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unit and acceptance testing, automation, productivity

Where to start to become more productive

A friend recently asked for tips and resources to self-manage, for example how to effectively work on a project solo. He wanted to know how to be productive amidst a sea of distractions and conflicting priorities.

Productivity is a topic too big to be fully addressed in a single blog post. There are so many books on productivity to fill a library, as well as talks, frameworks, apps, and many self professed experts trying to sell you something with the productivity sticker on it.

Where to begin? This post is my humble effort to provide a few key concepts and resources to get you started.

Productivity is first and foremost a mindset shift. Getting a lot of stuff is being busy, getting the right things done is being productive.

Work on what matters most

At work this means identifying those tasks that move the needle, being aware that often they are not what you'd like to work on. In the personal life it's about spending time defining what really matters to you, your values, then constantly checking you are acting according to those.

Essentialism by Greg McKeown and The ONE Thing by Gray Keller are a good place to start. They teach tools to identify what really matters and makes a difference, how to prioritize, as well as touching on the value of habits, sleeping, and taking breaks.

Use a system

To become more productive you need to know the limitation of your brain and how to compensate for them.

One limitation is our brains are great a coming up with ideas, but not so good at storing things. The brain served our hunter-gatherers ancestor well in remembering which mushrooms were safe to eat, but often lets us down with the overwhelming amount of tasks, events, and news we need to remember in our modern day.

Getting Things Done by David Allen tackle this topic. The book is a productivity classic, it has been in print since 2001, and inspired products such as OmniFocus and Nozbe.

In GTD Allen defines a framework for decluttering the brain from all the thoughts, ideas, and things to do by putting them on a trusted system, identifying the next action to take to make progress, and review them on a schedule.

GTD can be a bit daunting but you don't have to apply it to the letter to be productive. What matters is understanding you need a system to organize all your tasks and ideas, so that you can work intentionally on them rather than reacting to other people's requests all the time.

The shift from a reactive to a proactive approach is another productivity pillar. As Greg McKeown says "if you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will".

Focus

In business execution can make or break products. The same goes for everything else we do in life. Knowing what to work on is only one piece of the puzzle, you need to execute on it effectively.

In Deep Work Cal Newport argues our ability to focus is being compromised by the rise of tools like emails and instant messaging at work, and by social media and infotainment sites outside of it. His antidote are strategies and tactics to re-train your brain to focus and stay focused.

I applied these tactics from the book and saw huge impact in focus, productivity, and head space:

  • Checking emails only on specific times of the day
  • Quitting instant messaging tools when writing, coding, or thinking
  • Quitting Facebook, Instagram, and other social media I didn't get value from
  • Making a plan for what to accomplish during the day and week

Make it a habit

Sorry to break it to you, but you spend most of the time in autopilot. In order to function our brains delegate thousands of micro decisions to the subconscious mind. Many things we do as habits.

Habits are the building blocks of human behaviour. A good habit like walking at least 10,000 steps every day can make your life longer, a bad habit like smoking can shorten it.

Becoming aware of your habits, then promoting the good ones and replacing the bad ones will lay the foundation allowing you to be more effectively.

The Power of Habits by Charles Duhigg is an engaging introduction to what habits are and how they affect us. James Clear's latest book Atomic Habits has a practical framework to build good habits and break bad ones. Disclaimer, I haven't received my paperback copy yet. Unlike all the other books in this post -which I've read sometimes more than once- I'm recommending it because of the reviewes I've seen from people I trust and the excellent track record James has on the topic of habits formation.


Productivity is a matter of mindset. You can deploy all the tactics in the playbook of different authors, but if you are not clear on what you want to get done you'll go nowhere.

Adopt a system to declutter your mind and keep track of your projects. Try to be as proactive as possible in everything you do. Invest in training your ability to focus and build healthy habits to support you.

There is no hack to become productive, no shortcut. It's going to be a lifelong journey, a constant battle against distractions from the outside world and your own self.

It's a battle worth fighting for. The rewards are the ability to be fully engaged when spending time with your family and friends, to make meaningful work, to be in control.

Have you got productivity strategies or resources you'd like to share? Leave a comment below or get in touch on Twitter @mokagio.

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