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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 7: The Joy of Lifehacking

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 7: The Joy of Lifehacking

 

Toward a New Vision of Productivity
    This is the seventh part of a 12-part series I am posting from the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). For more discussion along these lines, be sure to check out Beyond Productivity: Living from the Inside Out, a new series of discussions featuring Charlie Gilkey, Andre Kibbe, Duff McDuffee, Jonathan Mead, Sara Pemberton, and me. Right now, only the Introduction is up, but a podcast of our talks will be avilable shortly. Stay tuned…

    This series has been pretty serious so far – too serious. So I want to take a moment to discuss lifehacks, those little tips and tricks that lend this site its name.

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    The concept of the lifehack was born in Danny O’Brien’s now-famous Emerging Technology Conference presentation, Life Hacks: Tech Secrets of Overprolific Alpha Geeks. O’Brien used the term “life hack” to refer to the application of the programming mindset to life problems – using shell scripts and filters to process email, for example. For hackers, the goal is to create logical, reproducible systems using minimal resources; a good hack is one where code written for one function can be repurposed to do another function, or where user input can be eliminated through smart automation.

    These are good principles to apply to our lives in general – the less repetitive work we have to do, the happier we are as a general rule. And multi-purposing things for several tasks is not only handy but it’s efficient. Thus a hack like Merlin Mann’s Hipster PDA really appeals to a lot of people – a handful of index cards and a binder clip are instantly transformed into a pocket notebook. Great stuff!

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    Unfortunately, lifehacks have gotten a bad name for themselves. In his Alternate Productivity Manifesto, Clay Collins writes, “Hacks, tweaks, tricks, etc. have emerged from a productivity hobbyist culture, are largely insufficient at solving bigger life problems, and often do not increase productivity.” In a guest post at Lifehacker, he defined the productivity hobbyist mindset, adding “If, month after month, you continue searching for the latest tip, tweak, or hack, it may mean that your approach to solving productivity problems just isn’t working.”

    Fair enough. If you spend more time working on being productive than actually being productive, you might want to reassess some things. But I think the line between being productive and being a “productivity hobbyist” is way overdrawn. Having fun is an important part of the hacker ethic that gave birth to lifehacks in the first place.

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    It is a product of our sober, thrifty, work-loving Puritan ancestors – and their equivalents around the globe – that we’ve come to disassociate “fun” and “work” to such a strong extent. “If it was fun,” we say, “it wouldn’t be called ‘work’.” The best hackers reject that dichotomy. If it wasn’t fun, they would say, it wouldn’t be work worth doing!

    Even David Allen recognizes the importance of blending fun and work in a productive lifestyle. Consider his approach to filing: he recommends you keep a stack of filing folders and a digital label maker close at hand wherever you work. Now, handwriting your labels would be more efficient and take less time, and few of us have handwriting so bad that we’d be remotely hampered trying to find our files later. But label makers are fun, and they produce files that are aesthetically pleasing – and Allen knows that if it isn’t fun, most people won’t do any filing.

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    In many cases, lifehacks aren’t about huge gains in efficiency or speed – some of them, like setting up a version control repository to track all your documents, are downright time-consuming, and put several new steps in between us and our work on a regular basis, for a rather dubious gain in overall efficiency. But that’s not the point – for a lot of us, it’s the elegance of the new system that matters, or the learning experience of getting it going, or just the curiosity to see “what happens if I do things this way instead of that way?”

    And if that newfound elegance, knowledge, or curiosity leads to work eventually getting done that might not have – or might not have been as much fun – otherwise, then that’s damn good productivity.

    In the end, we can’t measure productivity in terms of units of output. The true measure of productivity is “happiness created” and a lot of lifehacks make the act of working one that produces more happiness. And there ain’t nothing wrong with that!

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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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