Thoughts on productivity

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I’ve been thinking about productivity a lot in the past year.

I’ve had to.

Life is busier now than it’s ever been.

My wife and I have a young family (two sons under the age of three) so we have our hands full at home. We both work full time and have ambitious career goals.

Balancing these two worlds has undoubtedly been the most challenging puzzle of my life thus far.

In an earlier stage of my career, when time seemed to be an almost unlimited commodity compared to today, I could work until 9, 10 or 11pm (or later) no problem. Work at the weekend if necessary.

Now, with a young family I don’t have that option (and nor do I want to be working at the weekend), so I have to look more critically at how I use my time.

I’m continually trying to be more productive.

Imagine this scenario, and ask yourself if you relate:

You’re midway through a project. Out the corner of your eye, you notice a flicker in your email tab.

It’s changed from Inbox to Inbox(1), causing you to lose your train of thought.

Now you can’t help but hop over to your email. Maybe it’s from your boss, or it’s a course sale email, or a potential new client, you’re thinking.

More likely it’s something mundane like a newsletter, from a Javascript or data science website. You open it, skim through it, perhaps opening a few articles in new tabs. Probably one about AI, or a new Javascript framework. Interesting no doubt. Might, just might, be of use to your work you convince myself.

Since you’ve lost focus, you find yourself checking your web stats (another 50 views in the last hour, woohoo! But seriously, who cares?) and browsing your social feeds.

After a few minutes you’ve checked all your emails and notifications. You have a few to reply to but you’ll come back to them later.

Back to that project then, after 5 mins or so. Dang! What was the point you were making…

I’ve been there.

It would take me a few minutes to get my mind up and running again, back to the deeper work. Back to the creative work that is the backbone of my content business.

Add it up over a week and it’s a significant chunk of “lost” time, of (very) shallow work.

With 30 – 40 hours available for work, I have to make every hour count.

What about sleeping less?

That’s what these entrepreneurial success stories would have you believe. You know the ones “I put in 100+ hours a week, haven’t take a vacation in 3 years, missed my kid’s birthdays etc.”

Well, bully for you!

I love my work, I really do, but my family will always be first.

And if you go down this route, it’s a sure-fire route to burnout and eventual failure.

Say I did put in 80 hours of work a week, getting by on 4 – 5 hours of sleep each night. (I used to do that when I worked at a law firm. I have friends who still do it now.)

In my situation now, it might work for a few days maximum. But then the cumulative fatigue would completely crush me, my creativity and probably make me ill (I’ve been there).

I’d struggle to write, to solve problems. I’d be lackluster and unmotivated.

The revelation

Firstly, I need to be healthy for my family, so I can be the best husband and dad for my two young boys.

Secondly, I need to be healthy for my work too.

Less, but better

Greg McKeown, in his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, advocates doing less, but better, so you can make the highest possible contribution.

I’ve shifted my focus to maximizing my contribution during the hours I do have, the 9 – 5pm, and focusing on quality family/friends/life time outside of that.

That means creating an efficient structure for my days and weeks, and saying no to things so I can focus on the stuff that matters.

I’m a big fan of Wes Bos, a super talented and successful online Javascript teacher. I listened to his “Origin story” podcast recently and he talked about how he structures his day. He opens his email once a day, at 11am, and deals with them all in one hit.

Bam!

This was a revelation to me. This is exactly what I needed to be doing.

So now I do all my email, social, web comments and general admin at 12.30pm, answering or archiving as much as I can, and closing it all down at 2pm, until the next day.

I realized that all of these notifications, these little (1)s, (2)s and (3)s popping up in my browser tabs were a big part of the problem. I have my fair share of OCD and couldn’t ignore these (1)s, (2)s and (3)s. They needed tidying up and dealing with. The solution was to simply not have these tabs open.

Tips to be more productive

I use a tool called Cold Turkey to block social sites and my favourite sports and news sites between 9am and 12.30pm, and then again from 2pm until 6pm.

The effects have been dramatic. I focus deeply for a full 3 hours. I know my email time is limited to an hour or so, so I’m motivated to get through it all. I try not to sit on emails anymore. Once I’ve opened an email, I either answer it or archive it.

Then for the whole afternoon, I’m focussed again. I’m doing deep work, like writing in-depth blog posts, improving the onboarding process for new leads or creating my next course.

Turning off email, social and web stats has been a tremendous boon to my focus and creativity.

I didn’t stop there though.

I deleted all social media apps off my phone (except for Instagram, which is for fun, where I follow cycling, running and climbing accounts. I have notifications turned off of course.).

Now, I’m always in the moment with my kids and not ruining my sleep by checking in just before bed.

Perhaps we should all follow the example of Neal Stephenson, one of my favorite authors, from time-to-time:

“Persons who wish to interfere with my concentration are politely requested not to do so, and warned that I do not answer email…”


I’m doing less, but what I am doing, I’m doing better.


I’m currently working on a new course called Data Analysis with Google Sheets, and it’ll teach you how to think critically about your data and use it strategically to answer questions.

8 thoughts on “Thoughts on productivity”

  1. Excellent post. I’m about halfway through the audio book of Deep Work by Brian Mace, at my wife’s suggestion, and have been intrigued. I was thinking of which approach to adopt.

    I love the idea of time-boxing email, social media, etc. , and will give your method a try. I’ll have to look into Cold Turkey, also as I’m definitely prone to distraction.

    1. Thanks Derek! Yes! Deep Work has been on my shelf for ages. I need to read that next.

      Batching my activities has worked really well for me, although old habits die hard 😉

  2. Ben,

    This speaks to me! As of 4 weeks ago, I have one email check at 5pm.

    Surprisingly, it takes a lot of self constraint not to check email all the time, it’s almost a nervous tic in today’s world. Removing notifications and burying my email app inside my “Social” tab helped a lot, as it reminds me that it is more to distract myself than to be productive.

    1. Hey Wyatt,

      Nice! And, yes, I totally agree! It’s all about breaking a habit. Hard at first, but gets much easier once you get through the first few days/weeks.

      Cheers,
      Ben

  3. Can totally relate Ben! Only difference is a have 2+1 boys. =).

    Read Deep Work (but the one from Cal Newport, great blog too), apart from the points mentioned above, he’s not a real believer of the fancy digital detox we come to know of, instead we should train ourselves to not use it, when really want to and create time slots for it. Then you train that ‘muscle’.

    Good luck! Now off to some If/And/Or formula…

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