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Rethinking Productivity: Why Your Brain May Be Keeping You from Getting Things Done

Rethinking Productivity: Why Your Brain May Be Keeping You from Getting Things Done

(Editor’s Note: We’re starting a new series this week featuring new Lifehack contributor Kirsten Simmons called “Rethinking Productivity”. The hope is our readers will ask Kirsten questions about productivity, organization, and time management so that she can provide answers that will make people take a step back and “rethink” productivity. Enjoy.)

    Dear Kirsten,

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    I’m about ready to scream.  Everywhere I look there’s “Five Steps to Inbox Nirvana” or “The ONE Secret to Productivity Flow.”  I swear I’ve tried it all and none of it works.  Sometimes I look at the systems and think, there’s no way in hell.  Other times I can see potential and I jump into it with both feet and a rush of enthusiasm, only to crash and burn within a week.  I have so much that I *want* to do, and yet I find myself jumping from this deadline to that emergency, and my projects rarely take form in the way I want.  I’m skeptical that you’ll have any ideas I haven’t tried, but I figured it was worth a shot… do I have a change to someday finishing everything, or should I just let it go as a dream and focus on the day-to-day?

    Signed,
    Gaaaa!

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    Dear Gaaaa!,

    Oh, honey, I totally understand where you’re coming from. Letters like yours make me want to give you a giant hug and then step out to do battle with the ego-centered productivity industry where everyone believes that their system is the key to endless productivity and happiness. I may well be tilting at windmills, but a gal’s got to try, right?

    First off, there are a few ideas that I’d like you to internalize, 100%.

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    1. You are totally capable of finishing everything. BUT, everything is a slippery target because it’s constantly growing. If you had an extra 24 hours in the day, you’d be able to fill it in a heartbeat. Every time you finish something, another project comes up that is just as enticing as the previous. You won’t stop expanding until the day you die.
    2. Your projects may not take form in the way you want, but they are taking form! No one is able to realize fully the visions we have in our heads. I went to a reading with Neil Gaiman last year, and he commented that he had hated the initial edits for American Gods, so he jumped at the chance to do an “author’s definitive edition” a few years later. But then as he continued to tour and do readings, he found even more places he wanted to change, and he had the opportunity to do so when the 10th anniversary edition came out.  But even then, in the months between the time the book went to press and the day I saw him, he had found more that he would have liked to have tweaked.  But, as he put it, you can’t put out the “author’s definitive definitive edition.”  There is a time when you must let your projects go.  To quote The Cult of Done Manifesto, “Laugh at perfection.  It’s boring and keeps you from being done… Done is the engine of more.”
    3. Productivity in isolation is useless. All of those steps and tips and secrets do absolutely nothing for you if you can’t place them in context. And what is the context, you might ask? Simple. Your productivity fits within the ecosystem of you – your goals, your commitments, your habits and your personality. Trying to apply tips and tricks is like treating symptoms without trying to understand the cause of the illness. Every system you consider must work with your needs and serve to move you toward your goals. Your personality may not be conducive to maintaining a system like Getting Things Done. In fact, most people’s personalities aren’t! If you don’t know your personality type and you’re not putting productivity systems in the context of your goals, commitments and habits, no wonder you’re crashing! All the pieces have to work together. When they don’t, you struggle with overwhelm, burnout and frustration.

    You are not at all flawed or wrong because you don’t fit into society’s narrow definition of a “productive” person. You are capable of achieving every goal you’ve ever dreamed about, and a good deal more that you can’t even conceive of yet. We just have to bring your ecosystem back into balance by putting your productivity in context. So here’s what I want you to do. Write me back with an example of the last trick, tip or system you jumped into with enthusiasm, and recount for me all the painful details of your crash and burn. It’s not going to be fun, but I can start to pull your personality type from the story, and from there we can move forward to put your productivity in perspective.

    With love,
    Kirsten

    Now it’s your turn! Please leave a comment and tell me about your most recent crash and burn with a new productivity system.

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    Featured photo credit: Thinker via Shutterstock and inline photo by Andrew Mason via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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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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