The lesson which life repeats and constantly enforces is ‘look under foot.’ You are always nearer the divine and the true sources of your power than you think. –John Burroughs
The first productivity buzzword you probably heard was “time management.” You may have also heard of “energy management.” This is for good reason; time and energy are vital resources for our productivity.
But they are not the only resources that are vital for our productivity.
Personal productivity results from our management of 7 resources. I refer to them collectively as TEFLON. (Six letters + the word ‘Teflon’ itself makes seven.)
The seven TEFLON resources are:
Focus (ability to match intention with actual action)
Length of time we can focus on a particular task (I refer to this as a “focus session”) and the lapse between sessions. (Generally, the greater the length and the smaller the lapse, the better.)
Organizational effectiveness and efficiency (“Uh, where’s that paper? I know it’s here somewhere…”)
Nimbleness (being able to pursue long term objectives even when the short term world gets in the way)
Grit, represented by the word ‘Teflon’ itself. (The world will throw everything it has at you, trying to interfere with your long term plans. Grit is your ability to overcome these assaults.)
Let me elaborate on each in turn.
We can have infinite time and infinite energy, but if we aren’t focused on a particular task, we will accomplish nothing.
Focus is not off/on, all or nothing. The more focus we have, the more effective we are. Focus, like muscles, can be trained. There are many steps we can take to increase our level of focus. We can squirrel away and turn our phones off, reducing the chance of disruption. We can keep our workspace clear of clutter so our mind doesn’t wander.
At a higher-level, we can also keep the peace with our family members and friends so emotional drama remains low. We can drink coffee, eat high-energy foods, or do any one of a number of things.
In addition to these ‘top-down’ approaches, we can also improve our focus ‘bottom-up’ by precisely defining what our objective is before we begin a work session. If we fence in our mind, we give it less space to wander.
Length and Lapse
In two important respects, time is not zero-sum. Every time you switch tasks, you pay a cost. Inevitably, when you switch tasks, your brain must process what you just did and where you left off in Task A, and then must become reoriented to Task B. (This is why multi-tasking is usually a bad idea. You are actually just switching back and forth from task to task, paying costs without proportional benefits.)
This seems easy enough and feels easy enough, but over time, the costs go from paltry to substantial.
The longer your sessions are (particularly on the most challenging tasks), and the shorter the lapse between sessions is, the less time spent in these in-between moments.
Let me provide an example. Compare spending 5 minutes on a task on 12 consecutive days (1 hour) to spending 30 minutes on a task on two consecutive days (1 hour.) Which is better?
I would argue the latter is far better. In the former, you will spend most of the 5 minutes figuring out what to do, and little time actually doing it. In two 30-minute sessions, you will be able to think deeply about your task and make progress.
If I change the example and make the two 30-minute sessions several days apart, then the comparison becomes more complicated. It is probably still better to spend the 2 longer sessions, but you will no doubt have to spend time during the second session remembering back to the first. You will inevitably cover the same ground twice.
The shorter the lapse between sessions, the better off we are.
When our focus sessions are long, and the lapses are shorter, we can enter a “flow state.” In such a state — which is rare, at least for me — you can become like Michael Jordan shooting hoops, knocking down your tasks and making progress on your goals with unprecedented amounts of efficiency and effectiveness.
It’s pretty awesome when it happens, so give it an opportunity to do so.
Organization comes naturally to some people, but not everyone. I’m in the second camp. If you’re there with me, an explicit organizational structure is really helpful.
Trying to remember where you left off, looking for papers from a pile stacked on your desk, or a file somewhere on your computer, all of these waste resources.
If we spend just 10 minutes a day shuffling the same papers around to clear our desk, that’s 3,650 minutes a year, or about 60 hours, or about 1.5 work weeks.
Don’t waste your resources. Get organized. It is difficult in a world where spam crowds our inboxes and possessions accumulate like dust in an attic. But it can be done.
Truth be told, you may never reach the organizational zenith, but small changes reap disproportionally large benefits. For example, spending just a few minutes to write down where you left off (“breadcrumbs”) will save you significant amounts of resources in the long term and stress in the short term.
Organization is about more than your workspace, incoming e-mail, and your messy closet, though. It’s about task management; it’s about staying on top of your stuff generally. (Which can be done during a “Zero Hour.”)
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
— Marcus Aurelius
Ten or fifteen minutes here, ten or fifteen minutes there. It happens throughout the day. On the train, when a coworker is late for a meeting, when you are waiting for class to begin. You can either check Facebook or Twitter on your phone, or you can do something productive.
Added up over time (see the math above), that’s a nice chunk. If we aren’t prepared to do something in those in-between moments, then we’ll spend 4 of the 5 minutes deciding what to do.
If we are nimble, then we are prepared to take advantage of these opportunities.
Maybe there’s a decision you need to think through, and a few minutes of silence will give you the chance to get the wheels moving. (I call this a “Pareto Decision” in my book.)
Maybe there is a list of e-mails you can quickly reply to. A bag you can organize. A few thoughts you should jot down. Maybe you can edit a single page of something you’re writing. Just be prepared for when the opportunities come.
When other resources are lacking, nimbleness can really help.
During my hour-long commutes to and from the college I taught at, I learned how to dictate effectively using my phone. After a few weeks, I was proficient enough to start drafting my book, a draft I completed a couple months later. What would’ve been time spent listening to NRP, music, or whatever radio station was still on the air, was converted into something useful.
Nimbleness is not just about seizing opportunities; it is about making the best of situations as they develop. Even if you’re squirreled away, and your phone is off, interruptions will occur. You cannot predict when they occur, but you can predict that they will occur. They are predictably unpredictable, so be prepared to end your tasks abruptly but effectively. Keep a pad of paper nearby so you can quickly jot down where you left off in a given task.
Then nimbly continue being productive.
If, at the beginning of every day, you have a plan for how to use any “free” time, and if, at the beginning of every work session, you have a plan for what you will do if interrupted, you will accrue hours upon hours of productivity.
All for the price of not knowing what your second cousin’s ex — girlfriend’s new Facebook status says. What benefit does checking Facebook five times a day provide that once a day doesn’t? Or… never checking it?
Never grow a wishbone, daughter, where your backbone ought to be.
— Clementine Paddleford
The other resources exist, in one form or another, before they are called upon. Grit is made at the moment just before it is used.
When we sit down to complete a task, we feel varying amounts of motivation and resistance, usually in inverse proportion to each other.
Motivation is the desire and willingness to get something done. Resistance has many forms — procrastination, indecisiveness, anxiety, fear, among others. These two wage war in our minds — the proverbial angel and devil on our shoulders.
Think of this as our “default” state when we begin pursuing a goal. Neither motivation nor resistance force our hand. We choose the actions we take, and thus we determine whether the Resistance will win, or whether we’ll show the “grit” necessary to power through.
The more we call upon our grit, the easier it becomes to call upon in the future. If we choose again and again to move forward despite the Resistance on our shoulder, if choose action, we weaken the Resistance.
You probably accept the idea that strategically allocating your time and energy improves productivity.
The same logic applies to F, L, O, and N:
Some tasks require more focus than others. Choose when to do them based on your level of focus.
Certain tasks really require “going deep,” a few hours of uninterrupted time. But the opportunities for lengthier sessions are few and far between. Treat them as the valuable commodities that they are.
Consider, too, the lapse between sessions. Our most important projects require that we spend more time doing, less time trying to remember what we previously did.
Nimbleness is the most difficult of the resources to define, the most individualized, and the most elusive. It comes in many forms and must be created by the individual person in the individual moment. For these reasons, it is also among the valuable of our resources.
Grit is the only inexhaustible of our resources. It is also the one that no book (even mine) can give us. For that reason, it is the most valuable of our resources.
Broaden your conception of your productivity resources. Time and energy remain critical, but they are not alone.
The unusual suspects may be most important of all.
This was primarily sourced from How to be a Long Term Person in a Short Term World, available on Amazon.