How I became a productivity ninja

The road to become and actually feel productive is usually not smooth, but somewhat bumpy. Productivity is not something you can just turn on and off, but rather a state of mind. It is a way of organizing, delivering and executing things.


The Initial Experience

I have always admired people who were able to stay focused and be productive no matter what the circumstances were. I still do. Whenever I talk to someone who seems to be really organized, dedicated and gets a lot of things done I always pop a couple of questions for myself:

  • Am I this organized? Was I ever?
  • Am I this dedicated?
  • Am I getting a lot of things done?
  • Am I productive at all?

My answer is always: “Well, I can definitely improve, so the answer is rather a NO to all of these questions.

It always felt that no matter how hard I try, at the end of the day I usually end up saying the following: When I got up I thought that I would accomplish a lot more today!

You might ask the same thing every day, so here’s a crutch and some tips on how you can overcome this problem, take small steps and then giant leaps on the road to become productive.

How I become more productive in 5 steps

Step #0: Raise the question itself

The first and foremost thing is to actually raise the issue whether you are productive enough and figure out a roadmap of how you can measure it. This is what I did exactly.

A few months ago I have decided to catch myself in action, and sort of oversee and track the things I do at work. Here’s what I came up with along the road.

Step #1: Understand weak points and areas to improve in

At first, I did not measure quantitatively anything at all, just watched how it felt when I was working and when I was not. I’ve just put down feelings, mainly 1-2 words after each session / task. After a couple of days I could already see a certain pattern, thus I had something to actually build on. My main problem was that it always felt that I was not getting a whole lot of things done in a certain day, however I was satisfied with the quality of the output. To validate this assumption I came up with a very simple task.

Step #2: Track what you get done every day

I have decided to track each days’ workload in a retrospective manner. It was a typical short, build-measure-learn cycle. I chose iDoneThis, a very easy and free tool for tracking my daily activity, this time quantitatively. How does it work?

  1. You set up an account
  2. Set a daily email reminder with a specific delivery hour
  3. The email gets delivered to your inbox
  4. You answer the email with all the tasks you have done
  5. Every line counts as one task
  6. In the end, you can check what and how many things you’ve got done each day

I did this for 30 days which gave me enough data to better understand whether I was doing a lot things or failing miserably day by day.

My iDoneThis account in August 2013

It turned out that I was doing OK, but not outstandingly. The main problem was that I’ve juggled only with those tasks that were extremely important for that specific day. I got the big stones out of the way, but the little tasks, the small rocks and a more subtle layer, the sand just remained there and got stuck in the back of my brain. I knew that the issue was less about poor execution, but about poor planning.

From measuring my daily working output for 30 days I could learn a lot from my habits. It specifically pointed out where the main bottleneck was.

Step #3: Get your planning act together

I’ve tried a couple of alternatives for managing my time and workload (Google Tasks, Basecamp, Smartsheet, etc.) but none of them worked fine for me, or at least I was not satisfied with any of them. They were either hardly or not at all supported on mobile, hard to use for planning, tracking and so on.

I asked around what others were using and it turned out that many people use Asana for teamwork. Though I only wanted to pull my workload together on a personal level, I gave it shot. To be honest, I have used it before for a little while for team management, but we failed miserably, so I was a little ambiguous. Back in the day I could see the potential benefit of using such a system, but there was no Asana Master (who truly mastered the functionalities) and no Asana Champion (who would push and lead the project of using it) in the team. We sort of used it, but it did not really become a habit to use it, so we ended up leaving it after all.

Despite the bad experience I have started to use Asana for my personal and work related projects. Added a few tasks, categories and started experimenting, watched many tutorial videos and digged deeper every other day. It took me about 2 weeks to develop the habit of using it every day, and a month to become an “Asana Master”. Now I plan and track every major task there, know most of the keyboard shortcuts by heart, use it on desktop and mobile as well. My producitivity took off since the day I started. But I still spend a lot of time on improving my tracking and managing skills.

Why? Because productivity is not something you can just turn on and when it is not needed you just turn off. If you don’t work in an environment where the company culture is inherently infused with staying focused and being productive it is very easy to lose track of time and do things that really don’t matter. This applies to startup-land even more. It is your, your co-founder(s)’ or your boss’s responsibility to develop a good company culture where everybody feels productive and gets things done. If you have never been involved in a process like this or you have always worked on your own it is extremely hard to do such a thing.

I found Asana to be a great tool for managing my To-Dos and sorting them by their priority. I know what I need to work on and when exactly. I mark things to be done for Today, I have my Upcoming and Later tasks organized in subfolders. It gives me a very nice roadmap, and I can be up-to-date about everything even on mobile.

My personal Asana account nowadays

The good thing about mastering such a system is that it is not only important for you on a personal level, but it will become handy when this needs to be integrated with team effort. I found it hard to adapt to something that you are either unfamiliar with or you are not motivated to do. I am sure that we failed at using Asana with our team previously because it was not a state of mind for us to be productive. We did not master the software and the idea of organizing things, and there was no leader (the so called Asana Champion) for promoting it. We thought we could just switch ourselves on “EXECUTION MODE” and we would get shit done. You should not let this happen to you or to your team.

Why? Because Get Shit Done is not a company culture, nor is it a productivity tool. It is just a catchy phrase, but a very misleading one. It might be a mantra, I also thought it was good to live by it back in the day, but it turned out that GSD is nothing more than just bad management and poor communication as it does not solve the root cause of the problem. If you feel that GSD comes up to often (by yourself or by your boss) than you are going in a very wrong direction. You have to treat the root of the problem not just poke things on the surface.

Eventually you have to face it and need to solve the problem. You cannot hide behind GSD-like phrases.

You just have to work on improving your productivity. It is hard work, but it will pay off.

Step #4: Track how fast you can get things done

After getting my to-do managing and planning act together it was time to track and measure each individual task and work session to see how much time I was actually spending on each task. As mentioned before, it felt that I have no problem with executing a certain task, but it was still good to see how well I was doing according to my plans.

I started to use and still use the Pomodoro Technique and sometimes even shorter work cycles when executing a certain task. If you are not familiar with Pomodoro, here’s a very brief overview.

It is a time management technique.

  1. You identify a task or to-do.
  2. You work for 25 mins.
  3. You take a break for 5 mins.
  4. Every four intervals take a longer break (30 mins).

It is that simple. If you need less time than 25 mins, that’s no problem. You set a shorter cycle.

As I have to work on my laptop most of the time I just run the Pomodoro Timer here: e.ggtimer.com/pomodoro or if I have to go for a shorter interval I just pick a timeframe on e.ggtimer.com.

It beeps when the 25 min work and then when the 5 min break sessions are over. That’s it. It keeps you up-to-date all the time. (Of course you can use your phone, iPad, timer to track a session.)

I have found it so useful that when I goof around the internet, just read news or digest emails I run a session of pomodoro, and the e.ggtimer site beeps when the 25 mins is over. This way I can make sure that I don’t lose track of time and spend countless hours of doing unproductive things.

Step #5: Check how well your planning falls into place

The last step is to continuously check whether your planning is accurate and you assign only that many things a day that you can actually execute and deliver. It is also part of this build-measure-learn cycle. You build your daily and weekly plan, you execute, and measure whether you could deliver. Even if you do or you don’t, you can learn from that and then you can improve your planning.

You basically validate your learning. Every single step enables you to become better and better. Every action is a small step on the road to become productive. If you combine these steps you will eventually become a productivity ninja, who can not only motivate himself but later others as well.


Conclusion

What most people fail to understand is that productivity does not wake up with us in the morning. It is not just something that you can turn on for 20-30 mins and turn it off. It is rather a state of mind, something you have to develop and continuously work on.

If you wake up in the morning and regularly say: “Uh, I am going to be so productive today because I just did nothing in the past few days…”, then I have bad news for you. Your productivity management is just bad. You need to work on it.

If you don’t work in an environment where someone else helps you on the road to become productive than it is your responsibility to develop good working habits.

And we all know that every journey starts with a small step. If you’ve felt unproductive lately then I have good news for you. By reading this post you took your first step on the road to become more productive. You should feel good about it. This is your moment to shine.


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