How to be more productive
by Lavanya Mohan
I used to have the most predictable work day routine. I’d check in at office around 10am, spend half an hour going through my email, check Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, read several random links, and by the time I settled in with the day’s tasks, it would be past noon. At 2pm, I’d break for lunch, and by that I mean eating with YouTube on, and once that was done, I’d spend some time window-shopping online. After burning another couple of hours this way, I’d panic about how I hadn’t gotten anything done, and then stay at work till 8pm, kicking myself for prolonging my day when I could’ve left two hours earlier. I’d promise myself that tomorrow would be different, only it never was. It wasn’t for want of trying. I downloaded all the to-do apps my iPhone could handle; I bought planners; I even bought a giant Post-It board for my office, but nothing worked. The apps were deleted to clear up memory, the planners remained blank after a week, the giant Post-It board was full of doodles, and I continued to be stuck in this seemingly infinite loop of procrastination.
A little less than a year ago, however, something happened. I was offered a regular gig with a publication, which was kind of a big deal for a not-so-busy freelance writer such as myself. The editor who commissioned me warned me about their challenging deadlines, for she knew about my day job as a chartered accountant. But I assured her that I was organised, and that I could keep up, and for the first few weeks, I did. Fuelled by enthusiasm and the additional credits in my bank account, I stayed on top of my deadlines. Once the novelty wore off, however, I was back to putting the ‘pro’ in procrastination. I was now shirking two jobs, which meant my problems were more than just longer days at work. It was frustrating—here was my big opportunity to do what I loved, and instead of enjoying it, I was snapping at everyone around me. If I was to retain my new job, I had to figure out how people who were smarter and busier than me found their bearings without bursting blood vessels along the way. I googled productivity.The sheer quantity of life hacks offered in this area is overwhelming, and they range from the playful to the obsessive, but what all of them agree on is that productivity has to become a habit, and that in order for a behaviour to become a habit, you have to start slow, and keep it simple.
So, before I conquered the planners and the Post-It boards, I had to do something about my procrastination. After more searching, I stumbled upon the pomodoro technique. It’s inspired by the kitchen timer that looks like a tomato (hence the name), and all it asks of you is to set a timer for 25 minutes and focus on one task, without interruptions. Once the timer rings, you take a break for upto 10 minutes, and then you get to the next task. Simple enough, right? Except the first time I set the timer, I sat staring at a blank document for five minutes before getting back on Twitter to look at photos of funny dogs. Woe was me, but neither I nor my expensive shoe habit were ready to give up. I began looking for solutions. The key, apparently, was to break your task down into as many specific parts as possible. Setting the pomodoro timer for 25 minutes with a vague “Write Article” as the task wouldn’t do. I had to be more precise. I tried the timer again, with “Write 500 words” as my task, and lo! I managed to hold on for 400 words and 20 minutes before caving in. I’d never felt so encouraged. I put the timer into practice for typing official letters, writing blog posts, even for organising my music. It wasn’t long before the 25 minutes felt like five, and I felt like I was in control. And so, with the blessings of my tomato timer, I decided I could tackle the next productivity hurdle: my innate harebrainedness.
While the pomodoro helped me go through my tasks faster, I was still forgetting appointments, and continued to take time to settle down at work, because no app gave me an overview of my day the way I wanted. That was when Pinterest pointed me to the Bullet Journal, a system of writing down tasks in an organised (analog) way, devised by Ryder Carroll, a product designer from New York. It excited me because no amount of screen swiping gave me the satisfaction that manually striking items off a list did. I got myself a pretty Moleskine notebook and proceeded with caution. The Bullet Journal method is endlessly customisable and gives you the freedom to be as snazzy as you want to, but I followed a very spartan format—the kind that is quick and low maintenance. I made my journal extra effective by writing down tasks in order of unpleasantness (high on that list was returning calls), so I was forced to get rid of them first.
It’s been about eight months since I started applying these techniques, and I must confess that I’ve become like one of those people who’ve just run a marathon or turned vegan, in that this is all I can talk about. Although my popularity at parties has dwindled, I am far less stressed about my day, I keep much better track of what I do, and still have time to hang out with my dog. What I found surprising when I began this productivity project (apart from the shock of actually becoming productive) is the massive amount of related resources that have sprung up recently. It’s as if everyone is talking about productivity now, which is puzzling, because it wasn’t too long ago that we were told successful people weren’t the ones who managed a hundred things while getting three hours of sleep; rather, they took the time to do things they enjoyed, and consciously spent time with loved ones. No robotic routines for them.
So where did all this talk of productivity spring from?
Charles Duhigg, who is the author of the best-selling book, The Power of Habit, has observed that productivity isn’t about ticking the most items off a list or squeezing another widget out of the machine. It’s finishing what you have at hand efficiently, so that you have more time to do what you really enjoy, whether it’s playing a sport or catching up on Netflix. We’re surrounded by these gadgets and apps dedicated to helping us achieve more, he says, but getting things done has never
been harder. It doesn’t help that we’re constantly distracted by social media and our attention spans have started shrinking too—we can’t seem to think beyond 140 characters, we want one-minute recipes, and we use gifs to convey emotion.
The reason productivity is the topic of conversation again isn’t because people have suddenly decided that they want to get more things done, but because they want to get things done faster (and better) so that they can spend more time doing what they love. In effect, it’s the other side of the same coin that successful people have their faces etched on; you’re still required to prune your routine, resolutely say no to projects you know you can’t deliver, and get more sleep. Productivity is, as I’ve come to learn, all about taking control of your time, before it starts taking control of you.
Bullet Journaling 101
All you need is a notebook and a pen. You write down each task you have for the day with a bullet mark or a dot, to its left. Once you’re done with the task, you cross the dot to mark it complete. In case you’re not able to complete a task that day, you mark the dot with an arrow pointing right to indicate it’s carried forward to the next day. The system lets you tag events with a circle, and notes with a hyphen. Additionally, the Bullet Journal also requires you to create a Monthly Overview page with the days mapped out so you can keep track of the tasks to be completed that month. Bullet Journals are endlessly customisable, so don’t hold back on the doodling, colouring and colour-tagging—they’re essential to what makes these journals so much fun to create.
To do: get an app
There are several free apps based on the technique and they let you set a timer for 25 minutes to focus on a task at hand. Once the 25 minutes are up, the alarm rings. You’re allowed to pause the timer in case something comes up.
This app is available for both your computer and your phone, and has a simple interface that lets you type in your to-dos and set reminders for each of them. It syncs across devices so all your tasks are in one place.
Eat That Frog
This one is designed to help you get difficult, high-priority, or just plain unpleasant tasks, i.e. frogs, out of the way. You can set up as many frogs as you like, with the option of adding extra steps to keep you on target, and track your frogs as well.
It provides guided meditation sessions for as long or short a time as you’d like. If you’re having a particularly stressful day, try the five-minute guided meditation programme. Return to your list refreshed.
Never let an idea slip. You can jot down thoughts and tasks, and organise them with tags. You can even clip articles from the web, and make notes on top of images.
Exit your office Whatsapp group, and get on Slack. The app creates a space for your team to communicate, and also supports file sharing. No more pointless meetings, email threads or information slipping through the cracks.