The reality of unsustainable systems
Volumes have been written on productivity. People have made good careers teaching productivity systems, processes, tricks, hacks, creating apps, businesses and classrooms. These systems focus on training your mind, getting you into routine, separating the important from the not-so-important, filtering, categorizing, sorting, organizing thoughts, feelings, actions, to-dos and so on. Much like staying in shape, if you pick one and stick with it, most likely, it will make you more productive. But life is ever-changing, personal situations change, environments change and if anything our mindsets change — and this brings a lot of complexity, uncertainty that almost always get us out of the very systems that we subscribe to in order to keep us productive. Sure there are exemplary folks that have incredible systems that keep them extremely productive and they are able to accomplish a great deal every single day of their lives, for the long term. But these folks are much less in number. Most of us, including me, are unable to build a sustainable productivity practice or it feels like it on most days.
The problem with the perception of productivity today
The best definition of productivity, as per me, is to produce something based on certain inputs that are fed into producing that something.
The perception of productivity has changed drastically in the digital age. Today, being productive is the ability to weed out all things that make us unproductive. The internet and smartphone added a lot more impetus to our anyway curious minds. Different productivity statistics talk about smartphone usage, social media usage, workplace interruptions and the like. A lot of productivity systems focus on minimizing these disruptions. Other systems focus on creating segments of your day, doing the most important or difficult thing first thing in the morning, or, shutting down everything for a period of time to focus, do deep work and so on. The problem that I had when I tried to follow them is that life gets in the way. It is near impossible to avoid disruptions.
So last year I went on a productivity mission. I focused on doing periods of deep work throughout the day, create manageable lists that I try to punch through daily and regularly try to beat my prior week’s screen time and social media usage. More recently, I shut off all notifications on my phone and told my near and dear and important folks to call me if anything urgent, else I will check messages a few times a day. It has definitely made me more productive. But by the time I am ready to wind down for the day I realize, more days than none, that there are several things I missed that are important — important to anyone or anything that is important to me.
While a lot of folks will say that missing important things is not a sign of poor productivity I would argue that it is quite the contrary. If I am to be productive I need to be able to produce value that is perceived by those that matter — matter to me.
It does not matter the size of the value or work. It can be something small like taking out the trash or something bigger like calling the doctor’s office for an important visit. It is really not possible to update, manage and maintain lists all day and if anything it is counter-productive — takes a lot of time. While we are able to get done with the bigger tasks using productivity management systems, how can we ensure that we do not miss such tasks that matter to those that matter to us, including ourselves?
This may sound really obvious, but if you think about it for a minute, you will realize that it is really powerful and actually not easy to do and more importantly, not easy to balance. Ever heard of this? “What you have to do tomorrow, do it today, what you have to do today, do it now?”
This is the productivity hack that will ensure you stay on course forever. I said it. FOREVER. It is…drum-roll…“Do it now.” Really simple concept. Incredibly difficult to follow. Yet, extremely effective.
Let me explain more.
First, I say it is a hack because it should not replace all other systems and processes that you may be following to stay productive. You may be creating lists and punching through them. You may have weekly targets. You may have BHAGs that you are working towards on a daily basis. You could be using your calendar as your productivity tool. I am not saying get rid of these. I am saying that complement them with a simple mental model — Do it now. This is how it works.
You find out you have to get something done — for yourself, or for someone. Ask yourself one question — if I did not do this “at all”, does it create any problem for me? If the answer is no, then either ignore it, or delegate it, or make a mental note, or write it in your list for later. If the answer is “yes” — just figure out a way to Do it now. It may sound counter-productive — adding a lot of interruptions to your already busy and multi-tasking life. But what it does is that it declutters your mind. A cluttered brain is not good for mental and physical health, and this impacts your productivity in the short and long term. Parking to-dos into lists may seem like a fix, but if the work has to be done at some point, it does not leave your brain — it stays there and perks up during the day. And, if you get reminded of it from another person, especially someone that matters to you, that parked thought comes right back. In the end it could, most likely, morph into aggravation and frustration, for you and for others.
“Do it now” is one productivity hack that is easy to remember, follow and is sustainable for the long term. It should not be the only productivity system you should follow. Although, if you are not following anything, this is definitely the one to start. Getting things done for yourself, for the long and short term, getting things done for people and things that matter to you, will make you feel accomplished, happy and declutter your brain. This in turn will set off those feel-good hormones that will make your more productive. Try it for a week and see. It is actually not that hard to start, but requires practice and balance. So next time, your significant other interrupts your favorite sitcom to go get the mail — just pause, get up and go do it. Or, when you check your email (hopefully after some good deep work) and you see that you need to finish a project, ask yourself “if I do not do this at all, does it create any problem for me?” If the answer is yes — get started, do the work. Eventually you will get better and better at it — prioritizing mentally, than through lists, calendars or systems.
Let me know your thoughts. Would love to hear what productivity systems you use and if this hack can complement them, or replace them.