Last week, inspired by our interview with two awesome freelancers, I’ve had several conversations about personal productivity and procrastination. I often hear others say “I really don’t understand how you manage to do everything.” Frankly I think there’s still tons to improve. But over the years, I’ve accepted one simple fact – you need to work on being productive. The best way to start is to procrastinate. Procrastinate like you mean it. And then learn.
This is not your average brief post about how to stop procrastination by keeping away from social media. This is an actual process that I do (or don’t do):
- Analyze my weaknesses.
- I run daily sprints.
- Take time to think.
- Cut the paper madness.
- I clean up my garbage.
- I do the creative and hard things when my brain is ready to deal with them.
- I timebox everything. Seriously.
- Accept: you are not fully in charge.
- Acknowledge: multitasking is not the answer to all issues in life.
- Done is better than perfect.
- Remove the distractions I can.
- Choose the right places.
- Eat. Sleep. Drink water. Move.
When it comes to being productive, I think everything starts from looking at yourself honestly and analyzing your weaknesses. Many of our weaknesses are the direct input into what makes us unproductive and why we procrastinate.
So before we continue on what I do to deal with procrastination, let’s look at some of my weaknesses, the amusing list of how I see it.
- I’m one of the creative artist minds who gets trillion new ideas all the time. And obviously, whenever an idea pops up, I need to deal with them immediately.
- I love reading and researching. I can easily spend days and weeks researching something.
- I love experimenting with new tools. To find all the new cool gadgets and tools you need to be browsing the web. And whenever you get a new message from Product Hunt, it’s something you need to check immediately.
- I have this high-level bird view on everything and I’m weak at planning. If I could, I’d just say “implement payments”. And expect someone just do it. Because that’s how things get done, isn’t it?
- I love social networks. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest – all of it needs my attention all the time, right?
- I love meeting new people. There are so many communities, groups and meetups around to meet new people. I must be on all the cool and popular places.
- I love to learn new things. To learn, you obviously need to take all the time in the world and do everything yourself. How else?
And many, many other things. All this says that to be productive, I need to make a few agreements with myself. Things like focusing on the priorities. Not checking social media all the time. Have a process to keep focus and be in the loop with tools and much more. Here’s what I do.
I keep a simple schedule for my days.
Not every day is the same and you need to remain flexible. The important part is to have some sense of, what are you going to do when.
Does it need to be written up, kept in a calendar? I think that depends on. It’s easier in the beginning if it’s written down. It takes time and effort for a human being to build a habit. But once it becomes a habit, I don’t think you need to have it in written as such.
Here’s example of my last Tuesday:
Plan and look back
It is obvious to plan the team week – what needs to happen, how and who is going to do it. I think it is equally important to plan your own time.
Each evening I take a bit time to look what I need to do tomorrow. That includes prioritizing my tasks and if needed, breaking them in a bit smaller steps. Do I track this in written? Yes. I keep my personal scrum board in Deekit and all tasks are nicely written there.
Planning alone gets you only half way there I think. Equally, you need to look back – did I do everything I planned to get done during the day. If not, why. In some cases, I might end up figuring out that the task actually is no longer needed or a priority. Sometimes I need to modify my approach. All kinds of things come out if you do a personal retrospective. Just keep in mind one thing – this is not a blame-excuse game. What matters is, what are you going to do about it going forward.
Take time to plan and think about the bigger picture.
I have had the pleasure to discuss this quite a bit with Tak Lo while we were in TechStars accelerator. How much time should a CEO spend on thinking about vision and strategy?
To be honest, I think not only CEO’s need this, but everyone. Being an amazing designer isn’t about doing designs for everyday tasks. But you need to take ten steps back and look at your product as a whole. An architect can figure out solutions to the problem at hand. But unless you analyze the whole thing often enough you might be on a disastrous path.Take your time. If not every week then at least once a month.
Use online tools.
I love paper and pen. It’s sometimes amazing just to scribble things, feel the pen and ink. But whenever I put important tasks on paper, I loose them. “You’re completely disorganised.” – is what you probably think right now. “Get a notebook”. Maybe. But from my point of view, why to waste the paper, if online tools can do all of it and actually help me be more organized.
I currently keep track of my tasks and notes in one place using Deekit as mentioned before.
Clean up the garbage aka have right process for your to-do lists.
ToDo lists, scrum cards, notes – all are amazing tools for their purpose. But unless you tidy and manage them, they can be your worst nightmare.
Whenever I see a task on my ToDo list that I haven’t finished past few weeks I ask myself couple questions:
If it’s not needed, delete it. If it’s needed later, move it. If there’s an impediment, deal with that. If it’s just a nice idea you want to remember, make a separate list for that.
Do the creative and hard thing first.
I know that I have more brain power in the morning and during the night. At lunch time is my low period. Which simply means I don’t plan hard tasks that require creative thinking for my low period. Instead, I do that in the morning or during the night time.
Timebox your tasks.
It is so easy to forget yourself reading, designing or even thinking how exactly do I want to structure my product backlog. My theory is that human beings by nature can do any task for an unlimited amount of time. And that’s why we need to timebox ourselves.
Make your standups 15 minutes, not longer. Check your emails regularly, but give yourself perhaps 20 minutes. When you are researching anything, give yourself a day or few. Not more.
There will be interruptions.
You are not in charge of everything that happens in life. Accept that there always will be some interruptions, want it or not. Unless you move to Antarctica perhaps. But even there a storm might come, or a hungry bear finds you and drags you out of your workflow. Accept this fact and be flexible to adapt.
You can manage and control what you do and when. But you cannot control everything in life. Life is what happens when you are busy making plans, you know?
This is today probably one of my most favourite ones. I don’t meditate because I read on someone’s blog that you should try it. I started meditating because it seemed to address a problem that I was having.
What was my problem? Every time I went to bed, an insane dialogue would keep going on in my head.
A painting made of coffee would be cool to make. Oh, I forgot to send out this email today. I should paint a band. There’s the cat again. I promise I won’t forget to iron Selene’s judo clothes in the morning. I wonder what’s new on Netflix. Oh, the conversation with the user was amazing. He said he totally needs the shape library. I wonder how this should work. I need to dig into this and find out more about the use-cases from more users. Feedback on Facebook was so sweet today, life is just so amazing.
Why is there no button to switch this thing off? Well, there is. As meditation has done exactly that. I’m no pro at it, don’t get me wrong. But even the basic can do magic. Depending on the day I might take 10 minutes, maybe 20. And I just focus on my breath. That’s it. After 10 minutes, there’s just breath and nothing else. Perfect!
Amazingly, sleep is not the only thing meditation has helped me with. When I need to switch to a new task and my mind is still full of thoughts, I take my 5 or 10 minutes to meditate. This allows my brain to switch off everything and actually focus on a new thing.
I love multitasking as such. Sounds amazing – do many things at once. And it has its place. Just not when you are doing creative work.
I can listen to a podcast while ironing. I can watch a documentary while cooking. Easy. But I cannot write a proper email while editing images. Nor can watch a cool TV series while writing a blog.
Your brain can deal with only so many things at the same time. This is why I believe you can multitask only when one of the tasks is a mechanic thing you need to do. Something that is in your muscle memory and you no longer think about it. I don’t need to push my brain to iron clothes or when I’m cooking a simple meal. But I do need it to do the heavy lifting when writing a blog post or answer emails.
Done is better than perfect.
Sometimes it’s really hard to get going when you focus on how much effort is needed or how pretty the result need be. In reality, it takes just 90 seconds to start. And once you have something done, you can always improve.
This is why I often focus on getting the first draft done first.
I have practiced focusing on a specific job for many years. And honestly, I think I’m doing a pretty good job. My team makes constant jokes about it as they can wave around, jump or dance next to me without me even noticing it. My brain does the filtering for me.
You can also choose to remove many distractions. Put your phone away. Close the Facebook and Twitter. Turn off notifications. Up to the point where remaining things are those you really cannot ignore. When your fire alarm goes off, when someone directly pokes you on the shoulder – that sort of things.
Choose the right place to work.
Be aware of what you are going to do and what environment is the best. I cannot write a blog post in the office. For whatever the reason, I just cannot. But some cozy cafe with hot chocolate might just be the best place. Things that require good connectivity is something I cannot deal with at home – I just don’t have it there. So if I need to upload big things to Drive, I better be in the office.
Good thing is, I’m not a tree. I can simply move. Always choose the right place to fit your needs.
Take care of yourself. Smile. Eat. Sleep. Exercise.
Last but not least – take a bloody good care of yourself. When I’m in a bad mood, I’m tempted towards anything funny. Cat pictures, funny videos on Youtube – anything that can boost my mood.
When I’m hungry, that’s all my brain is ever going to tell me. If I eat too much, I’m sleepy and want siesta – trouble again. When I don’t exercise, I can feel it in my back, my neck and energy levels. When I sleep too little – I’m useless. I’ve done tons of experiments with eating and sleeping well to keep the energy. This is a blog post on its own to be written.
But seriously. Sleep. Eat. Exercise. Smile. Laugh. Give your body and mind all the basic thing it needs and in return, it will give you tons more.
So my best tips to share: understand what your weaknesses are and figure out the ways how you can improve your processes to help you with these. And while at it, remember to take a really good care of yourself. Without proper sleep, food and laughter your body will simply stop cooperating.