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9 Wonderful Ways to Get Started in the World of Personal Productivity

9 Wonderful Ways to Get Started in the World of Personal Productivity

    One day, an innocent worker goes online and decides to see if there are any tips out in the big wide world on getting more done, more quickly, more often. But soon, the poor sod becomes entangled in a complicated trail of information; a few quadzillion blogs on the subject, millions of books, and a whole lot of fancy terms like “ubiquitous capture” and strange rituals such as weekly reviews and inbox processing.

    It’s easy to get lost in the world of personal productivity. It’s hard to get started, and we get that. It’s a jungle of information and not all of it makes sense, and a whole lot of it is in direct conflict: do you go the Inbox Zero approach (that is, clearing out your inbox completely in regular processing sessions), or use Gmail with labels and let things sit in your inbox, with older messages found with the assistance of search?

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    All of this conflicting information makes it tempting to find one person’s philosophy and latch onto it religiously. I mean, check out the Getting Things Done fanclub. But just because all of that information is conflicting doesn’t mean it’s all useless; there’s a lot of excellent advice and the tough part is in forming a basic understanding of personal productivity and developing your own basic system, a framework with which to process that avalanche of words.

    Here you’ll find a few of the blogs and books you should read to get a grip on it all, if you’re serious about getting this part of your life under control. For the most part I recommend starting with the books to get a good overall idea rather than the piece-by-piece approach of blogs, with one exception I’ll mention in a moment.

    Blogs

    There are many great blogs on the subject out there; I read many more than those listed below, but it would be unwise to overload you with new sites when we’re trying to help you find out what’s what. Here are some of the best blogs to get started with.

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    Lifehack — I’d probably be out of a job if I didn’t recommend Lifehack to you in this list, eh? But I don’t do it for the sake of the Overlords. Lifehack provides a whole bunch of great information and helps hundreds of thousands of people get their productivity under control.

    Now for that exception I was talking about: a few months ago, our own Dustin Wax started the Back to Basics series. This is honestly one of the best concise overviews of the whole personal productivity thing I know of and I’ve stopped recommending books as one’s first foray into this area. They’re in second place. Now, I recommend this excellent series, which you can get into here.

    Lifehacker — Often confused with Lifehack thanks to the difference of only a syllable in name, Lifehacker is actually quite a different site. It’s filled with a stream of tips, tricks and software recommendations that can help you make life a little bit easier. Very cool site if you want information in bite-sized chunks (at least most of the time).

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    Zen Habits — Leo Babauta, a former Lifehack contributor, runs Zen Habits, a site that discusses all sorts of things in all areas of personal development. His productivity advice is sound and his writing is engaging. If you like thoughtful, useful advice, this is a great site to read.

    Put Things Off — When I first came across Put Things Off, I admit that it was the funky images in Nick’s Inbox Heaven piece that pulled me in. No surprises that the guy is a graphic designer by day and a productivity guru by night. But the advice is not only good reading and practical, the author is funny as all hell. There’s no more comedic way to get productivity advice out there.

    43 Folders — 43 Folders was one of the pioneers in the productivity blogging sphere, and to this day many people getting started flock to Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero and Making Time to Make pieces as starting points and foundational items in their systems. The writing is engaging and very often, it’s immediately practicable.

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    Books

    Just as with blogs, there are plenty of excellent books on the subject of personal productivity. However, a limited list of some of the best to get started with will be much more useful than a list of every great book that ever existed. If you have other books in your “Must Read” list, let us know in the comments.

    Getting Things Done — Many would consider Getting Things Done the book on personal productivity principles. It offers a great system and is so influential that many people who’ve never even read the back cover of the book are implementing concepts and techniques discussed in it.

    The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People — Where Getting Things Done’s focus is more on systems and methods, Stephen Covey’s book focuses more on principles and habits that make you more effective and productive. Seven Habits and Getting Things Done are well-known as “the” productivity books, and it’s probably because their focuses compliment each other well while being great books in their own right.

    4 Hour Work Week — this book by Tim Ferriss is one of the most recent popular books on productivity topics and talks about a whole range of things from outsourcing to firewalling incoming information. It’s definitely a must-read that is very relevant to the times we live in.

    Zen to Done — I’ve heard this ebook described as Getting Things Done without the complication; as you’d imagine from a book with the word “Zen” in the name, it’s about getting things done with simplicity. It’s a short and readable ebook with a great price and is definitely worth the penny. It’s not short on info just because it’s an ebook, but it doesn’t inflate and pad out information to meet some editor’s word count. If you’re looking for a book you can get in and out of quickly, grab this one.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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