Letter to Myself on Productivity

∙ 6 min read

Dear Tom,

Hope this letter finds you—uh, me?—well! I’ve noticed lately that stepping back and looking at the bigger picture would benefit you. So let’s stop running the race for a moment and talk.

Just you and me.

Let’s look at how you currently do things and what you could do to make yourself more productive.

1/ Think before you leap

Oftentimes, whenever you get excited about something or there is just a new thing to do, you dive right in—head first. This enthusiasm is generally pretty awesome. Others enjoy it and it’s infectious to be around. There are downsides though.

Leaping before surveying the landscape is often okay, but occasionally there will be lions, tigers, or other strange beasts ready to gobble you up. This can likely be avoided by thinking about what you are about to encounter.

So what should you think about? That’s a great question. It depends. In general here are some things that either sound right or have lead to scars—and tiger bites—in the past and are worth trying to figure out ahead of time. (Keep in mind you can interchange the team with you.)

What are you doing? Why are you doing it? (Ask why again.) Who are you doing this for? How long will this take? Is this something you know how to do or is it new? How does this fit in with everything you are currently doing? Does it fit? Who should you talk to before starting? What research should you conduct before starting? What does success look like for you and others? Will doing this help you learn or improve at something? Is this something you want to do?

Once you’ve thought about theses things, you’re almost ready to dive in.

Go for a walk down the block. Come back. And then start.

2/ Take breaks

What a simple concept, yet not easy to do. Every once in a while, stop what you are doing and free your mind and body from it. You’ll be more productive when you come back fresh after a break instead of repeatedly banging your head against the wall. Diminishing returns are very real.

What classifies as a break? I’m so glad you asked.

Physically move to a different location. If you’ve been sitting in the same chair for a while. Stand up and walk around. Breathe deeply. Stretch. Exercise. If it’s nice outside, go for a stroll. When was your last meal? Did you forget because you were working? Go catch up in that category and don’t eat at your desk.

Not everything needs to be completed in one sitting. Literally or figuratively. In fact, better results come from work that spans time and diverse experiences outside of the work. The brain has a strange way of untwisting problems in a background thread while you’re doing other things.

Change to a different headspace. Whatever you were thinking about before, try not to think about it. Rather let your thoughts come and go. You don’t have to focus too hard. This is a break after all. Go chat with a friend, think about someone you love, journal, consider some art, or look at a plant. Whatever you do: DO. NOT. LOOK. AT. SCREENS. This includes phones, tablets, computers, TVs, AR/VR, and/or anything that will be invented in the future that resembles a screen.

I once heard that looking at a screen increases your cognitive load by 20% instantly. Who cares if that’s not true. It’s the spirit. During a break—no screens. (Kindle might be okay.)

Somewhat screen-related: Don’t bring your phone to the bathroom. It’s disgusting.

3/ Nurture relationships

How do these relate to productivity?

You see, a lot about what you work on depends on who you work with. And a lot of your experience working on those things is determined by your teammates experiences. Got it?

What I’m trying to tell you is to nurture these relationships in and outside of the work. Get to know people. Understand their motivations and desires. Why are they working on this thing? Would they rather be doing something else? This will help you be a good teammate and, in general, a good person. Be ready to break off or reduce the frequency of relationships that are toxic. Know when you are the problem.

Don’t do networking. Do be curious about others. Don’t talk. Do listen. Build up trust. Knowing those you work with well is a boon for the work. You can be candid. You can give real feedback. You can yell at each other. You can celebrate the victories. This happens because you’re not only aligned on the work, but also hopefully each others’ journeys.

Never set expectations and fail to meet them.

It’s easy to put relationships second to the work. To forget about them until they are unrepairable or just not how you wanted them to turn out. Remember that after the work is done, it disappears and the relationships remain.

4/ Record learnings

The only thing that is worse than a tiger bite, is a tiger bite that could have been avoided. Make sure you don’t repeat painful mistakes again.

When it’s all done, record it! Write it! Type it! Collage it! Whatever you have to do in order to think about all the interesting things you learned. What went well? What didn’t go well? What are some improvements for next time? Remember the questions you asked before starting: Were you correct, wrong, etc? (Be careful of hindsight bias.)

Find a good way to neatly package up all the knowledge for yourself. Save it for a future time.

This step is important if you want to improve. You do want to improve, right? Often documenting learnings is an expedited process. You just fought the battle. You are tired. You don’t really want to think about whatever you did or didn’t do again. I don’t blame you, but trust me, you’ll be better off in the future if you take a moment to reflect. (You could use your favorite app!) Then you can move on to the next thing.

Once you’re all post-mortem’ed out, go through your list of things that you need/want to do. Figure out what still needs doing. What’s been on the list the longest? Why is it on the list? Why hasn’t it been done? Does it need doing or is it a relic of a different time—a different Tom? Feel free to discard it if necessary.

The great news is you just completed a journey! You are ready for something new and exciting! Use that experience to make the next one even better than the last. Or don’t. Either way, you are sure to learn something new.

So what do you think after reading that? Definitely not an exhaustive list by any means. I’m sure I forgot to mention a few things, but that’s life. You never have all the information you need to make a decision.

Anyway, sit up straight, be intentional, avoid shiny objects, and you’ll be just fine.


P.S. Learn the keybindings