"Eureka!" moments are few and far between when it comes to streamlining the way we work. Though we would certainly like it to be otherwise, it's rare that a nugget of insight breaks through our deeply ingrained habits to effect real change.
To share some of my personal favorites, I've collected a handful of great productivity posts that really changed the way I work. Hopefully, one of these "classics" will also strike a chord with you.
This 2009 essay from Paul Graham makes a revelatory distinction between the ideal schedule for a maker (or “creative”) and the ideal schedule for the manager—who, often with negative result, has the power to set everyone else’s schedule. Here’s an excerpt:
There are two types of schedule, which I'll call the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule. The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour.
When you use time that way, it's merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you're done.
Most powerful people are on the manager's schedule. It's the schedule of command. But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.
When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule. There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.
Bestselling author Jim Collins published an incredible piece in USA Today at the end of 2003 about his annual ritual of creating a “Stop Doing List.” Collins describes a transformative assignment given to him by a former professor:
She then gave me what I came to call the 20-10 assignment. It goes like this: Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?
That assignment became a turning point in my life, and the "stop doing" list became an enduring cornerstone of my annual New Year resolutions—a mechanism for disciplined thought about how to allocate the most precious of all resources: time.
Rochelle's challenge forced me to see that I'd been plenty energetic, but on the wrong things. Indeed, I was on entirely the wrong path. After graduate school, I'd taken a job at Hewlett-Packard. I loved the company, but hated the job. Rochelle's assignment helped me to see I was cut out to be a professor, a researcher, a teacher—not a businessman—and I needed to make a right-angle turn. I had to stop doing my career, so that I could find my real work. I quit HP, migrated to the Stanford Business School faculty and eventually became—with some remarkable good luck along the way—a self-employed professor, happily toiling away on my research and writing.
For better or worse, the “to-do” list is eternal. And everything that productivity guru Merlin Mann mentions in this 2005 post on managing your tasks still rings true. This “anatomy of a to-do” is a particularly excellent bit:
The primary idea of a to-do is that it's a task that can and should be done—a point that might seem obvious until you start uncovering how many of the items on your to-do list may not belong there (or, conversely, how many uncaptured items do). The best and most useful to-dos share common qualities:
- It's a physical action
- It can be accomplished at a sitting
- It supports valuable progress toward a recognized goal
- It's something for which you are the most appropriate person for the job
Glancing at your own to-do list, do you see any potential troublemakers? Notice any items that make you squeamish? Any mystery meat tasks that seem "un-doable" as is?
TED curator Chris Anderson recently channeled the I’m-drowning-in-e-mail zeitgeist into a fantastic manifesto called the E-mail Charter, which recommends ten rules for reversing the time-sucking e-mail spiral. Here are the first four:
1. Respect recipients' time
This is the fundamental rule. As the message sender, the onus is on you to minimize the time your e-mail will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your end before sending.
2. Short or slow is not rude
Let's mutually agree to cut each other some slack. Given the e-mail load we're all facing, it's OK if replies take a while coming and if they don't give detailed responses to all your questions. No one wants to come over as brusque, so please don't take it personally. We just want our lives back!
3. Celebrate clarity
Start with a subject line that clearly labels the topic, and maybe includes a status category [Info], [Action], [Time Sens] [Low Priority]. Use crisp, muddle-free sentences. If the e-mail has to be longer than five sentences, make sure the first provides the basic reason for writing. Avoid strange fonts and colors.
4. Quash open-ended questions
It is asking a lot to send someone an e-mail with four long paragraphs of turgid text followed by "Thoughts?" Even well-intended-but-open questions like "How can I help?" may not be that helpful. E-mail generosity requires simplifying, easy-to-answer questions. "Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or c) staying right out of it?!"
This post by J.K. Glei is based on research by the Behance team. Behance runs the Behance Creative Network, the 99% productivity think tank, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.