There was a time in my life when I was singularly obsessed with output. I rated my days in terms of how much output I had produced that day and tried, within reason, to limit anything that did not produce output. It felt great to do this, as I had previously not been particularly good at producing output, and it was completely within my power to make any day into a good day.
Over time, both in myself and others, however, I noticed that high output didn’t always lead to achieving goals. It was certainly better than not producing output, but I had a persisting feeling that my results weren’t as good as they should be. I now have a more balanced approach and I my results towards goals now seem disproportionately good compared to my output.
If you don’t feel like your results reflect your output or you are trying to figure out how to get started at being more productive, I have some suggestions based on my own experience.
It’s important to realize that what you create when you are at your best will be many times more valuable than what you create at average or worse. Sometimes work created can even be a net negative. For example, if I force myself to write a blog post when I’m not at my best, maybe it will be unclear and actually turn people off from reading future posts. If I write some crappy code, maybe I’ll have to spend hours in the future chasing down a bug that could have been avoided in the first place.
Therefore it’s sometimes best not to work, and it’s always beneficial to do things to be at your best. Also, effort spent getting yourself to a better state can be more valuable than work itself.
It’s for this reason that I always try to get people I coach to take care of the fundamentals. Sleep is one of the biggest factors. I sleep an average of eight hours a night and frequently (like last night) sleep over nine hours to catch up if I’m not at my best. I drink tea and eat healthy food every day. I work out every other day. Recently I’ve started going into the sauna every day (no verdict yet on whether it has any effect).
At the very least, you should be sleeping as much as your body needs (no alarm clock), drinking a lot of water, eating healthy food, and doing some sort of exercise.
It’s also important to optimize your workspace as much as possible. Get a huge monitor, a comfy chair, and a nice desk. Get some plants. Spend the time customizing your computer to make it easy and efficient to use. These are basic things but they really matter a lot.
An undistracted mind is one which can work most efficiently, so automate and delegate everything you can. You should focus on your work not through force of will, but because you’ve eliminated everything that can distract from it.
It’s a random estimate and varies from person to person, but I’d guess that with changes like that you can get from being in “the zone” 10% of the time to 50%+. In other words, it really matters.
When you sit down to work, your task must be connected to a goal that matters to you and it must be an effective lever. With a tinge of shame I can think of so many weeks and months I spent on various features of Sett that no one, including myself, ever really used. I was sometimes working with the goal of producing a big piece of work, rather than thinking about why I wanted Sett to exist, how I needed to reach those goals, and which steps would be required to get there. I don’t know whether or not Sett would have succeeded if I had thought more about these things, but it would have had a better chance.
Once you start a task, you are precluding yourself from working on other tasks during that time and are also possibly adding future responsibilities. If I start writing a book, I am obligating myself to designing a cover, laying the book out, and entering it into Amazon. If I create a new software feature I am obligating myself to fix any resulting bugs and to support that feature going forward.
For that reason, it is important to do tasks that matter and will get you closer to your goals, not just to do tasks. Sometimes it’s better to do nothing but ponder why you’re doing what you’re doing and what the best next thing to do is. People are so afraid of being idle and bored that they don’t give themselves time to plan and build the confidence that the output they’re creating actually matters.
When you are at your best and are working on something that matters, that’s when it’s time to step on the gas and work hard. The amount of valuable output you can create in even 4-6 hours of peak performance can be better than days or even weeks of mediocre output. If you’re not sure if you’re at your best, act like you are and work hard anyway. Understand the state you’re in and do a task that will best use your present capabilities. If you’re not at your best, don’t use that as an excuse to watch TV, instead clean your house or organize files or something else productive.
Start with your end goal in mind, figure out what output will be needed to get there, and then optimize your life around being able to produce that output. Don’t burn yourself out, as short term gains are never worth the sacrifice of long term gains. Work for to achieve an outcome, not to feel busy.
Photo is an aerial view of Lake Mead. I miss being on airplanes!