...isn’t that great. I don’t regard myself as particularly productive, at least not to my fullest potential. Reflecting on “what does make me productive”, there are certain techniques I’ve found help me achieve a reasonable notion of productivity.
This is essentially a brain dump of opinion. I considered molding my opinions to enable a more generic framework, but it felt forced - especially when considering the fact that everyone has different ways of working.
If nothing else, you can enjoy reading my weird monologue of self-reflection.
A career that I’m passionate about is one of the biggest enablers of my productivity. I have a list of needs and wants from a job that I use when reflecting on my current and future employment. The criteria is geared towards what will make me happy and productive that should feed into the company benefiting from my efforts.
There needs to be a level of freedom. If I need to work from home, leave to get away from a coding problem, or simply not worry about taking longer than an hour for lunch. I will pour that time back in with late nights, early mornings & weekends when it’s needed, but I want that two way street of, I can be relied on to make up extra time if I’m trusted to manage my own time.
Generally, I like variety in the work I do, whether it’s working on different app’s or APIs or changing up the tasks I’m assigned. In most of my jobs, variety has been a consistent factor.
Consistent happiness and excitement in my day-to-day work-life. If I get to Sunday and I’m depressed because of work the following day, I need a new job. I’ve witnessed friends hate their jobs to a point where having brunch on Sunday was overshadowed by misery from the impending Monday.
You’ll have your own criteria of what you want from a job, I encourage you to define them.
My point of view is that work will eat up a considerable amount of my time and I want that time to be spent doing something fulfilling and not a set of tasks I dread and despise. If I’m not liking my work, my mood will plummet - this alone has a major impact on my productivity.
It’s extremely common for me to start projects but never really finish them. Once I’ve solved the initial problem that was frustrating me, my interest subsides. I ended up embracing this habit / weakness for what it is rather than try and change it.
Just thinking on what my behavior pattern is, it tends to be that I’ll take the following path:
The code will often be scruffy, it’ll work at the time, but it won’t be 100% reliable.
I’ll leave the code for a while, even if I’m using it on a regular basis.
One day I’ll come back to the project, normally to fix something or add a new feature. This will either break something that originally worked or I’ll give up on the idea altogether because it’s too fragile / awkward to make the changes I wanted to.
The state of the project will degrade as time passes. The tools it relies on will be old and it’ll ultimately be easier to start again than try and update the current project.
Bleak, but honest.
What I’ve ended up doing is use testing as a mechanism to improve each step of the above cycle.
Improve reliability by writing tests from the start (also helps with code quality as TDD can driver design decisions).
Leaving code for a while becomes less of a problem as I can have a CI running tests on a regular basis.
When I come back to fix something, I can make wild refactorings if I need to and have confidence that everything is still running with my new feature.
Finally, adding tests means I can shift certain tasks over to external tools which rely on the tests as a source of whether automated changes result in a good or bad state.
This practice supports my bursts of productivity on a project.
After doing this for a few projects, I’m finding it immensely helpful and I’ve realised that, with my software engineering hat on, I should say “Testing helps improve the overall health of my projects”, but I’m largely treating it as “I know I’m going to treat this project poorly, I can at least avoid some of the babysitting by making tools work for me”.
I confess, I didn’t sit down, consider the problem and direct myself to find solutions. I tried changing my behavior by reducing the number of projects I’d allow myself to start, it ultimately failed - I just stopped hacking on side projects. The alternative was simple, embrace this behavior / weakness and try to dampen the negative side effects, exploring ways of reducing the pain of managing projects.
Since this has had positive effects, I’m trying to be more regimented in my process of reviewing and changing aspects of my personality and life where it’s not working as well as it could.
If there is something that isn’t working for you, examine your actions and behaviour the same way you’d examine something you’ve never seen before - think of it like a scientific study - maybe something useful will come out of it.
Nig·gle: cause slight but persistent annoyance, discomfort, or anxiety.
This is a super small point, but I’m enjoying “niggle solving” a lot so want to call it out.
You know those things that you regularly have an issue with but are so minor you just brush them off? Losing keys, fumbling with headphones when when rushing out the door, device running out of battery, struggling to keep social networks closed?
I have a tonne of things that just bug me on a regular basis, but I will go on sprees of ridding myself of those problems anyway I can and these small changes add up improve my average day.
Two things that are most prominent in my head are:
Bulk buying anything I get on a regular basis (deodorant, toothpaste, shower gel), just because I dislike running out and I’m too disorganised to manage buying it when needed.
I’ve bought a few things that make my desk much easier to work with, for example, buying a headphone stand with USB hub - removes clutter when I’m not using my headphones, let’s me easily plug in my headphones to the audio port and I have a USB hub for when I’m debugging on my phone.
These are minimal annoyances, but it’s a regular annoyance and fixing it means I never go without toothpaste or deodorant and my desk is organised, resulting in a happy Matt-y.
Borrowing Life hacks
The last thing that I’m trying to do more of is steal tricks or life hacks that other people use to be more productive and live a happier / more fulfilling life.
I actually picked up the bulk buying from an article I read from a author discussing how he hates running out of toilet paper while also enjoying watching a UPS man carry a ridiculous amount of toilet paper to his front porch.
My wanting for flexible hours was something I picked up from a colleague who once told me to just leave the office because I was in a bad mood and annoying him as a result - Hi James waves - and I realised it’s a privilege to work in companies where that freedom is provided.
These life hacks came about unexpectedly but I adopted them for myself because they worked for me.
One of the interesting things that came from writing this post was the number of discussions I had with people regarding their own productivity habits. Turns out people are happy to talk about tips and tricks they’ve picked up and implemented in their lives. If you want to improve something and you think someone you know has that thing figured out - ask them and maybe you can borrow their life hack.
On a tangent, I’ve been using podcasts as a way to get a glimpse into someone else’s point of view or learn something new, which I’m finding helps me appreciate a wider range of world events and topics. Not necessarily a life hack, but I get a lot from them and maybe you will too.
Few that I regularly turn to:
Radiolab is a podcast which looks at a wide range of topics - vaguely in the realm of science, but an interesting story will be covered regardless. They nail story telling and explaining complex ideas.
Each episode of Waking Up is a discussion between Sam Harris and a guest speaker focusing on a topic related to the human mind, politics or society. Interesting discussions with experts in a particular field.
This American Life covers fascinating people and stories from their life. This is my reliable fallback when I’m not sure what I want to listen.
At the moment I’m trying out a few new things to improve my overall productivity:
I recently moved from the UK to SF, so trying to find my balance of what I work on, how I work on it, and whether that’s useful (A result of being in a different timezone working with different people) - luckily I have plenty flexibility, so no complaints.
At the moment I’m trialing a process of having a “life” doc. If I come up with anything I’d like to try (rock climbing, skiing, learning to cook XYZ…) it goes in the doc. On the first weekend of every month I move some of those items into a to-do list for the month and set myself a goal or two of something I’d like to achieve in the next 30 days. This is to account for the fact that I get complacent and lazy rather than taking advantage of the opportunities around me.
More Life Hacking
I’ve started to read “Deep Work”, a book that looks at highly successful / productive people and explores what enables them to achieve so much. The common pattern between these productive folk is that they make themselves unavailable for big chunks of time enabling them to focus on a single task. This isn’t something I’ve considered before but I was able to work like this during university and now I struggle with it. I’m hoping there will be some learnings from the book that I can use.
One thing I’m starting to look at is how to avoid my repetitive behavior of looking at social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Imgur. I’m realizing from Deep Work that it’s incredibly damaging for productivity and I imagine it annoys anyone I spend time with. I’ve switched my new tab page to Momentum to get rid of “Frequently visited sites” but I’m still struggling to disconnect from my phone…...ideas are welcome.
I hope their are people who find this useful in some way, whether it’s stealing an idea or simply approaching their own productivity as something that can be tinkered with and adjusted.
Massive thank you to Briana Herrmann and Addy Osmani for reviewing this before publishing.