How I stay productive

I would consider myself a productive person.

(I’m not the most productive person I know – that would be my friend P, who is truly disciplined and puts me to shame.)

But I get a lot of things done: I work a full-time job, consult for around ten-to-fifteen hours a week, launch a bunch of side projects, go to the gym three times a week, and find time to read a lot and watch a bunch of movies.

I do all of these things while working from home, too, which means I’m responsible for my own schedule.

I don’t really subscribe to a specific system of task management. I know people who do GTD and Bullet Journals and all sorts of things – if those work for you, then great, but none of them work for me.

Over time, I’ve come up with a set of heuristics that make my work simpler and calmer. I think they will make yours easier (and obviously more productive) too.

(And, a caveat before starting: none of these are magic bullets, nor are they instantaneous elixirs. Productivity is hard. No essay will magically transform you into a productive person, let alone one of mine: it’s a skill that you get better at, not a switch you flip.)

Immediate Capture

TLDR: write things down ASAP so you don’t have to think about them.

Immediate capture is a term that I think I pilfered from GTD, who has their own spin on it. It’s an unnecessarily fancy term for a very simple idea:

Forcing your brain to remember stuff is dumb and hard. If you have a thought that you need to hold onto – whether it’s an idea for a project or a message you have to send or a book you want to read – write it down so you can 1) revisit it later and 2) stop thinking about it.

I use a small notepad for really short-term stuff (like something I know I’m going to do by the end of the day) and Todoist for bigger stuff. I also use Captio and Floradora, two helpful iOS and macOS apps that make it easy to send yourself notes. (Full disclosure: I made Floradora.)

Minimize Distractions

TLDR: treat focus as sacred, and remove anything that interrupts your focus.

This is not unique or even uncommon advice, but it’s important enough that I don’t mind being repeating the same advice given by most productivity articles: remove all distractions.

Distractions come in various shapes and sizes. For me – someone who works from home and is way too connected to Online Things – distractions tend to come in the form of push notifications, digital little taps on the shoulder that break my flow.

In the morning, I go through and read all my email and texts and Slack scroll back. Once I’m done, I do the following:

  1. Quit iMessages.
  2. Quit Nylas, my email client.
  3. Turn my phone on Do Not Disturb.

(Slack stays open, because it’s my work chatroom – but it only sends push notifications for my work Slack, and only if someone @s me specifically.)

At around lunch time and at the end of the day I’ll re-open everything and see what I missed. Most of the stuff tends to be trivial and non-time sensitive.

If you think this is an extreme measure, spend a day tallying up 1) the number of times you stop what you’re doing to respond or consume a text/email/message and 2) the number of times that text/email/message was actually important enough to be worth the distraction. I assure you the former number will be much larger than you anticipated and the latter will be much smaller.

Divide and Conquer

TLDR: break things down to the smallest chunks possible before starting things.

If you’ve spent time in the business school world, you probably know about SMART goals: goals that are specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, and time-related.

I try to use this as guiding principles when I’m breaking down tasks. The worst thing I can do for myself is write a todo item that’s like, “figure out TypeScript migration” or “set up lifecycle emails”, because I come to that item and I have to ask myself all sorts of questions:

Those questions are evil.

The real key piece of this – and I think it manifests itself in different ways to different people – is that the act of planning out what needs to be done, and how it needs to be done is much different than doing that thing. They use different parts of the brain – or at the very least, they use different parts of my brain. So the trick is to recognize that and handle them completely separately from one another – take time out to break down things into meaningful but discrete chunks, then do them without having to think too much about the broader context.

Know Your Next Move

TLDR: plan out exactly what you want to do so you don’t waste time/energy thinking about it.

The first thing I do when I start the day (after chugging coffee, of course) is write down a to-do list. My todo lists aren’t particularly remarkable, but they have a couple characteristics:

That’s it! I have a list of things, it stays next to me throughout the day. I add more stuff to it when I think of things (again, immediate capture). I am not zealous about what kinds of things belong on the list or tracking when things get completed: finished items get a nice satisfying check mark, and that’s pretty much it.

This admittedly simple system is huge for me, and probably the habit that’s improved my productivity the most.

Why? Because I never have to think about what I’m doing next. Before, my workflow worked something like:

  1. Finish a task.
  2. Search around for something to do next: look in Todoist or on GitHub or in my email.
  3. Inevitably spend ten minutes dorking around on the internet.
  4. Find another task.
  5. Do that task.

Now it’s:

  1. Finish a task.
  2. Pick up a random thing on my todo list which is right next to me.
  3. Do that task.

The former process takes anywhere from one to twenty minutes, depending on my level of energy and scatterbrain; the latter process takes ten seconds.

This also means that whenever I’m blocked on something: waiting for a pull request to be reviewed or an email to be responded to, I don’t have to twiddle my thumbs (or open Twitter, the digital equivalent of twiddling my thumbs) – I can just grab another task from the list.

That’s all of them. You might notice two common themes:

(Which, you could argue, are two sides of the same coin.)

I’m at my most productive when I’m not thinking about what I have to do later or what I could do later or what I could be doing now instead. I’m at my most productive when I’m just doing the thing that I need to do right now.

One point that I haven’t touched on, but is worth mentioning – if you follow these guidelines, work is intense. I’m lucky if I can spend eight hours a day being ‘plugged in’ like this, careening from deliverable to deliverable.

And that’s okay! Productivity is a measure of energy, not time; I like to be super productive during normal hours so I can spend my evenings lifting and reading and cooking and taking baths. Productivity isn’t an end goal in of itself (and if you spend every waking hour trying to be as productive as possible, you’re gonna burn yourself out) – it’s a way of leveraging the time you have to spend it the way you want.

(Also, stay off Reddit.)

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Justin Duke is a writer and developer in Seattle.
He likes good, practical things.
(And writing in the third person, I guess.)