Phi Skills
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Phi Skills

My process toward a minimalist productivity plan

You wouldn’t believe how much time I lost looking for the perfect productivity setup. I tried countless methods and innumerable apps. Some are great but obsessing over them sure is not.

“There is a difference between a thing and talking about a thing.”

— Goedel

I truly perpetuated meta-analyzing productivity without actually getting results. To me, most of these methods were too strict yet too general at the same time. They failed to incorporate the fact that we are way closer to the monkey than to the computer. We strive for creativity in whatever we do. Productivity included. We need enough rules so we don’t get lost but not too many so we can explore.

Over the years, I realized that just a few good practices are required in order to get things done and not lose track of where I am going. What matters the most is to have a consistent and robust methodology enhancing your productivity independently on the tools used. I seek the least possible ruleset to harvest the maximal results.

Photo by Bonneval Sebastien on Unsplash

To me, a method is viable whenever it can be followed with just pen, paper and a timer. In this way, you know you have the flexibility to keep working with this method even if you were to find yourself on a desert island. You want your method to be short so that if suddently a tiger appears unexpectedly, you can still make it out alive.

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. For instance, 20% of software development efforts account for 80% of the program’s functionality or the richest 20% of the population controls 80% of the world’s income. It’s a handy rule of thumb and I use it as guiding principle in my quest for productivity. So I came out with 4 rules which I call the Pareto 4. These rules keep me organized and at the same time always aware of the bigger picture and enabling me to measure my productivity rate at any given time. We tend to think that measuring productivity is hard but there is a way to do it quite easily.

Tracking time

“Everything is vague to a degree you do not realize till you have tried to make it precise.”
Bertrand Russell

During my studies, I soon realized I had no idea how much I was really working each day. Sure I could count the number of slides or chapters I studied each day. Sometimes I was so focused that I completely lost track of time. Other times, I was so distracted that I became too aware of time.

After quite a few years of struggle, I discovered the Pomodoro Technique; a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. Each interval is known as a Pomodoro, from the Italian word for tomato after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student. He must have struggled too.

A tomato kitchen timer

Personally, I find 25 minutes too short to get in the right flow but that largely depends on you and on the kind of task you are working on. You are free to experiment on which interval duration works best for you. However, during the Pomodoro 🍅, you must turn off any notification, put your phone away and work on the task at hand and only that. The world disappears, there is just you, the task at hand and the Pomodoro. This has to be respected almost religiously. It can be hard but it will have incredible benefits. You might find that in 4 hours you actually already finished what usually takes you 8 or more hours to be done.

Once you try it, you will inevitably get distracted at some point during a Pomodoro. It might help to write it down along the reason for the distraction. Then look at the timer and be happy that the break got closer and go back to work. As soon as the interval ends, give yourself a treat. Breaks are an important part of the technique. Twenty to fifty minutes deeply focused on a task can be quite tiring. Ideally, you would take a longer break every 4 intervals or so. Most importantly, don’t just apply the method, if you like longer intervals and breaks then do it that way. Be creative and make it fit into your work style.

After a couple of months using the method, I noticed the following:

  • I could estimate the amount of work and the time it would take in terms of Pomodoro intervals.
  • I increased the number of tasks completed while reducing the amount of time required.
  • You get a little endorphin spike when you complete a Pomodoro. Some days, when you feel less motivated, that little spike is the only thing that can get you started. I always struggled with procrastination. Especially, the mornings. Turns out all you need is one Pomodoro. When you are done with your first Pomodoro, you realize you already did the hardest part and are ready to go, the laziness simply disappears.
  • Freeing your mind of other tasks, you will be able to focus entirely on the current task. Literally, working with a mindful focus.

Tracking is essential to everyday productivity but, without some structuring, you would be like a sailor without a compass.

Track tasks

“Quality is not an act, it is a habit.”

— Aristotle

Almost anybody is using a to-do list. However, all lists are not created equal. For me, a good list should contain the approximate number of tasks you are going to complete in a given day. Endless lists make you feel miserable as if what you did is nothing compared to what’s still to be done.
Meager lists might not push you enough and might induce you to fill them with vague items. In doubt, it’s safer to lean toward the meager side. Then, if you finish early, you can add tasks from the next day. That way, you will always feel like you worked more than what you were supposed to.

Moreover, each item on the list should be actionable and unambiguous. In other words, things such as “dog” or “assignment” should be replaced with “shower the dog” and “finish the assignment on matrix multiplication”. The more the task gets complicated the more the item on the list should be precisely defined.

Ideally, at the end of each day, check all the to-do’s that you didn’t complete and decide whether to remove them or, to move them to the next day or simply to move them to next week. I really strive to make it the easiest and most flexible possible. Usually, every Sunday, either I print a copy of my calendar or simply open it on my iPad. Then, I move tasks from my Next Week to-do’s toward the days of the week. I pay particular attention to keeping every day of my calendar in accordance with how I chose my day to look like. More on this later.

On the left, I keep my daily tasks. On the right, anything that comes to my mind during the day. At the end of the day, I look at the tasks left and decide where I want to move them. Then, for each note on the right, I decide how and when to address it. As you can see I also add colored tags next to the tasks. I will use these tags on my calendar to make sure that I working on the “right”. More on this on the calendar section.

In addition, next to my tasks I have an empty page where I record everything. It could be a random distraction or a new task that will have to be added on my list another day. It might even be a startup idea. The point is, I don’t want any extraneous thought flowing in my mind when I am supposed to be focused on a single problem. This brings me to the next rule I have: no multitasking.

No multitasking

“Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.”

— Albert Einstein

Human Multitasking is an apparent human ability to perform more than one task, or activity, at the same time. Phones and computers also seem to have this ability. Actually, switching from one app to another requires your smartphone to back up data and state of the current app and restore the stuff needed by the new app being switched to. This is called a context switch and it requires your phone’s operating system to do quite some work. Multitasking is an illusion. Computers like magicians are simply too svelte for us to notice. Our minds work similarly. We don’t multitask. We task switch. The word “multitasking” implies that you can do two or more things at once, but in reality, our brains only allow us to do one thing at a time and we have to switch back and forth. Would your trust an aircraft pilot playing Minecraft with one hand and eating with the other? I just hope they don’t and so should you.

I use to-do’s lists and time tracking as part of what I call micro-level planning. It is crucial for a method to take a higher-level view. That is what I call macro-level planning and all you need is a calendar.

Keep a “vision” calendar

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!”

Benjamin Franklin

Most of the long term plans I read about are rather rigid. What I want is a plan that helps me minimaxing my chances of success. A plan that is flexible yet rewarding enough. My Pareto optimal plan.

Many suggest asking yourself self-reflective questions such as “Where do I see myself in 10 years?” or “What is my vision? My goals?”. Undoubtedly, this has benefits. Especially if you write them down and really think about it over time. But at the end of the day, it is neither actionable nor pragmatic.

You don’t need to spend days brainwashing yourself over the vision you made for yourself. Instead, what I discovered to be helpful is to make sure that each day I am taking a small step in the right direction leveraging the compounding effect. Suppose that each day you each get 1% better at something. One year later, you would be about 30 times better at that thing. Five years later you would be 80 million times better. In practice though, after a while, our ability’s increase rate tends to decrease. Nevertheless, you can see the power of compounding and consistency in life.

In practice, I divide my days into blocks. These blocks serve the purpose of guiding my actions. What matters to me is to see that each day I am moving in the right direction. Then I just repeat it. Nothing is permanent, not even my calendar. So, when I am working more intensely on a project or for a client, I simply move blocks around, reduce some blocks, increase others and usually just start working earlier.

My days are divided in blocks. These blocks serve the purpose of guiding my actions. Each Sunday, I take the “Next Week” list and split my tasks across the week following the blocks. The Block “Free style work” simply means that I leave some flexibility on the choice of tasks here. After I filled the Coding and Learning part I can put any urgent task or meeting in the “Free style work” column.

I don’t like to structure my free time. I don’t see myself having tasks to remember to have fun but if that’s your thing just try! You can apply these principles whether you are working remotely or in the office, whether you are an entrepreneur or just busy with the kids. The calendar represents your day, it’s your own process which will make, your yet to be discovered vision, come true.

Conclusion

The best productivity method is the one that works for you. Nevertheless, having flexibility and minimalism as guiding principles can really help to stick to the method in the long term while being easily adaptable when needed. You could try building your own method from these principles or maybe others and eventually try one of the rules above such as Pomodoro 🍅 or the vision calendar. Even just stopping multitasking can be so beneficial!
I hope you enjoyed the reading.

Ciao,

Michele

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