Experimenting with productivity “hacks”

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself becoming increasingly busy. While balancing coursework for college classes, a consulting internship, extracurriculars, and managing responsibilities as CEO of Kite AI, I’ve placed increased emphasis on using tools like iCal to schedule out my weeks and months. Planning dinner with friends or even just meeting up for tea has its own label and color in my calendar, but even with this increased organization I felt as though I wasn’t being as productive as I should be.

I decided to do a quick mini-experiment with three productivity “hacks,” and one constant. I would take three days and try three methods. The first, would be doing things as I have been doing (only using iCal to plan out my day). The second, was making a to-do list of everything I planned to accomplish that day. The third (and final), was an intense down-to-the-minute schedule for the day.

The Usual

I am a big believer in using iCal, or some type of calendar to manage events. It makes planning so much easier and much more organized. I have different calendars for different subjects in my life. One for personal stuff (going out to dinner with friends, going home for the weekend, etc…), one for school (class schedule, midterms, homework, clubs), one for my consulting internship (meetings), and one for Kite AI (meetings, project deadlines, and team availability).

Having a calendar is great, but it’s not totally comprehensive. It leaves questions to be answered, like “What am I going to work on between Accounting and my meeting at 5:00?” or “I know I needed to get something done for this meeting, but I don’t remember what that was.”

When I planned my days using this method, I found myself to be more scatter-brained than while using the other methods. I’d use my freetime for whatever was on my mind. Maybe writing a blog post, sending an email, doing some development work here and there. I had trouble accomplishing anything huge, or even just sticking to one subject. With the lack of constraint or guidelines for myself, it was too hard to get distracted.

Productivity Score: 3/10

The Minute-to-Minute

Out of all of the three, I thought this one would make me the most productive. After all, my day was planned out down to the minute, and included items as specific as “2:15–2:25 Drive to the office.” The idea was, I would wake up, look at my schedule, do what was on it, then move on to the next item when it was time.

There were a few tough things about this approach. One, it was hard to tell how long each item would take. I could estimate within the half-hour, but if I’m planning out minute-to-minute items, the difference between 1 minute and 30 minutes would be huge. Additionally, I found myself scheduling things at inopportune times. If I had an hour to fill, I’d try and fit items into it that weren’t in the same workstream, or didn’t really make the most sense for that time of day.

While I felt productive, I also felt stressed. My mind was hopping from one project to another with no clear goal other than stick to the schedule. Some items were left unfinished due to lack of time, and sometimes I’d finish early and wouldn’t have something to do for the rest of the time allotted since everything else was already in place somewhere else.

Productivity Score: 6/10

The To-Do List

A lot of people have mixed feelings about to-do lists. Some feel like they’re a waste of time, a placebo to make you feel productive. Right when I woke up, I jotted down a list of everything I hoped to accomplish that day, along with my estimate of the amount of time it would take me to finish. It wasn’t a hard deadline, just something to keep in mind while I looked at which tasks to do.

Working through these to-do list items was extremely satisfying. Crossing out items after completion. Having the freedom to hop around the list and choose which task to complete next meant I could do things in an order that made sense. If I had 30 minutes between class, I could choose one of my 15-minute items to knock out. If I had 3 hours, I could look at which combination of tasks are the most related and start with one that excited me the most.

In addition to to-dos, I also wrote goals. Things like “Stay Present,” “95% completion,” “No distracting websites or apps while working,” and “Go to bed no later than 11:30.” These goals at the bottom of my to-do list helped give me a larger outlook on the day, and gave me something broader to keep in mind while working on smaller tasks.

Despite being so productive and accomplishing a lot, there were still a few problems with this approach. For big items like “Finish redesigning the dashboard” or “Build feature xyz,” there are a lot of moving parts. You almost have to break those into subcategories, which makes your to-do list more complicated. Additionally, if you can’t finish the entire task in one sitting, it’s easy to forget where you left off, or how much left you have to do.

In contrast to the other methods, using a to-do list + goals not only made me feel more productive and accomplish more. I felt more positive, upbeat, and happy throughout the day.

Productivity Score: 9/10

Conclusion

I’m not suggesting the to-do list approach will work for everyone. Each person is different and some approaches may be more beneficial, but I hope the idea of trying new approaches to your standard way of thinking or going about life is somewhat inspiring (as inspiring as to-do lists can be), and you find the approach that works best for you.

As always, I’m interested in your thoughts as well! Shoot me an email at justin at kiteai dot com, or tweet me @PottsJustin.