5 Simple Principles From 5 Years Thinking About Productivity

Few people start their day thinking: "I ain't gonna get s*** done today!" Yet many of us well-intentioned office soldiers look back at the end of the day, thinking: "Damn... what did I get done today…?"

I've definitely had my share of those days. I didn't have much working experience when I started at Userlike, besides a few years working as a waiter/bartender. I definitely wasn’t familiar with the office life.

The rules of productivity were different. It didn't depend on the number of plates I could carry or the number of orders I could memorize. I also found typing speed didn't have much to do with it.

Jim Carrey being productive behind the computer.

The first months were a struggle. I had no idea of the principles that would make me productive, no idea how to structure my work process.

That's been one of my main journeys over the past 5 years. How to become more productive? It helped to work closely together with some mightily productive teammates. But I also read a lot on the topic.

There's no shortage of literature here. There's too much, really. I wanted to cut through all this clutter when I presented to our team at the last UserlikeThursday – a quarterly team event with lightning talks, beer, and pizza.

I wanted to save my colleagues some time by sharing my core insights and productivity principles that I gathered over the past 5 years.

Me presenting about productivity principles at Userlike Thursday.
Me abusing the privileges that come with uninterrupted speaking time.

I'm convinced everyone in our team wants to get the most out of their day. But there was also some self interest involved, of course. Truth is, there's no such thing as a cheap employee — not for a bootstrapped company like ours. We need everyone to pull their own weight, and then some more.

So if you want your team to be productive, and they want it as well, then let's talk productivity together.

Gregory Ciotti from Help Scout defines productivity with the following equation:

Productivity = Energy + Focus

There's some nice insight here about the importance of health on your productivity. Lack of sleep? A junk food diet? Your productivity will suffer.

But you could, of course, have the right energy and focus and aim it at an unproductive activity. Even the healthiest, most balanced inmate could be digging his escape route in the wrong direction. If you're digging a tunnel, you first have to decide on the right direction.

So I'd define productivity as such: Getting to the right destination as fast as possible, with the least amount of energy.

My 5 productivity principles:

  1. Accept your humanity
  2. Plan your route
  3. Switch to top gear
  4. Follow the road
  5. Maintain your engine

1
Accept your humanity

From all the stuff I read about productivity, the most valuable lessons came from an unexpected corner: evolutionary psychology.

Reading about the evolution of the human mind has been immensely helpful to understand my own behavior and ‘weaknesses’. At first, I wouldn't acknowledge those weaknesses.

"Just sit down and do what you set out to do, what's so hard about that?", I thought. "You have enough willpower for that, are you a weakling or what?", I said.

But as long as you don't acknowledge your human nature, that your mind guides your behavior in accordance to evolution, you'll always be caught off-guard. Reading about evolutionary theory gave me an understanding of my own 'weaknesses'. And it made me understand that from an evolutionary standpoint, these aren’t weaknesses at all.

In fact, there'd be something wrong with you if you wouldn't have them.

We were built to do prehistoric tribesmen stuff, like scavenging the savannah for zebra leftovers. There's nothing natural about a savannah scavenger in a suit, spending 8 hours per day behind a machine that connects him with practically any person in the world. You’re not the misfit. Your environment is.

Does that mean we should leave our desks and head back to the savannah? I'm afraid we've passed that point some time ago.

But it does help to accept this reality: our current environment tests our brains and body in ways that they haven't been evolutionarily prepared for.

Some boxers have a weak chin. A light punch could knock them out. Does that mean they shouldn't step in the ring at all? No. They should be aware of their 'weaknesses' and adjust their tactics accordingly. Keep your defense up.

The study of productivity is a study of the human mind, applied to one of the highest leverage activities we engage in every day: our work. That's what makes it so interesting.

2
Plan your route

I hardly ever check the map before I'm driving somewhere. I get in my car, start Google Maps, and let her smooth voice guide me to my destination. Unfortunately, the Google Maps for workflows hasn't been released yet.

Planning is a crucial part of productivity, for at least two reasons. First, it's rather easy to take a wrong turn or head towards the wrong destination.

Second, having a clear destination and navigation offers peace of mind. You don’t have to check the signs all the time, or stop to ask locals the way. It allows you to approach that water-like state of mind.

Cat: "Where are you going?"
Alice: "Which way should I go?"
Cat: "That depends on where you are going."
Alice: "I don’t know."
Cat: "Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

But few people take the time to plan and structure their days. They just dive in. But if you do, you'll be stranded at the side of the road with an empty gas tank in no time. There's nothing wrong with spending the first 30 minutes of your day planning your trip if it's followed by a smooth ride.

Our MITs shared in Slack.
We share our daily most important tasks (MITs) in the dedicated Slack channel.

Timoor, David and me set Userlike's company goals for the year. Based on these, we make quarterly and monthly plans per department with our team, and share these in Asana. Then, everyone personally plans their week in a Google Doc, and shares their 1-3 most important tasks of the day in our #goals channel in Slack.

3
Switch to top gear

Once you've stepped out of planning, you enter execution mode. This is productivity in its narrow sense: doing a given task as effectively and efficiently as possible.

Shia LaBeouf's famous do it video.

Your effectiveness and efficiency depend on:

  • Your experience
  • Your workflow
  • Your tools
  • Your intelligence
  • Your flow state

Experience. Every task has a learning curve. Someone who's doing a task for the 100th time will be faster and better than a novice.

Infographic of the learning curve principle.

Workflow. My colleague David is a master of workflow optimization. He keeps his desk, desktop, folders, bookmarks, file names, and code clean so that working becomes much easier and enjoyable.

Tools. Embrace technology and tools that boost your productivity. Some of my favorites are Evernote, FlyCut, and aText.

Intelligence. Obviously does play a role, but one that I'd argue is often overstated. Besides nature and nurture, performance is also based on factors more under your control, like your environment and habits.

Flow state. Most of my UserlikeThursday talk was about reaching a state of flow. Flow is a mode that allows us to be highly productive. It's a mental state in which:

  • Attention is focused on a limited stimulus field.
  • You're fully concentrated, have complete involvement, and nothing else matters.
  • You're free from worry about failure.
  • You lose yourself and time gets distorted.
  • Your actions and awareness merge.

The concept of 'flow' was popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Pure flow is mostly reached in sports or music, but it's definitely possible to approach it in an office job as well. It's a state of being in which you're fully absorbed by the task at hand.

We all have a limited amount of attention to spend. If all of it is focused on one task, you don't notice what's going on around you anymore. That's the flow.

Working in flow makes you happy, but it also makes you mightily productive.

4
Follow the road

But most people never reach the state of flow. It takes some effort to get there, and most people get distracted before they reach it.

Work is similar to sleeping cycles. All sleep isn't equal. It's divided in a few stages, 1 REM (rapid eye movement) and 3 non-REM. You need to go through all stages to reach full mental clearing. If you wake up every 20 minutes, you’ll never reach the deeper ones. It's the same with work.

If you’re distracted from your task every 10 minutes, you’ll never reach true productivity. Every distraction is an exit that forces you to switch back to gear 2. If you want to speed up again, you need to go through gear 3 and 4 again. To stay in top gear, stay on the highway and avoid distractions at all costs.

There are roughly 2 types of distractions:

  1. Internal distractions
  2. External interruptions

Internal distractions. Your mind is constantly interpreting the stimuli it receives through your senses. So when you're working on, say, a blog post, your mind is continuously racing through your internal database.

Now say you need to find a source. You minimize your word processor and reach your desktop on your way to Google. On your desktop is a picture file of your last holiday with your buddies.

It takes your mind back to that holiday, to the great beer infested road trip. Then you remember that one of your buddies Bob had his birthday yesterday; you forgot to send him birthday wishes. All of this happens in a fraction of a second.

So you quickly visit Facebook to send him a message. There a world of distractions awaits you, perhaps even distracting you from your original purpose of sending the birthday wishes. You'll feel like walking into a room and forgetting what you had planned to do there.

These internal distractions are always luring. You can't eliminate them entirely, but you can minimize them by keeping a clean desk, desktop, and optimized workflow. The fewer exits your mind passes, the bigger the chance of staying on track.

External interruptions. The second type of distraction is interruption from outside. Our mobile society has infected us with notifications, through text, email, WhatsApp, Facebook, etc. Most aren't aware exactly how vulnerable they are to this.

I realized only after reading an evolutionary theory about it. As social animals, being aware the social developments within your group has always been crucial.

That's why we're so curious about our fellow humans. We don't want to miss out. Nowadays our media channels connect us with an immensely large group of people, and it has put our fear of missing out (FOMO) on steroïds.

To stay focused on what really matters, we need to suppress this urge to stay up to date.

Take control of your notifications; kill all of them – WhatsApp, Messenger, Email, Slack – and decide yourself when to check for messages. This will take you out of a reactive state of mind.

"But what if there's an emergency?" Don't worry. If there’s an emergency, which, of course, hardly ever happens, they will call.

There is one interruption, however, that you cannot kill. Your colleagues.

My Userlike colleagues at a summer barbecue.
My colleagues. The most troublesome of interruptions...

How could you possibly reach or stay in the flow when a colleague walks up to you? Ignoring your colleague entirely would be mightily rude, something only a psychopath could stomach.

Comic of a developer being disturbed.
Comic by Jason Heeris

I deal with this problem less than my colleagues, because I work from home 3 days in the week. At home, you’re responsible for your own optimal environment. At an office, though, you co-create each other's environment.

At this point short term employee fun can conflict with their — and the company's — long term interests. Fun at work is crucial, of course. And I believe that Userlike’s cohesive group is one of its biggest strength. But fun can also get in the way of productivity. And in the end, we all want to be productive, too.

Because we see it as our responsibility to create an optimal environment for our team, we started a daily silence time, running from 9.30AM till 12.30PM (lunch). During this period, no one talks to each other. Pure immersion in the task at hand.

After lunch, the atmosphere in the office is lighter. We've had our sprint, now we're jogging. Still work, but with more space for fun. Like any habit, the silent time has taken a while to adopt consistently. But now it's there, we can say it's a blessing for our team's productivity.

5
Maintain your engine

To cut down a tree, you need to swing the axe. But a sharp axe gets you there faster than a blunt one. Many 'busy' people are busy because they spend all their hours swinging, and no time sharpening the axe. To be productive, you need to find the right balance.

There are many ways to sharpen the productivity axe:

  • Organizing your workflows.
  • Emptying your inboxes.
  • Cleaning up your workstation (desk, desktop, bookmark folder).
  • Testing productivity tools.
  • Thinking about productivity, e.g. by reading this post.

There's one sidenote I should make to my earlier definition of productivity being about getting somewhere with the least amount of effort. Because besides that, productivity is also about making the ride enjoyable.

A smooth drive over an empty German highway is much more pleasant than a drive through my home city of Amsterdam — dodging cars, cyclists, trams, pedestrians, and canals.

Make your workday like a German highway. Save Amsterdam for the weekend.

Blogs on productivity:

Asian Efficiency
Barking Up The Wrong Tree
Zen Habits
James Clear Blog
43 Folders

Articles on productivity:

How Productivity Works - 32 Principles
23 Productivity Hacks That Will Actually Make You Happy
10 Lessons I Learned from a Year of Productivity Experiments
Productivity Is Really About What You Don’t Do
How Music Affects Your Productivity
Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time


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