On Productivity 26 Jun 2013

Pro cat

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but a few things have been holding me back. I’m not even close to being optimally productive, nor is my mindset solid enough to be considered exemplary. So, whenever I think of writing about productivity, I inevitably hesitate and put it off. I don’t want to preach a method or philosophy when I myself don’t fully follow it.

When it comes to productivity though (like most other things really), one can be aware of best practices and yet refrain from following them. I’ve also advanced enough in the past half a year to warrant a musing on the topic. So, write I will.

Edit:

After receiving some feedback, I feel I need to clarify things a bit. The post is titled “On Productivity”, and represents my take on personal productivity, as I’ve learned it. I outline my beginnings as a programmer to show the contrast between working in spare time, and working all the time. When you have an abundunce of time and freedom, you need some structure and motivation to keep yourself focused on the task at hand (therefore, to be productive). I believe that a mission statement offers a solid base to build from in this situation. The other aspects of productivity stem from it, and so I did not go into them at all. Productivity is a deeply personal thing, and solutions can generally not be directly transferred from one person to another. The concept of a mission statement is applicable to everyone, providing a structure for discovering and implementing other productivity concepts into one’s own life.

Overview

I’m in a bit of a special situation when it comes to this, or so it feels. Like one of the people profiled in Gladwell’s Outliers, I’ve been given a few extraordinary opportunities and as a result am surrounded by “experts”. I’m not quite standing on the shoulders of giants, but am essentially clawing my way up their side. Nearly there, muahahaha.

So, what have I learned? I’ll step back a bit and give some background info.

I grew up either programming, or working on electronics projects (99% digital). I always did it as a hobby, on my own time, when I felt like it. It was a great escape from the day-to-day drudgery of learning standard school material. I had a computer in my room, but was not allowed internet access. As a result, I resorted to downloading programming tutorials + libraries and documentation onto floppy disks at my local library, and working with them at home.

I’m mentioning this because of how “productive” I was back then. Time on library computers was limited to 60 minutes a day; I would sit there, google continuously, and download 10-100 pages that looked “interesting”. I learned some valuable skills doing that, namely how to use Google to find exactly what I needed as quickly as possible, and how to scan documents for info. Speed-reading, if you will, albeit in a simplified form. When I got home, I would read and apply as much as I could before going to school the next day. Quite a bit of homework escaped being done like that.

When I started programming for a living, things changed a bit. Working from home is fantastic, as is working in a startup office for most of every day. Unlike when I was limited to those 60 minutes though, there was no longer a burning incentive to get things done. When misused, freedom is counter-productive. Coders are inherently lazy; most of us started coding in our childhood (as I did), and receive a bit of shellshock when beginning to do it for a living.

Intermission

In order to scale those meager 60 minutes into 10+ hours a day, a strategy has to be adopted. Programmers that are passionate about their craft are not used to practicing it every day, all day. Since we code because we love doing it, some days just don’t “feel” right. If a project is boring, it’s nearly painful to work on. The abhorrence I feel towards updating static HTML websites is shocking even to me. On the other hand, reading about the internals of GNU Hurd is better than these Milka cookies

I’m more or less to the point where I feel motivated to code every day, all day. If I’m not working, I’m reading documentation about a library/API I’m using, or scrolling through some interesting source code. I get up every day looking forward to my day at the office, Saturday and Sunday included. The difference between now, and programming in my childhood, is that now I have a proper goal I’m aiming for.

Sooo, I’ve been beating around the bush a bit. This is a productivity post, let’s get to that part.

Mission Statement

I’m not going to go into any of that analytical long-term and short-term goal stuff, as it doesn’t really help those that haven’t looked into getting more productive before. It’s one thing to read, and another to apply. Most people don’t want to actually sit down and write out their goals and whatnot, so I’ll boil everything down into one, slightly more “relatable” and directly applicable sentence: You need to know where you are going.

Most of what I’ve learned stems from that. If productivity was a computer, that sentence would make up the silicon within that computer. Hot air to the balloon, and hair to a cat, etc. It’s that intense. Believe it.

I stopped and did a bit of a re-evaluation of my life and goals last November/December (it was a gradual process). I thought deeply about what I wanted in life, what person I wanted to be, and how I could go about moving forward. I wrote a proper mission statement, and from then on things have been more or less straightforward.

A “Mission Statement” essentially defines what person you want to become. With that in hand, everything else you do revolves around it. Decisions become automatic; if sitting on the couch and watching TV doesn’t get you closer to your goal, then don’t do it. If you want to become the best botanist in the world, then spend all day reading books about exotic ferns. Anything that does not help you achieve your goal is merely a distraction.

Once you have your mission statement, becoming more productive is straightforward. Of course, you can’t instantly kick habits, but you can consciously work them out of your system, and work others in. The journey to becoming who you want to be is a slow, gradual one. That’s why I’m still writing this post; although I don’t fit the bill even to my specifications, I’ve advanced enough to feel the need to preach a bit :)

When you know where you want to go and how you want to get there, there are no excuses left. Nothing is “too hard”, you just need to keep trying until you succeed. Everything you do, from procrastinating to spending hours in the library studying, either brings you closer to or further away from your goal.

I didn’t plan this post out too well; The mission statement and benefits it provides pretty much cover everything I wanted to say. All the other things that come after it are just fluff. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people, eliminating distractions, optimizing your day-to-day routines, etc. All result from the need to get to where you want to be. I will mention some very helpful books though.

Books

After I wrote my personal mission statement and provided myself with a proper goal to aim towards, I looked for outside ideas and help. I was pointed towards some invaluable books, which I will list in the order they were read:

The Millionaire Fastlane

What looks like a generic self-help guru-style book is anything but. I read this back in December, shortly after writing up my mission statement. One of my goals is financial freedom (to an extreme), and this book essentially offers a blueprint for reaching it. DeMarco points out that one must actively work towards attaining wealth, while avoiding traditional methods such as college/uni and investing in the stock market (among other things). The underlying message is that you must both create value, and affect a large crowd. If you create something useful/valuable for millions of people, the millions will come.

Think and Grow Rich

This book is a classic. If you’ve researched productive/successful people before, you’ve undoubtedly stumbled across it. Published in 1937, Napoleon Hill outlines 13 steps to “success”, which he has created based on his studies of the massively wealthy people of his time (Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, etc). Being written in 1937, one must apply what he writes to one’s own time and situation. This book is absolutely invaluable, with The Millionaire Fastlane and Outliers lying directly after.

Outliers

I wish I had read this book back in high school. By the time I picked it up (only a few months ago), I had already learned most of what it had to offer from other sources. The one thing it is famous for is the 10,000 hour rule. Stating that one can only achieve a true level of mastery in any subject after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, it motivates me more than most other materials. If part of your mission statement involves becoming the best at anything, then read this book.

Two other books that I recommend highly, but do not directly apply to productivity/success, are Fooled by Randomness and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Also, if you like Gladwell, check out Blink and The Tipping Point by him. Both absolutely fantastic books.

Online Resources

Some relevant TED talks:
Why we do what we do
The puzzle of motivation
Elon Musk (‘nuff said)

YT Videos/Talks:
Gladwell at HPU (Gladwell!)
Will Smith on success
Do what you love

Links! These are self-explanatory, great learning resources.
Skyrocket Your Productivity is a productivity blog written by a friend of mine. He introduced me to the concept of a mission statement, and coached me on how to better my habits when I first started actively improving myself. Check it out :)

Udacity
edX
99U
Coursera
Udemy