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Your Skill Training Plan for Productivity

Your Skill Training Plan for Productivity

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    I’ve said it before: the best approach to productivity is a simple one, and that approach is to know what needs doing, and then do what needs doing. I’m not talking systems. How you manage the knowing and doing is another issue. But approaching productivity on this simple level is important. In our effort to become more productive, our strange human minds can sometimes turn it into an almost mystical and ethereal concept with hidden treasures and secrets waiting for those who explore it enough.

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    But at the end of the day, all this business about getting productive is mundane. It’s dirty. It’s about just doing what needs doing. There are other things that deserve to be put on the philosophical pedestal and considered deeply, such as how we make meaning from what we do and discover the things we’re passionate about. These are the things that make greater productivity a pursuit that’s worthwhile in the first place.

    Because on its own, being productive means nothing, and it’s such a mundane thing that I occasionally wonder if we’re creating much ado about nothing. But the truth is that we’re not and that increasing our skill in furthering our goals through action is indeed worthwhile; without it, those more important things in life can’t stand on their own two legs. Productivity is a pillar and a propellant for them.

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    Reading about productivity and lifehacking can be a hobby. But it can also be a way to feel better about the fact we’re not getting anything done or making significant improvements in our life, just as some people find that overeating can help ease (or temporarily erase) emotional pain. Use it like a crutch, and it’ll become more than it really is and more complicated than it really is, because you depend on the crutch, exacerbating the problem you had in the first place with facing your dreams head on and figuring out how to make them happen.

    I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a geek and in what little spare time I can gather after work and family are satisfied, I play a bit of EVE Online. In this game you must advance and improve your character and his or her abilities by training skills, and because it’s such an intellectual and complicated game there are even third party applications that can help you create a skill training plan that spans years.

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    What’s that got to do with anything? Well, I think sometimes we need to stop talking about productivity all day like it’s some fluffy cloud in the sky, sit down and look at what’s really stopping us from getting things done. A lot of the time it’s because we simply don’t have the skills required to be productive. Like speaking a language, cooking, playing chess or even EVE, being productive is not an instinctual thing we’re born with. It’s something you learn, and you get good at with time. And you won’t get anywhere without some sort of skill training plan.

    There’s an old saying that everyone has heard hundreds of times: practice makes perfect. But what they forget to add is that if you’re not practicing the right things, you don’t get any better. If all you practice on the guitar or piano are the same scales you could already pull off flawlessly a year ago, you’re not learning anything new. You’re not getting any better at playing. Or, if you’re practicing with bad finger placement and flawed technique, you could actually be getting worse and creating health issues for yourself.

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    What’s needed is a path to improvement. A path that doesn’t go in circles covering the same ground and a path that doesn’t reinforce the negative behavior patterns we’ve learned over the years. Ever tried to look busy even though you’d done all the work you could for the day, just so your corporate overlords wouldn’t ask you why you weren’t working? That’s a negative behavior pattern caused by the society we live in and it can slip into all areas of your life without you even realizing it. Instead of staying where you are surrounded by bad habits and circular thinking, decide where you need to be in order to work past those things and get the real work done. You might start by focusing on a few core skills for productive thinking:

    • Discipline. 95% of getting things done is in doing the things that need to be done.
    • Evaluation. You need to be able to step above the day-to-day minutiae and evaluate whether you’re getting closer to your goals; if you’re not, you’re not getting the right things done.
    • Discrimination. It’s sometimes a word with negative connotations, but you need to be able to discriminate between the important things — productive work — and the busywork.
    • Discipline.
    • Foresight. You need to able to see your big-picture goals and the tomorrow you intend to create in the first place. Being productive without direction is pointless.

    There are many skills that factor into being competently productive and these are just a few of them. The point is not to tell you what you need to handle. The point is that you should be thinking about what you need to handle and working towards being better at productivity in a proactive way. Reading about productivity in order to gain knowledge about it is a good thing, but too often it becomes the end of the path.

    This will be my last post on Lifehack for a while as I adapt to a new and fairly significant role over the coming weeks. I wanted to leave you with something that got you thinking about where you’re going with productivity, why you read blogs like Lifehack, and what you’re getting out of it. I hope I succeeded, and if I did get you thinking I’d love to hear about in the comments.

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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 July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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