Systems: The Paradox of Routine and Productivity

How to establish productivity WITHOUT being a drone.

The bright light that manages to find a way through my window shades illuminates the room. I’m not sure what time it is. All I know is that I need to change something about my ‘routine’, if you can call my day that. I’ve said this before, but this time I will do something different.
Before getting to my work today I need to check my e-mail, finish those articles I was reading last night, and then get ready. Once I finish these things I’ll complete the tasks on the seemingly never ending to-do list.
Finally finished with my e-mail and those articles from last night. Is it lunch time already? Can’t work with an empty stomach. What do I want to eat? Where do I want to eat? Alright. Now that I’ve eaten I’ll do some real work.
At this point it’s so late that I won’t get very much work done, and if I do I won’t have time to do anything I want. Ahh well, I’ll start the day right tomorrow. The work can wait. Off to vegetate infront of a screen for a few hours. [aka watch T.V.]

If you start out lacking a solid sense of direction then you’ve already lost the day. I once strongly disliked the idea of my day being scheduled on a routine. My thinking was: if I adapted such a structure my life would ultimately become the same uninteresting cycle... day after day. That I would be trapped inside this daily cycle I created by adopting a routine. Giving up the freedom I thought a routine would take from me was the last thing I wanted.

In my mind these drone-like routines were arbitrary. If possible, I wanted to go without one. My thinking was if I didn’t absolutely need to, why would I sign myself up for a routine that would end up putting my day in a prison? The fact of the matter is surprisingly, the opposite.

If you find yourself working too late and lack time to do other things, then you’re doing something wrong.

Having a ‘routine’ can paradoxically lead to freedom, rather than constrain it.

Defining the ‘routine’: it’s not as boring as you think.

I don’t like the word “routine”. It makes me think of a boring schedule you reluctantly adhere to only because you absolutely have to. That common idea of a routine always brings this GIF to mind, the scene in Fight Club with the insomniac office worker.

Boring drone like routine. Eww.

I like to think of a ‘routine’ as more of a system that fosters productivity. The idea is to free up your time by having a clear objective for the day, maximizing efficiency by having productivity systems in place — which allow more time for personal things such as family and a sane amount of sleep.

The common definition of a “system” is as follows: a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done. I like to think of it as a series of heuristics to follow throughout the day. These can be as simple as going to sleep between midnight and 2am, and waking up between 8 and 10am. A sleeping system you create to assure you always have an optimal amount of sleep. It is important to remember these aren’t absolute. Routine does not have to mean a boring and ultimately lifeless day — unless you make it that way.

For example, having lunch planned before setting out to complete a day’s work removes the interruption of decisions regarding lunch planning, such as:

What do I want to eat?

followed by: Where do I want to eat?

If you don’t create a daily system that avoids interruptions and anti-productive consequences then you will continue to waste time on decisions like the lunch example above; causing a lack in productivity.

The key is a daily system structured enough you’re free from trivial worry and decision making. This allows you to work within the structure of your routine without being so constrained that you feel like a drone.

The goal is simple: have loose (not constraining i.e. tight) systems in place that save you time that could be better spent A) being productive and B) personal things, such as family. By having these loose systems in place, like the lunch example above, you allow your time to flourish with productivity by avoiding interruptions where time would have otherwise been spent deciding things such as where to eat.

If your daily system is too rigorous and structured, then your day ends up being defined by the very system you set in place to free it. Productivity is not about scheduling or completing the most things, it’s about doing the things that matter in the most efficient way possible.

Creating the Ideal Routine

I haven’t encountered a one-size fits all routine. Some people identify themselves as ‘night owls’ (myself included) and others as ‘morning people’. Both of these groups tend to have different routines mainly due to working and sleeping habits.

Ask yourself, “When am I completing the vast majority of my work?” If you find it’s at night and you’re attempting an early-to-rise early-to-sleep routine you may not do very well. Be honest with yourself — it is far more lucrative to leverage existing strengths rather than attempting to improve weaknesses.

In terms of creative work, you don’t need to have this early-to-rise early-to-sleep routine because someone else does. This may be due to them doing their best work in the morning — where you would do your best work at night.

‘Daily systems’ create structure you can function within that eliminates unproductive work and distractions — freeing you from interruption during your peak working times. With this structure set in place you don’t have to worry about the trivial, such as what do I want to eat, because it’s already in place.

Rescuing Time and Productivity

It’s interesting that some of the most productive and ‘busy’ people leave the office early. This is because they leverage techniques to do more in less time — performing at the peak of their productivity. Here is an example.

Defining Productivity

Being efficient at something doesn’t necessarily make it valuable or productive. Being efficient at the right things — the valuable things, this is the sweet spot.

Someone who is great at something but doesn’t produce value (some type of good return) is not productive. It doesn’t matter if they are incredibly efficient at this non-valuable task.

For example, someone who can get through a good portion of their e-mail inbox in a less than average amount of time may think they are being productive simply because they completed something. They feel they got something done. In reality, what did they actually accomplish with those e-mails? Yes, maybe they cleared their black-hole of an inbox but what value did that produce? This is the importance of setting clearly productive goals.

The Never Ending to-do list

When you don’t prioritize your tasks everything seems crucial and important — such as clearing out your e-mail inbox in the example above. The answer isn’t working harder by throwing more time at the matter — it’s prioritizing the crucial tasks for the day.

The most productive people seem to always have 1 to 3 key prioritized tasks to complete before the day even starts. As previously mentioned, If you start out lacking a solid sense of direction then you’ve already lost the day. Don’t create a to-do list that becomes so overwhelming you don’t end up completing it.

On the other hand, if you don’t have a to-do list or a goal you are trying to complete, how will you know when you achieve it? When you lack a clear sense of direction for the day you revert to seemingly ‘productive’ tasks, such as the e-mail example previously mentioned. A couple of prioritized to-do’s for the day set a clear sense of direction.

Parkinsons Law: How to complete tasks in optimal time

Simply put, the idea is work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. This means that if you give yourself two weeks to complete a four hour task then the task will psychologically become more complex and daunting so as to fill those two weeks. The time may not be filled with extra work per se, rather the stress and tension about having to get it done will increase.

Assign an optimal amount of time to complete a task in order to avoid this increase in complexity. This isn’t some kind of blackhat magic you use to get things done in no time at all. This happens because many people give themselves ‘extra time’ or ‘leg room’ to complete a task — when in reality they only needed a couple of hours to just do it. [More]

This is why some people self identify as working better with deadlines, or at the ‘last minute’. For example, in the past I have written an essay only to find out that I needed to completely rewrite it the day before it was due. With this in mind I quickly got to work, pushing the unimportant and time consuming things that I (thought) ‘needed’ to do aside in order to just write it.

Keep this in mind when planning your tasks. Ask yourself if you really need the amount of time you’re allowing, or are you just putting it off?

Being Wired in: Working in highly focused bursts

You can only focus for a certain amount of time before your productivity diminishes. You could certainly attempt to work harder and throw more time at the task, or you can work smarter and harder — completing the task at the peak of productivity with focused (read: hard) work in manageable bursts.

Notice in this image how results peak at a specific point, and then diminishes as time continues.

Results peak with an optimum amount of time. Productivity is not time spent — it’s results achieved. Time doesn’t increase value.

Enter the Pomodoro Technique

The idea is to complete work in manageable, short, extremely focused bursts. The basic requirement is to set a timer for 25 minutes. This 25 minutes is extremely focused work. When the timer goes off you can do a recap and then take a break. You determine how many 25 minute increments you need to complete a task, set the timers, and then complete each task one at a time.

I often see people doing a variation of this technique with different times. The most common I hear is 50 minutes of work and a 10 minute break. Unless I am doing creative work such as writing, I use a variation of the Pomodoro. The reason I don’t use the Pomodoro when writing is I find it much easier to continue once I’m ‘in the flow’ or ‘in the zone’ so to speak.

My variation of the Pomodoro Technique looks like this: 25 minutes of extremely focused work, >5 minute break where I stand up. Every three 25 minute bursts I do some sort of light physical activity. If something is distracting, kill it.

Routines can be created to paradoxically foster productivity rather than constrain it. The key is to be productive within this routine in the least amount of time possible. Work smart and hard — on work that matters.

— — —

P.S. If you found value in this article and would enjoy more posts like it please hit the ‘recommend’ button below. (So more people see the post.)