September 22nd, 2020

The Productivity Illusion

Productivity, time management and chasing goals are hot topics on the Internet in 2020. People have been stuck at home more than usual and want to make the best use of this unexpected abundance of available time.

If you're going to be productive, you need a solid system and tools of some sort. So you go and find an app for your to-do list and another one to track your habits. You'll probably sign up for at least three different project management or Kanban tools to find the one that best suits your way of working. Only to find out that they all do the same damn thing and you can't decide which one to keep. You then find a tool that's a productivity Swiss Army knife and can do it all. So you spend two days migrating all your tasks, Kanban cards and notes across.

Soon enough, weeks have gone by, and you suddenly realise that during this quest for ultimate productivity, you've actually accomplished nothing of value. You're angry at yourself for having wasted precious time while all the cool people you follow on Twitter are building awesome things, making money and generally killing it in life.

If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. Some of the above is hyperbole, but I definitely found myself in a productivity illusion earlier this year. I don't have a magical solution for the problem (hint: no one does!), but read on to find out what has helped me.

Create a Focus Pool

The focus pool is a list of high-level goals or areas of life and work that you want to improve and work on in the foreseeable future. It could be learning a new skill, improving your financial situation, creating more content, etc. Write these items down, but keep it fairly generic — the idea is to be able to pick something from this list and schedule X amount of time for working on it exclusively. We'll get to the specifics and planning next.

Goals and Habits

Now look at everything in your focus pool and define some measurable goals and outcomes to support the overall direction you want to be heading in. I try to set most of mine with a timeframe of 90 days at most. Anything longer than that makes it too easy to procrastinate and needs to be broken down into milestones. Break these down further into smaller tasks that can be completed in one "sitting". Get really specific, so that when you eventually add it to your to-do list, you know exactly what action you need to take next.

  • Write code for project X — bad.
  • Work on front-end design of project X — better.
  • Implement the main navigation menu for project X — specific and achievable.
  • Also, think of habits that you want to develop (or avoid) to support your goals and ambitions.

Plan Your Weeks and Days

You need to regularly check in with yourself to assess how you've been tracking and whether you have made enough progress. Set aside an hour or two every week and answer questions, such as:

  • What did I accomplish this week, and how does it compare to what I had planned?
  • Are all my projects and goals still relevant?
  • What are the tasks that I'm going to work on next week?
  • Am I tracking well, or am I trying to do too many things at once and should narrow my focus?

When choosing what to work on, make sure that all the areas in your focus pool get their fair share of attention. Some of them will always be more fun, and it's easy to neglect the rest. Schedule at least an hour or two each day to focus on one area exclusively and eliminate all distractions. For me, the planning is what really started making a difference once I had created a system around it. I had been writing down goals for quite some time, but would often forget about them until the target date was very close. I started using these techniques a couple of months ago, and on most days, I don't have a problem figuring out what I should do.

What About the Tools?

After spending way too much time trying to design the ideal system, I've reached the conclusion that simple is better. You could do this all in a paper notebook as long as you stick to the plan.

Here's what my stack currently looks like (and hopefully, it won't change too soon):

  • Paper notebook for journaling and noting down random ideas.
  • Roam Research for note-taking, writing, task management, goal setting and weekly planning.
  • Visualize Value Daily Manifest for daily planning. It's a dead-simple but effective way of staying focused throughout the day. It's free if you join the community.
  • Brain.fm for focus music. I'm not entirely convinced that it's better than any other type of music, but it seems to work for me.

And some resources on the subject that I've found value in:

Got any tips on what has worked for you to better structure your work and learning? Get in touch via Twitter or send me an email!

© Siim Männart 2020