How I Achieve Productivity

I have this concept I call The Book of Me which I consider a manual for my life. It’s a folder with documents in which I write instructions as I discover something new about myself. These instructions are meant for me to read them from time to time.

For example, I have a document called What to Do When I’m Bored, and another one called What to Do When My Blood Sugar Drops.

The rules of The Book of Me are as follows:

  • The WHY: I’m writing this so that I would not forget how my brain works. It sounds silly, but I keep repeating certain mistakes although I know better. To increase my own awareness of those mistakes, I started writing them down.
  • No speculations. I only document the things that are proven to work for me.
  • Keep improving and keep updating The Book of Me as I learn more.

This article is the productivity chapter in The Book of Me. I’m publishing it in order to help others arrive at the place of their increased productivity. May the force be with you.

The Point of No Return

I’ve had this feeling that I wasn’t good enough since the day I started my company. I certainly did not feel like that while I was in college, but then again, college was easy. Business is hard.

I felt I had no right to write about the topics that I deeply cared for because I could not compete with the best in the field. I felt I had nothing to contribute, and those beliefs killed my creativity.

At some point either the feeling that I wasn’t good enough or my perception of what that feeling meant was gone.

I felt that I was ready.

I felt the urge to stop consuming and start creating.

But to do that, I needed to clear the path to creativity, which meant I needed to learn how to become productive enough to ship my creations.

Deconstructing Productivity

Productivity is one of those words that’s void of any meaning and overloaded with meaning at the same time.

I had no idea what “productivity” really was, so in November 2016 I started studying it seriously.

I approached the subject as a student would: I bought the books and started reading.

(I even started publishing some of my book reading notes on the topic.)

And, when I say “seriously”, I mean that this is not my first attempt at decyphering productivity. I dabbled in it over the years, mostly by reading blog posts from people who I considered my virtual mentors:

Recently I renewed my fascination with Tim Ferriss who publishes his discussions with top achievers on his podcast.

Productivity, it turns out, is a mixture of many important building blocks, just to name a few:

  • discipline
  • habits
  • self-control
  • mindfulness
  • awareness
  • knowledge
  • deliberate practice

What my mentors have taught me is that different people achieve productivity in different ways. Yes, certain factors, such as the inability to create if you’re constantly interrupted, are nearly universal. The exact implementation of the building blocks of productivity are, however, individual.

What Works for Me, Personally

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. ~ Maya Angelou

Creating Is My Primary Job.

One day I asked myself this:

“What is really my job?"

The answer that came back was that my true job was to create.

(I maintain a collection of smart, life-altering questions. Read them if you’re ready to turn your life upside-down.)

I realized I’m not doing myself, my clients, and my future customers any favors if I’m not creating what I have the potential to create in my life. I serve everyone the most by prioritizing my long-term goals over daily urgencies.

Once I realized that, something unexpected happened: I stopped negotiating with myself and holding daily referendums about whether or not it was time to sit down and work on my creations.

Isn’t it ridiculous that I wasn’t showing up for the most important job I’ll ever have? Even people who hate their jobs show up at their desks every morning, and what was I doing? I was answering emails.

Now, if something is my job, I simply show up, and it stops being a question in my mind. “Not letting it become a question” is something Leo Babauta taught me about productivity in the The Habit Guide.

One Minute Is Enough to Beat Procrastination.

The epiphany I had on this topic grew into an entire post, so there it is: You Can Beat Procrastination in One Minute. Here’s How, and Here’s Why.

Creative Mornings: Scheduling and Timeboxing Creative Time

Every work day after breakfast, I start my Creative Mornings work routine, which looks like this:

  1. I disconnect distractions: I turn on the ‘Do not Disturb’ setting in Skype and on my smartphone.
  2. I put on the headphones.
  3. I start a playlist in Google Play Music.
  4. I open the file in which I’m writing / creating.
  5. I continue where I left off the previous work day.
  6. I work for 1-3 hours without interruptions.
  7. I stop when it’s lunch time, and continue the next morning.

I treat lunch time as my reward for doing a great job every morning. Lunch also functions as a cognitive break between my creative first half and my operative second half of the day (after lunch I work on client projects).

I rarely schedule phone calls, meetings, video conferences when my Creative Morning starts. If something manages to interrupt my routine, I still find at least 5 minutes for creativity during that same day.

If It’s Not in the Calendar, It Won’t Happen.

I treat my Creative Mornings as mandatory daily meetings with myself. I have to call them “meetings” because if I don’t, I won’t show up.

I’m the kind of person who always shows up for a meeting. In my entire life, I have never forgotten to come to a scheduled business meeting. That’s because I put that meeting in my calendar, and because I respected the other person’s time.

I decided to treat myself with the same respect and reserve time blocks in my calendar for a meeting with The Creative Me.

And it’s “Creative Mornings”, not Evenings (or After-Lunches).

I Can Only Create on a Maker’s Schedule.

Timeboxing my creative time into half-day time blocks is what gives me the most room for creativity, while providing me with the most flexibility in relation to my other obligations.

In 2009, Paul Graham of Y Combinator gave this type of scheduling a name: the Maker’s Schedule (vs. the Manager’s Schedule).

Small Steps. Micro-Steps, if Needed.

What happens when you say “I’m going to send a 100 emails to 100 potential customers”?

You send none because the task requires too much initial overhead, and is quite scary if you’ve never done it before.

A less intimidating thing to do would be to send just one email.

Miraculously, sending that one email removes most of the fear and resistance associated with the new activity.

If this advice is so common sense, how come people rarely follow it? Are we all masochists?

Small steps is how I picked up running for weight loss and successfully lost 25+ kilos, without gaining any of it to date since 2015. My 12-week 5K running program did not start with the first day running for 15 minutes, no. On the first day, the schedule was: 4 x (1 + 1), meaning: 1 minute of running, followed by 1 minute of walking, repeated 4 times. My first day of running was completed in 8 minutes, of which only half was actual running.

I Always Know What I’m Working on Next.

I procrastinate when I don’t have a clear plan of actions.

Having thought about my next task in advance is what makes it easier for me to just sit and work.

To make thinking and working easier, I put “think about X” or “decide on X” as tasks on my to do list. This way I don’t feel like I’m wasting time if I’m engaged in thinking or planning or making decisions.

Start With Easy Tasks First.

I usually start my Creative Mornings with logging the time from the day before. It’s a one minute activity which requires zero effort, but gets me going.

Headphones and Music.

Creativity starts as soon as I put on the headphones. It’s like magic. I made myself aware of that ritual, and now it feels weird to waste time on Facebook when I wear my headphones.

I bought a high quality wireless noise-canceling headset which completely tunes out the world around me.

Movie scores and instrumentals are my favorite music for focused work.

Ignore Negative Self-Talk.

I don’t let my lizard brain have a field day in my head. I treat it as I would treat nutcases on Facebook: I accept that I can’t fully avoid them, but I don’t have to listen to them, and I certainly don’t believe them.

So when my lizard brain wants to complain how something is hard or futile, I say “yeah, yeah, whatever” and simply re-focus my attention on my work. The more I practice doing so, the better I become at it.

Studying Productivity Increases Productivity.

Reading up on the subject of my study is how I keep my motivation high for that subject.

I used to feel bad about reading so many books on the many topics that piqued my interest at any given time. I even fell for the bullshit that reading is procrastinating. For some people it is, but not for me. I don’t accept everything I read online, not even from people who I deeply admire.

For example, when I decided to lose weight, I started reading every day about exercise, food, and how to run properly. I watched Youtube videos and read blog posts. Within 7-10 days, I went from a debilitating pain in the knees every day to pain-free running (I was obese at that time).

I would have quit if I hadn’t been reading regularly about weight loss.

The lesson here: if I want to become productive, I must learn how one becomes productive.

This Is How I Learn

  • Pace: self-paced
    • no group activities (following other people’s pace discourages me and makes everything more frustrating)
    • no live webinars
  • Format:
    • books
    • online courses (self-paced)
    • articles from reputable sources
  • Medium:
    • reading words (on a digital screen)
      • no paper for me: too cumbersome, no copy&paste
    • my second favorite: audio books
    • my third favorite: Youtube videos

Scientific Evidence Motivates Me.

People kept harping on the benefits of meditation, but I wouldn’t listen…

…until I read that there’s solid scientific evidence that mindfulness meditation helps with productivity. Here’s an article with a bunch of links to scientific studies on meditation.

At that point, I already had significant progress with being mindful about my feelings and thoughts. Mindfulness helped me detect the significance of the discovery that I require solid scientific evidence before I can accept any practice, idea, or action.

Mindfulness Is Really the Key to Productivity.

Productivity starts with mindfulness.

I can’t beat procrastination unless I become aware - aka mindful - that I’m currently procrastinating.

I define mindfulness as the ability to read and correctly interpret my internal states, which are manifested as feelings and thoughts.

If I’m paying attention to my thoughts and feelings, I can amplify them (when they’re positive) or ignore them (if they’re negative). I can control my feelings and thoughts on demand and bring myself back fast to the present moment.

Increased emotion control is one of my most significant life achievements - and I’m still in my thirties. I’m proud of my current ability to correctly identify the actual feeling that I’m feeling. I invested countless hours in getting myself to this point and I’m happy I have concrete results.

What good is this ability to control thoughts and feelings? The following example will sound familiar.

Imagine yourself on a beautiful Sunday. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, you’re having your favorite beverage with your favorite human, you’re basking in the glory of the moment…

…and then, the thought:

Tomorrow is work day, it’s Monday, and I hate it, and I hate those pesky Monday meetings. I hate my boss and Ann in marketing is a real bitch.

Your perfect Sunday is now ruined not because of one thought, but because of your weird need to keep looping and feeding those negative thoughts in your head.

“Are you saying that mindfulness can prevent such thoughts?"

Nope. Even Dalai Lama has such moments.

Mindfulness, however, helps you identify that your internal state has suddenly changed, and helps you understand what’s going on with your body and mind. Once you detect the change, you can bring yourself back to your perfect Sunday and continue living in the wonderful moment. With practice you become better at it.

Mindfulness helps me experience the joy of the present moment while I work. It deflects concerns about what happens in the afternoon, tomorrow, or next week.

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