The 4 Timeless Ideas That Changed the Way I Look at Personal Productivity

The nature of our work has changed dramatically in the past few decades, but these 4 ideas remain evergreen

Mike Sturm
Feb 26 · 9 min read
Photo by Remy_Loz on Unsplash

Whether you’re a founder, a maker, or both, the work you do doesn’t much resemble the kind of work most people did at the beginning of the 20th century. Since about the 1960s, the term knowledge work has been used to describe what most of us — from the C-suite on down — have to do.

The problem with knowledge work is that it folds in on itself. It’s the kind of work where 50% of the work is figuring out what you need to do, 30% is figuring out how you’re going to manage to get it done given your constraints, and 20% (or less) is actually spent doing it.

That makes it difficult to both be productive and understand what being productive even means.

The Beauty of Good Productivity Literature

When I first found out that this was how my work was going to be — whether I worked for myself or someone else — I knew I’d better get well-versed in personal productivity.

That was just over 10 years ago. And I’m not quite sure I have the hang of it yet. But I have spent a lot of time poring over the personal productivity canon. We’re talking Drucker, Covey, Allen, Tracy, Ferriss, McKeown, and on and on. I read the books, the articles about the books, the podcasts interviewing the authors who wrote the books.

I still do it, to this day. Why? Because I’m a masochist who gets off on finding ways to punish himself by squeezing out just a few more ounces of work per hour? No. Because I’m a hard-driving, Type A, corner-office, take-no-prisoners hustling entrepreneur — hell-bent on taking over the business world? Again, no.

I love reading and writing about personal productivity because at its best, the genre (if you can call it that) conveys a kind of elegance that’s hard to find elsewhere. It’s almost like the best parts of martial arts, French cooking, ballet choreography, jazz composition, mathematical proof, philosophical argument, and an elegantly crafted piece of code — all rolled into one.

Personal productivity writing is not only inspiring to read, but it’s also immediately helpful. A good piece of personal productivity writing can literally make your life significantly better — if you put its advice into action.

What follows is a list of the 4 most impactful ideas I’ve gotten from my time spent devouring work on personal productivity, and how to put them into practice. They represent, at least to me, the foundational pieces of wisdom that have shaped how I approach life and work. They’ve allowed me to advance in my career working for a company, as well as growing my own — while improving as a husband and father in the process.

1. Ubiquitous Capture

In David Allen’s Getting Things Done, he argues that his (quite involved) productivity system is meant to get things off your mind, so you can focus on whatever it is you’re doing at any given time. While his entire system sure does help one achieve that, there’s one practice within it that does more than any other component to change how you use your mind.

Allen calls it “ubiquitous capture,” or simply, putting down in writing anything that comes to mind. The idea is to use your mind for thinking, rather than for remembering.

When you write an idea down right when it comes to you, and then review it later, you give your mind permission to focus on other more important (and more creative) things than trying to remember all the good ideas you had throughout the day.

How to Put it Into Practice

Carry some sort of place to record ideas as you have them. It can be a notebook, note cards, post-its, an app in your phone, etc. It doesn’t so much matter what it is, so long as you agree that you’re going to carry it with you as much as you can, and stop to record ideas you think might be useful later.

You may feel weird at first, but you will get over it. At this point, my colleagues, customers, wife, 6 year-old daughter, and 3 year-old son are all used to seeing me stop mid-conversation to put something into my phone to remember for later.

What I get out of it is a much lighter mind. I’m not weighed down by the feeling that I’ve forgotten something I need to do, or that could have been really cool to write about or look into. For all the other cognitive baggage I carry, trying to remember the ideas I had earlier isn’t one of them. And that’s made a lot of space for me to think about other things.

2. Separating Thinking from Doing

In my experience, much of my procrastination comes from one basic problem: I have not completed the upfront work of thinking through what needs to be done. So my to-do list contains an item like “Call Nadia about the report”. It was on my list yesterday and it didn’t get done. There’s a high likelihood it won’t get done today, either. Why?

It might be because I don’t know what questions I really need to ask Nadia. I haven’t looked a the report enough to really talk to her about it. In the back of my mind, I know this. So the back of my mind keeps the front of my mind from doing the task.

The way to overcome this kind of procrastination is by carving out plentiful and separate time for thinking. It’s time for thinking through projects and tasks. Time for asking yourself the tough questions about what you need to do and why. Time to plan, time to question, time to make decisions. It’s a different kind of time than the time of doing, but it is so very essential to doing good work.

Put it Into Practice

Carve out at least 2–3 hours per week to review the stuff that’s on your plate — as well as the stuff that’s on your mind. I take 2 hours nearly every Friday and run through a checklist of activities that involve looking at and thinking about — but not actually doing my work.

I clean out my inbox as much as possible. I review my list of projects, choose which ones I’m going to defer, pass along to others, or kill (and let others know they’re dying). I open up the calendar and review the week that was: What actions came from those meetings that I need to capture? I review the week coming up: What do I need to prepare for?

I stop and think about how much of this stuff on my plate is serving my goals. If the answer isn’t a lot, I think long and hard about how to change that. I go to the comically small whiteboard in my home office and furrow my brow for a while. I pace. I put on some jazz music. I drink coffee. I reflect. But I don’t mix in the doing of my work with this ritual. This is sacred.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this point: don’t mix the doing of your stuff with the thinking about it. They’re two different mindsets. You can’t really be in both of them at the same time.

And if you think that you can’t afford 2–3 hours per week of this kind of work, you probably need more like 5 hours of it.

3. Choosing not to do something is a valid (and often strategic) choice

When we think of high-performers, we often think of people who do a lot. But when we take a closer look, that’s not the case. It’s not that they do a lot of things, it’s just that the few things they choose to do have a huge impact.

Steve Jobs and Apple chose to make a few extremely impactful products — rather than several lines of products that catered to every little niche. That was at a time when competitors were multiplying product lines and customizations like crazy. Jobs and his team chose not to do a lot of things that were very likely on various lists. And it paid off. It usually does.

Saying “no” pays off. Choosing not to do something — even after it’s been on your list for months (or years!) is always an option. And it may be just the thing to take a burdensome weight off your shoulders — so you can go create your next great thing.

But you have to get over the fear of giving up on things. Get over the pride you have in finishing everything you start. You can (and should) choose not to get many things done, so you can get a few other very impactful things done.

Put it Into Practice

Take a look at your project list. How many of the projects on it really get you excited? How many of them at least hold the promise of making a meaningful change? For those that fit into neither category, consider getting them off your plate.

You can delegate things — or at least ask for the expertise and help of others. You can also renegotiate the things you previously accepted. You may find some of the things on your plate don’t even need to get done, or could actually be folded into other projects (some that others are doing!).

The key is to make sure you regularly look at what’s on your list regularly. Don’t make the assumption that it all still belongs there. When you can free yourself of that assumption, it will serve you well.

4. The goal of productivity isn’t simply to produce

The point of productivity and productivity systems isn’t just to get more done — but rather to be able to confidently NOT produce for periods of time. In fact, if you build a successful productivity system, you’ll be able to purposely NOT even think about producing for periods of time.

For as much flack as Tim Ferriss gets about The 4-Hour Work Week, there is an important message in all his optimization and outsourcing: Your productivity journey should bring you to a place where you do as much of the stuff you want to do, and as little as possible of the stuff you don’t want to do.

David Allen’s Getting Things Done actually has a similar end goal: To be fully present and prepared for whatever it is you’re doing now, so you can get the most out of it.

A great productivity system will help you produce a lot more than the disorganized, undisciplined person without such a system. But if you don’t use all that productivity you’ve gained to make time to enjoy your life — that system has failed. You have failed.

Success, even for the high-performing productivity gurus, is about making time and space in your life to enjoy it. So whatever your system, and however solid your habits, make sure they’re serving that goal.

Put it Into Practice

Make time to rest and do activities that contribute to your life that aren’t work. Spend time with family, friends, or in the community. Get outside, do something active, or simply sit with a good book — reading for pleasure. Whatever it is, do it for the enjoyment of the thing, and not for results.

The benefits you get from this are twofold. First of all, these kinds of activities are what make up a good life. Life can’t be work all the time, otherwise you risk burning out. Secondly, time away from the productive grind actually helps you come back more productive. A change of scenery, focus, location, and giving the active, thinking part of your brain a rest actually benefits your ability to come back and do quality work. That’s quite the one-two punch.

Go Forth and (Knowledge) Work

These 4 ideas are not the be-all, end-all. But for me, they’ve proven to be the most valuable. As more of my work has become this amorphous blob we call “knowledge work”, remembering these things has helped me to do that work, do it fairly well, and avoid going crazy.

In summary, here are the 4 ideas:

  1. Ubiquitous capture
  2. Separate thinking from doing
  3. Choosing not to do something is a valid, strategic choice
  4. The Goal of productivity is more than just producing

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Thanks to Elizabeth Dawber

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Mike Sturm

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

The Startup

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Mike Sturm

Written by

Author of “The Wabi-Sabi Way” and “Be, Think, Do”. Subscribe to my newsletter “Woolgathering”:

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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