Productivity Tactics

My chosen strategies for staying productive

Preface

Personal productivity can be viewed as the ratio between output and input, in most cases output / time. How much output am I able to produce for each hour spent working? Improving this ratio will mean that you are able to generate more output without working more.

However, I think that the biggest benefits can be found in how this makes you feel. Improving your personal productivity will improve the way you relate to your work, and ideally make you feel less stressed and overwhelmed.

My aim with creating a page like this is not to boast about a perfect system, but state my own aspirations and showcase a few tools and tactics that have worked for me. I hope that they will be of benefit to others.

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Meta-tactic: Deep work

Deep work is key to unlocking both high-quality output and enjoyment while working. Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. The main argument in Cal Newport’s book is that deep work is becoming one of the most valuable skills while becoming increasingly rare.

If you agree with this observation you will find that the tactics below make sense, because they all intend to increase the amount of deep work available.

Time-blocking

This is the best strategy I’ve found to promote deep work. Using your calendar, assign each task a block of time. I use 30-minute chunks as the smallest unit together with the Pomodoro Technique, so that larger tasks are multiple of these sequences after one another. However if I am in a flow state while writing or analyzing data I will work for 60 or 90 minutes at a time instead, with fewer but longer breaks in between.

I make room for “admin blocks” where I might complete a long list of smaller tasks after one another, a strategy called task batching. These are placed strategically to not interrupt deep work, before lunch and before I finish work in the afternoon.

The main benefit from time-blocking is that I am able to focus on the task at hand as it reduces the amount of context shifts during that time (if I manage to resist temptations!). Another benefit is that, over time, I start to get a good idea about the amount of time required to complete a certain task. This means more realistic expectations about what can be achieved in a day or a week.

Since most days do not go exactly as planned, I update the time-block plan during the day or at the daily review. This is fine.

Johnny Decimal

Johnny Decimal is an organisational framework where you create a consistent folder structure across tools and devices, in order to find your things. The core idea is that you divide all your stuff into ten large buckets, and then within each bucket allow a maximum of ten categories. At the most you have a hundred categories (but I have used about 50 so far).

You maintain a main index file that you keep updated so that you can find the corresponding number for whatever you are looking for. I remember the numbers for projects I refer to a lot, for example 46.04 corresponds to a specific project where I am currently writing the manuscript.

I have my research work in the 40-49 bucket, and the 9 categories I have added so far are:

  • 41 Teaching
  • 42 Miscellaneous (work in progress!)
  • 43 Presentations
  • 44 Peer-review
    • 44.01 - Manuscript title
    • 44.02 - Manuscript title
    • 44.03 - Manuscript title
    • etc…
  • 45 Grants
  • 46 Papers & projects
  • 47 PhD studies
  • 48 Career planning
  • 49 Supervision

Earlier today I completed a peer-review report that I’ve assigned the number 44.06. But since I have a consistent system across my computer, all I needed to do was to search for “44.06” to find all the related folders and documents. When new things appear within these categories I create a new folder with the next number available, and assign that number to the project/event/task. The next research project will get the number 46.28, for example.

Reviews

I do reviews at multiple scales, daily/weekly/quarterly/annually. I find that they help me direct my efforts towards what matters and to disconnect from work in my spare time.

Annual reviews

Big picture planning. I write these things down in a document and go back to it during quarterly reviews.

  • What were the three key goals in the past year, did I reach my aspirations? What lessons can be learned?
  • Review important life areas and reflect on the past year. What went well, what do I want to change? How did I spend my time? I look at relationships, work, leisure time & interests, health, and economy.
  • What do I want to happen in the coming year? Any key events or milestones upcoming? Do I want to have a certain focus or theme for the coming year?

Quarterly reviews

Implementing the annual review on a more manageable time-scale. I’ve experimented with both monthly and quarterly reviews, and for my current situation quarterly reviews are the best fit. The projects I work on tend to be too large scale to be completed within a month, but are reasonable to complete within a quarter (for example analyzing the results from a study and writing the first manuscript draft).

  • Review goals from the previous quarterly review
  • Plan the next quarter: How can I make progress towards my goals for the year? Any sub-tasks or projects that will lead me there?
  • Review habits in important life areas. What has been going well? What do I want to change next quarter?

Weekly reviews

This is where the lofty goals and the realities of life meet. How can carve out time each week to make progress towards my long-term goals (developing skills, learning new things, getting important habits done)? There are many guides to weekly reviews available for inspiration.

  • Review the previous week: Did I manage to stick to the key habits?
  • Plan for the next week: What does my schedule look like next week? What important tasks do I need to work on? When will I have time for deep work?

I prefer having pre-set templates for this, for example dedicating the mornings of each day to deep work activities and scheduling meetings in the afternoons if possible.

Daily reviews

Here I re-arrange tasks that were not completed, update my time-block plan for the next day, and clear out inboxes.

  • Re-arrange incomplete tasks: This means looking at my task manager to see if there were any planned things that I did not get to, and checking notes from meetings to see if I have any new things to add to my task list.
  • Update time-block plan for tomorrow: Does anything need to be moved around, does a project with an upcoming deadline need more work? Are there any planned meetings or appointments that I need to consider?
  • Clear out inboxes: Check email and other inboxes. Respond to messages, and capture important information into tasks or notes. Put files in the corresponding folder. Goal: not having to check the email again (this will reduce context shifts).

Summary

These are examples of personal productivity tactics that have been helpful for me, and maybe you have found something interesting to try out for yourself. Experiment, adapt, and find something that works for you! We call it personal productivity after all.