Tuesday, January 02, 2007

A 2006 productivity hot-or-not guide

In the true spirit of procrastination New Year's reflection, I've been thinking back over the various productivity and organisational strategies I experimented with in 2006. Some of them worked really well, some were a complete waste of time (which doesn't mean they won't work for you!) and some of them I never really stuck with long enough to find out. And just for you, my dearly beloved readers, (well, okay, actually mostly for me), I'm going to dredge the depths of my memory and make a little list.

Things that worked just great, thanks for asking:

Steve Pavlina's tricks for becoming an early riser. Thanks to these I got up at 7 am every day for around six months. Then I discovered a much easier solution (see the footnote).

Also from Steve Pavlina's site, the trick of convincing yourself you are only going to try something out for 30 days and then you can go back to your old ways. It's much easier to deprive yourself of a bad habit if you tell yourself it's just an experiment. And at the end of 30 days, it's usually pretty easy to just keep on going. This is how I stopped myself biting my nails. It's how I stopped myself surfing the internet at university (for three months). And it's how I'm currently giving up sugar.

Going cold turkey on bad habits. I have finally faced up to the fact that I have an addictive personality. "One more minute" or "just a little bit" are not phrases I can afford to keep in my vocabulary. The only way I gave up nail-biting was to not do it at all even a little bit (for a month). The only way I have managed to cut down on the number of desserts I eat is to cut out sugar completely. The only way I stopped wasting huge amounts of time surfing the net at university was to pull out the connecting cable, hide it on the top shelf of my bookcase, AND use the Invisibility Cloak and these tricks to make it extra hard to "just check the news".

The Printable CEO. It's great for getting me back on track when I fall face forward into the procrastination puddle and start to drown.

Timing myself work. I currently work in 30 minute blocks and reward myself at the end of each one. For me this really only works with a real flesh-and-blood timer. It's no good just using my watch or the computer clock. I have to see the numbers ticking down towards zero.

Doing whatever is most important (or least likely to get done) first thing in the morning. That way I start off the day feeling productive and don't have the task hanging over my head all day. During the first half of 2006 I used this trick successfully to spend an hour learning Greek or Egyptian vocab every morning. Currently I am using it to get a good chunk of thesis (re)writing out of the way before I start the day.

Things that didn't really work for me:

Getting Things Done. Like I said, I have an addictive personality. When I tried out GTD, I found I could waste entire hours and days on making and revising lists, reading GTD forums, and trying out productivity software.

Joe's Goals. I loved it for a while, and I still think that it's an awesome idea and that the software is very well designed. Unfortunately, on days and weeks when I know I am being unproductive and procrastinatory, I avoid the site entirely, so it ends up only being a record of when things go right.

Writing binges. Admittedly they get stuff written. And I don't know whether I would have made so much progress on the thesis without them or not, but they tend to cause me two major problems. The first is that I get so sick of writing that I follow the binge with a couple of weeks of total avoidance and procrastination. The second is that I start to confuse quantity for quality, and get deluded into thinking I am most of the way to having finished a chapter when really all I have is a whole bunch of crappy free-writing.

I'm still on the fence about:

The unschedule. I've only been using it for a few days, and I like the concept. I also like the way it makes me feel less guilty about days when I get very little done. But I'm not sure that it is really motivating me to be more productive or not. I plan to try it out for a little longer.

Contingency Management
. Every time I have used this, it has worked wonders. But the thing is, I have to be really desperate before I'm willing to delay checking my email or drinking my morning coffee or whatever I've made contingent on getting work done. So I've only used this strategy in last-minute-deadline situations when, to be honest, I probably would have done the work anyway out of sheer desperation. Maybe I need to give this strategy a trial in peacetime too.

What worked (or didn't work) for you in 2006?


Dr. Brazen Hussy said...

Hey, this is a very useful post. Thanks!

Our strategy for getting up every morning at 6am:

1. Get three obnoxious cats who will attempt to eat your face if you don't get up and feed them right away, and
2. Get a dog who will pee on the floor if you don't get up and walk him right away.

On the other hand, now that I am on vacation and away from these annoying pets, I am sleeping 10-12 hours every night. Aaaaaaahhhhh....

Lucy said...

I think I'll be stealing some more suggestions for my Plan, thanks! :)
I've been tempted to try some of Steve Pavlina's suggestions for a while (already in The Plan), but if I read too much of his site I end up irritated with the new-agey crap. Maybe I'll try his getting-up-early method, though, if you recommend it (since I can't use your second method).

Carine said...

When I was writing my PhD, I found a great method of stress-relief by working summers as a field-archaeologist in Italy and pick-axing all thesis-frustration away. After four months of that I was really, really happy to get back to my books and lead the more civilised life of the mind. Lots of advances there: tan, good food, respectable muscles and not a moment to yourself to panic or ponder thesis-related stuff.

Digging holes is good for people, I think.

StyleyGeek said...

Dr BH: 10-12 hours is NOTHING :) I slept for 16 hours the other night and wow. Fun.

Lucy: I do recommend his getting up method, but you don't necessarily have to read the site :) It's very simple and relies on two things. (1) Get up at the exact same time every single day for at least a month. Even weekends. (2) Do a lot of self-talk and 'practice' the night before at first. Tell yourself that there are just NO excuses. That you can't trust yourself to make good decisions while half asleep, so there is no point in arguing with yourself in the morning that you just need another five minutes. And visualise yourself leaping energetically out of bed the second the alarm goes off.

It really does get super easy even after just a week of getting up at the exact same time, since I think your body gets into a rhythm of starting to wake up already about 15 minutes before.

StyleyGeek said...

Carine: thanks for the suggestion :) Not sure it's practical for me right now, though.

Anyone have any holes that need digging?

LaKisha said...

I did well in 2006 by tricking myself. I'd say, "okay, now only fifteen min. of writing." I also rewarded myself with a Gilmore Girls episode. Eventually that back-fired. Now I watch the episode before I work. Bad, very bad. In fact, NOT turning the T.V. on until 4pm should be my new strategy.

I'd also suggest the change positions strategy. Every 20-30 min, change where you do your work. Sometimes I go downtown and move from coffee shop to library to... Or at home I'll move from desk, to table, to bar stool, to floor...

Vinny said...

I can completely relate to the things that didn't work. I tried them all this year, and non of them was for me.

For writing, I plan to try to do it in the AM for 2007. Rise early and write.

Either that, or I may just sleep in a screw it all. WHo knows?

Jim said...

Hey, I'm getting to this post a bit late, but I really liked it. Btw, I did a review of my Top 5 productivity tips of 2006 and it seems like we've tried a lot of the same stuff, though I'm definitely still caught in the GTD tractor beam and can't seem to escape.

I was thinking about including on my list the "start your day with the most important thing" plan, because that has worked really well. I realized that for me, this isn't too different from how I use contingency management, since with both plans I delay looking at my email until I do something of higher priority.

Hope you have a great 2007!

Ignat Drozdov said...

Hi, thank you very much for sharing. I find it that I have an "addictive" personality as well and GTD tricks usually end up in more procrastination for me. In general I am more productive when I'm either working early in the morning (I love getting up at dawn) or with a group of people (that way we all keep each other in check).

Leo Babauta said...

Great post! I too started waking up early in 2006 (4:30 a.m. for me), and I use GTD daily. I've done a bunch more things in 2006; check out my post:

2006 Year in Review - A great year!

What rewards do you give yourself after 30 minutes of work?

Michael Flessas said...

Why not join the Marines and ship out to some exotic place to get that hot cup of motivation in the morning or, failing that, rent a dominatrix to whip it good so you can get going on and get those projects done now, dammit?! :) *-----------*7 (supposed to be whip; OK, maybe not :(

Anonymous said...

I thank I will try it since I like
to use the computer,will,it helps
me gain time:)(or maybe not:()

Matthew said...

I thank I will try it since I use
the computer,well,it helps me gain
time:)or maybe not:(