The Step by Step Guide to Increased Productivity

A system for continuous improvement

I used to suck at time management. In college, I turned in my thesis three weeks late. As a teacher I stayed up until 3 AM to perfect lesson plans. One day it got so bad that I fell asleep at the wheel of my car on my twelve minute drive from school to home. This blog post is about how I learned how to go from awful time manager to productivity guru over the course of three years, written in a way that, I hope, helps you, too.

Step 1: Identify the Problem

Use the following sentence to frame your problem: “I need a way to [your need] even when [your challenge] because [your motivation].”

Here are some examples:

  • I need a way to sleep more than seven hours every weeknight even when I feel like I have too much work to do because I’m always more productive after getting enough sleep.
  • I need a way to write for an hour straight even when I want to check my email because I want to write my own book one day.
  • I need a way to make sure I do 100% of what I’ve promised I’d do even when I don’t remember what I’ve promised because I want other people to consider me reliable and trustworthy.

The keys are to be concrete with your need, specific with your challenge, and aspirational with your motivation.

Make your need concrete by asking yourself, “How will I measure that I’ve met my need?” Notice that my examples didn’t say, “I need a way to do what I’ve promised”, it said ,“I need a way to do 100% of what I’ve promised.” My example also didn’t say, “I need a way to write more”, it was “I need a way to write for an hour straight”.

Make your challenge specific by observing your own actions and asking, “What is stopping me from meeting my needs?” I didn’t sleep more than seven hours every weeknight because I thought I had too much work, but maybe for you it’s because you wanted to go out with friends.

Finally, make your motivation aspirational by asking, “Why do I really care about meeting this need?” Deadlines aren’t motivating enough for me, but being able to write my own book one day, is.

Step 2: Generate Potential Solutions

Experiment, observe yourself, and ask others what they do in order to figure out potential solutions to your problem. Your goal is to find a dozen small levers that you can try to change your default behavior so that you side-step your challenge and meet your need. These levers are observable, measurable, and completely within your own control.

Here are types of small levers that may work for you:

  • Track progress and seek external accountability
  • Ask yourself one simple question that keeps you on the right track
  • Figure out the root cause of your challenge and change how you deal with that
  • Eliminate the need for self-control
  • Just start

To give an example, I’ve learned how to write for an hour straight by:

  • Meeting with other writers where it would be embarrassing for me to be caught checking my email instead of writing. I use Meetup to find fellow writers, hackers, and entrepreneurs.
  • Asking myself, “What can I do to get my idea down, without worrying about what it sounds or looks like?”
  • Realizing that I want to check my email when I’m writing because I didn’t want to work through my writer’s block, so instead of checking my email, I just skipped to a new section of my writing and trusted that the writer’s block would work itself out eventually.
  • Turning off all email notifications so that I’m never interrupted and using apps like Freedom to completely block the internet for the times I really want to concentrate. This way I’m not constantly tempted to stop writing.
  • Setting a timer for five minutes and saying to myself, “You just need to write for five minutes.” Usually I find that after I start, the next 55 minutes is a piece of cake. Apps that help you do this include Vitamin-R for Mac and Focus Booster for Windows.

Step 3: Test One Solution at A Time and Review Its Effectiveness

Implement one solution at a time and giving it time to become habit, before deciding whether or not to keep it. This keeps you disciplined, gives you good data on how effective that solution is, and allows you to feel like you’re making incremental progress towards meeting your needs. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying too many solutions at the same time, and give yourself time to fine-tune your solution before deciding whether or not it works.

Step 4: Repeat Steps #1-#4

Find ways to continuously improve. I’m still looking for ways to increase my productivity, because I know that there is always a way to be better. Check out a favorite blog of mine, Zen Habits, for great new productivity hacks to try.

So go ahead and post the problem you’ve identified as your top priority in the comments below and I’ll help generate solutions for the most common problems in future blog posts. Post your success stories as well, so we can all learn from you!