We live in a fast-paced society with an absolute obsession with productivity. Companies are always talking about ways to improve employee productivity, but even at an individual level, self-help books and life hacks for improving your productivity are all the rage. In this blog post, I’ll explore some of the tactics I’ve used to keep myself on-task. And I’ll explain why, even in work contexts, “productivity” is something you do for yourself.
What Counts as “Productivity?”
Most people start struggling with “productivity” right off the bat by overly limiting what counts as a “productive” activity. “Productivity” is a measure of output consisting of factors of time, energy, and priorities. Everyone has the same amount of time, but not everyone has the same amount of energy or the same priorities.
This diagram is by Liz Fosslien, co-author of the book No Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotions at Work.
A couple years ago, I read Dr. Devon Price’s book “Laziness Does Not Exist.” I often describe the thesis of the book as “Laziness by any other name is not the horrible slothful sin we make it out to be.” Leisure activities are valuable simply because they are important to us. They’re part of the “prioritization” bucket of the productivity equation. Leisure or personal activities take time and energy, and produce something of value to you. The product of personal activities can be knowledge, entertainment, or anything that’s valuable to you.
Don’t Burn Out!
Doing things you don’t want to do is hard. It takes more energy than doing things you like to do, and feels draining. Doing things you like to do can often be refreshing, not just because it’s restful, but because you’re spending your energy on something you care about. If you only ever do things you have to do, you’ll get demotivated and burn out. You need to spend time doing things you care about to stave off burn out. If it’s important to you, it’s worth finding a way to spend at least some of your energy and time on.
Productivity Tips – Task Organizing Strategies.
My memory is 💩. When an interviewer asks “What is your greatest weakness?” I say, “My memory.” But on the bright side, knowing I’ll forget forces me to write things down, which has a lot of benefits. This section outlines a couple of strategies that have worked well to help me get things done.
Tracking Daily Tasks with a Planner
In my planner, I track work activities on one side of the page and on the other I track personal activities I’m equally proud of like playing video games, studying Japanese, exercising, drawing, spending time with friends, and watching tv or reading books.
I’ve used a Sarah’s Scribbles physical planner every year since 2019.
In the weekly view of my Sarah’s Scribbles planners, the first page has two columns “Appointments/Misc” and “Stuff to Do.” I use the “Appointments” column to list work meetings (indicated by a circle) and work tasks (indicated by a square).
The “stuff” column is where I track stuff I personally care about, like WK – WaniKani (a Japanese learning program), getting groceries, or playing a game (Persona). I don’t remember what DK or SG were here. Probably video games, books, or TV shows I didn’t want to write out the title for. “Pernilles Challenge” was a drawing challenge. I also try to record cooking, laundry, etc in this column. I don’t always track all my personal activities. But doing so reminds me to appreciate and value them just as much as my work activities.
Tracking Deadlines with Post-It Notes
When I’m overwhelmed with deadlines, I’ve found a post-it note queueing strategy to be helpful.
I use felt hexagons on the wall in my office + colored push pins and post it notes to visualize my priority list.
I don’t always use this strategy, but when it’s helpful, it’s really helpful. If I have a lot of deadlines coming up, I create a post it note for each deadline. Then I stick those notes together into a stack, with the closest deadline on the bottom of the stack. Sometimes I break up tasks into additional post-its under their larger parent tasks, or sometimes I list subtasks as a checklist on the main post-it.
The nice thing about organizing priorities in the physical world like this is 1) It’s easy to see what I need to do, by when, at a glance. 2) When I finish a task, I get the satisfaction of taking that bottom post-it off the stack and throwing it in the trash. I also use push pins to indicate the status of the item. Green = “all good”, yellow = “you better find time to work on this soon”, red = “This is top priority and needs to get done asap.” I also use white push-pins to indicate “This is blocked or on hold.” The stack indicates the big deadlines, but the pushpins can be helpful for smaller deadlines and managing concurrent tasks on a more fine-grained level.
Getting to “Done”
Deadlines are useful because they force us to evaluate the status of a task. There are only two possible end states for a task: Done or Not Done. And if it’s Not Done, then only two things can happen. It’s either still important and still needs to get done, or it doesn’t matter anymore and the thing has passed. Regardless of which state you end at, that task has reached its conclusion and it’s time to move on.
Productivity is Something You Do for Yourself
It’s important to complete and report on work tasks, but only doing tasks for others and never for yourself results in burnout. Investing time in yourself to avoid burnout is part of productivity too. Organize and celebrate your activities for work, home, and yourself. You do all your tasks using the same pools of time, energy, and priorities, so make sure you appreciate them all!