Build productivity cycles for effortless creative productivity

When you save energy and boost output, you’re more productive. Productivity cycles are a great way to both save energy and boost output, even in creative work.

A productivity cycle is a repeatable sequence of actions you perform on an evenly-spaced, regular basis. You might perform the actions daily, weekly, monthly, or on some other periodic basis.

Productivity cycles have the following benefits:

  • Productivity cycles make your practice more deliberate. To get good at something, you need “deliberate practice.” Since productivity cycles force you to formalize the actions you take, you bring structure to your work. That structure makes it easier for you to break down your actions into components, and to connect what you do to the results you get.
  • Productivity cycles save mental energy. When you do pre-determined actions on a pre-determined basis, you spend less time and energy thinking about priorities. Shifting priorities waste mental energy, so having cycles to follow save that energy.
  • Productivity cycles end procrastination. When a process is formalized into a productivity cycle, you reduce a lot of the emotional dread around unpleasant tasks—or even tasks that are merely unpleasant to begin. Well-placed cycles create a “now-or-never” sense of urgency, and defined processes take the mental pain out of performing an unpleasant task.
  • Productivity cycles work with your natural rhythms. Our energy ebbs and flows throughout our day, our week, even our year. If you can find the patterns in these ebbs and flows, you can work with those patterns, instead of against those patterns. Take what you learn about your own natural productivity rhythms, formalize them with productivity cycles, and you’ll be working with your natural rhythms.
  • Productivity cycles create space. When you’re saving mental energy and emotional waste on one task, you’re creating space for other tasks. You can use that space for the task of simply relaxing, or you can use it to produce more work.

Here are some productivity cycles that I follow:

  • I write on a daily basis. I spend the first hour of my day writing, at the minimum. Sometimes I write and publish an article every day, like I am now. Other times, I write to make progress on a larger writing project. I could waste my whole day feeling like I should be writing, but I do it first thing in the morning—when my writing is best—and I can be at peace with myself for the rest of the day.
  • I review Amazon ads on a weekly basis. I run Amazon AMS ads to promote my self-published books. I could spend a limitless amount of time reviewing their performance and tweaking them. But, I’d never get anything else done. So, I review my ads on a weekly basis.
  • I produce podcast episodes on a monthly basis. The last couple of weeks of each month, I prepare the following month’s podcast episodes for post-production and publishing. This saves overhead “costs” of recording intros and sponsorship spots (such as my extensive vocal warm-up routine). It also frees up space in the first two weeks of each month for me to focus more intensely on other projects, such as writing books—or traveling, which takes me away from my podcast studio.
  • I conduct podcast interviews on a seasonal basis. After running my podcast for three years, I’ve discovered that some seasons are more convenient for conducting interviews than other seasons. So, I go with it. I try to concentrate my entire year’s interviews into two three-month seasons: Fall, or September, October, November; and Spring, or March, April, May. This creates even more space for focusing deeply on other projects.

Thinking of creating your own productivity cycles? Here are some factors to consider:

  • How much creative flexibility do you need? Early on in any creative endeavor, you need creative flexibility. For example, when I was just starting my podcast, I didn’t know what format I wanted it to be: narrative, an interview, or essays? When I was just starting, I didn’t produce a month’s worth of episodes at a time. I produced each episode, one at a time. My podcast was my “front-burner” project. Now that I’ve identified my show’s format and voice, I don’t need as much creative flexibility. The creativity can happen within the structure that I’ve formalized.
  • What’s your skill level in the task? Productivity cycles involve formalizing your activities with processes. It’s hard to formalize an activity for which your skill level is low—you still don’t know the best process to follow. Additionally, longer cycles can cause your skills to deteriorate, as you aren’t practicing those skills off-cycle. Once I figured out the format of my podcast, I was producing episodes on a weekly cycle. Since I was doing everything once a week, this allowed me to build my skills in the tasks involved. Now that I’ve solidified those skills, I can do them on a monthly cycle without too much skill loss.
  • What level of quality do you need? Formalizing your processes, especially in creative work, will improve your quality to some degree. But it can also reduce your quality. Sometimes, it’s worth it. Imagine creating a cycle that saves you five hours a month. If saving those five hours reduces your quality level from 95% to 90%, is it worth it? It all depends upon the level of quality you need. For example, producing my podcasts on a monthly basis means I can’t give weekly updates in my intros. It’s worth it for my goals with the podcast.

Here’s how to begin building a productivity cycle:

  • Start with a habit. Especially when it comes to new skills, habits reduce procrastination, and build the skill so that starting resistance is weaker. You can begin with an extremely tiny habit. For example, if you want to write, you can start with 50 words a day. If you want to podcast, you can commit to working on your podcast for five minutes a day. Keep the habit up to build your skill and confidence in the task.
  • Experiment with timing. You’ll be better at some things in the mornings than you are in the afternoons, and vice versa. Experiment to find the best time of day, or even day of week, to do a certain task. Besides your quality and skill level, you also need to consider priority. Just because you answer emails well in the morning doesn’t mean you should do it. It might mean a more important task, such as writing, suffers for it.
  • Document your process. Your eventual goal is to have a checklist you can follow each time you do the task. But, that’s a tall order early on. Start by taking rough notes. Refer to those notes each time you do the task, and refine them as you see fit. Eventually, you’ll have a checklist you can follow yourself, or that you can use to delegate the task to someone else. I keep my checklists in Evernote, and Google Keep, and I also use templates in Todoist for repeatable projects.
  • Begin batching. You’ve heard the advice to “batch”—or produce a lot of one item all at once. But who has the skill and motivation to do that right away? Now that you’ve built skill, figured out your timing, and reduced mental load through a documented process, you can start batching your task. How many units can you muster to produce at how long of an interval? Five daily units, produced once a week? Four, produced once a month? Twelve, produced once a year? It all depends upon flexibility, skill level, and quality.

You might think that, when it comes to creative work, formalized processes are the enemy. But in fact, they’re a friend: They keep your mind free to solve the creative problems at hand.

Building powerful productivity cycles is an ongoing learning process. With enough practice, you’ll have a sustainable system for producing your best work, day in, day out—or week in, week out; month in, month out; or whatever you prefer.

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