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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 April 8, 2019

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    22 Tips for Effective Deadlines

    Unless you’re infinitely rich or prepared to rack up major debt, you need to budget your income. Setting limits on how much you are willing to spend helps control expenses. But what about your time? Do you budget your time or spend it carelessly?

    Deadlines are the chronological equivalent of a budget. By setting aside a portion of time to complete a task, goal or project in advance you avoid over-spending. Deadlines can be helpful but they can also be a source of frustration if set improperly. Here are some tips for making deadlines work:

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    1. Use Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the time given to them. By setting a strict deadline in advance you can cut off this expansion and focus on what is most important.
    2. Timebox – Set small deadlines of 60-90 minutes to work on a specific task. After the time is up you finish. This cuts procrastinating and forces you to use your time wisely.
    3. 80/20 – The Pareto Principle suggests that 80% of the value is contained in 20% of the input. Apply this rule to projects to focus on that critical 20% first and fill out the other 80% if you still have time.
    4. Project VS Deadline – The more flexible your project, the stricter your deadline. If a task has relatively little flexibility in completion a softer deadline will keep you sane. If the task can grow easily, keep a tight deadline to prevent waste.
    5. Break it Down – Any deadline over one day should be broken down into smaller units. Long deadlines fail to motivate if they aren’t applied to manageable units.
    6. Hofstadter’s Law – Basically this law states that it always takes longer than you think. A rule I’ve heard in software development is to double the time you think you need. Then add six months. Be patient and give yourself ample time for complex projects.
    7. Backwards Planning – Set the deadline first and then decide how you will achieve it. This approach is great when choices are abundant and projects could go on indefinitely.
    8. Prototype – If you are attempting something new, test out smaller versions of a project to help you decide on a final deadline. Write a 10 page e-book before your 300 page novel or try to increase your income by 10% before aiming to double it.
    9. Find the Weak Link – Figure out what could ruin your plans and accomplish it first. Knowing the unknown can help you format your deadlines.
    10. No Robot Deadlines – Robots can work without sleep, relaxation or distractions. You aren’t a robot. Don’t schedule your deadline with the expectation you can work sixteen hour days to complete it. Deathmarches aren’t healthy.
    11. Get Feedback – Get a realistic picture from people working with you. Giving impossible deadlines to contractors or employees will only build resentment.
    12. Continuous Planning – If you use a backwards planning model, you need to constantly be updating plans to fit your deadline. This means making cuts, additions or refinements so the project will fit into the expected timeframe.
    13. Mark Excess Baggage – Identify areas of a task or project that will be ignored if time grows short. What e-mails will you have to delete if it takes too long to empty your inbox? What features will your product lack if you need a rapid finish?
    14. Review – For deadlines over a month long take a weekly review to track your progress. This will help you identify methods you can use to speed up work and help you plan more efficiently for the future.
    15. Find Shortcuts – Almost any task or project has shortcuts you can use to save time. Is there a premade library you can use instead of building your own functions? An autoresponder to answer similar e-mails? An expert you can call to help solve a problem?
    16. Churn then Polish – Set a strict deadline for basic completion and then set a more comfortable deadline to enhance and polish afterwards. Often churning out the basics of a task quickly will require no more polishing afterwards than doing it slowly.
    17. Reminders – Post reminders of your deadlines everywhere. Creating a sense of urgency with your deadlines is necessary to keep them from getting pushed aside by distractions.
    18. Forward Planning – Not mutually exclusive with backwards planning, this involves planning the details of a project out before setting a deadline. Great for achieving clarity about what you are trying to accomplish before making arbitrary time limits.
    19. Set a Timer – Get one that beeps. Somehow the countdown of a timer appears more realistic for a ninety minute timebox than just glancing at your clock.
    20. Write them Down – Any deadline over a few hours needs to be written down. Otherwise it is an inclination not a goal. Having written deadlines makes them more tangible than internal decisions alone.
    21. Cheap/Fast/Good – Ben Casnocha in My Start Up Life mentions that you can have only have two of the three. Pick two of the cheap/fast/good dimensions before starting a project to help you prioritize.
    22. Be Patient – Using a deadline may seem to be the complete opposite of patience. But being patient with inflexible tasks is necessary to focus on their completion. The paradox is that the more patient you are, the more you can focus. The more you can focus the quicker the results will come!

    Featured photo credit: Estée Janssens via unsplash.com

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