Note: this essay, like everything else on this site, reflects what works for me. Your mileage may vary.
But if you are looking for ways to improve your productivity and have not tried these particular tricks, you might want to try them before you say they won't work for you.
PRODUCTIVITY. What is it?
It's getting things done. It's completion. It's checking things off the list.
Sometimes I make lists of very tiny specific tasks which collectively add up to one big project. In fact, I'd say I do that often, not just sometimes.
Because here is a secret of productivity that I've discovered: productivity is self-fueling. The act of getting things done produces impetus to get more things done.
I consider this a proof of one of Newton's Laws - the one about how an object in motion tends to remain in motion (or an object at rest tends to remain at rest; in other words, the law of inertia).
Below are a few ways I succeed at producing.
- DO THE IMPORTANT STUFF FIRST. For example, if I have genuine work that other people are relying on me to do, I do that before I go romping off to do my personal stuff. When I know that my decks are clear, I can put all my considerable mental energy into the next task.
DO ONE THING AT A TIME. That whole "multitasking" thing is a crock. Doing good work requires concentration.
- DO WHAT IS NECESSARY AND NO MORE. A.K.A. Stop while you are ahead. Once the need is met or the purpose is served, do not waste another second thinking about what has just been done.
I know a lot of people who waste a lot of time going back over the work they've just completed wondering if they should have done it differently. Don't do that, unless you know you will be called upon to do similar work again in the future. In that case, write yourself some notes about what to change next time out, and then move on.
DO ONLY WHAT IS OF IMMEDIATE BENEFIT. If the task in front of you is not required by your employer, then you have one question to ask yourself: will completing this task benefit my own mental, physical, or emotional well-being; my primary relationship; or our personal economy?
If no part of the answer is YES, then kick that task to the curb.
- STOP WHEN TIRED. Keeping on with a task once it has become a slog means that your efficiency is on a decline. Your creativity is on a decline. Your likelihood of completing the task in a slapdash fashion is on the rise. And your likelihood of abandoning the task altogether is on the rise.
Very few tasks actually have to be done RIGHT NOW. If the job isn't quite done but you're too tired to do it well, stop; add the remainder to your list; and did I mention STOP.
WORK ONLY WHEN INSPIRED. This applies to personal projects, obviously, not to work we do for our employers. They own a certain number of our hours. But our personal hours belong to us. If a task is not essential to the smooth operation of the household, and you just don't feel like doing it ... don't.
The flip side of that, of course, is: if a task is essential to the smooth operation of the household, it falls under the heading of "important stuff;" so DO IT FIRST.
If you have so much "important stuff" that you never have energy or time left over to do anything that inspires you ... well, you need to edit your life.
- DO THE WORK YOU HAVE TIME FOR. Everything we do has to be fit into a finite slice of available time. Ergo, setting up a four-hour task when you only ever have available blocks of two hours is a recipe for failure. Far better to break that four-hour task into four one-hour tasks. Or eight half-hour tasks. Whatever facilitates actually acting on each action item. (Yes, that sentence structure is intentional.)
and finally ...
DO THINGS IN ORDER. If your project is - for example - a landscape painting, the first thing you need to do is a drawing. It's not going to the art store and buying a canvas and paints and brushes, tempting though that may be.
Buying the tools is not the same thing as working on the project. I am certainly guilty of doing this but I am aware that it is not so smart.
Or if your project is - for example - writing a book, the first thing to do is start writing. Questions of how to illustrate the book or what kind of cover design to use or how to promote the book are worth considering only after you actually have produced a book.
As to that last thing - I've published a bunch of stuff now, and none of it was "ready." The entire process has been trial and error. If I had spent a lot of time obsessing and tweaking and editing and re-submitting, I might have only one or two things out now instead of a dozen.
Does this mean the first publications were imperfect? OF COURSE IT DOES. But the format I've chosen is forgiving. I can submit new improved texts, and people who have already bought the originals can get the new ones for free.
Publishing now is not the publishing of even ten years ago, when a mistake that got through the editing process was set pretty much in stone. And every other art is equally correctible.
A painting can be painted over. A needlework project can be picked out and re-done. A necklace can be re-strung. I've done all these countless times.
DONE IS BETTER THAN PERFECT. Get going.