In the past I've steered away from writing on personal productivity, for lots of reasons, chief among them that I wasn't sure that I had anything to contribute. I mean, over and over again, people have asked me how I write so much, and I have to admit that I think it's a strange question.
I mean, my brother-in-law makes time to watch University Of Michigan Football -- every single game all season. It's not anything super-natural. If I asked him how he "found time" for such a "quaint little hobby", I suspect he'd strike me.
Football is important to him, and, in a way, asking "how do you find the time?" is sort of insulting.
Writing is important to me, and in a way ...
But I digress.
After a few years of writing, that hobby did turn into a going concern, and two months after going
I use a couple of different productivity systems, at least to keep track of deadlines and contracts. After a fair bit of reflection, I do think I have something to contribute to the discussion, and it's something a little unique and off the beaten path.
I've never been a big fan of the todo list, or the more expanded systems recommended by
or Merlin Mann
. Something always bugged me about them.
I think I've figured out why.
The Brain Candy
Have you ever experienced the pleasure of a job well done? Feels nice, doesn't it?
One term for that feeling is "Brain Candy."
Brain Candy can be addictive, and that can be good. You feel good when you finish the deck, and you like feeling good, so you also scrape and paint that wall that was peeling, and mow the lawn, maybe do that brick repair you've been meaning to do.
If you're not into home improvement, it might be cleaning the house, or shipping software, or whatever else. That feeling is good. The crazy feeling of being out of control -- that's bad. So you work hard to ship
I like the term "winners ship." That doesn't mean that everyone who ships is a winner; you might do a terrible job painting the house to get it done. The thing is, if you don't ship, you can't win; it is necessary, but not sufficient, to ship in order to win.
If that's true, what's so terrible about making a todo list?
On it's face, well ... nothing's wrong with a todo list. They can be helpful.
What's wrong with a TODO List?
I do see two possible problems with the todo list.
First, writing the todo list down gets the stuff out of your head. Traditionally, people see that as a really good thing, the pressure is gone and you can breathe easy. I'm saying: The pressure was good. It got me to ship. Yet I can see both sides of the argument. A small sense of urgency isn't worth driving yourself crazy over.
Second, and more sinister: By writing things down, you can trick your brain into giving you the candy. Likewise, by working on the todo list, by creating folders and sorting, and systems and deadlines, you feel a sense of accomplishment "look what a great system I have!!"
Yet you haven't actually made anything yet
. This is particularly obvious to a freelancer, who has to bill for completed work. :-)
This trap happens to lots of trades: Programmers often give themselves brain candy for getting to "code complete", when really that's when the project is getting interesting. Likewise, some general managers breathe easy when the contract is signed and the sale is "done", leaving the "clean up work" to those "people in operations" -- but that's just when the real work starts. I've even worked with project managers and PMO's who gave the brain candy out when a project went from "plan/concept" to "build/implement"; yet the typical project had it's schedule pushed out by 25-50% within a month of moving to build/implement.
Reward the wrong thing with the brain candy, and you'll get more of it. If the activity is too early stage, you'll fill up your work pipeline and cripple the business. In all fairness, that's a big part of why I started using these systems,which I'll write more about next time -- I was signing too many contracts, and needed a way to look at the whole process to manage my time and attention.
A todo list might give you a picture of everything that needs to be done, but it won't do the work for you. Worse, I suspect having the list can lull your brain into a state of complacency.
"Writing that Book"
When it comes to that next big thing, the recurring problem I hear is in getting that darn book written. They'll talk about it, they'll complain about it, they carry it around like a weight on a chain.
Of all the people I've met who are daring to do great things, I've noticed something: The people who will get the book published are not the ones talking about it, but instead, the ones not talking about it, because they are too busy doing
If you want to write a book, go write it
. If you want a new job, go get one
. The number one thing you can do to get what you want is to actually do the work
I know, I know, it's simple, and we all know it. Yet how many of us get our brain candy by reading
blogs instead of writing our own?
It turns out that is magical secret to productivity. Oh, I could talk for hours about tools (like a wiki) or literary techniques -- where ideas come from and how to development them -- and I will in the next installment. Fundamentally, though, if you are doing testing, programming, project management, writing a wiki, blogging, whatever
, 90% of the issue is finding the time and doing the work.
Doing the work
Not checking email. Not surfing the web. Not going to meetings. Imagine taking a stop watch and figuring out how many minutes a day you spend actually doing the work
Like the hero in office space, too many of us spent an hour a week doing the work, and twenty more agonizing how it isn't getting done.
Perhaps that is what always creeped me out about the to-do list people. Here you had this group of people who spent more time talking about
the work than doing it, lecturing me about how to be more effective because I dob't have a list.
Yup. You're right. I'm sorry. I was too busy doing the work
I realize this will offend some list-people. Show me a hyper-performing list person, and I'd be happy to do a two-sided Q&A. Until then, I'm afraid we are going to have a one-side conversation.
The Kevin Adams Problem-Solving Method
When I was a cadet in Civil Air Patrol, we were exposed to several systems and techniques for problem solving. The current CAP textbook method
has six steps and looks something like this:
Recognize the Problem
List Possible Solutions
Test Possible Solutions
Select the Best Possible Solution
Apply the Solution
That's all well and good, as far as it goes, but I am reminded of Kevin Adams
, an old family friend and mentor to my wife when she was a cadet. Kevin's system had two parts:
Recognize the Problem
Eliminate the Problem
All joking aside here, what Kevin was getting at was a bias for action.
The Bottom Line
If you want to write the book, go write the book
If you want to be productive, you gotta spend time doing the work
If you to solve the problem, solve the @$%Y^%& problem!
I've got plenty to add, but this is the foundation.
More to come.