How to Develop a Habit of Consistent Productivity
Systematically and naturally.
Most of us stay up for more than 16 hours every day. Activities such as learning, working, exercising, eating, and traveling may take up a majority portion of our uptime; however, procrastination could be the biggest time-occupant.
Some people would argue that procrastination is good in the sense that it allows our brain to be able to come up with new creative solutions. They may be right, up to an extent. However, if you have too much of it, things just won’t get done. It’s common sense.
As a programmer and designer, I have found myself diverging from what I set out to do several times throughout my years. Netflix and YouTube are usually the ones to blame. And when I’m finally back and have all the tools and apps ready to work, I often found myself working on things that did not matter for the end product. I had too much focus on the process (and pointless refractors) than the actual result.
Things had to change. I knew I had to tackle this effectiveness issue just as if it were any other programming problem. Identify the real problem and symptom, research the problem’s root cause. Find a solution for it.
The problem, simply put, was ineffective work execution.
So, after quite a few information filtering, research, and a book read, I decided to incorporate the following three pieces of advice into my life. In each, we will see a problem cause and a solution. Understanding these has worked tremendously for me.
1. Finite Energy
I used to think that consuming some video entertainment after some hard work could rejuvenate my mind and help me get back on track with a fresh mindset as soon as I’m back to work again. In contrast, it drained me.
From painful experience, now I know that new information consumption drains energy, and both Netflix and YouTube (except for motivational content, but we’ll get to that later) are counterproductive. It’s obvious saying it like this, but how many times have we gone tracked off on TikTok, binge-watching shows, or discovering new music with an excuse of “having a break.” It’s not.
New information consumption (such as TV and social media) is as much a draining task as doing creative work; and, we only have a finite amount of energy to drain per day.
When programming or working, most of us enjoy listening to music. To improve productivity, we can listen to music we already know or music with few to no spoken lyrics. As this isn’t new information to process for our brains, we can focus on the high-priority tasks we have at hand.
As for TV and social media, we all know what the solution is. You don’t need to hear it from me too.
“You have a limited amount of force, and where you apply it matters.” — James Clear.
2. Natural Motivation vs. Powering Through
Coffee, motivational videos, deadlines, and bossy bosses. What do all these have in common? They force us to power through things at a much higher rate, and they all wear off eventually if not applied continually. It is a common cause of not following through to the end of our tasks.
James Clear, an expert in productivity and the author of a book called Atomic Habits, often suggests improving our environment to the level where we naturally default to productive habits. In his articles, he describes why we should build systems instead of just goals to help us complete our tasks.
Consistent solutions always beat power-through solutions in the long run.
I try to stay clear of all these temporary motivators and instead devout my time in tuning my environment to be work-friendly and building techniques that allow me to be focused only on the tasks at hand during work hours.
As a result, I quit my daily coffee consumption, and I don’t remember the last time I saw one of those corny motivational videos on YouTube. I now operate on a fast feedback loop of personal assessments to help complete tasks before their deadlines.
“Your productivity is a balance of opposing forces. If you want to be more productive, you [could] either power through the barriers or remove the opposing forces. The second option seems to be less stressful.” — James Clear.
3. Work on the Right Things
Premature optimization is the root of all evil. It happens when we spend a lot of time working on something we may not need. It’s failure disguised in the face of progress.
Let’s say you set out to travel east on a boat. But then, you find yourself traveling south just because that’s where the waves are riding you towards and you thought saving up fuel (and using the wind’s power) is a good optimization technique. You may never get to your desired destination and, even worse, may run out of fuel (the very thing you were prematurely optimizing against for). During the process, there’s a lot of travel and fuel-saving going on. It feels like progress until it’s not. It’s fake progress.
I understand the above example seems absurd when spoken like this, but it’s not uncommon to find ourselves trying to solve other things hoping our initial problem gets solved automatically.
We can combat premature optimization and fake progress using fast and accurate feedback loops of assessments and inspections.
Having regular quick assessments is crucial to not divulge too much from our real desired goal.
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” — Stephen Covey
Make sure your finite energy is applied naturally on the shortest path to your destination.