The productivity puzzle : 7 mistakes to avoid

As with other articles this piece is my thinking and my experiments with productivity. When I talk about productivity it is about how to manage your day in a way that you get the maximum possible output.

Understanding productivity from different angles

A certain technique may work very well for individuals in one line of work vs another.
When I was a student the productivity techniques that worked for me didn’t work when I got into working for different clients or when I was working with a team.

Basically it can be divided into

Individual activities – where your schedule isn’t too much dependent on others. Example: As a student you have a lot of control over your schedule, you have to deal with your college/school, which has a set time everyday, after you are done with that you mostly have full control over the rest of the activities that you want to do that day.

Group Activities – where your schedule depends on a lot of other people. Example: As a freelancer/team lead if you are working with several clients, it is hard to predict when meetings will happen and for how long, which client may need your urgent assistance, which teammate needs you on a call.

I will be talking about the mistakes I made in the second part of my life, where things weren’t too much under my control i.e. it was hard to predict what might come up and also I was too hard on myself to be my productive best.

Here we go.

1. Planning every minute of the day

I have tried a bunch of time table kinds of apps(Goalist, TimeTuner etc.), these apps mainly aim to divide your entire day into a set of tasks that you can do by the minute.

The idea is great but here are the problems:

  • Planning every minute of your day is pretty hard ( I can’t tell accurately how much time I am going to spend in the washroom tomorrow)
  • Even if you manage to plan the entire day it is difficult to keep up with it. After missing several tasks in the day as you had planned you will feel like you have failed badly.

Now, I try to plan “most” of my day but not all of it. I just leave certain chunks of time free and do not go into minor details E.g. instead of 5 minutes brushing, 15 mins bathing, I simple group as 30 mins of grooming time.

2. Too many tasks that start at a fixed time

Too many (more than 4 in an 8-hour period) tasks which start at a fixed time had the potential of making me miss a few of my task targets or at least I was off on some, leading to frustration and again the feeling of failure.

Present day, I just keep only the necessary tasks with fixed start time, rest of the tasks just keep moving and sliding through the white space on my calendar.

3. Reducing Rest time to increase working hours

I reduced my sleeping hours to get a couple more hours for work.

My thought process was – “If I had more hours available for work wouldn’t that be great! Combine it with my ninja scheduling and I will be a productivity machine”.

This kind of thinking is totally counter productive for several reasons

  • There is a saying that work expands to fill the available time, it doesn’t matter how much time you have you will always have more work. So even with more hours available you still can’t finish everything today.
  • Without proper rest the quality of the output also substantially reduced. I went into “Zombie” mode quite too often where I couldn’t focus properly or understand the task at hand leading to more errors, miscommunication and mood swings.

These days, me and my bed meet each other for at least 7 hours a day, great company. They say “You are the company that you keep” and honestly, it has made me a better person!

4. Using wrong technique for the kind of task

There are several productivity techniques out there, but you have to pick the right one for the job at hand.

Here is an example of how a certain very effective technique didn’t work for me. I installed a “Pomodoro” app on my computer which blurred my screen every 25 minutes to give me a 5 minutes break and this is what used to happen most of the time:

  • It came at the time when I was presenting my screen, kicking in a “Pomodoro” for everyone on the call! So I had to kill it.
  • I picked a development task, in the first 25 minutes I familiarized myself with the task and was starting to get all warmed up and into the zone and then suddenly the Pomodoro hit, unsettling me.

While Pomodoro is great you can’t use it with every kind of task or at least not directly without personalizing for your needs. Keep this in mind whenever you pick up a new technique for productivity it might or might not work for you. I certainly do that now.

5. Not keeping task or day buffers.

The greatest planning fallacy for me has been an assumption that everything will always go as I plan. As I mentioned before while in college this mostly used to work for me, but with other things this “mostly” used to fail.

From recent formal study of project management I understood that managers keep some form of buffers with a task/project. Similarly when planning, also make sure you put in some buffers.

Now whenever I plan I always leave a space between two consecutive items

6. Bashing yourself for not being able to execute your day plan

I have been a culprit of this, bash myself for even small failures and sometimes I take too far. Failing at simple tasks is disheartening but you just need to keep the learning and move forward. Analyze and improve.

Even with all the good intentions and efforts your plans will fail, nothing new about it. Life is a game of probabilities and percentages, as long as you are achieving your targets majority of the time do not take an occasional failure to your heart.

7. Not planning for rest or having unplanned days

Last year I went into the “No days off” mode, it worked well for a few weeks while my motivation was sky high, riding on my emotions and my “urge” to be at the pinnacle of productivity.

I planned every day including weekends, weekends were also filled with work.
The “hustle” mentality was short lived, I could easily see myself getting irritated easily, I had become totally unforgiving to people, I couldn’t stand the simplest of mistakes. Maybe my brain started to think “I am sacrificing so much and look at this person just wasting my time”

Have some days off, if not two, have at least one day off a week. If you want to plan, plan all the fun stuff – time with family, some outing, hiking etc. or even don’t plan it at all just go with the tide once a week, it helps break the monotony.

In the end realize that time and productivity are always going to be relative. Don’t measure it with someone else’s scale. Always look for what works best for you, try it sincerely but if it doesn’t work for you, rather than forcing it on yourself, move on and look for something else.

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Hi! I am Nikhil and I am always happy to see you here. Know more about me here.

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