In this blog post I want to share with you some of my best reflections about how to be productive with many serious, projects at the same time.
Maker schedule vs Manager schedule
Paul Graham differentiates in his article between two schedules:
In manager schedule - you change what you're doing every hour - meetings, calls, urgent events. It's about managing resources and reacting to changes.
On the other hand in maker schedule you work in bigger chunks of time - such us a block of five hours - to focus on complex things, research, implement and create. It's often accompanied with a state of flow.
GTD and todo lists
If you're interested in productivity - you've probably heard already about GTD philosophy - write down, manage, set priorities, execute tasks from the lists you produced (it's actually much more complex system).
However not everything reduces to clear and easy to accomplish next actions. Sometimes there is also a [deep work] to do.
And to do something really meaningful we don't need a better list of next actions, but we need to train our ability to focus on meaningful things for long periods of time. GTD works for the schedule of manager, but for makers (researchers, artists) it really doesn't make sense.
There are also TODO lists, which are very helpful when your life is in a complete chaos and you want to write things down to get it out of your head and see what's really there to prioritize. However maintaining TODO lists for long periods of time can be bad for you - mostly because tasks tend to accumulate and long lists can fill your free time with lots of triva, not mentioning making you feel overwhelmed or guilty that you have so many tasks to do.
Another problem with small tasks I see is that they demand frequesnt context switching. If I have 4 big projects and I chunk the time for them to 30 minutes blocks - it turns out awful - I don't get things done - even though I spend this time, also - I don't enter flow state which I'll describe later in the article.
My another big problem is that I cannot stop thinking about next things after the chunk and I start micromanaging myself - which turns out to be stressful.
Flow is a very productive and focused state of mind, person experiencing flow can be totally immersed in the task. You can read more about it's definition here.
In short the biggest benefit of flow is that you can get a lot done and get lots of satisfaction from it, because flow just is an immensely rewarding and fulfilling experience.
However to get into the state of flow you need:
- challenging task with clear goal
- enough uninterrupted time to gain focus
- freedom of distractions
- enough skill, so that the task won't be impossible for you
Flow is one of the most important reasons why I love programming - I often catch myself totally immersed into programming task.
For long time I didn't know a lot of people working in this way. When I first met some 'makers' they looked totally disorganized, yet they turned out to be surprisingly productive. It changed the way I approach productivity now.
I'm currently pursuing more projects that I think it's sane to pursue in the same time. They are:
- working almost full time as software engineer in a really exciting startup
- finishing my degree in applied physics - I attend some classes, have some projects to do and tests
- writing a bachelor's thesis (complex systems, statistical nonequilibrium physics, math - hypergraphs)
- writing a technical book for Packt Publishing - writing on this blog
- constantly improving my skills as software engineer - learning tools and frameworks, learning fundamentals, security, devops, operating systems and more
- building things in local hackerspace - lately quadcopters
- some minor personal projects
I would also want to contribute more to open source, read more books and exercise more - however the last one isn't so bad actually, because I manage to work out at least once a week.
However - it's easy to spot problems with this list - it's too long. Apart from university and work eating up at least 10 hours a day of my time, I have approximately 6 or maybe even 4 hours (social life, relaxing?) I could do some work. As I mentioned previously half an hour blocks don't work for me.
How to gain focus then?
My biggest distraction is most of the time is browsing the internet.
Turn off the internet connection in your computer. Print what you want to read. Work in a room without your computer, use paper!
Or if you have to work with computer, turn off all the unnecessary tabs and communicators, to leave only what you need to do your work.
Yes, it might be a bit strange to say this - because meeting new people and spending time with friends is usually considered a good thing in life. But when your time is sparse you have to make space for quiet time just for yourself to push things forward.
Choose one thing or max two
Having 6 ongoing projects doesn't mean that you have to do progress everyday in all of them.
Instead of doing really small chunks of easy work in all of them, choose one project and make a big progress in it.
Store possible tasks and remove them
There are lot's of cool articles in the internet - both technical (potentially useful) and sociopolitical - which may grab your attention. Reading an article can take approximately 10 minuters, it's not really so much right? However it usually doesn't stop on one, but more likely on 10 articles in the row - just before you wanted to do something, or just when you took a small break. And 100 minutes is can make a real difference I you spend it on meaningful projects.
How to resist the urge of reading the article now - in this particular moment? My answer is - save it for later.
I discovered a Pocket. It's a simple app for saving what you want to read later and synchronizing it across all of your devices so you can read it offline on your phone or using different computer.
It also has one killer feature - it's possible to remove items from the list - and your list should be short.
Books over articles
Although articles are nice to get started in some areas, it's often much better to read a proper book on a subject. Reading a technical book 100 minutes per day will greatly improve your skills and knowledge in contrast to articles on the web.
What books are you reading right now? Do you feel that you can't get through them or there are just to many books you want to read?
Or maybe you aren't reading anything from your field right now? Why?
Track how much time you spend on your projects
It might turn out that you're not productive in some of your pursuits, because you don't spend enough time on it.
The best way I found so far to motivate myself to spend time on something and accurately track it in the same time is beeminder. In beeminder you set your goals - like doing more of something, and you declare your commitment weekly. If you don't meet your goals, you pay money to beeminder and amount of money at stake increases.
It also gives you insights how big is typical daily chunk you invest into doing something. I love it.
There is no silver bullet - however focusing and prioritizing helps a lot. I hope that my tips and tool would be useful for you. Thanks for reading and get back to work ;).