What makes you productive?
Less is more.
A former colleague once asked me how I organise my life. Two years of working together have given them the impression that I am an expert at juggling many jobs while still maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
They wanted to know my secret, my tip for how to get it all done, done well, and still have time for daily naps.
Not having a ready response, I let the question linger in the back of my mind. Years passed, events happened, the former colleague has probably forgotten they’d asked me this question. And finally, after a week of multiple catch-up conversations with friends during my visit home last month, it clicked:
It’s not about doing more, or doing it all. It’s about doing less well.
As one friend after another reacted with shock and awe to my reply when they asked me variations of, “What have you been up to?”, I realised they all had a perception that I’m doing many things in life, when in fact I’m not.
When I say: I have a full-time job and a newsletter, and I teach, and I translate subtitles. And I exercise, read, nap on the couch, spend time with my partner and friends, it sounds like a lot. But if you really look at the time it takes to do each of those activities, it’s really not.
Let’s take a look at my side hustles. I have weekly newsletter posts I typically spend an hour to write and edit, so that’s one hour a week. Add a bit on top for social media, and that’s still less than 2 out of 168 hours. I teach one student at a time. That’s 50 minutes of lesson time, plus 30 on top for assigning/correcting homework. Let’s call it 1.5 hour a week. Translating subtitles is a timely affair. Each project with a week’s deadline could take up to 7 hours. That brings us down to 168-2-1.5-7 = 157.5 hours, or 22.5 hours a day. Which means that all these side hustles typically only take 1.5 hour out of each day in a week. So there’s more than enough time left for a full-time job and leisure activities of choice.
When I tell my friends I do all these things on top of my day job, they assume that each activity takes a lot more time than it actually does, hence the (incorrect) perception that I’m SuperVal.
What makes you productive?
The more I think about my former colleague’s question, the more I’m coming to the conclusion that productivity has two elements: 1) committing to few things, and 2) following through.
I know exactly how much time it takes to take on a student, so I only teach one at a time. I know which weekends I’m free and can therefore take on a time-consuming subtitles project. I know which weeks will be busy at work and to say no to low-priority, non-urgent tasks.
When I’m trying to get my reading habit back into gear, I don’t play chess. When I want more time to chill at home, I don’t schedule meals with friends. When I’m feeling tired and hassled, I make time to meditate.
My guiding question isn’t: What can I do more? It’s always: What can I do less of?
Which activities aren’t getting me closer to my goals? Which people don’t I value spending time with? Which books should I stop reading? Which apps am I wasting too much time on?
When “less” is the operative word and not “more,” it makes following through far easier.
The problem I find with a lot of people is that they don’t follow through. They say they’re going to do something, then don’t do it. They say they’ll send you something, then disappear. They say they’ll be there at this time, and don’t show up.
When this happens, many blame their own disorganization: Sorry, I forgot. Sorry, I was busy at work. But my hunch is, that’s an easy excuse. The reality is that they’ve not been stringent enough in choosing their commitments—they’ve committed to too much, to things that don’t matter. And so they don’t follow through. Which is fair, because why would you expect someone to do something that doesn’t matter to them?
How to choose less?
Now the all-important question: How?
It’s all well and good to say the key to limitless productivity is to choose fewer commitments, then follow through. But how do we apply this principle in real life?
Your way of doing things may be different from mine, but here are some guiding questions that I’ve found useful when choosing to do less (in descending order of importance):
Do I need this activity to live? (i.e. Will I starve if I say no?)
Can I follow through? (i.e. Is this important enough to me? Do I have bandwidth?)
Does this activity spark joy? (Marie Kondo-style)
Does spending time with this person enrich my life?
Does this activity make me healthier in mind and body?
Am I in the right physical state/frame of mind to give this activity/person the attention it/they deserve?
Will doing this reduce or add to my anxieties?
When I’m presented with each new opportunity, I ask myself these questions. I’m so used to doing it that, these days, the process happens almost instantaneously and the questions amalgamate into a vague, “Is this activity/person worth it?”
If the answer is a yes, I commit (and follow through). If it’s a no, I let it go or pass it along to someone else.
What do you think?
Choose few commitments and follow through—that’s my belated answer to my former colleague’s question of what makes me (appear) so productive. I’ve laid bare my thought process and shared questions that I think you may find helpful. Now it’s your turn to do the work. Let me know:
What makes you productive (or not)?
Send a reply, leave a comment, share this with someone who’s so great at getting things done you’ve always wondered how they do it.
Until next Friday… Stay thoughtful,
p.s. This post was a reader’s request. If there’s a topic you’d like me to stop and think about, simply reply to this email or leave a comment and I’ll consider it for a Val Thinks post.
Photo by Savannah Wakefield on Unsplash
Not that I always take daily naps.
And I’m talking cold, hard data here. I’m a religious user of Clockify, a time tracker that for years have enlightened me on how much time exactly I’m spending on each task.
Whether or not it matters to you, I find, is beside the point. Which is why I never follow up when people don’t follow through on their promises. If it’s important to them, they’ll do it. If it isn’t, they won’t. Who am I to decide how they should spend their time?
Thank you for this! I repeatedly read it many times. This can link to the past newsletter “manage your energy, not your time” one of my favorites. I need to start asking myself from the questions above. My favorite questions are “Does spending time with this person enrich my life?” and “Does this activity make me healthier in mind and body?”. These make me consider my past years what i did to myself! I care about other people too much. Sometimes, I waste my time doing things I don’t really like and it’s not worth time I spend. I hope everything will be better soon if I keep checking myself with these questions.