This week I’m starting a big new research and writing project that’s prompted me to get serious about productivity.
Why? Because I’m a pro at self-distraction. My top time-wasters include:
- Checking Facebook and Gmail obsessively
- Responding to non-time-sensitive e-mails
- Obsessing over trivialities like tweaking a Wordpress theme
- Deciding I need to buy something to continue my work
But these distractions pale in comparison to my most common problem, which is: not knowing exactly where to put my focus.
The result of all this non-productivity?
- I spend too much time “working” (but not really working) on my laptop: roughly 6-10 hours throughout the day, only 2-3 of which are actually spent on meaningful work.
- I don’t spend enough time doing other awesome stuff: being outside, cooking, exercising, pleasure reading, or spending time with friends, for example.
- I stay up too late. Then I don’t sleep enough. Then I’m a grump.
- I don’t get my most important work done. Which is the biggest bummer, because it means I’m no longer contributing to the world in the way I want.
I’ve known and accepted these issues for a long time. But slowly—ever so slowly—I’ve gathered an army of tools and strategies to combat them.
Here they are.
Setting A Clear Goal for Tomorrow
My least productive days happen when I wake up, open the laptop, check my e-mail, and then dive into doing whatever seems important.
The truth is: I need a goal. I have plenty of big goals; those aren’t what I’m talking about. I need a small, manageable, specific goal that can reasonably be accomplished tomorrow morning in 3-4 hours of productive work.
The best time for me to create this goal? The day before, when I’m wrapping up my work. That’s when I’m most clear about what needs to get done and roughly how long it will take. I put it on my digital sticky note (more on those in a moment) and leave it there for my future self to discover in the morning. If I complete that one goal, then I consider my day a basic success.
[Meta-note: Writing this blog post appeared on yesterday’s sticky note.]
Following a Daily Flow
For a long time, the idea of boxing myself into a daily schedule felt abhorrent. What’s the point of being an entrepreneur or self-directed learner if you can’t do whatever you want, whenever you want?
I remember driving across a mountain pass on a sunny Wednesday in Fall 2011 to meet my friend Vince for a 3-day backpacking trip. There’s no way I could have taken three perfect-weather days off to backpack in the middle of the week unless I was an entrepreneur who controlled my time. And it was an undeniably epic backpacking trip.
But enjoying the freedom to fit spontaneous hiking trips into my life doesn’t equate to living life without a schedule. This took me a long time to figure out: the point of entrepreneurship is to set my own hours, not follow my fleeting whims all the time.
Thus I started experimenting with a daily schedule, or more appropriately, a daily flow. (See the image I created above; it’s also my laptop background.)
The word flow is more appropriate because I don’t set specific times for these activities. I loath alarm clocks and prefer to sleep as long as my body will let me. When I wake up, I start the flow. When I finish it, I go to sleep.
I designed this flow based on years of watching myself closely: what my body needs, how my mind operates, when I feel naturally energized, when I desire introverted time, and when I need social time. Design yours accordingly.
Using Website-Denial Technology
It’s extremely difficult for me to avoid social websites during my work time.
When I said that I compulsively check Facebook and Gmail, I wasn’t kidding. My hands have the keystrokes for those websites locked into their muscle memories. First I hit ⌘T to open a new browser tab; then I type “mail” or “face” and let Safari auto-fill the web address; then I smack Enter. Hello, dopamine!
I will do this—literally without thinking—in the middle of an otherwise productive work session. Boom, I’m distracted.
WasteNoTime lets me designate specific time periods during that day that I’m not allowed to access certain websites. My current strategy is to deny myself Facebook and Gmail from 6am – 11am: my most precious productive hours. (I design my daily morning goal to not require live access to either site.)
My favorite feature of WasteNoTime: it will redirect you to another website (of your choice) when you attempt to access one of your blocked sites. Thus whenever I try to visit Facebook or Gmail in the morning, I instead get sent to Nyan Cat. (If you’re not familiar with the genius that is Nyan Cat, turn your volume down, visit the website, and then read this history.)
Another great feature: If I want to alter the 6-11am schedule or otherwise modify the plugin’s settings, I have to enter a long string of alphanumeric characters, an annoying task that prevents me from casually disabling the plugin.
Finally: Outside of the 6-11am period, I have WasteNoTime grant me unlimited access to Gmail but only 5 daily minutes on Facebook. (The 5 minutes started as an experiment. To my pleasant surprise, I discovered that’s all the time I need to post an update, send a few messages, and view my friends’ most important posts.) When I run over time, it’s Nyan Cat to the rescue.
Unfortunately, I’m really talented at sabotaging my best-laid plans, and sometimes I just turn off WasteNoTime and browse Facebook mindlessly for an hour. Luckily, I have a contingency plan for such moments of weakness: Self-Control, the thermonuclear bomb of website-denial.
When I activate the Self-Control app, I lock myself out of whichever websites I designate, and there’s no way I can get them back. Not by restarting the computer, not by uninstalling the app, nothing. It’s pure genius.
Self-Control is a free Mac app; apparently there’s a similar app for Windows called Freedom (free trial / $10 purchase).
Employing Google Calendar, Stickies, and Trello
Looking a little more long-term: How do I remember everything I need to do in the upcoming days, weeks, and months?
For normal life events, I use Google Calendar, which syncs to my smartphone. As soon as I know I need to do something, I throw it on the calendar with a default 5-minute reminder. Easy peasy.
For little to-do items that would be distracting/overwhelming to put on a calendar, I employ a three-sticky-note system on my Mac’s dashboard: high, medium, and low priority. (These live only on my laptop and do not sync elsewhere.)
Having a “Shut-Down” Time (on All Devices)
An idea I got from Cal Newport: Have a “shut-down” time after which you will not do any work, check work e-mails, or otherwise cause yourself work-related stress.
It’s funny that I consider this a new idea. I imagine that most people with “normal” jobs can easily push the shut-down button in their brains after they leave work. (Or maybe not—I also have traditionally employed friends who bring their work home every day.)
For myself as an entrepreneur and self-directed learner, this has proven extremely difficult. Like a dog with an endless food bowl, I can keep “working” all day long—though the “work” becomes increasingly distracted, non-productive, and stressful. When I find myself obsessively tweaking a WordPress theme at 1:00am, I know I’ve lost.
Admittedly I have not employed this strategy yet; it’s a new experiment. But I already know that, for it to work, I’ll need to:
- Not only shut down my laptop work, but avoid checking e-mail on my phone. Perhaps I’ll do this by disabling both wi-fi and cellular data.
- Have a daily milestone that tells me stop working now. An obvious choice seems to be making the plan/goal for tomorrow.
- Fill my evening time with other awesome stuff instead of trying to avoid getting on my computer. It’s 1000% easier for me to avoid mindless computer work in the evening if I’m cooking dinner, spending time with friends, taking a tango lesson, watching a movie, or going on an adventure.
Not Letting Productivity Become Another Obsession
Finally, let’s go a little meta.
As soon as I started googling productivity tips, I found an incredible amount of online literature. Some people seem to dedicate their lives to the pursuit of perfectly maximized productivity. This does not seem like a healthy thing to me.
The most important part of all this productivity business seems, to me, that it feels awesome to do good work. If the strategies outlined above help me do more good work, then they’re useful. But if the strategies themselves become an obsession and distraction from my big life goals, then they become part of the problem. I’m on guard for that.
Wish me luck.