Seminal Productivity Ideas

Occasionally, you read a magazine article or a blog post and have that “Eureka!” moment of insight – something has been revealed and the way you think will never be the same again. Concentrating on the idea of productivity, I recently asked myself and the 99U writing team what their touchstone pieces in this category would be. Below, you’ll find a shortlist of key pieces that have influenced the way we manage our time, our to-do lists, our priorities, and our distractions…

On Scheduling:

“Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” by Paul Graham

A highly influential piece on the subject of time management, Paul Graham’s 2009 essay 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.

Keep reading >

On Priorities:

“The Stop-Doing List” by Jim Collins

For a smart, talented person, it’s easy to work relentlessly and get a lot done, but are you really focusing on the right things? 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.

Keep reading >

On Task Management:

“Building a Smarter To-Do List” by Merlin Mann

For better or worse, the “to-do” list is eternal. And everything that productivity guru Merlin Mann mentions in his 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?

Keep reading >

On Email:

“The Email Charter” by Chris Anderson

Email stopped being fun a long time ago. Since then, the Internet has produced oodles of articles on how to best handle the e-beast. Most recently, TED curator Chris Anderson channeled the I’m-drowning-in-email zeitgeist into a concise manifesto called the Email Charter, which recommends ten rules for reversing the time-sucking email 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 email 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 email 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 email 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 email 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. Email generosity requires simplifying, easy-to-answer questions. “Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or c) staying right out of it?!”

Keep reading >

5. On Focus & Attention:

“In Defense of Distraction” by Sam Anderson

This 2009 article by New York mag’s Sam Anderson is the wild card in our shortlist: It doesn’t contain any 1, 2, 3 productivity tips. What it does offer is a captivating and insightful overview of the current research on our poverty of attention and our obsession with multi-tasking – which (by the way) doesn’t work:

Over the last twenty years, Meyer and a host of other researchers have proved again and again that multitasking, at least as our culture has come to know and love and institutionalize it, is a myth. When you think you’re doing two things at once, you’re almost always just switching rapidly between them, leaking a little mental efficiency with every switch.

Meyer says that this is because, to put it simply, the brain processes different kinds of information on a variety of separate “channels”—a language channel, a visual channel, an auditory channel, and so on—each of which can process only one stream of information at a time. If you overburden a channel, the brain becomes inefficient and mistake-prone. The classic example is driving while talking on a cell phone, two tasks that conflict across a range of obvious channels: Steering and dialing are both manual tasks, looking out the windshield and reading a phone screen are both visual, etc. Even talking on a hands-free phone can be dangerous, Meyer says. If the person on the other end of the phone is describing a visual scene—say, the layout of a room full of furniture—that conversation can actually occupy your visual channel enough to impair your ability to see what’s around you on the road.

The only time multitasking does work efficiently, Meyer says, is when multiple simple tasks operate on entirely separate channels—for example, folding laundry (a visual-manual task) while listening to a stock report (a verbal task). But real-world scenarios that fit those specifications are very rare.

Keep reading >

What Ideas Changed the Way You Work?

This list isn’t complete without your input… What articles and/or ideas changed the way you work?

Thanks to Scott McDowell, Mark McGuinness, Michael Margolis, Bernie Michalik, and Sarah Rapp for input on this piece.

More insights on: Email Strategy, Focus, Task Management

Jocelyn K. Glei

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A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with understanding how work gives our lives meaning. She has authored three books about work, creativity, and business, including the Amazon bestsellers Manage Your Day-to-Day and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.
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