If you want to understand personal productivity, you’ve got to understand the concept of momentum. For all the organizing systems in the world and early rising skills in your time zone, you’ll only ever get so much done without bringing momentum into play.
Some people say the purpose of productivity is to give yourself more free time to spend relaxing, not working. I disagree. The purpose of productivity is to give yourself more time, whatever you choose to do with it. You should definitely have downtime regularly, but one thing momentum allows you to do is work faster and faster with each completed task throughout the day. In this case, we’re talking about being productive so that you’re even more productive in the hours following.
You start the day with a coffee and by making a list of the tasks you need to get done. At nine in the morning, you start working, slowly picking off the tasks on your list as and when you feel like it, so long as they’re completed by the time you have to clock off. It doesn’t matter if you do them in a slow and relaxed manner, it just matters that you don’t have to stay back late. This determines your maximum working speed.
On the other hand, you could start with a list you prepared at the previous day. This helps with one thing in particular: it removes any obstacles to getting started and building momentum. You start with the first task on the list and set a timer. You’ve set a dash: you’re going to work furiously and unwaveringly for ten minutes, and then reward yourself with a two minute break. If at any point in that ten-minute period your concentration wavers, you start from scratch and delay your break. There’s incentive to work not just quickly, but without distractions.
You set the timer again for your break, but unlike most people you don’t take the whole two minutes having a cigarette or looking up jokes; you give yourself one minute to stretch your legs and one minute to review your tasks, mentally preparing for the next dash — which is going to be twice as long, but with a twice as long break.
This is just one method for keeping yourself focused, on-task, and working pretty quickly. The key point is that it gets you working a little longer, a little harder each time, and you only get to reward yourself if you succeed at working hard.
If you’re in an employment situation, there might not be much incentive for you to work as hard as possible and build momentum throughout the day. If I could offer one good reason to train yourself in working harder and faster as the day progresses, it’s that one day you might find yourself self-employed and you’ll discover that time is money.
For every minute you’re slacking off, you’re not earning money, and let me tell you: the habits you built working for someone else will persist even when you work for yourself.
There can be a staggering amount of work to do in this situation, whether you’re building a business (whether as a freelancer or as a company) or maintaining one. I know of way too many freelancers who start working before most people are awake and don’t clock off until nine or ten at night.
Many of these people are working at full-blast all day, but the truth is that most people who work insane hours could probably work a lot less if they just applied the concept of momentum-building to their work day. If you’re well-organized already, it’s easy to begin. If not, you need to get started with a system like Getting Things Done, because if your next actions are not known to you before the start of your work day, you will spend time figuring out what to do next and losing any and all momentum.
If you don’t do anything else, do this one thing: map out your tasks the day before. Before you finish up work each day, make it your final task to set up a to-do list for the next day. There are so many benefits to working this way: anything tasks you need to complete from that day are still fresh in your mind, you give your mind twelve hours to mentally prepare for the next day at work, and you remove the biggest obstacle to being productive, and that’s not knowing where to start.
My preferred system is to use Things on the computer for planning projects and capturing tasks, and then transferring daily task lists to a paper-only format to aid in focus.
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