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A Modest Guide to Productivity

Hello, zonked Frank!

It’s me! That ideal Frank you wish you could more regularly be! I’ve taken a moment away from my self-actualized, perfect state to jot down some advice that you may find handy as you trudge through your inharmonious slog of a life! I think you will find this timely, relatable, and actionable, because I have made the effort to form-fit these tips just for you—er, me! (The arrangement is all very confusing, really, so never mind!)

Eventually you (?),

PS: Please read carefully! This is all I know!

  • A person is not a brain driving a meat robot; it all runs together. If work is stymied, ask: are you eating clean? Getting enough sleep? Did your heart pump more than a sloth today? Start with your body, not your work methods. Trust me.
  • Get enthusiasm on the cheap by buying a fancy wooden pencil to write everything down. A $3 pencil is now more exciting than a $2,000 computer. Many people will do the most mundane work just to feel a good tool fly.
  • Stay on paper as long as possible. Sketch and write things out long-hand, possibly even emails. We all know screens are distracting. It’s much more pragmatic to step away from them for a significant block of time than trying to learn an attentional jiu jitsu that may be impossible. If you think you can’t step away, do it anyway for one day to see how much trouble it causes. That’s useful information.
  • Dump your brain on to a sheet of paper—every single thing you could hope to do in the next 3 to 4 months. Then, look at your task list. Have the author sign each one. Did you write it, or was it fear, that nasty tyrant in your head? Cross off anything written out of fear. Listen: some drudgery is unavoidable, but you’re living your one and only life. You get to drive; no bullies at the wheel.
  • On a scale of 1 to 5, label each task with its perceived difficulty. You now have your master list for the quarter.
  • In the morning (or the evening before), make a to-do list for each day by selecting items from your master list. Each day can only hold so much. You can probably do one task that’s level five difficulty, one level four, a couple three’s, and you’ll backfill the groggy afternoons with one’s and two’s. Flip this arrangement if you turn into a night owl. A massive block of four’s and five’s means you need to ask for help. (This is okay! Now you know where you need it, which is half of asking.)
  • In the middle of large projects, take a quick read on things at about 20%, 40%, and 80% completion to see if adjustments are necessary. Will we be closer to our goals if we continue to work on this? Is the arrangement working well for the others involved? And if you’re doing something that’s meant to be pleasurable, is it, you know, pleasurable? Regularly check in to stay true: scuttle what is done for fun but isn’t as fun as expected; change course in things that are necessary but gone awry; break the burden of silence when working in mistakenly arranged groups. Take inspiration from all those sassy diner waitresses: “How we doin’ over here?” Then, listen.
  • When you’re done, see if your estimation of a tasks’s difficulty was correct. Were you overly optimistic? Pessimistic? If you’ve repeated that work, can you see it getting easier? Are you improving? We so rarely take the time to witness ourselves getting better at our work.
  • At the end of three months, there is The Reckoning. Go through your quarterly list and see what is still not done. Ask the hard questions. Why is it still there? Can we strike it, undone, and release ourselves? Perhaps things get neglected out of fear. (I’m looking at you, dentist appointment.) Other times we’re caught in the sway of shifting priorities, management swings, or indecisiveness at higher levels. This is good to know and an important point to raise. We’re all subject to superiors’ whims and putting out small fires. But usually—mostly—the things left on the list are our fears. There is no pleasant way to face them, but we must.
  • Maybe another way to look at The Reckoning is as a valve of forgiveness: many of the things you thought you needed to do in the next few months were left undone without noticeable consequences. Perhaps you can now cut their weight. “Goodbye, heavy friends. Maybe someone else will give you the attention you need.”
  • Here’s a good way to avoid those fearful items if you can’t cut them free: always be tidying up. If this rule is good enough for a ship, a wood shop, and a kitchen, it’s good enough for us.
  • The last step of every project is to properly document it. Take this seriously, because by neglecting it you subject yourself to the cumulative anxiety of partially finished things. This can bury a man.
  • When the day’s list is done, do not go back to the master list. The rewards of productivity must not be a bottomless well of work. If you can do more, add another item to tomorrow’s list. But for today? Go.