Let’s get the #humblebrag out of the way so you don’t doubt my commitment to the holy order of ‘get stuff done’. In the past three years, I picked up painting, wrote (and re-wrote) three novels, a few novellas and countless essays. I conceived and produced enough physical goods to fill up a 6’ x 10’ craft fair booth. I learned to weave, play the ukulele, sew, calligraph, and keep plants alive. I drove across the United States twice, got married, maintained friendships, took good care of my dog and read hundreds of books. All the while, I either worked full-time or kept up a full-time independent design business.
Name any productivity technique and I’ve probably tried it. Pomodoro, extreme calendaring, inbox zero, turning off the wi-fi and more. Yet, I don’t use any of them with any sort of consistency. When people ask me about my thoughts on productivity, I cringe—not out of any holier-than-thou disdain for systems, but because I rarely have much to say in the moment.
My only real productivity hack is that I almost never think about whether I’ve been productive or not. Not when I’m in the thick of making stuff, not when I’m procrastinating, nor when I’m getting distracted by ice cream or Puppy laying on my keyboard. I don’t much care when I have ‘bad’ sessions because while my time is as scarce as anyone else’s, I’m not afraid of being unproductive.
If you judge your working time as productive or unproductive, there’s an immediate pressure to perform. Judging pushes you towards whatever has the most visible and highest short-term benefits, rather significant long-term bets that may have the most payoff. If you’re trying to do creative work or figure out hard problems, this is the quickest way to hamstring your projects.
Ease some pressure off of your productivity. First, when you sit down to work, don’t make it such a monolithic commitment. My longest states of flow always happen when I sit down with the intent of working for just a few minutes, or on some little piece of dialog. I can’t help myself, so five minutes often turns into a few hours. When it doesn’t, I came to the session with few expectations anyway, so I can go do something else without guilt. That often means a proper recharge or taking care of myself, which brings me back to the fray well-rested.
Second, think of productivity as building endurance. People don’t go from sedentary to running marathons without a lot of training and hard work. Marathoners run a mile, then two, then five, then ten, then twenty-six. If you’re just starting out or haven’t worked intensely for a while, you’re not going to be able to sit down and crank out six hours of work. This is where productivity hacks shine. When used in the context of a broader practice, they effectively create structure. The right systems train your mind to tolerate and even enjoy long stretches of hard work.
Lastly, no matter how productive you may or may not be, things take time. Even if you used every hour in your day perfectly, you’d still need time to digest, process and connect dots. You need to commit things to muscle memory, you need distance to see your work with fresh eyes, you need inspiration and input from the outside world. Be patient with yourself and your process. There will always be someone faster and stronger than you, but I guarantee there's someone who looks at you and marvels at your productivity, too.