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A Success Story: Failed Experiments with Productivity

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A Success Story: Failed Experiments with Productivity
    In order to succeed, you've got to fail along the way.

    As someone who has spent a lot of time tinkering with productivity – with both the various systems and tools that are available – I’ve come across a lot of successful ones. But I’ve come across a lot of things that just didn’t work, either. I found that these failures seemed to be more plentiful in my early days of studying the art of being productive, and as time progressed my chances of success did as well. It wasn’t often about the system or tool either.

    It was all me.

    When you’re trying to figure out what will work best in boosting your productivity, you rarely know what will work for you at first. You may be a paper person, but using it just isn’t practical to track all you’ve got going. Even a paper prophet like Patrick Rhone (of Minimal Mac fame) spends time in the digital world in order to keep on track. And while you may be excited about what your devices can do to make you a more productive person, there’s a chance that when it comes to actually being productive that a pen and paper are best suited for you. That’s why it’s so difficult to teach someone how to be more productive; there’s more to it than the old “Just Do It” assertion. A number of factors have to be weighed, making it a very subjective thing.

    So if you’ve tried to become more productive through trial and error, you’re not alone. You’re more than not alone. Here are 3 of my own failed experiments with productivity. You may relate to some because you’ve given them a go or you may be inspired to try one of them because maybe your mind can wrap your head around it better than mine could. This isn’t an intervention or a warning; it’s an admission that even those who have lived in the world of productivity have fallen down. The trick is to keep looking for something until you’ve found something that allows you to get back up a whole lot faster and easier.

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    1. Two Systems: Personal and Professional

    Since I didn’t want to bring my work home with me back when I had a 9 to 5 job, I kept a planner at work for work stuff and had a planner that went with me everywhere for personal stuff. Anything that was work-related never went in my personal planner and vice versa. Turns out there would be problems with this strategy.

    By keeping two planners I was unable to be very nimble. I actually handcuffed my productivity rather than let it flourish. Instead of having one place to put stuff, I had two. And I had to decide on them with every action that came my way. I was working smarter…and harder.

    In addition, I had essentially created a separation that really wasn’t there. There was no fluidity between work and personal stuff, and there needs to be. Work is part of life. So are personal matters that need attending. These feed off each other as well – maybe not in a technical sense, but certainly in an emotional one.

    Time spent on this failed experiment: 4 months

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    2. Colour-Coded Paper Planner

    This seemed like a good idea at the time. I used to use coloured pens and highlighters that were associated with a legend so I could tell what each task was associated with and how far along they were to completion. Different coloured pens were used for the “context” of the tasks (keeping in mind I had no knowledge of how contexts are defined in most productivity systems at the time) and the different coloured highlighters were used to signify the progress of the tasks.

    One of the biggest problems with this experiment was that I was carrying around a pencil case for the first time since school. I also wound up using one of those multi-coloured pens that you had to flick to change colours. Not exactly the most pleasant writing tool.

    Furthermore, I had to keep tabs on what each aspect of the colour-coding represented. I was either pulling out the legend regularly to make sure I knew what was going on with certain tasks or I inadvertantly would use a wrong colour and throw everything out of whack. Well, at least it felt like everything was out of whack. What it really was: not the best solution for my personal productivity.

    Time spent on this failed experiment: 1 year (yes…1 whole year!)

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    3. Things

    When I first dove into using apps for productivity purposes, Things won out over OmniFocus. The price was cheaper and it seemed to have everything I needed. The user interface was simple and elegant, the developers had built a complementary iPhone app and I was able to use it with relative ease and get a whole lot done.

    Until I was away from my Mac for too long with my iPhone. Then “Things” wasnt working out so well. It had no over-the-air sync at the time. That was a problem for me. Others felt the same way.

    So I ditched Things for OmniFocus. Moving stuff over took time, but not nearly as long as reconciling Things between two devices would’ve taken me over the long haul.

    Time spent on this failed experiment: 6 months

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    Fail FTW

    As I was writing this there were several other failed experiments with productivity that came to mind. I’ve made note of them (in the trusted system I use today, which is a combination of different tools I use) and may revisit them in the future so I can share them with you. There’s a lot of material to work with.

    As for what I’m using now…well, that’s another post as well. But I can tell you that through these failed experiments I’ve been able to concoct my own winning productivity formula. It’s been the failures that have led me to my successes, which – when you put them into perspective – could indicate that perhaps they really weren’t failures after all.

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    Mike Vardy

    A productivity specialist who shows you how to define your day, funnel your focus, and make every moment matter.

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    Last Updated on October 21, 2021

    How to Create Your Own Ritual to Conquer Time Wasters and Laziness

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    How to Create Your Own Ritual to Conquer Time Wasters and Laziness

    Life is wasted in the in-between times. The time between when your alarm first rings and when you finally decide to get out of bed. The time between when you sit at your desk and when productive work begins. The time between making a decision and doing something about it.

    Slowly, your day is whittled away from all the unused in-between moments. Eventually, time wasters, laziness, and procrastination get the better of you.

    The solution to reclaim these lost middle moments is by creating rituals. Every culture on earth uses rituals to transfer information and encode behaviors that are deemed important. Personal rituals can help you build a better pattern for handling everything from how you wake up to how you work.

    Unfortunately, when most people see rituals, they see pointless superstitions. Indeed, many rituals are based on a primitive understanding of the world. But by building personal rituals, you get to encode the behaviors you feel are important and cut out the wasted middle moments.

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    Program Your Own Algorithms

    Another way of viewing rituals is by seeing them as computer algorithms. An algorithm is a set of instructions that is repeated to get a result.

    Some algorithms are highly efficient, sorting or searching millions of pieces of data in a few seconds. Other algorithms are bulky and awkward, taking hours to do the same task.

    By forming rituals, you are building algorithms for your behavior. Take the delayed and painful pattern of waking up, debating whether to sleep in for another two minutes, hitting the snooze button, repeat until almost late for work. This could be reprogrammed to get out of bed immediately, without debating your decision.

    How to Form a Ritual

    I’ve set up personal rituals for myself for handling e-mail, waking up each morning, writing articles, and reading books. Far from making me inflexible, these rituals give me a useful default pattern that works best 99% of the time. Whenever my current ritual won’t work, I’m always free to stop using it.

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    Forming a ritual isn’t too difficult, and the same principles for changing habits apply:

    1. Write out your sequence of behavior. I suggest starting with a simple ritual of only 3-4 steps maximum. Wait until you’ve established a ritual before you try to add new steps.
    2. Commit to following your ritual for thirty days. This step will take the idea and condition it into your nervous system as a habit.
    3. Define a clear trigger. When does your ritual start? A ritual to wake up is easy—the sound of your alarm clock will work. As for what triggers you to go to the gym, read a book or answer e-mail—you’ll have to decide.
    4. Tweak the Pattern. Your algorithm probably won’t be perfectly efficient the first time. Making a few tweaks after the first 30-day trial can make your ritual more useful.

    Ways to Use a Ritual

    Based on the above ideas, here are some ways you could implement your own rituals:

    1. Waking Up

    Set up a morning ritual for when you wake up and the next few things you do immediately afterward. To combat the grogginess after immediately waking up, my solution is to do a few pushups right after getting out of bed. After that, I sneak in ninety minutes of reading before getting ready for morning classes.

    2. Web Usage

    How often do you answer e-mail, look at Google Reader, or check Facebook each day? I found by taking all my daily internet needs and compressing them into one, highly-efficient ritual, I was able to cut off 75% of my web time without losing any communication.

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    3. Reading

    How much time do you get to read books? If your library isn’t as large as you’d like, you might want to consider the rituals you use for reading. Programming a few steps to trigger yourself to read instead of watching television or during a break in your day can chew through dozens of books each year.

    4. Friendliness

    Rituals can also help with communication. Set up a ritual of starting a conversation when you have opportunities to meet people.

    5. Working

    One of the hardest barriers when overcoming procrastination is building up a concentrated flow. Building those steps into a ritual can allow you to quickly start working or continue working after an interruption.

    6. Going to the gym

    If exercising is a struggle, encoding a ritual can remove a lot of the difficulty. Set up a quick ritual for going to exercise right after work or when you wake up.

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    7. Exercise

    Even within your workouts, you can have rituals. Spacing the time between runs or reps with a certain number of breaths can remove the guesswork. Forming a ritual of doing certain exercises in a particular order can save time.

    8. Sleeping

    Form a calming ritual in the last 30-60 minutes of your day before you go to bed. This will help slow yourself down and make falling asleep much easier. Especially if you plan to get up full of energy in the morning, it will help if you remove insomnia.

    8. Weekly Reviews

    The weekly review is a big part of the GTD system. By making a simple ritual checklist for my weekly review, I can get the most out of this exercise in less time. Originally, I did holistic reviews where I wrote my thoughts on the week and progress as a whole. Now, I narrow my focus toward specific plans, ideas, and measurements.

    Final Thoughts

    We all want to be productive. But time wasters, procrastination, and laziness sometimes get the better of us. If you’re facing such difficulties, don’t be afraid to make use of these rituals to help you conquer them.

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    Featured photo credit: RODOLFO BARRETO via unsplash.com

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