Productivity and Loathing in Las Vegas (but really its Baltimore)

Probably as long as I’ve been aware of it, I’ve struggled with productivity. It is my natural workflow to be spread-too-thin-across-too-many-projects, and while I can certainly identity that there is a problem (and they tell me the first step is admitting it), I’ve engaged in a life-long battle to defeat it.

Of course, if you work in IT, you have to deal with other people’s mandatory to-do lists, be they IT Service Delivery systems like Service Now or JIRA, or email. None of these are serviceable for your personal stuff, let alone managing projects, or recurring events. Frustrating! Not to mention that the task-collecting asset is firmly and distinctly separate from the task-provisioning process, and neither one pay any mind to the time-provisioning process! So many pieces, too manual, too many opportunities for failure. I’ve taken a lot of long-hard looks at this process in my life, and sometimes I had the bulk of it in hand, but never all of it. I am sure someone out there has sorted it out, but I’m not that guy!

No one part of this process outweighs the others, so its not even like you can hyper-focus collection or task provision or time provision and overpower the others.

Task Collection

Most productivity “systems” hinge on one missing piece: ease of use and accessibility. Apps on your phone or PC are pretty easy to use, and are a winner, by a mile, for task collection. I have used simple solutions like Microsoft ToDos nee Wunderlist (RIP), which work famously for shared lists (I still use this for the grocery list that my wife and I shared). I am famously anti-shared-account, and Todos does this wonderfully. Completed tasks are gathered up, making shopping lists cumbersome if you accidentally “complete” a task, and need to undo it (at this point the shared grocery list todo list has hundreds of “Milk”, “Yogurt Pouches”, etc). OmniOutliner, OneNote, Evernote, and countless other apps do this piece seamlessly. Its really nice to always have these at your fingertips, and they are backed up online, as well as portable across devices.

The downfall of this hyper-connected productivity method is purely attention span. When I get an idea in my head, I need to pounce on it or record it, or its gone a fleeting moment later. How many times have you opened your phone to do something and you wound up looking at your notifications, or facebook, or insta, or anything else? I can’t believe that I’m alone in this.

More analog devices, like a notebook (bullet journal), or even an offline handheld like a PDA (does anyone still use these?) struggle with this task in particular. Aside from needing to have the thing with you at all times (a challenge with anything larger than a pocket notebook), its just more arduous in general. Emails have to be written. Tasks have to be broken down and sub-tasked by hand. Major headache.

Task Provision and Tracking

Setting aside major time at the start of the day to examine productivity is a consistent “good idea” that I have never found a better substitute for. I can’t say I’m perfect at reliability accomplishing this task. I can’t even say i’m fair to moderate at it, merely that when I am able to do this (this being 15 minutes at the start of a day to gather yourself up), my perception of my productivity is much more positive than if I don’t. Obviously, some days this doesn’t happen. Life comes at you fast, as the saying goes.

I have issues similar to the collection stage with electronic methods of provision. If I start up Todoist (a fine product, if over-complicated), I’m sucked into ServiceNow and email, and suddenly my day is gone and I’m no more organized than I was before. Again… Frustrating! I personally find the analog methods remarkably (and innately) more focus-able. No flashing lights, just moving tasks from one page to another. This time is great, but, with no email access, its tough to ingest more stuff.

Time Provision

Time is the more difficult to quantify. We know that we have to make time. Focus methods like pomodoro only work if you are already organized enough (and your workflow will allow) to handle tasks in chunks. Some of us bounce around necessarily. Estimating time to complete a task is best done in wide-generalization to leave yourself ample time to complete a task, but if its over-general, it may be useless to waste time to estimate. Calendar use is a given, but I have had mixed (skew towards bad) results blocking off hours to “focus”. What a mess.

Conclusion

Its important to identify each one of these pieces to your productivity puzzle. Sometimes you find a silver bullet and everything falls into line, I guess. That doesn’t exist for me, so far, and I’m not sure it ever will, but I will keep trying! I am most happy using outlook flags, setting aside 15 minutes in the morning to move and arrange to-dos in my bullet journal, and tracking long term projects on a physical kanban board. Until I find something else, I know that my biggest single productivity increase lies in execution!

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