The Secret to Productivity
Feb 3, 2021
There is a lot of poor information out there about how to be productive. This is my take on productivity and how we can be more focused as software engineers.
Most of what you know about productivity is bullshit. I'm sorry, but it's true.
The pursuit of productivity and becoming more productive is something I have been thinking about for a long time. Mainly out of necessity to be honest - I have a ridiculously short attention span and a tendency to fall into a void of procrastination and not achieving anything at all. I have had to adopt a systematic approach to ensuring I stay productive by following my own set of 'best practices'.
We often view productivity as a result of one change, and you just have to type productivity into Youtube to prove this point - you will see video titles such as: "The BEST way to stay productive" or "The ULTIMATE app for productivity", from respected and intelligent content creators, usually to boost their affiliate earnings. Yuck.
As I said.. Bullshit.
People are framing it as if behind a closed door there is a special app, a special playlist, a special whatever that will allow us to be the most productive version of ourselves. It simple isn't true. Switching to a different to-do app, for instance will make us marginally more productive for a short while, but productivity isn't achieved by making this one change. It is about making choices that allow us to remain productive sustainably and for extended periods of time. It is less about doing one big thing differently, and more about an accumulation of small things.
One of my hobbies is carp fishing. Specimen carp angling is a tough activity, sometimes there are 10-20 wily carp in a 20-30 acre lake, and the sport is about being smart and patient (or maybe even stubborn) enough to try and snag one of these creatures before releasing it. People can spend years trying to catch a single particular fish, it is a game of wits and preparation. In carp fishing, there is a saying that 'success is all about clocking up the 1%'s'. Sure, someone might luck out and cast into the lake without too much thought and snag a fish, but this is not replicable and makes success become a lottery. Making sure your hooks are sharp, your bait is fresh, that you are fishing in the right weather conditions and being in tune with your watercraft knowledge to figure out where the fish might be are all things that carry a 1% value that carries the angler towards sustainable and repeatable success.
Stick with me here folks..
I view productivity in a very similar way. It's about stacking up the 1%'s, finding the different variations, nuances and conditions that allow you to get shit done. Understanding what variables enable you to perform to your best and then ensuring these are met is the real key to becoming a productive software engineer, or a productive anything for that matter.
The secret therefore to productivity is that there is no secret.
There is no secret because it is different for every person. These 1%'s are personal to us and therefore the variables that each one of us needs to be focused and productive are all different. There is not one 'right' way. Anyone that tells you otherwise is spouting hot air.
Whilst I am very reluctant to list the things that do allow me to stay productive, I wanted to give people a starting point as well as showcasing that actually its not about the apps you download and is (for me at least) much more about certain lifestyle choices. My reluctance is not because they are secret hacks, but because I think this list may or may not be relevant to whoever is reading this article. This needs to be personal and based around whatever works best for you, sure, these are what allow me to stay productive, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are going to be right for you.
I try and keep the office, as well as our house, as tidy and as clutter free as possible. If I walk downstairs to make my morning coffee and there are dishes from the night before, instantly I feel deflated and my mentality is spoiled. If I sit down at my desk and there is clutter or rubbish strewn all over the place, then I immediately feel less productive and will probably waste valuable time tidying it away and then get side tracked by another task.
Embracing the philosophy behind minimalism and adjusting our home has definitely helped, and this is a theme that undoubtedly will reoccur throughout this article. Not feeling the need to fill empty space with clutter helps me to stay calm and undistracted when I walk through the house, which in turn keeps me in the right head space to sit down and focus.
I plan on writing an article about this topic in the future, but keeping a 'Zettelkasten' (Slip Box) has been perhaps one of the greatest choices I ever made in regards to my productivity and career.
In its barest form, the technique consists of collecting thoughts/ideas and connecting them together, collating a huge database of information that has at some point been in my brain. So for example, when writing this article about productivity - my Zettelkasten will show me everything I have ever written & thought about productivity, from every book I have read on the subject, to every video and article. It also displays similar topics that may be related, and over time, the Zettelkasten will form ideas and the basis for new articles.
Currently I use a piece of software called Obsidian. It's free! If you are interested about reading the article when I write it, then make sure you sign up to my free newsletter to be notified when the article is released.
As someone who gets distracted easily, meditation has been a big help and has allowed me to practice the art of focusing. I used to meditate in the morning, before I did anything else, however I have found that I typically crave this moment of stillness towards the middle of the day more regularly. If there has been a particularly stressful moment at work, or I feel as though I am spinning a few plates at once then I will always make time to sit quietly for 10 minutes to breathe and practice stillness. It is a massive help for the mindset.
If you are interested, I wrote an article about my experiences with meditation.
A 30 minute walk each day after lunch has been the biggest productivity hack for me this year.
I wrote the above Tweet and stand by what I said. Walking has not been something I have been actively doing until this year, but it has had the most positive effect on my productivity in the afternoon. I will typically eat lunch, then get outside with Becky for a 30 minute or so walk, sometimes we walk up to an hour. We are super fortunate to have lots of countryside to explore right on our doorstep.
Coming back to work after a walk is a revelation. Seriously. Whereas I typically lack some focus in the afternoon and instinctively work on the more mundane/less important tasks, walking has allowed me to get a few more hours of productivity and real focus in a day.
Throughout the day I will take 10-15 minute breaks. I will walk down and see Becky, make us a cup of tea and have a chat. I find resting my eyes from the screen for a short amount of time as well as resting my brain allows me to return to my work more productive and focused than I was before I took the time away.
Also, I tend to find that meetings really drain my energy and make me feel fatigued. I will always leave 10 minutes in between meetings to go grab a drink or have a stretch.
Distractions could come in both physical and digital form.
Thankfully, I am presently fairly good at not being distracted by my phone through practice as well as I turning off all of my notifications - as highlighted in my digital minimalism article. However it always used to be an issue for me. I would sit at my desk working, and any lapse in concentration would mean that I automatically picked up my phone and browsed, losing anywhere between 5-15 minutes of time. As an isolated case, that is not the end of the world, but if that happens 4-5 times throughout your working day it quickly adds up.
When I need to focus, I like to sit in my office. Investing in a decent pair of noise cancelling headphones has been a game changer for me because it blocks out any background noise which could lead to distractions.
Alongside Obsidian, I keep a Bullet Journal, which catalogues every single task I ever need to complete. If an action comes up in a meeting, I will write it down. If Becky asks me to take the bins out later, I will write it down. If I need to order more coffee, I will write it down. And so on! By design, the most mundane of task could be alongside a huge career-defining body of work - but I know that if it makes it's way into my journal, then at some point it is going to get finished.
Starting this practice was a huge productivity boost for me, as I will be the first to admit that I can be quite forgetful. Tasks would be given to me, that I would agree to completing and then I would ashamedly forget about them. My Bullet Journal is almost a living and breathing list of to-do's that I am consistently adding to and ticking things off. It makes it nearly impossible to forget to do anything, as long as you write tasks down and spend some time reviewing your journal throughout the day.