5 Important Lessons I Learned About Productivity This Year

Photo by @rvignes on Unsplash

Ever since I was a kid, I loved the idea of working from home as a writer. I always thought that would be the dream job because I could do work that feels fulfilling while still hanging out in my pajamas.

And in 2016, I finally made that dream happen. And like all things in life, it was not as magical or as easy as I expected it would be.

For one thing, I learned it’s incredibly hard to hold yourself accountable when you’re working from home. How do you stay on track when you don’t have a boss demanding that you finish something?

5 Important Lessons About Productivity

I’ve never been someone who is particularly organized or good at planning. Honestly, my default is just to wing it. (Spoiler alert: not a very effective way to get anything done.)

And suddenly, I found myself with numerous clients and due dates. My old way of doing things did not work anymore and I needed to find a new solution.

I spent pretty much all of 2017 trying to learn everything I could about productivity and I did end up learning a lot. And honestly, most of these lessons really took me by surprise.

Here are those five lessons I learned about productivity this year:

  1. Be honest with yourself

Productivity is about so much more than just checking off items on a to-do list. It’s really about developing the ability to understand and — most importantly — be honest with yourself.

I would argue that chronic procrastination is really just chronic dishonesty.

For instance, how many times have you caught yourself saying, “Well, I would really love to do (fill in the blank) but I just don’t have the time right now.” We’ve all said some version of that phrase at some point, right?

The problem with saying things like that is that they’re dishonest. Of course, you have the time to do that thing, you’re just avoiding it for some reason.

I know a big problem for me was that for a long time, I would continually set goals that I didn’t really want to achieve. I would set goals that I thought would be impressive to other people but that I didn’t personally care about all that much.

This was something I struggled with for years in regards to running. In my late teens and early twenties, I ran a couple marathons and more half-marathons than I can count. I was really proud of this and being a long distance runner was part of my identity.

So after I had kids, I assumed I would immediately pick this habit back up but I never really did. Yet it never failed, every New Year’s I would set a resolution to run a half marathon at some point in the coming year.

And yet it never happened. And I would feel very guilty and tell myself I was being lazy and that I just needed more motivation.

The truth is, I wasn’t lazy at all, running 13 miles just wasn’t that important to me. And the more time I spent trying to convince myself that I should, the less time I had to discover what I actually did want to be doing.

So my advice is if you have something that you have been chronically procrastinating on, ask yourself why. You don’t have to like the answer but you do need to be honest with yourself.

2. Eliminate the non-essentials

One of the things I have learned about accomplishing a goal is that I have to eliminate all non-essentials. And by that I mean, I don’t do anything that doesn’t need to be done in order for me to accomplish my goal.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

For a long time, I would fall into the same pattern every time I would write a blog post. I would spend hours writing the perfect blog post. Sounds good, right?

And then when I was done, I would spend another thirty minutes creating a customized cover photo in Canva. Only then, I would decide that my cover photo isn’t as nice as someone else’s cover photo so I would go in to tweak just ONE thing…

And two hours later, my blog post STILL isn’t published. See where I’m going with this?

It’s easy for me to look at other bloggers, see how nice their graphics look, and to want to mimic them. But I’m a writer and nice graphics are not essential — they would just be nice to have.

So in 2018, one of my goals is to publish 156 blog posts on Medium, or three a week. So the essentials in this scenario (in my opinion) would be a finished blog post, a solid headline, and a cover photo.

So now I give myself an hour, write the blog post, pick a title, then I quickly chose a free, good enough photo on Unsplash. And I actually meet my goal for the day instead of wasting my entire afternoon fiddling with non-essentials.

3. Recognize when you are reaching the point of diminishing returns

When I was in my early twenties, I worked at a running store and I worked with some serious runners.

And when I say serious runners, I mean people who tried out for the Olympic marathon timed trials and actually qualified. We’re talking guys who could run a full marathon in less time than it took me to run half that distance.

I remember working with one such individual one day and he told me that he ran 100 miles a week. I was flabbergasted.

100 miles in a week? I ran 30 miles in a good week!

Now, I don’t know the specifics of his training schedule or anything like that. I simply share this story to explain that somewhere along the way, I developed the belief that doing more was always better.

If you run for 30 minutes, great!

So if you run for two hours then that’s, like, four times as great, right?

I tried to apply this strategy to my work as well. I would sit at my desk and try to write for six or seven hours straight and it was always a disaster.

I would do okay for a little while and then eventually, I’d find myself binge-watching YouTube videos, wondering where I went wrong.

Over time, I started to notice a pattern emerge. I was almost always super focused for the first two or three hours of my workday and then my focus would suddenly drop off.

So finally one day, when I noticed myself losing focus I stopped and went for a walk. I came back to my work 30 minutes later and was amazed to find that I was actually more productive.

See, what happened before was I was reaching the point of diminishing returns. At some point, if you just keep pushing harder and harder, your efforts will not only quit being effective, but they will actually begin to hurt you.

That’s why people who over-train end up injured — their bodies can only handle so much. The same is true with your mental stamina.

It’s not “lazy” to need to take a break and do other things occasionally. You’re actually hurting yourself by skipping those things.

4. Eliminate time wasters

I used to think of productivity killers as obvious things, like checking email first thing in the morning or watching Instagram Stories when I’m supposed to be working. But I have found that for me, it’s actually much more subtle than that.

Often, the biggest productivity killers or all are those little time wasters that I do all throughout my day.

Things like spending 15 minutes trying to figure out what I’m going to eat for lunch.

Or randomly deciding to do a load of laundry because I realized I ran out of clean shirts.

Or spending ten minutes looking for my workout clothes.

Now I have learned there are really easy ways to set up myself up for success so I don’t waste time doing things that don’t matter. This looks like getting the coffee ready the night before.

Filling up my water bottle and putting it in my office so that it’s ready to go. Picking out what I’ll eat for lunch ahead of time.

It sounds simple (and it is!) but you would be amazed how much time these little systems can actually end up saving you throughout your day.

5. Choose a plan and stick with it

Hi, my name is Jamie and I am addicted to changing my mind about everything. This has always been a problem for me but it became especially problematic once I started freelancing.

I would set up my schedule for the week and know exactly what I was supposed to get done. And then I would just change it on a whim.

My train of thought would go something like this:

“I know I SAID I was going to write this blog post about productivity. But I’m not really feeling that inspired to write this today. And you know, I’ve been wondering, can you schedule things to post automatically on Medium? Because that would seriously save me so much time during the week. Maybe I’ll go check that out really quick and just come back to this later…”

Actual conversation I had with myself last Saturday. Needless to say, the blog post didn’t get written that day.

I once heard a quote that said something to the effect of, “Successful people make up their minds quickly and change them slowly.”

I don’t know why that’s so hard but for me, it’s really freaking hard. But over the past year, I have learned impulsiveness is really just another form of procrastination.

And it’s a very fine line because sometimes, it’s necessary to move things around and be accommodating. But it’s even more important for me to learn how to follow through on the things I say I’m going to do.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it, folks. Nothing too profound but these lessons have truly changed my life over the past year.

What have been your biggest lessons about productivity?