This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 4: Reviewing, subscribe and buy here
My inability to adhere to the many organizing, time management, and productivity approaches I tried used to make me feel like a failure. Then one day I realized it was the approaches, not me, that was failing.
As a clinical psychologist who quit practicing to homeschool my children, I already knew the importance of respecting people’s individual needs. When I had a client who stopped feeling well on a medication, I would send them to their doctor for a new drug or change of dosage. When I had a child who wasn’t flourishing with a particular curriculum, I eliminated the material that didn’t work or changed it completely. But when it came to my own struggles with managing work and time, I blamed myself. If only I weren’t so lazy! Maybe I’m just incapable of living productively, I wondered.
I Decided to Study Myself
It was one of the many blogging ideas that popped into my head a year ago: I could write about a different approach to productivity every week; I would call it a Year of Living Productively.
Rather than randomly making changes as I had been doing, I hoped that the series would:
– Help me create a custom toolbox of techniques to maximize my productivity
– Help me understand why certain approaches worked for me, so I could make better choices in the future
– Motivate me to keep improving my productivity because I would feel accountable to readers each week
– Provide readers with ideas for improving their own productivity, whether or not something worked for me
Putting it into Practice
I started out with a general hypothesis for each technique I studied. In a ‘Concept’ section I explained why the method should work. However, I decided not to measure my success using an outcome variable like the number of tasks completed. I knew that doing 20 small tasks wasn’t necessarily more productive than completing one critical task that took all day. Instead, I chose to consider what I liked and disliked about each technique and summarized my findings with one question: Did it make me more productive?
My working definition of productive was:
“Getting important work done while having peace of mind.”
At the start of the series, I made a list of the different methods I hoped to test during the year. I soon realized that I didn’t want to try them all or subscribe to a certain order. I decided to test only methods that I thought could really make a difference in my productivity going forward.
The Lessons Learnt
The results of studying myself have been better than I expected. I’m certainly more productive today than I was last year. But what’s most important is that I’ve learned to respect the unique aspects of how I work best without feeling a need to tell others how to get things done.
I have had people suggest that I reconsider some approaches that didn’t work for me. Before I had studied myself, I would have done just that. But the practice of writing about why a technique improved my productivity or didn’t each week has given me confidence that I know how I work best. For example, I now know that my task management approach has to be integrated with email. I will procrastinate if I have to rewrite tasks into another system and have to hunt for associated emails. That may not apply to anyone else, but it’s true for me. I really enjoy using paper lists and understand why people love them. But too much of my daily work is now connected to digital information. My joy in crossing off tasks is offset by inconvenience.
Another major lesson from my year of studying how I work is that I am easily overwhelmed. I have to limit my to-do’s to a short list for today. If I work from one big to-do list, I imagine it all has to be done now and give up. To combat that illogical thinking and its associated procrastination, I have learned to give myself permission to do any little thing on a task in order to mark it complete for today. This way of working, which I called little-and-often during my tests, has helped me finish projects early and has given me peace of mind.
“What’s most important is that I’ve learned to respect the unique aspects of how I work best without feeling a need to tell others how to get things done.”
How to Study Yourself
Each week, I invited readers to test a productivity hack with me. When they did, it was gratifying to hear when someone discovered a new method that worked beautifully for them. I’m glad that I have offered over 40 ideas for increasing productivity that readers can try.
While trying something new can improve your productivity, studying yourself is the best way to maximize your productivity. Here’s how:
Be Objective About Your Productivity
Rather than believing that if you can’t get things done David-Allen style there must be something wrong with you, think like a scientist. Decide what productivity means to you and record your definition; then determine to find solutions for the unique problems that interfere with your productivity.
Decide on an Experimental Design
You will learn the most by keeping your tests consistent. If weekly tests are too short for you, use a two-week or monthly time frame. Choose a day to start that allows adequate prep time. I chose to start on a weekend when my time was more flexible.
Make a List of Approaches to Try
You’ll want to start with a list of ideas, even though you won’t use them all. You’ll be able to rule out some items as you go along, simply because they are similar to others that didn’t work. Consider my list, check out what’s popular on productivity forums, and think about methods that you quit using in the past. As you compile your list, you’ll find that you’re eager to give one or more of them a try right away. Settle on one and take the next step.
Form a Hypothesis
When doing research, you don’t want to test too many changes at once or you won’t be able to make sense of the results. If you are interested in trying a comprehensive approach to productivity, test just a couple of aspects at a time. For example, when I tested Getting Things Done I focused on working on tasks by context.
Once you’ve chosen exactly what to test, write out why that approach should make you more productive. If you don’t know why – don’t test it!
Do the Experiment
If you’re anything like me, you find getting ready to use a new approach a lot more fun than actually working. To stay motivated, remind yourself why you’re doing the tests (review your definition of productivity).
A good experimenter records everything about a trial, including things that don’t work. If you hate the method you’re using and want to quit, write down why. You may discover that the method itself isn’t the problem, but your circumstances are. If things are going well, you should also think about why. While doing my tests, I was always asking myself what was working and what wasn’t.
Review and Share the Results
Record the pros and cons of the method you chose and answer the question: Did it make you more productive? Scientists speculate on the reason for their results and you should, too. Why do you think your approach worked or didn’t? Keeping a personal notebook with the results of your testing will be very valuable because you’ll forget what you learned otherwise. Sharing your results with others can be even more beneficial, however. My readers have kept me accountable for regular review of my trials, using the methods as written, and looking for solutions to productivity problems that I have in common with others.
You can share your experiences on a blog, forum, or on social media. I would love it if you would share with me, too. You may discover a solution I’ve been looking for.
You’re not a productivity program failure if you haven’t found a hack, technique, or method that works for you. You just haven’t studied yourself. Think like a scientist and begin your research today.