A few months ago I had a troubling thought: maybe I’ve forgotten how to be productive.
I am not a naturally productive person. I skated by in school, putting homework off until the last minute, if I did it at all. After I left school I was reasonably productive with my gambling thing, but it was never days full of long hours of work, more like and hour or two most days.
After gambling I started a bunch of other projects. It was always hard to get myself to work on them, and other than the first day or two when I was filled with that “new project energy”, I’d procrastinate a lot.
Then, a few years ago, I decided to get serious about work and I slowly ramped up until I was working 12-14 hours per day on Sett. That might sound horrible, but I actually loved it. I learned to love work and it was a huge relief to discover that I was capable of working hard for a prolonged period of time. There was at least a year or two where I consistently worked at a rate I was happy with.
After we deprioritized Sett, I took some time off. I still wrote my blog and I wrote a couple books, but mostly I was trying to think about what I’d learned from Sett, plan my next moves, and do non-work projects like renovating my apartment in Vegas and working on the island.
My smart friends told me to focus on CruiseSheet, so I did– sort of. I found it very hard to work consistently on it. I was prone to distraction and often put things off. That’s not to say that I didn’t do some good work as well, only that I never felt like I was in the groove like I had been a couple years before.
That worried me, because it was hard for me to step it up like I did with Sett. I hoped I wasn’t starting at zero again.
Right now I’m in Budapest. I’ve been here for two weeks and I still have another three weeks here. This is, by far, the longest I’ve been in one place in several years. I haven’t kept exact track, but I think the longest before was maybe three weeks or so.
My first priority here is to buy an apartment, but mostly that means that I’m sitting around waiting for the bank or lawyer to produce some new document for me to sign or walk across town. So my second priority is to, as Rihanna says, work work work work work.
I made a list of things I wanted to get done, did some light planning around them, and got started.
The first day was tough, but similar to how I’d been feeling about work recently. I’d be excited to start, but then I’d get distracted, or couldn’t quite get comfortable in my seat. I’d do just the bare minimum and then look for some excuse to take a break.
A few days later I was improving, but found the work exhausting. I’d work for for or five hours and then just feel like I NEEDED to give my mind a break. I watched a lot of Penn and Teller Fool Us videos on Youtube.
But every day got easier and more productive. Two days ago I wrote a list of five big projects that needed to get done for CruiseSheet. These were items that have been on my list, but that I’d been putting off because they were so daunting and would certainly take many days.
I completed two of them that same day, including writing an entire (lightweight) blogging platform for CruiseSheet that transforms text files into blog posts, complete with relevant cruises shown next to them.
The next day I did two more. I made something that would create on-demand images describing each cruise, and then I worked with the Twitter and Facebook APIs (something I typically hate doing) to automatically post the images as cruises drop in price.
Maybe most interesting, I wasn’t tired after doing those tasks. In fact, I was so invigorated by the work that I couldn’t fall asleep for hours later and kept thinking about turning the computer back on to keep working. Now I wake up every day looking for big messy tasks to do, and can’t wait to get started.
Because this has been a deliberate attempt to increase productivity and because I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject, I’ve analyzed what’s been going on and have a few takeaways that I think may be useful to you.
1. Travel is not usually good for productivity. I hate to say this, as I love traveling and do it all the time, but I can’t ignore the effect it has. Momentum is king and travel breaks momentum.
This reinforces my working theory that the best thing for me to do is to have high-productivity home bases in all of the places I like to travel. I have far fewer friends in Budapest, which helps with work, but previous trips here haven’t been very productive. Now that I know the place better and have a routine, it’s easy for me to work here.
2. Comfort matters in the beginning. The AirBnb at which I’m staying has literally the worst furniture you can imagine. I’m sitting on a flimsy metal folding chair in front of the smallest fake-wood desk IKEA offers. I found it very hard to work here for the first few days.
The closest tea shop to me is a place called Marumoto. Fantastic Japanese tea at very reasonable prices. They have good comfortable chairs and nice wooden tables. Coupled with good tea, I found it very easy to start working.
3. Momentum matters a lot. Once I started getting a lot of work done at the tea shop, momentum took over. I found myself sitting cross-legged in the middle of my not-very-comfortable bed, working up a storm. I didn’t even notice that it wasn’t a comfortable position.
Once I started knocking huge items off of my to-do list, I became more motivated, so it became a virtuous cycle. For me at least, being productive is 95% about tricking myself into getting into a good rhythm and building momentum.
4. Items on todo lists are usually smaller than they appear. Because I hadn’t broken it down into component steps, building a minimal blogging platform seemed like an enormous task. But I had 80% of the functionality done in two hours. Same with generating images– because I had never done it before it seemed like it might be very difficult, but it wasn’t.
I already know this, but it was a good reminder that starting on a large task is a lot more valuable than worrying about it. Counter-intuitively, I think that planning may be best done an hour into a task. Get familiar with the territory, then plan your path through it.
5. Productivity needs to be ramped up. If you hadn’t been to the gym in a year, you wouldn’t try to bench your all-time maximum as your first rep. And you wouldn’t feel bad when you worked back up to that weight, even if it took weeks. During the days where I’d work hard for a few hours and then become mentally fatigued, I let myself off the hook after a while of pushing. I even watched YouTube videos.
It’s important, in many areas of life, to understand when you are at a specific point on a curve, and to accept that it’s a curve. Do everything you can to accelerate your progress up the curve, but don’t get upset that you didn’t start at the top of it. That’s counterproductive.
It feels great to be ultra productive again. I still have three weeks here, so I expect I’ll be able to keep this pace up and get a ton of good work done. After that I’ll spend a week on the island and then go back to Vegas where I can ramp back up for a while.
And when I inevitably become less productive due to traveling, dating, or whatever else may come, I’ll try to remember the lessons I’ve learned this time around and use them to get back to full productivity quickly and easily.
Photo is a cool ceiling in a palace in Russia. I don’t remember which one exactly.
It sort of blows my mind how few of my readers have bought Around The World In Fifteen Friends. Every review so far is five stars and I think it’s a really fun and interesting book to read. Check it out!
My first blog post on the CruiseSheet Blog is about how I gained 10 pounds of muscle on one cruise!