Productivity: what works when you don’t like rules

I never worked for a big company – where every little process is carefully detailed and followed. Only at my first job, I was supposed to be at the office between the same hours, from Monday to Friday.

Most of the time, and for many years now, I’m in charge with my hours, my working habits, scheduling, prioritizing and so on. This (sometimes only mental) freedom gave me a lot of headaches. But not in a bad way.

When working in an office, where everything is already set for you and you’re just asked to follow the procedures, things are simple. You just do what you’re asked, the way you’re told and when.

But if, besides the actual work you have to get done, you’re in charge with everything else things get complicated. In a very good way.

If anyone thinks entrepreneurs and freelancers are slackers, should really reconsider. No one is checking on you. No one tells you what to do and when. The only metric that counts is represented by the results you produce.

This makes you more responsible and disciplined. More. Not less. As in individual sports, you win for yourself, you lose for yourself.

How you do your work is completely up to you. You can make your rules from scratch. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Even better, you have the chance to find what works best for you and follow that. Not just accepting the ”default” everyone is assuming.

I’m not a balanced person. I don’t do the same things every day. I don’t work the same hours. I don’t sleep at the same times. I don’t eat the same number of meals each day. I don’t function at the same level of energy all the time. I want to erase from my vocabulary the concepts of weekends vs. labor days. And is something I don’t want to change.

Along the way, I discovered that following a strict routine isn’t for me. No matter how hard I tried, and, trust me, I did. And that’s ok because, as I found out, I’m not the only one. Something I learned from Tools of Titans, book by Tim Ferriss.

When you find what works best for you, follow it.

I always imagine how my days will look like when deciding if I’ll get involved in a project. If it fits with the way I want to spend my time, I’ll look more into it. If not, there’s no point.

While reading a lot on the subject and trying out as many productivity pieces of advice as possible, I discovered that I was focusing on the wrong things. I was only looking at the details – rules, schedules, apps. But when things don’t go as planned, it messes everything up.

When I took a step back and looked at the problem from the bigger perspective, I came to the conclusion that I needed to focus on setting some principles that will work no matter the context, the hour, the day of the week or the place.

1. Sleep and taking breaks

Without getting the amount of sleep my brain requires, is like not charging my phone but expecting it to work. Like it or not, without sleep our brain doesn’t function at its full capacity.

We’re more prone to errors, forgetting stuff and failing to retrieve memories, not being able to form a thought, taking more time to complete a simple routine task and so on.

While sleep does wonders and all, so do breaks. Taking them is serious business. Try to be outside as much as possible why you do so. If you work in an office, also think about ditching your screens from time to time.

2. Writing EVERYTHING down (in ONE place)

Number one reason I do this is that it frees up memory space and other resources for more important cognitive processes.

Obama doesn’t make his own schedule, nor does he remember all the meetings he needs to attend. At the White House, his staff used to do that for him. This way, his mind would have enough thinking space and capacity to focus on the real issues.

Second, my short-term memory sucks.

Third, having everything in one place, I will not consume resources for remembering where to look for something, saving energy once again.

I read about someone who uses a totally different system. She sticks notes on the doors of her home with things she needs to do or buy for each room.

The problem, for me, with this system is that if I find myself near a hardware store with some free time to browse, I can’t access the notes to know what to look for. Or I’ll have to rely on my memory.

Fourth, having everything in one place helps to visualize all the things that need attention at a glance.

I use Google Keep to write down all my to-dos, notes and things to remember. One, because it syncs with the desktop app. Second, I have all my notes with me everywhere, anytime.

3. Knowing what to work on BEFORE starting

Pretty straightforward, understanding all the commitments in an overview it will make the planning process easier and decisions will unfold themselves.

The trick here is to plan ahead. Each time you end a working session, look over your list and pick the next things you’ll tackle.

When you start work to actually start working. Instead of wasting time while you decide or let other people decide for you.

Have in mind that we all have ”only so many hours in a day” (Billy Joel, Vienna), our brains and bodies are not equipped for non-stop usage.

Pick only 3 (yes, three) tasks to finish in one day. Trust me.

Most of the time we complain we don’t have enough time, but did you think that maybe we try to cram in too many things in a period of time that’s too short for everything?

At the end of the day, instead of feeling like a failure or that you didn’t do anything because your list still has lots of items on it, you’ll actually get the feeling of accomplishing something.

And trust me again. If you do three tasks that are important to you every day you’ll actually advance, instead of getting stuck between too many duties.

And the feeling of getting things done can get you even further.

4. Uni-tasking (not multitasking)

Multitasking refers to the situation when we try to do two things simultaneously or in a very fast succession. Like talking on the phone while driving or checking our email repeatedly while we work. […]

Cognitive Psychology studies say that when we try to do two tasks that are difficult at the same time, we will not be able to do them neither simultaneously, nor well. – Andrei C. Miu, Cognitive Neuroscience Professor in his 2016 TEDxCluj talk (RO)

There’s no cheating to this. We only have the illusion that we’re getting more things done while constantly being on the phone, answering emails and running from meeting to coffee date and so on. It’s just busy-work.

If your job is not in social media, customer support or your role is not one of a manager, at the end of the day, the big important tasks you wanted to conquer are still there, waiting (or sometimes screaming) for attention.

It may take up to 1 minute to go back to what we were doing before checking if we have any new email, and it may take up to 25 minutes to resume a task we did before responding to it. – Andrei C. Miu, in the same 2016 TEDxCluj talk (RO)

The other very good thing about focusing on one task at a time is that you get to complete it significantly faster.

Instead of falling into the trap of busy-work, try deep-work, as Cal Newport calls it.

This means pushing everyone’s agenda to the side, ditching the reactive mode and choosing to work on the important stuff, the proactive way.

Or setting special times for other’s agenda. A famous technique for this is Pomodoro.

Sometimes real life kicks in and you have to switch between difficult and mundane tasks all the time. When this happens, Paul Graham described two choices of juggling the manager schedule with the maker schedule.

Splitting the days into two chunks – one for making, one for managing or splitting the week into days when you create and others when you respond.

5. Do it now vs. batching

If something takes only a few minutes to do it, sometimes is better to just do it now and get it out of your way.

Here I include: putting your stuff away when you get home, organizing digital files.

But for some things batching can save you time.

Here I include: answering emails, running errands.


Reading list:

  • Productivity advice for the weird – Ramit Sethi. Makes a case for focusing on the fundamentals first (like sleep), instead of the details (like what apps to use), when trying to be more productive.
  • Work-Life Balance Is About Years, Not Days – Alex Soojung-Kim Pang. If trying to check as many boxes as possible every single day is not your thing, just look at time differently.
  • The Unitasker – A.J. Jacobs. He wrote a series of essays about a bunch of personal, social and radical experiments he made over the years and some ended in one of his books – My Life as an Experiment. In it, you can read the pieces called The Unitasker – the opposite of multitasking pushed to extremes.
  • Deep Work – Cal Newport. You’ll find a list of reasons why his book is an eye-opening one when it comes to ditching the busy-work mentality complex.
  • When – Daniel Pink. Ways to take breaks and why it matters.
  • Maker Schedule vs. Manager Schedule – Paul Graham. The text that gave us the concept and the insights.
  • Multitasking – Andrei Miu. The TEDx talk mythbusting it. (RO)

| cover image source.

Andra Magda

I write about why we do what we do, how we work, failure, personal experiments, creative industries. Get the highlights: the best content I write, read, watch or listen. Monthly.

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Andra Magda

Content Writer with a degree in Psychology, living in the heart of Transylvania.

I write about why we do what we do, how we work, failure, personal experiments, creative industries and send a monthly newsletter.