I'm a pretty productive person. Some people tell me I'm too productive, and it's either annoying or intimidating, and that's fine. I try to control that as best I can. More people ask me how I'm so productive. Well jeez. I'll just answer already.
First and foremost, if you ask people "what is productivity?", you'll usually get an abstract answer. It's "getting things done" or "doing things quickly" or "always having something to do". These are correct notions, but there's an overall trend that productivity is vague. It's about "doing things", and generally I've found that to be true, but it's important that this vagueness doesn't slow you down in your pursuit for productivity. I've seen some people try to be more productive with their lives and fail because they get lost in what exactly "productiveness" means to them. They get stuck thinking too much about what to do productively. Do you do your office work productively? Do you run your entire life productively? Are we talking just about my hobbies being productive? Arguably, one could be productive at watching TV shows all day, but do you find the time spent watching TV shows productive in the first place? These are questions you have to answer for yourself, but I can give you my perspective.
Productivity is a foundational principle of my life. It was contagious to me as a child, probably because my father is an extremely productive person and he loves talking about it. I don't draw lines where I get to be productive and where I can slack off when it comes to the things I care about. The list of "things" is rather huge: work, hobbies, cleaning dishes, going for walks. I want things to be productive. To my own detriment sometimes I want even my relaxation time to be productive. It sounds counterproductive to have structured relaxation time, and I'm working on it, but in a way it makes sense if it's so foundational to me. It is indeed harder for me to just relax because I've trained my mind to want to be productive. There are costs to any life-principle, so be aware of that. Simply put, I want to be productive at the things I want to do. If I want to do them, why not be productive about it? Furthermore, I want the things I don't want to do to be over with quicker, so why not be productive about those, too? Why not be productive about everything?
Productivity can be extremely simple, but it requires complex self-regulation before the desire to be productive turns into a habit of productivity. It all takes time and patience, like learning an instrument. Productivity, at its onset, requires you to monitor yourself and beat back procrastination however it forms, whether as excuses or obstacles. The person who says "I can't make a website because I don't know HTML" is a person who doesn't really want to make a website. The excuse pushes against your productivity, so you need to examine it: why don't I know HTML? Why don't I just learn it? Then you may run into more excuses: "HTML is hard" or "I don't have time" or whatever. You have to be diligent with yourself to beat these back. Doing just the easy things or making excuses never helped create a productive person: the willingness to go the hard way has. After awhile, you will move from accepting the hard way to actively seeking out the hard way when you know it's the most beneficial way. You'll find the time if it's something that's important to you. If you can't find the time, it must not be that important. And maybe it isn't. That's up to you.
There are some excuses that may seem insurmountable, such as "my boss doesn't want me to" or "it's against the law", and sometimes... well, yeah, sometimes those are valid excuses. A part of productivity is knowing the cost and risk of getting things done. Sometimes the risk of getting it done is worth it, despite the fact that you might make your boss mad. Sometimes it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. But for most things where people are concerned about productivity, these shouldn't stand in your way. When starting your quest to be more productive, try being productive at things that only you answer for. Be productive with your garden, or cleaning your apartment, or whatever, before you try being super productive with that costly project at work that has risks associated with it.
That's really the main crux of productivity for me. Stripping away all of the self-created or self-allowed excuses. Remove all of the insecurities, doubts, and misconceptions that are preventing you from doing something. The phrases "I don't feel like it" or "I'm too busy" or "it's too hard" rarely come out of my mouth when it comes to getting things done. Being a productive human is important to me and I try to reflect that in all of my activities. It doesn't have to be so totalizing for you, but we'll be moving in the same direction, albeit at different speeds. And maybe for you productivity is misguided and maybe it's a bastardization of easy living, and I have no problem admitting that productivity is at odds with other life-methodologies, and that none of it is more valid than anything else. It's up to you to figure out what's important to you.
You can easily go online and find a lot of techniques and lengthy methodologies for productivity, and they can be helpful. If you read the last few paragraphs and immediately thought "this is too hard" then maybe you should look up some of those methods. They aim to be quick and simple. If you do find one that appeals to you, stick with them for awhile. Again, productivity is a mindset. It won't happen overnight. Don't give the method a week, give it a month. At least. If a method says "write everything down on one post-it note at a time and keep a stack of them", then do that technique for a month at least and see if it's helped you. See if you feel more productive. If you do, then you've successfully taken your first steps.
If you think a month is too long a time, then you'll never be productive. People often think that productive people are inherently impatient, but that's contradictory. Productive people require patience because it takes a long time to become a productive person. Often a key component of your overall productivity is the patience you need when you cannot be productive due to an actual roadblock. One goes from productive to annoying when they sit around agitating for something to happen when it is beyond their control. When this happens, simply change your priorities appropriately and work on something else. Ultimately you may come to the point that there's nothing to be productive about! That's called relaxation time, and you've earned it.
There are definitely tools that help productivity, but again, they're all dependent upon your ability and willingness to dedicate yourself to the tools. Simple things like post-it notes can indeed be the tool of a productive person. For me, writing things in .txt files helps me stay organized and on-point, and I try to document everything I do so productivity isn't lost later on when I forgot what I did. Writing things down, in whatever fashion, is an overall helpful process for being productive, whether it's on post-its or in a journal or in a Basecamp project. Your memory isn't perfect and it's definitely finite; don't expect yourself to remember everything forever. We have technology for that. Likewise, there are software tools like OmniFocus, Things, Clear, that can help you be productive, but they all follow the basic theme of "write stuff down", whether it's in list or graph or tree format.
These tools, and any systems of productivity, require priorities. Setting goals for yourself and prioritizing them adds clarity to your productive process. What's most important, and it ties back to my first point, is self-regulation and holding yourself accountable for your priorities. Highly effective people do not have a huge laundry list of priorities: they have a few broad ones which can be broken down into more smaller ones. Highly effective people also hold themselves accountable when they don't meet their own goals. I'm not saying beat yourself up when you don't get something done, I'm saying figure out why you didn't get it done. Were you too ambitious? Did you not have the right knowledge? Failure is key to being productive, because an effective person turns failure into opportunity by analyzing why they failed, thus turning failure itself into a productive act.
Find the tools to help you be productive. I'm constantly trying stuff out. I tried Things for awhile, but it became too complex for me. I set too many due dates and didn't set broad-enough priorities. It's easy to bog yourself down with priorities. It's easier to make them based on time scales. Have goals for today. Have goals for the week. Have goals for the month, or the year, or your career, or your life, or whatever. Most importantly: forget the things you don't have to worry about after you set those goals. If you wrote down your goals for the week, don't worry about them right now! Worry about your goals for the day and then worry about your goals for the week. Part of productivity is removing that which is irrelevant to the task at hand and finding the purity of process. What reduces the distance between you and getting it done? Do that. To that end, I've started using Clear, because it just has lists. For example, I have a list for "giant life stuff" that includes retirement planning and my career. I have a "grocery list" for what I need at the store. The two lists are equally valuable, the only difference is their temporal relevance. I only need to look at one list a time for me to get things done, but I have my broader goals accessible at any time.
Some priorities, the big ones, you should hold in your mind at all times. Eventually they become good habits. I've made productivity itself a habit, but alongside that I've made cleanliness a habit, because it helps me be productive. I've made documentation a habit, because it helps me be productive. These are the kinds of links you need to determine for yourself in order to be productive. For some people, productivity is a ritual, which can only happen at a certain location. Some people are incredibly productive, but only when they're sitting at their desk at home where they're most comfortable. Everything is where they know it should be, so they can remove small nagging worries and insecurities from their mind. Being at their desk reduces the distance between the goal and getting it done.
Most people find it harder to work in random locations, unless they make some part of their work mobile. Some people can be productive on their personal laptop, no matter where they are, simply because they've set up their laptop to be productive. (And that "set up your laptop to be productive" can be as simple as having your tools installed and ready for use.) Again, productivity is often the removal of things that get in your way so you can just get things done, even if those things you're removing are seemingly trivial unknowns or discomforts. Sometimes sitting on the couch at home watching a movie with my laptop out creates the atmosphere of productivity. There's nothing saying one way is better or worse than any other; these are belief structures that you need to build within yourself.
At the end of the day, your productivity is yours alone. You need to empower yourself to be productive, believe in the systems you create to aid you in being productive, and allow yourself to fail while trying to be productive. Above all else, be patient, and allow the process some time.
So for those of you who want a simple list, here you go:
- Take control of yourself. No excuses, remove obstacles. Be conscious of and examine your own self-processes.
- Find a tool to make "getting things done" easier. Organize your goals, your priorities, and maybe even your life.
- Hold certain things sacred in your mind that help you be productive. Create rituals or methods that will help you be productive.
- Get it done.
Recommended reading: Rework by the 37signals crew. Very simple, very instructive. Really the only book I've read on productivity that I can recommend to anyone. There are tons of websites out there that talk about productivity, but there aren't any particular ones I can recommend, because the whole "Getting Things Done" movement can be rather masturbatory.