Are you being productive?
Many of us desire control over how we spend our time. What output would produce this outcome? You could quit your job and live off benefits. You could work hard, become a contractor, and pick and choose when you work. Or you could start your own business, with a relatively self-sustaining income stream independent of how much time you put in.
Knowing where you’re going and how you plan on getting there is important. But how can you gauge your progress and make sure you’re on track?
A few years back some business consultants took my colleagues and I through a simple task that helped me to reshape how I see my time and money.
They told us to think about any task we do from the lens of input, output and outcome.
Input: What are you spending your time on?
Almost 2 years ago Mike and I set ourselves a new challenge: to launch six projects in six months. This challenge had a primary input of time, an output of projects, and an outcome of getting better at shipping stuff, which is a key skill we needed to master if we were ever going to start our own startup.
One of the decisions we made when we started was to track our time on every task. We did this primarily out of curiosity, we were intrigued to see how long each project would take, and which parts would take the longest.
It was also a bit of a gimmick. We decided to share as much as possible during this time, blogging regularly and being transparent with our stats from every launch. That included time spent per project.
There were two noticeable effects of tracking our time almost religiously for that six month period. Firstly, we had the obvious benefit of having reports showing where our time was spent. This was an expected output. We also realised that the simple act of tracking our time helped keep us on track and productive during those times.
Time To Focus
When the clock was ticking, we were conscious that being distracted by Twitter or email would blur the statistics, making them less useful in the long run. This forced us to stay on track when the clock was on. Just as much, this gamified our time a little, leading us to want to spend more and more time on the things that were important to us, shipping side projects. We used Toggl to track our time, but there are other tools that can help give insight to where we spend our time, RescueTime being another popular one.
I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique on and off for the last few months, and it has a similar effect. It designates time to focus, 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. In the 25 minutes of focus time, all distractions and thoughts that come to mind that are irrelevant to the task at hand are either quickly noted or ignored until later.
In a sense, the Pomodoro technique is a systemised way of procrastinating your procrastination. It leads you to think “ok I can do that in my 5 minutes off, its only 16 minutes away afterall”.
Similar to time tracking, seeing the count of Pomodoro’s achieved each day gamifies this, I aim to achieve 10 Pomodoro’s on the days I employ this method. That’s only 4 hours 10 minutes of actual work time, but is about the peak of output I can manage in any given day.
Often, the issue isn’t that we need to spend more time on important tasks, we just need to spend more focused time.
I’m listening to a book on this right now, Deep Work, which talks about the importance of focus, and techniques for achieving this deep state.
It comes to a conclusion I’ve heard quite a lot recently: we all have a finite limit to how much concentration we can spend, and it’s a lot less than we think it is. We don’t need to work longer hours, we need to work productively until we reach our limit, then take time off and refresh ourselves. If we’re productive and focussed then finishing work at 5 is late enough, too late by some standards.
Deep Work mentions Charles Darwin’s routine. He used to wake up at 7, take a short walk, work from 8 until 12:15pm, which he considered the end of his working day. His afternoon would be spent on menial tasks.
This flies directly in the face of the startup hustle culture we hear about so often: working through the night, sleeping less, or staying in the office until late.
Steve Blank shared a story about this recently, about a CEO who was proud at how long his employees stayed in the office.
This glorification of the ‘hustle’ has had its time. It’s outdated. It’s not productive. You might force more through the funnel, but it will be of a lesser, diluted quality. You’d produce a better output (and therefore outcome) by spending around 4 hours of productive, focused time in Deep Work each day.
Sure, you need to do the work, and it can be scrappy at the start, but working long hours only says one thing: you don’t know how to prioritise and focus on the tasks that matter. You’re inefficient.
If you disagree with this statement and feel like you do need to work those long hours, I’d challenge you to track how much of your time is spent in true, deep, productive work, and how much is actually fluff that can be cut.
What’s Your Output?
Measuring how much we output is a step in the right direction. Instead of simply tracking hours invested and wanting to invest more and more time, we can track what we’re achieving with that time.
Since finishing SixBySix, we slowly stopped time tracking. We primarily tracked for the stats to share for each of the projects we made. It also came with a cost, of continually clocking on each time we did some work.
These days we track two key metrics.
The first is the most important: did we achieve our one key goal this week?
Mike and I have both recently joined a mastermind. A mastermind is simply a group of likeminded business people who get together each week and update each other on how the past week has gone for their business. Did we achieved our goal(s), what our goal(s) are for this week, and chat through any issues we may be having.
Joining a mastermind a few months back was one of the best decisions I made this year. The accountability it brings to have to boil down all the ideas spinning around in my head to one key task to focus on each week is super important. Each week knowing I have to report back on whether I achieved this goal, and if not, why not, helps me stay on track. It forces me to prioritise output over input, value over movement.
The second metric we track is less important than our one key goal, but gives a nice overview of our week’s achievements. It’s simply a list of all the tasks we did that week.
Our setup is simple: we have a Backburner where we capture the thoughts that occur to us in the shower, This Week for tasks we aim to complete this week, In Progress, and a weekly Done column.
Each week we archive the tasks we achieved that week and create a fresh Done column, giving us an ever evolving history to look back on, should we ever want to.
These two metrics combined help us to remain focused on our output.
This setup works for us but you can track output however you like. If your goal is to learn, you could track number of books read, or number of discussions you’ve had with people of opposing views. If your goal is to help others, then you could set yourself a goal of helping someone every day, and have that as your key output.
Your key metric(s) can be whatever you’d like, just make sure it’s not the number of cat videos watched per week. Cats are great ’n’ all, but probably not the key metric to help gauge whether you’re on track.
Where Is Your Life Going?
Where do you want to be in 6 months time? In 5 years time? What are you working towards?
Is it to be physically fit? To raise a loving family? To get a promotion at work?
For us, we want to start our own startup. Everything we do is centered on that. This desired outcome drives the outputs we look to achieve (shipping side projects, building a following etc.), which in turn drives the inputs we put into the machine (reading and writing, coding, designing, developing products, meeting other founders).
As I mentioned in the intro, there are many ways to achieve every goal we have.
For each of these examples, the inputs will be different. Starting a self-sustaining business is vastly different to contracting, and it goes without saying quitting your day job looks very different still.
Here’s where we often get this mixed up. We place too much focus on the input, little on the output, and nowhere near enough on the outcome. Rarely do we stop and weigh up whether what we’re doing is helping achieve the outcomes we desire.
Simon Sinek puts this well, in his talk (and book), Start With Why. In this talk, Simon shares how most of businesses are what focussed, selling customers on the specifics of what they do. The best companies, however, talk about why they’re doing it. Customers of Apple buy into the philosophy that Apple cares about everything they do.
Similarly for us, we need to frame every what around our key why’s. Every action we take should be initiated by the core why’s of our life.
Once we come to this place, the next step is really nailing, what are my why’s? What do I want from life? It’s here that a very simple exercise, The 5 Why’s, can help.
The 5 Why’s, simply asks “why?” five times.
For us, we can ask, why do we want this outcome? Is the outcome really what we want, is there a higher motivation above this all?
For our example of desiring more control over how we spend our time, why is this? Is it because we hate our day job? Is it because we have desires to use our time in ways we can’t right now? To travel? If so, there may well be ways to achieve these higher outcomes without having full control over our time. We could take a sabbatical, saving frugally for years at a time, then spending six months travelling the world.
The important point here isn’t the specifics of the example, but that knowing what we really want is vital if we’re ever going to get it. If we’re truly honest with our desires and goals, we can start tweaking the machine to produce the life we desire.
I read a quote a couple years back from Nathan Bashaw that’s continually stuck with me in the back of my mind since.
It doesn’t matter where you’re at right now. You can’t affect where you stand, or the circumstances around you. What matters is whether you’re making progress towards where you want to be.
So take stock of your inputs, where you’re spending your time, but don’t glamourise how long you spend at the office, or even what you’re creating. Focus on the impact your work is having, on others, on yourself, and whether it’s moving you close to where you really want to be. That’s what really matters.