Life

How to be Productive

By August 4, 2019 December 20th, 2019 No Comments
11 min read

This is a summary of my journey to become more productive. Productivity and focus have become one of my most significant weapon in the world of growth and startups. I’m still learning and figuring things out. By sharing my learnings so far, I hope it will benefit others with overcoming their weaknesses and be more productive as well.

High-level thoughts I’ll cover:

  1. Compound growth of productivity
  2. What I work on
  3. Doing great work

And nine topics I’ll go into for my day-to-day:

  1. Physical health
  2. Mental health
  3. Plan and prioritise
  4. Protect your time
  5. Handling challenging tasks
  6. Habits
  7. Context switching
  8. Daily reflection
  9. Rest

Intro

When I was a kid, I struggled with sitting still, staying grounded and staying focused. The battle to keep my two eyelids open after lunch is like watching Indiana Jones trying to keep the giant sliding stone wall open after the trap’s been triggered. It was a hopeless battle.

Like the archaeology professor, I love chasing after exciting ideas, and new adventures instead of being trapped in a classroom.

Unfortunately, I grew up in in a strict Chinese education system where school ran from 7 am to 5 pm, with afterschool from 6 pm to 10 pm – this was my cage, my own personal recurring nightmare. The scarces few hours of weekly sport, art and music classes became my treasured freedom out of the cage; time spent being active and creative seems to evaporate into the stratosphere like dry ice.

Back in the usual class, in the absence of new stimulation, I acted out in my own way, created mischief and pranks. This has earned me countless timeouts, dates with teacher’s cane and a love-hate, funny-sad, prisoner-captor relationship with the school’s disciplinary officer.

On my year four report cards’ conclusion, the homegroup teacher left in big red writing to my parents which roughly translate to: “Vincent’s idea for mischief and naps have made him one of the most difficult and enjoyable students I have in the class. If only he could apply that in the right areas of his work”.

Later in life, as I transitioned into the stressful, demanding world of startups, I realise that I was going to have to improve my focus and manage my mental energy. Over the last few years, I’ve read countless books, tried many sleeping patterns, lifestyle choices, and changed my routine to try and maximise my day for productivity. I’ve applied these principles in both office and remote work environments on myself, with my team and other friends.

The following is a summary of what has exponentially helped me improve my focus and mental energy. I will go over my “bigger picture” thoughts on productivity, then dive into nine key ideas and provide an example of what my daily schedule looks like so you can put it into practice.

The Big Picture

Everything In Life Is Compounded

Compound growth gets discussed as a financial concept, but it works in careers as well – it is magic. A small productivity gain, compounded over 50 years, is worth a lot. So it’s worth figuring out how to optimise productivity. If you get 10% more done and 1% better every day relative to someone else, the compounded difference is massive.

What I Work On

A valuable lesson I’ve learnt in productivity is that it’s doesn’t matter how fast you move if it’s in the wrong direction. Picking the right thing to work on is the most important element of productivity, and usually almost ignored. So think about it more! I think this is a key trait that separates successful people who are further along their life’s goal than others.

“What’s the one thing you can do, such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

– Gary Keller

The most impressive people I know have strong beliefs about the world, which is rare in the general population. I think if you find yourself always agreeing with whomever you spoke with, that’s bad. We need to develop our own thoughts and opinions, even if I’m wrong sometimes. Because this helps me develop the confidence to stick with my convictions. It’ll let me be brave when I’m right about something important that most people don’t see.

“What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

– Peter Theil

This is why I make sure to leave time in my calendar to think about what to work on. The best ways for me to achieve this are reading books, hanging out with interesting people and going on spontaneous adventures. I find travelling to new places and seeing new things gives me incredible context around my life. It helps me zoom out of what I know and see what really matters.

Doing Great Work

It is important to love what you do because it’ll help you do great work. I’ve learned that I can’t be very productive working on things I don’t care about or don’t like. So I try not to put myself in that position. I do this by delegating the work, avoiding it or coming up with something else so I can play to my strength. Stuff you don’t enjoy is a painful drag on morale and momentum.

If you are delegating things to others, make sure you understand what they love, what they’re good at and what makes them tick so you can give the right person the right job. Everyone is also most productive when they’re doing what they like. Do what you’d want other people to do for you!

If you find yourself not enjoying what you’re doing for a long period of time, seriously consider a major job change.  Short-term burnout happens, but if it isn’t resolved with some time off, maybe it’s time to do something you’re more interested in.

I’ve had a few changes in career directions in the last few years going from an electrical engineer to teaching at schools, and now growth marketing. It’s taught me an important lesson – you can learn anything you want, and that you can get better quickly.  This feels like an unlikely miracle the first few times it happens, but eventually, you learn to trust that you can do it.

I think doing great work also usually requires colleagues of some sort.  Try to be around smart, productive, happy, and positive people that don’t belittle your ambitions.  I love being around people who push me and inspire me to be better.  To the degree you are able to, avoid the opposite kind of people—the cost of letting them take up your mental cycles is horrific. I’m a big believer in Jim Rohn’s quote:

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with”

9 Principles to Maximise Productivity

Since I often find the big picture things important, but harder to apply, here are the nine key ideas of how I try and maximize my productivity on a day to day basis.

1. Look After Your Physical Health & Fitness

Overall physical health is the foundation for your focus and mental energy. This includes exercise, diet and rest. Rest is so important that we’ll cover it as its own principle.

This seems obvious, but most don’t understand this – your body is made of what you eat. If you eat clean, healthy, nutritious food, then your body will be built of quality, and your mind will run on premium fuel. If you eat often eat takeaways pizzas and chocolate bar, then your body is made of pizzas, and your mind runs on a sporadic burst of unsustainable sugar highs.

“You are what you eat”

You don’t need to be an ironman, but having a daily fitness goal with a well-balanced diet is a must. I’ll save my fitness and nutrition for another post; this one is focused on how I structure of my day to achieve productivity.

My recommended actions on this principle:

  • Start tracking your diet to get an understanding of what you’re putting in your body MyFitnessPal
  • User exercise tracking apps and devices to gain awareness of how you are doing – Strava, Apple Watch or Garmin for fitness daily energy consumption tracking
Credit: MyFitnessPal

2. Look After Your Mental Health & Fitness

Just like your muscles, You also need to look after your brain. To look after your mental health, it’s vital to learn and practice self-compassion and self-love. If you have doubts about how you are going, I find it very helpful to evaluate every aspect of my life every few months and readjust. I’ll save this for another post as well. But here’re a few things I do that I highly recommend:

My recommended reading on this principle:

On the topic of mental fitness, your brain works similarly to your muscles. It needs to exercise to get stronger, works in bursts, and fatigues over time.

My recommended reading on this principle:

I highly recommend using a time tracker to measure your focus each time you started working – I use TimeDoctor (paid) or Toggl (free).

3. Plan and Prioritise Each Day

I have found there are two things that take away my productivity in the short term and drains my focus over the long-term:

  1. Feelings that I don’t know what I should be doing and continuously thinking about what I should be doing drains away my productivity
  2. Feeling at the end of the day I didn’t achieve what I needed to accomplish or wasn’t productive makes me question my life and takes away my long-term focus.

Because of this, I have a very in-depth goal setting process. I make sure I spend 15 mins each day to plan and prioritise daily. This has considerably boosted what I can achieve each day and keeping myself accountable.

I highly recommend using lists. Lists are very focusing and they help me group sporadic to-dos into three categories:

  1. The important shit I need to get done today
  2. The important shit I won’t do today
  3. Things that seem important, but won’t actually move the needle for me

I don’t bother prioritising my to-dos base on size of the tasks or some sort of ICE framework. Instead, I order my list base on things that generate momentum because the more I get done, the better I feel, and the more I get done.

My recommended reading on this principle:

4. Protect Your Time

Having a prioritised plan each day is useless if you don’t fight rigorously to protect your time. Throughout your week, many people will come and ask for your time and attention; however, most of you don’t require you to deal with it in the now. For all the other days where I haven’t planned yet, I’ll time block my calendar in three ways:

  1. Block out times where I’m most productive to tackle my most important or difficult tasks first. It also allows me to get into a mental state for deep work early and get stuff done.
  2. Block out times where you need to rest.
  3. Block out times where you plan and prioritise each day.

I find my morning hours extremely precious to me. Therefore when someone tried to ask me for morning meetings, they can see that I’m already busy on my calendar. I also find myself most efficient when I work in sets of an hour to two hours. Thus I’ll block out my calendar for breaks in between.

productivity calendar time block deep work

5. Do The Most Challenging Task First

A common knowledge for those who study behavioural psychology and how motivation works is that willpower isn’t on will’s call. Our willpower is a scares limited resources that need to be managed.

Think of the last time you’ve gone for a run or gone to the gym. The first few minutes of your workout is always the easiest. However, you’re going to fatigue. Your mind starts to have doubts, your muscles start to scream, and your lungs gasp for air.  This is why for most workouts, you’ll do your most demanding, big lifts first, such as bench press, deadlift or squats. You’ll then slowly finish up into doing arms, carves, core and easier, isolation exercises.

The same applies to mental tasks with the brain. Different type of mental tasks requires different amounts of energy for you, and this is different between people. Aligning the tasks that need the most amount of energy first helps you maximise your output. For me, these include writing, learning new and difficult concepts, prioritising.

My recommended reading on this principle:

6. Form Habits

Given that we have a limited amount of mental willpower each day, you might ask does that mean our productivity is limited? What I’ve learned is that the way to overcome this is to create a routine. Forming habits is critical for getting more done.

Instead of relying on raw willpower, grit and self-insult to “get my lazy ass back to work” – focus on using the limited willpower you have every day to form habits.

Even though our brain only takes up 2% of our body mass, it consumes an enormous, 20% of our body’s energy. Thankfully, our mind is always looking for shortcuts to conserve energy. Think about how much concentration and focus was required the first time you drive a car. Now, how many times did you drive to a friend’s house on autopilot, and forgot specifics like which corner you turn and which lane you need to change into?

This concept applies to other tasks too. Most writers set aside a fixed time each day to write, training their brain to learns that this is their “writing time”. Setting time aside helps writers, designers and programmers get immersed in their crafts more easily.

Having a trigger can help you form your habits. Some of my triggers include:

  • Starting the time tracker I use for work
  • Putting on the noise-cancelling headphones that I specifically use only for work
  • Separating my sleep and work environment (extremely important for people working from home or working remote)
  • Turn on a specific desk lamp

My recommended reading on this principle:

7. Avoid Context Switching

Switching from tasks to tasks actually drains a lot of mental energy. This is because every task you do have a ramp-up period before you can get to the “flow state” and become productive at it.

“The flow state is a mental state of operation when you are at your best. When you are in flow, you are totally immersed in an activity that nothing else matters. You lose your self-consciousness and sense of time.”

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, positive psychologist

Things that are small, disruptive to your flow and require context switching should be batched as much as possible. That’s why most productivity experts recommend designating certain times in a day for things like email, so you can get them done in batches rather than as they come in. This also includes text messages, notifications, phone calls, and meetings!

If you work in a startup environment, you typically will have the problem of scheduling tug-of-war. The problem is further exacerbated if you are a creative or a technical team member because time is utilised very differently when switching from product development to customer development. Paul Graham wrote an excellent essay on the two type of schedules: manager’s schedule and maker’s schedule.

Managers typically organise their day into one-hour blocks and spend each hour dealing with different tasks thus the cost of switching is low. Makers, like programmers and writers, need to organise their day into longer blocks of uninterrupted time because the cost of switching is high.

As someone who often switches between programmer’s work and meetings, I found doing the following greatly boosted my productivity and focus:

  • Time block my most productive part of the day (mornings) for my maker’s work. I usually found a maker’s work to be more mentally demanding than most of my meetings.
  • Switch off all notifications – my phone and my laptop is typically put on “Do Not Disturb” or Airplane mode and avoid unwanted distractions.
  • Plan in set hour time blocks for checking your Slack messages and replying to emails.

My recommended reading on this principle:

8. Daily Reflection

I have found that I often have doubts about how things are going. This is why I started a daily reflection habit. At the end of each day, I answer three questions about my day to make sure I’m actively pursuing after things that make my life better:

  1. What truth did I discover?
  2. What am I grateful for?
  3. Who did I help?

On top of that, I tick away at a checklist of to-dos each day. This list is split across different areas of my life: career, skill, friends & family, self-improvement, creative, health and fitness.

I’ve also started spending a couple of hours to review my progress each week. Having a weekly record on the percentage of tasks I’ve completed, and the amount of time spent on each area from my time tracker, gives me the ability to reflect more quantitatively. It helps me observe if I’ve invested my time correctly. This also forces me to batch my doubts and concerns during the week so I can concentrate on diving into the work I’ve set out to accomplish. All the analysis are done at the end of each week so I can reflect on my results with more discipline.

My recommended readings on this principle and things I reflect on:

9. Get Enough Rest

Lastly, and most crucially, get enough rest.

Have enough rest is the foundation of what makes everything we do possible.

“Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Rather, its a marathon made up of many sprints.”

On a daily basis, I’ve worked out I need at least 7.5hr sleep collectively or I do not function properly. So make sure you time block your sleep in.

On a weekly basis, I personally take at least a full day off to do nothing, go for a surf, hang out with friends or just sit and binge movies.

On a yearly basis, I’ve committed to taking at least a month off to go travel, see different cultures, go on adventures and expand my perspective on the world and everything around me.

My life becomes unsustainable without rest.

Conclusion – My Ideal Week

I’ll admit, most of my weeks don’t follow this schedule perfectly. And that’s ok.

Productivity CalendarDeep down, I’m still the young Indy, who wants to chase after every undiscovered treasure, solve that next puzzle and jump on that next flight halfway across the world. Except now, I’m equipped with my trusty gadgets, a continually growing mind, and a strategy to focus.

Thanks to Alex Tully, Elise Peate, Abhi Lamba and special thanks to Joel Tow, Claire Mueller for helping me write it.

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