in the book, The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective Teenagers by Sean Covey, which was a game changer in a number of ways. But specifically for productivity Habit 3, Put First Things First, showed me the power of scheduling, having a calendar, and the difference between urgent and important tasks.
By the time I was a freshman in college I developed my own productivity system that included a calendar system (Google Calendar), task manager (Todoist) and note taking program (Evernote and Google Drive); that was just from trial and error throughout school. But it wasn't until I learned about David Allen's GTD system around 2016 that I fully understood what a productivity system was. After that I researched more about productivity: listening to Thomas Frank's podcast College Info Geek Podcast (now the Inforium), The Productivity Show by Asian Efficiency and various other Youtube videos and podcasts.
I am by no means a "productivity" expert but I've learned a few things along the way. I won't be explaining specific systems like GTD or Bullet Journaling, there are other resources for that: see Todoist's The Ultimate Guide to Personal Productivity Systems for an overview of popular systems.
Don't chase "shiny new objects" - don't pursue every new productivity tool out there thinking that it will solve all your productivity problems. It won't. Tools are helpful but it isn't a magical solution that will turn you into a productivity master. Building your system and working on your habits are the steps to productivity mastery.
Stick with a system that works for you - similar to the lesson above, in the beginning you should do a bit of research and experiment with different productivity systems but once you find one that works for you (e.g. GTD), then stick with it. That's not to say you can't change it up but be aware if you are always changing your system, a system needs time to work . You should aim to stick with a system for a few years. There's no need to constantly look for "perfect" productivity system out there, if you're always looking you're not perfecting what you already have. The "perfect" system isn't the same for everyone. Bullet journaling might be a great system for you instead of GTD, maybe even the Kanban method, either way find one that works with you and stick with it.
Take breaks and don't get too focused on output - now this seems like a counterproductive lesson, "why shouldn't you focus on output or becoming as productive as possible?" because we are human and we need breaks. We can't keep chugging out project after project with no time for rest. It's important to rest your mind and body. If you get ample amount of rest it will help your productivity in the long run because you won't feel burn out.
Don't forget the big picture - I noticed I would get too "in the weeds" with my habits and tasks and forget my ultimate goal. For example, I have a task that says I need to write everyday for 10 minutes, while I completed the task I would forget why I was writing, I was too focused on completing the task to remember the larger picture, the reason why I was writing was to publish articles on my blog. I got lost in the "habit". You should take a few minutes every week to review hour habits/tasks and think about how they help you towards your goals. Don't just finish tasks for the sake of finishing them, there should generally be a bigger purpose behind it (this doesn't work with things like paying the bills or other "admin" tasks).
Forgive yourself - there are some days when we aren't productive as we "should" be. We think "I could've done this or that" but we need to understand that we are human and our plans don't always work out. It's okay if you have an unproductive day, the important thing is to get right back into it the next day. Don't dwell on what you "could've done" instead focus on what you can do now.
This article took me a while to finish, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what I've truly learned about productivity. I didn't want any of my lessons to be taken from a productivity system, like "Lesson 1: Have a calendar"; I really wanted to think about what I've taken away from productivity. These might seem obvious or familiar to you but it was helpful for me since it synthesized my thoughts and I was able to work through my knowledge. This is similar to the Feynman Technique (Learning While Teaching) except you're not teaching anyone else.
I encourage you to try this exercise about a topic you've learned about. Create a basic list of lessons you've learned, it will help you to think, clarify, and organize all of the concepts you've learned about so far. You can think about what lessons you've learned from say, "mountain biking for the past 5 years" or really any topic you've spent some time on.
Try this exercise and see what you come up with.
See you next week!