3 Things I Learned About Myself and Productivity This Past Week

Last weekend I unintentionally became involved in a Twitter debate between Tim Ferriss and a critic of his, which unintentionally led to several more subscribers to this blog. (Welcome!) I will address the debate in my next post.

In my last post, I described 7 of the primary ingredients in my productivity workflow. In this post, I'll tackle 3 things I learned in the past week regarding that workflow.

First, some backstory:

After I finished my dissertation, 80% of my schedule opened up for new tasks in pursuit of new goals. It was a moment I dreamt of for more than a year. But when it happened, I felt paralyzed. I had plenty to do, but for the first time there were so many seemingly important next actions. With my dissertation, it was always clear as day what the next Pareto task was.

In addition to this analysis paralysis, my system felt stale to me. In particular, Omnifocus felt stale to me. This was problematic because, as I described last time, Omnifocus contains mostly everything in my life from the most critical tasks all the way to which Netflix series to binge on next.

I tried, and failed, to identify the root cause of these feelings. Perhaps it was a layover from finishing my dissertation. Because so much of my Omnifocus time was spent on my dissertation, maybe I associated the two too closely? Maybe there was a flaw in my system that my subconscious was trying to tell me about? Or maybe it was just a form of procrastination? I didn’t (and don’t) know.

So what to do? Well, rather than sit there stewing about why I felt like I did, I decided to allow myself some modifications to my workflow. In retrospect, I think it was the right move, and one I will use going forward.

My first lesson:

LESSON ONE, THE FERRIS BUELLER PRINCIPLE: Sometimes you hit a wall and the only way forward is to take a look around and shake things up. However, because procrastination can easily take the form of ‘system-tinkering,’ I must be mindful and honest with myself (to the extent possible.)

I took out my sketch pad (even my stick figures don’t look like stick figures, but I like brainstorming in sketch pads.) I wrote down possible things I could do to shake things up and get me riled up for a productive day, week, month. Some ideas would require too much revamping of a system that was pretty finely tuned. Some might work for a day for two, but were quick fixes and unsustainable.

But there was one idea literally in my hand:

My pencil.

Maybe I could just use it a bit more often during the day? It could not replace Omnifocus, etc. (I long ago concluded I was better with digital than analog productivity tools), but it might make things a bit more enjoyable and reduce friction.

Okay, great, so this genius made me read an article about his decision to use pencils more often.

A fair sentiment. But reserve your judgment.

The pencil idea led me to look at one of the beautiful, empty journals l have lying around. Journaling is one of those habits I know pays dividends, but have always failed to do consistently, which is why I have so many beautiful, empty journals.)

I copied some tasks from Omnifocus into my journal and got to work. When a new task came to mind, I put it in my journal, and if I didn’t get to it, I put it into Omnifocus for another day. Zero friction. Analysis paralysis over. Omnifocus felt fresh.

In fact, after a few days of working with both Omnifocus and the journal, I realized that I was becoming better at project planning and assessing how long a given task would take me. I have no conclusive explanation, but I think the act of writing and typing a task made me better define the task.

Hence my second lesson:

LESSON TWO, THE ERNEST HEMINGWAY PENCIL PRINCIPLE: When you face digital resistance, use analog. And when you face analog resistance, go digital. At the risk of redundancy, it might even be better to use both.

As Ernest Hemingway said regarding the writing process:

After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof.

I continued to use the journal in addition to my normal tools. This led me to the third lesson I drew about myself and my productivity, which is also analogous to one of Ernest Hemingway’s routines:

The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it.

Translating this idea from a writing workflow to a productivity workflow:

LESSON THREE, THE ERNEST HEMINGWAY HOOK PRINCIPLE: People often stop doing a continuing task when they want to stop doing it, myself included. But, if instead, we stop doing a task when we want to keep going, we will be more motivated to continue the task later. (Just remember to leave good notes about where you left off—another benefit of using a journal.)

There you have it.

Next post: The Tim Ferriss Twitter debate, followed by something interesting from the world of neuroscience.


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