#11 How to Get Shit Done (Time Management & Productivity)

People often ask me how I get so much done in a small period of time. Here's how.

Hey folks!

Before I start talking about this. I want to preface this thing with, I personally think ‘productivity porn’ and trying to cram in as much as possible or being super-efficient every day is borderline unhealthy. I don’t think it’s important to be able to run 2 massive companies like Elon musk and listen to stories about how some people schedule their day in 5-minute increments - thinking we need to do the same.

Just chill out. Don’t worry about being super-efficient, as long as you are happy with how things are and how you’re progressing - don’t worry about how you think you should work. With that said, here are some things that I do to help me be slightly more productive and efficient but I’m not perfect with it nor do I think I need to be that strict.

I take a slightly different approach to this. I like to incorporate the science of time efficiency and psychology to come up with ideal throughput. Using these strategies that I cultivated over several years I was able to manage a full-time university (Engineering / Physics), a full-time job as a marketing manager, learning to code and running a startup all at once. I actually learned full-stack development during that semester of intense work. So, trust me, I know how to churn work out effectively and productively.

Just Do Less.

This is going to conflict with what I just said but if I was to go back and change that period of time juggling all those things I would have cut out 50% of it. I was trying to do too much and other areas such as health and relationships suffered as a result. Right now, I do far less than below but I’m happier and can sustain the effort for a lot longer. The first point is to just cut stuff out, what is less important and can you cut that out. Just because you physically can fit everything in timewise, you sometimes miss the mental overload or drain it has on you over the long term.

I prefer getting enough sleep and being healthy over adding an extra task into my life. You should too. Focus and balance will help you get more done in the long term - trust me.

Time Auditing & Time Boxing

Use a calendar (I use google calendar) to track your time and plan your time throughout the week. Generally, as humans, we tend to take as much time as required to complete a task. If you think about university deadlines, most students tend to take up the entire 2 weeks till the due date. We're really good at taking up the time that is provided. The idea of timeboxing is to reduce your perfectionism on tasks and also aim for you to finish within a more allotted period of time that is restricted. It is also really beneficial to chip away at time ambiguous or open-ended tasks that you may not know how to do or how long it would take. It also helps with predictability which means you know what needs to be done and how long to spend on it.

I'd also couple time auditing on this as well because it will allow you to understand how you spend your time. Unfortunately, we're not great at predicting how long a task will take so you'll get better as you audit your time. Personally, I'll plan as much as I can the day before and then change my calendar whilst going through my day to accurately represented what happened. It has two effects. One is that it helps me understand where I'm wasting time but also if I'm stressed that I did nothing, I can review my day and say “hey I actually accomplished a lot”. I even track commutes and leisure time but it's up to you how deep you want to go because there is such a thing as over-planning and overdoing productivity tools/techniques such that you avoid the actual work at hand.

Life Kanban

Kanban is a Japanese word for signboard or billboard in Japanese and is a scheduling system for lean manufacturing and Just-in-Time Manufacturing. Taiichi Ohn, an industrial engineer at Toyota developed kanban to improve efficiency. As someone who studied manufacturing, I like to appreciate where it came from and not just its applications in software and schedule nowadays.

I suggest the creation of a life kanban which is broken down in the following. You should use notion or Trello to build this out. The backlog is where you through any task that you get that is over 5 min of work. (generally, any less than this and you would rather just do it on the spot). Then every morning or night before you can drag tasks into To-DO Today for a good to-do list and move through doing and do as you work on them. Past work is for previous days. I like to keep my weekly tasks in past work because I can look back on the week and feel accomplished.

Backlog | To-Dos | Doing | Done

Email Optimisation

Email and messaging is one of those constant distractions that come up throughout the day. If you do sales or very customer-centric work it's not the easiest thing to optimise however here are some really easy things to do. This can be applied if you check really frequently or only a few times a week.

Google Stars / Microsoft Flags

Most email providers will have some sort of flagging or star mechanism to be able to keep track of emails that you need to follow up on. So here is the method.

  • Emails that can be responded to immediately should be responded too

  • Emails that you think will take a bit more time - star them.

  • Come back to Emails you have starred over a day or more at a specific timeboxed interval to deal with them

That's it. It will make your lives much easier when it comes to the management of your email related work.

Leave Perfection at the Door

There is a known principle called the Pareto Principle that states that for many events and situations, roughly 80% of the impact or effect comes from 20% of the causes or effort. This was noted by Vilfredo Pareto who noted that approximately 80% of the land was owned by 20% of the population. This was extended by Joseph M. Juran who found more and more examples where this occurred.

What does this mean for us?

I tend to often speed to completion so things are done and then come back to it if I have time. Especially when it’s an assignment or a submission - I'll do the best I can do within a fixed timeframe with 20% of my normal effort and 80% of my potential. Then only come back to it if I really want to tweak it to get the final 20% of marks.

Leave perfection at the door because that final 20% should be the last concern for you and you want to prioritise throughput over perfection. If you want to do everything you want to do then getting 100% is near impossible.

Forget perfectionism because you'll never get it right the first time anyway. Ship that product early, submit that assignment - get feedback and get something out the door now.

I will leave you with this quote from Ried Hoffman - If you're not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late.

No Multi-tasking

One of my favourite books is called Algorithms to Live By - Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths. It is an absolutely phenomenal book that gives you productivity tools but inspired by computer science and as an engineer, I really appreciate this approach.

It talks about multi-tasking and makes it clear that multi-tasking is not actually doing things simultaneously but constantly switching between these tasks. With these switches and mental juggling, there is an incurred switching cost. This can result in much faster fatigue as that switching cost is extra processing and overall, ensure that you do both tasks less effectively.

This means that you will always be more effective when you solo tasks and concentrate on one thing. There is also strong psychology research that backs this up (computer science and psychology agree!). A small article published by the American Psychology Association (APA) goes into some detail. (Source)

Scheduling / Prioritizing

The book also goes into different ways of scheduling and prioritising. There are three ways that are suggested and really I think any of these can be applied depending on your situation and personality. Just pick one that fits you.

  • Earliest Due Date (EDD) - start with the task due soonest and work towards the task due last. This will minimise your lateness.

  • Moore's Algorithm - This is a modified EDD but when it looks like you won't get to the next item in time, you throw out the biggest item. (This is good for reducing the number of late projects that are submitted)

  • Shortest Processing Time (SPT) - Always do the quickest tasks you can do. (reduces the sum of completion times)

In reality, you will probably use a combination of the above (which is what I do). I prioritise using EDD for daily routine and then SPT for the actual tasks on the day. Also, don't overthink this! It's just a good guideline to follow. I used to take this to the extreme where I created a quantifiable metric that incorporated (size, importance and time) to self-prioritise my tasks but I've left that behind because it wasn't the most accurate. However, for any aspiring scientists and engineers who want to do this, it isn't a bad strategy!

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So that's it! Make sure you turn these into actionable by getting software or systems in place for you to do it. You need to commit to this for a while so you can see noticeable results. Eventually, I promise, this will become just a 2nd nature. I check my calendar and time-audit naturally and I enjoy seeing some progress.