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On Rooted Productivity

January 5th, 2017 · 44 comments

The Root Of All Productivity

The new year is here, which means productivity tweaks are in the air.

I’m not going to offer you a specific strategy today. Instead, I want to touch briefly on a meta habit that will help you succeed in any number of areas in your life where you seek more effectiveness.

It’s something I’ve used for years but have never discussed publicly before. I call it: rooted productivity.

Before describing this idea let me motivate it.

A little discussed issue in the productivity community is the role that these strategies play in your mental life. Most people maintain a haphazard and shifting collection of rules and systems only in their head. When a blog post inspires them, this collection may grow, while approaches they once embraced might fizzle unexpectedly.

This unstructured approach to organizing the ideas that are supposed to organize your life can cause problems, such as…

  • Open loop syndrome. As David Allen taught us, having commitments maintained only in your head requires constant mental resources and can generate stress or anxiety. A commitment to a specific productivity habit kept only in your head can be just as taxing as any other type of open loop.
  • Fragile motivation. A commitment to a productivity habit casually kept only your head occupies a low status in your hierarchy of important things in your life. A lot of people get excited about a hack when they first read about it, but it’s all too easy for it to fade away along with their initial enthusiasm.
  • Evaluation entanglement. Keeping your productivity commitments all tangled in your head can cause problems when a strategy fails. Without more structure to the productivity portion of you life, it’s too easy for your brain to associate that single failure with a failure of your commitments as a whole, generating a systemic reduction in motivation.

The solution to these issues is simple: maintain a single root commitment, that you’ll stick to no matter what, which will in turn help you get the most out of all the other productivity commitments that come and go in your life.

To be more concrete, create a single page document that describes the key productivity rules, habits, and systems (which I’ll summarize as “processes” in the following) that you currently follow in your life.

I type mine and keep it near my desk in a plastic sleeve (for privacy reasons, I’m showing you only the back below):

Some of the commitments on my root document include: daily and weekly planning, GTD task capture, my deep work rituals, my exercise routines, and the systems I use to track and review ideas.

Once you’ve written this root document you must make the following unbreakable root commitment:

I will do my best to: (a) follow the processes on these document; and (b) on a regular basis evaluate these processes and update the document to better reflect what’s working and what’s not, as well as what’s important to me and what’s not.

This philosophy is simple to implement, but in a single stroke it eliminates most of the major problems of a more ad hoc approach to personal productivity; e.g.,

  • you minimize open loops, as all you have to remember is to try to do what the root document says;
  • you strengthen your motivation, as the processes you’re supposed to be following are printed in black and white as oppose to just wallowing in the churn of your cognitive landscape; and
  • it’s easy to modify or discard specific productivity processes without negatively impacting others, as these evaluations and updates are part of your core commitment.

My suggestion for the new year, in other words, is that before you make any new commitments to improve your life, start with this one root commitment that can serve all the rest.

(The above image shows Study Hacks HQ — e.g., my home office — ready for a new year of productive deep work…)

44 thoughts on “On Rooted Productivity

  1. corey lambrecht says:

    Your suggestion in this blog post is somewhat…opaque. Maybe provide a few solid examples?

    1. Nenad says:

      Well hid kind of did provide an example, but it is still completely unfounded in any reason. He is basically saying for us to write down a reminder to obey what we write down in the future. If you can’t obey what you write down in the first place, whay bother writing twice? You will just not obey it twice and your frustration will be even deeper. Can I call it “Deep Productivity Hack Frustration?”

      1. Sam says:

        I feel like this rather misses the point. The point is that having lots of disparate commitments, possibly spread across different media, such as a digital to-do list, a paper planner, a weekly review notebook, or whatever, will require a lot of mental effort to manage and remember. However, if the most important of these commitments can be boiled down into one document that summarizes everything you hope to do to, you don’t have to think about each component — only to commit to remembering to consult and follow the one “master plan”.

        It’s a strategy for organizing your commitments, not an attempt to commit to the same thing twice.

        1. Batman says:

          Ya right

        2. Steve O says:

          It seems to be criticism borne out of spite. Read it again–it doesn’t make any sense. He posted something similar on Cal’s last blog post.

      2. Jonathon says:

        Interesting ideas Nenad. Do you have a link to your blog on the evidence behind various productivity hacks?

        1. Nenad says:

          Hi Jonathon

          no, I am not selling anything. I am challenging what I believe are unfounded ideas and looking forward to have some substance added to the blog. I think Cal is good writer and has the ability to offer everyone much better advice founded on existing research.

      3. alba says:

        Dude, you seem to disagree with everything Cal says, why not lower your blood pressure and stop reading?

      4. Justin says:

        I wonder if when he tucks his kids in at night, and they look up at him and say “I love you Dad” he refutes them and declares “Show me your scientific research proving with hard data that you love me”.

        Honestly Nenad, run the experiment on yourself. Pick a few of the principles, use them yourself and see if there’s an improvement. If so, great. If not, then well atleast you know. But you’re really stamping you’re feet over someone telling you that giving up wanting to check your smartphone every 20 minutes might be a good idea.

        The ironic thing about this, of course is the time, energy and distraction this all costs him. Meanwhile, I imagine Cal has probably paid very little attention to the comments, because of his commitment to deep work.

    2. TheImprover says:

      My understanding:

      * best productivity improvements are achieved by applying multiple methods, and periodically changing the selection of methods in use

      * people’s maintenance of programmes of ever-changing methods tends to diminish over time

      * Cal’s remedy for the above problem is to maintain a master document of current productivity behaviour commitments

    3. Lebo says:

      Dear Corey,

      Please forgive Cal. He does not know what challenges you are going through in your life at the moment. So how can he provide solutions that are specific to your life?

      He has presented an example from his own life – what he does, the one-page list. I know, you can feel that there seems to be some mismatch between what David Allen suggests and what Cal is doing. Meaning that David’s advice seem to be bigger and cover a broader scope than what Cal is doing. Therefore there isn’t an exact match. One is bigger than the other and you feel uncomfortable.
      Well, of course, Cal does what works for him. And he does not need to exhaust the full meaning of David’s advice in order to benefit.

      Just like nutritionists may give tons of advice (eat 5 types of vegetables of different colour, 2 servings each, eat 5 times a day, spread out your meal times as evenly as possible. Do not eat conflicting foods in the same meal, after eating do this or do that to ensure optimal digestion…)

      David Allen is like the nutritionist. He gives advice that is very good and full of content. But even if a person merely starts making sure he eats fruits and vegetables every day, that is already very beneficial. And it may already be sufficient for his lifestyle’s demands.

      Cal presented the renowned person (the “nutritionist”), David Allen and his teachings. Then Cal talks about what he has done (his “testionmonial”). Now, it is up to you to see how you want to implement David’s teachings. And how much of it you want to implement. It all depends on how much change you are willing to take joyfully.

  2. Jamie says:

    I think this is incredibly useful. I’d also like to suggest that minimizing personal time spent checking out those hacks is helpful. I have made a list of all the blogs, journals, etc. I then asked myself what truly added value. That narrowed the field. I like narrowing the field further to the necessities though. A visual reminder does help train my brain to stick to one track!

  3. jurnalanas says:

    Great idea Cal, thanks for sharing.. do you use this “root commitment” for only relate to you professional work or your personal life also?

    ps: sorry for my english

  4. Silvio says:

    Hey Cal,

    Another facet of this problem, besides the open loop, is that you need to put the process on paper to clearly define how exactly you will put it into action.

    I see a problem with the root commitment, because it’s still a bit vague. What does “evaluating on a regular basis” mean?

    IMO, a better root commitment would say:

    * Evaluate each strategy on the first Sunday of each month
    * Use discrete metrics to measure success of execution (e.g. Deep Schedules –> number of times I missed an deep work appointment) and success of output (e.g. proofs solved, quality code written, etc.).
    * Evaluate the success of output once (i.e. make sure this habit is actually useful) and, if it proves useful, continue to evaluate execution

    And this is how you can purposefully introduce each productivity habit into your life:

    * Clearly define the process (how)
    * Define success criteria (e.g. hours of deep work increased by 20%)

    This inspired me to take a more honest look at my working style. Thank you for that!

    Best
    -Silvio

    1. Lebo says:

      Dear Silvio, Cal did not say “evaluating on a regular basis”. Cal said “on a regular basis evaluate these processes”. I activated my web browser’s automatic finder for the former and it only yielded results pointing to your post. If you cannot remember what exactly Cal said, please avoid the use of inverted commas in the future. Instead, just say something like –> Cal you said something like (insert what you can recall here).

      You may think that I am mean by starting my reply like this. But I am merely reflecting back to you the kind of attitude you are displaying.

      You appear to have a craving for high standards. (You said something like –> not only must you do this, you must give detail. It must not have the slightest hint of being vague. etc.)
      So if you want to quote Cal, you must also make sure that you quote him correctly, word for word. Fair enough?

      There is merit in Cal not giving too much detail. First of all, it saves him time. He has a family too, remember? And he is doing research on computers science too! And he has to maintain his house and bathe and eat as well!
      Besides, if Cal said something like evaluate each strategy on the first Sunday of each month, some people may think: I cannot do that. I am too busy to review it on a Sunday, because I have to go visiting relatives! This advice is not for me! I can stop reading this post now!
      I know, what I said may be exaggeration, but you get the idea that there are two sides, good and bad. So it is not as if putting in more detail is 100% good anyway. So if you feel that not putting in the detail is fine, let it be.

      And what on Earth does “discrete metrics” mean? I know you are very smart. You are very talented. But are your readers as smart and talented as you? Can they understand why you chose to use the word “discrete” here? I still do not understand why you use the word “discrete” after reading the portion that is supposed to explain it “(e.g. Deep Schedules –> number of times I missed an deep work appointment) and success of output (e.g. proofs solved, quality code written, etc.).”

      And, by the way, it should be ‘a deep work appointment’ not “an deep work appointment”. What happened to your high standards?

      And, by the way, you are actually living your life. When I read what you said about tracking the output and things like hours of deep work increased 20%, oh my goodness. Do you really want to be so controlling with yourself? It would be better to hire a personal assistant to do that for you.

      People will listen to your advice and say that it is good. It is very precise. It is very impressive. It will work. But there is one problem. It will work only if you can implement it correctly. And what would you give up in the process of implementing it? Would you become very controlling with the other people in your life too? (Would you sacrifice relationships just for professional gains?)

  5. Patrick Key says:

    It’s so important to stay productive. Doesn’t matter how much time you spent on task, without focus it’s nothing. When you making annual report, when you write a statement or even training. Productivity is everything.

  6. Markos says:

    Thank you for this, I’ve actually started working on (i think) something similar the last few days.
    A (now short) document with the following
    a) my key areas of focus for the year
    b) general rules for what to focus on each day of the week (Mo-Fri: main work, Sat: side project, Sun: organising/planning+free time)
    c) general themes of my thinking: focus on the input (systems), not on goals (output), not neglecting to review and be honest about it, etc.

    Happy new year 🙂

  7. Anne says:

    Here’s to the new year, Cal and Study Hacks readers, hopefully full of deep, meaningful work for all of us.

  8. Sean says:

    I have a similar system of “Rules” for myself. An “if this then that” type of analysis. So when confronted with a decision making point, you just apply the rule. This both reduces decision fatigue and ensures that you are sticking to your plan.

    I like the Root Commitment aspect though and will implement that, thank you.

  9. Ted says:

    I think many of the great works throughout history have happened due to individuals crazed, psychotic, obsessive drives. They were able to achieve that state due to some severe unbalance in their lives,whether it be repressed sexual impulse or loneliness, or something else.
    I feel productivity advice and strategies are for people with balanced lives and in a world with a lot of distractions: friends, acquantainces, children, significant others, social obligations, etc. I could imagine a socially awkward kid with no friends or girlfriend having no problem locking himself in his bedroom for 10 hours a day playing guitar till his fingers are bleeding, and emerging as a guitar virtuoso as an adult. Reading a blog on how to motivate yourself to practice more would seem ridiculous to him.
    In a world where specialization and niche knowledge/skills are required, and a balanced life is also desired, those two things are at odds with each other. But Cal does a better job than anyone of recognizing that and coming up with strategies to achieve both as best as one can.

  10. Marvin Towler says:

    My takeaway is that you can’t chase two rabbits as one will get away. There’s a plethora of productivity “hacks” out there. Just as there are millions of diets. The people who succeed are those who stick to one course. I really like the idea of creating and posting the 1-pager.

  11. Dan says:

    I started reading An Introduction to General Systems thinking at the recommendation of DHH on his blog, and after about 18-24 months of trying to figure out how to improve my productivity in many areas, DHH/you/Weinberg have led me to look at things with a more meta view. I really like this idea, and I’m going to be writing down mine today.

    There seems to be some confusion in some of the comments, and I think most of that comes down to the challenge of specificity. You have to know yourself well enough to know what works and what doesn’t, and evaluate as needed. For me, I know I need enough sleep every night, but saying “get to bed early” isn’t specific enough, but saying “go to bed at 10 PM” is too rigid. Writing a rule that works for you is a challenge. What works better than either of those for me is this: “Leave your phone and your laptop outside your room at night. You’re not missing out on anything by going to bed earlier.” I know I need enough sleep, I know a hard deadline works against the stubborn side of my brain, and I know that sleep diminishes when I allow myself to have distractions.

    I might be on the wrong track, but still, I think this is a great idea. Thanks Cal.

  12. JR says:

    Cal,
    I’ve read Deep Work and I must say just this week alone I have increased my productivity by 3x with respect to the amount of my “regular” work output. Although, Deep Work contains a lot of common sense, this common sense is not something that is broadly taught anymore, particularly if you are millennial and have only known the world of social networks, internal company chat services and insurmountable amounts of emails that you must answer the second you receive them.
    I’ve applied the week blocking scheduling system you proposed, quit Facebook, I access internet only for work related searches, I have drained the shallows by using the evading tactics you proposed to eliminate getting suckered into non-value added work activities. I’m also using the deep work tally and find it extremely useful. In short, I’ve taken on several of your suggestions and they work incredibly. It’s changed both my work and personal life!
    However, I do find myself extremely mentally tired after a day of deep work, go figure. I particularly find it difficult to perform cognitively demanding tasks after the work day. Do you experience this as well or is it just me? What type of techniques do you utilize to make your rest of the day as productive as your work day? (e.g. of activities I like to do after work: reading non-fiction books, advancing my education through MOOCs and maker projects)

  13. Brian J. says:

    Your idea of writing a productivity constitution (as it were) is wonderful.

    Aside from the benefits of reducing mental taxation by writing it down, I would add that there is plenty of evidence to show that the act of writing helps to solidify ideas in the brain. That benefit applies double for writing by hand, but I suppose that most of us have chicken scratch for handwriting and it would take the patience of a monk to write out a clean productivity constitution by hand.

  14. Grateful Reader says:

    Dear Cal,

    I am writing to thank you for your blog (which I have been reading for several years) — and your “Deep Work” book.

    I am a grad student with an internet-distraction problem. It would be horrifying to add up all the hours I’ve wasted reloading social media sites, moving from one shallow news article to another, and so on. I have had problems with procrastination and getting my real work done.

    The “Deep Work” book finally moved me to make drastic changes. I became worried that I would permanently lose my ability to focus. So over the last few months I’ve deleted Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. (It’s scary how much those services had invaded my mind — how it felt like ripping a limb off to delete these things.) My mind feels somehow less cluttered now. I’m taking steps to schedule my time and be more intentional about how I spend my days.

    I don’t normally read self-help books, but I appreciate your research-based, pragmatic approach. I’ve recommended the book to many other people in the hopes that Deep Work gains more converts.

    Thank you again! And in the spirit of Deep Work, I don’t expect any response. I just wanted to let you know that you helped someone!

    1. corey lambrecht says:

      My only social media was Twitter which I deleted recently. It’s amazing how differently one thinks on and off the social media “drug”. Social media is a mirror, masquerading as a window. We think we are are looking through it, out into the world. In reality, we see and judge ourselves with it. Good riddance. No more urges to share every little thing in my life.

  15. FONG says:

    Thank you.

    Your “root commitment” practice offers a brilliantly nuanced method to handle the anxiety of filtering and evaluating the multitude of ideas on productivity that flows into our inboxes.

    This contemplative practice offers a drill to prime our minds to plan, act, check and address our productivity practices while clearing the fog that the lizard or monkey brain can induce during a busy unguarded moment in a typical work day.

    It reminds me of Charles Duhigg’s story of the pilot of the wounded A380 flying into Changi Airport. His deliberate simplification of his mental model with that of a Cessna plane analogy to keep making fundamentally good decisions in the face of a tsunami of uncertainty kept his flight deck performing optimally.

    The concrete logistics of this practice front loads a set of futures and decisions. This Bayesian approach removes the need for thousands of otherwise small independent decisions downstream in the course of a lifetime.

    It made so much sense to me.

  16. Mark says:

    I like this idea. I like thinking through my processes and coming up with a way to be awesome and come up with great ideas as well as process the work I need to do to get there 🙂

    My favourite thing you wrote on productivity has been “The art of the finish”, do you still use this? I struggle to implement it, although I love the idea, but I don’t know how to deal with reoccurring, ongoing, tasks and then everything else that comes up while I am currently working on the stuff on my list that also needs to be done.

  17. Fascinating, Cal. I’m going to try this. Further, those who are prone to endless productivity hack research and rejigging could pledge not to alter the systems on their documents for at least a month, or a quarter, say, in order to see how things go before changing up too quickly.

  18. Good point about remembering.

    One of the easiest ways to not forget the root commitments is to integrate them into recurring reminders on your calendar either as blocks of time or tasks.

    That way you remember and reserve the time for them.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth

  19. Jim Wang says:

    Another benefit is that you’re pushed to evaluate all of these habits more rigorously, since to be included would mean adding it to the list and, potentially, replacing another habit/process/system.

  20. Tuts says:

    Teal on headers is so 2012

  21. Balint Farkas says:

    I call my version of this document my “personal constitution”. It encompasses not only productivity processes, but also values and lifelong focus areas; I’ve been maintaining it and living by it for over a decade now.

    I can testify that this article’s claims are true. Not only does such a document free up mental space; it also gives one the ability to remain focused on overarching goals for years on an end.

  22. Alan says:

    Cal,

    Great post. After reading your work for a few years, this post brings up the question for me – how many different notebooks do you use at one time? I am less interested in the type of notebooks and more interested in the purposes of each notebook. Any insight there?

    Thank you again for all your insights!

    Alan

  23. David says:

    Excellent posting. It is similar to something I learned about obtaining goals when I was much younger and much better looking.
    The idea was to: 1) Write down your goal on a piece of paper and, 2) Look at it at least once per day.

    Writing your goals is very powerful. It gives them legitimacy and helps you remember them (an affirmation of the importance of handwriting). I have also used this technique for negotiations. If you write down your least acceptable outcome (ie. the bottom line) on a piece of paper and stick it in your pocket before going into a negotiation you will not accept less than your minimum (but you also have to be willing to walk away).
    It was also suggested to place your goal(s) on your bathroom mirror where you would see it first thing in every morning and say it out loud three times. As for me, I could only commit to 1 or 2 significant changes at a time, rooted or otherwise. Anything more would become mentally diluted.
    Finally, I would suggest that goals should be handwritten AND signed AND dated. Take the time to place those goals into your brain via paper > pencil > hand > muscles AND then sign up to those goals (just like a personal contract with yourself) with your best cursive handwriting and put a date on the contract to remind you what you accomplished!

  24. Benn Woo says:

    I really hope you can share that page, with personal parts removed of course. It would serve as a template for us do develop ours.

  25. Jarrod says:

    Hi Cal,

    Thank you for another wonderful post on productivity! I’m a bit confused about how to set up my own “root document”. While it is obviously too personal to share yours in the public, can you share a template with us?

    Thanks,

    Jarrod

  26. Adam Glasser says:

    I am currently reading ‘Deep Work’ for the second time, fascinated by many of the concepts, in particular ‘Attention Residue’ – the term Cal uses as I understand it to describe the negative effect on one’s concentration of being interrupted by a notification.

    But I would like to throw into the ring a counter-concept which I would include in my own Root Document – which is ‘Structured Training Interruptions’.

    For many years on and off I have been using a computer app called ‘Time Out’
    (designed to make your computer screen go briefly milky, reminding you to take a break and rest your eyes or stretch).

    The user can set the intervals and can also over-ride with a button the onset of milkiness. Despite believing in principle that it was worth it for the health of my eyes – always found myself experiencing massive resistance and irritation to being interrupted by the app as I was typing away deeply involved watching my computer screen.

    However I recently found a way of using this App – giving my eyes a rest from the screen – and also completing a valuable piece of micro- training. But another diversion is needed here to give some background to this.

    * * *
    I am a professional musician and have found instinctively that one of the best ways to memorise a piece of music is to practise it in very small increments and loops, particularly the most technically challenging. Although I have never researched this scientifically I would bet my anything that neurological science would prove that this was true: you want to learn a Bach Partita? Break it down into short sections and practise a section for 2 minutes. Then walk away, answer the doorbell, empty the trash and a few minutes later come back and practise the same section for 2 minutes. Then go online order that book you needed and come back and practise for another 2 minutes.

    Continue this process until you have completed 10′ practise broken up over half an hour with other activities. Although this is musically unsatisfying, the brain and memory has been trained a ideally and optimally. This applies as well to improving one’s music sight reading.

    In all these activities the brain is forced from cold to kickstart into intense activity for a short while and then switch off. Frustrating and unsatisfying to be sure, but you get used to it, and the feel good factor from the benefit long term really does make up for the frustration of being interrupted.

    My “Root Document” contains a commitment to do this throughout 2017 while at the computer doing a certain kind of medium grade typing work, answering emails, reading the Guardian or going on Facebook.

    Not only have I adapted to the Time Out breaks better than I ever did just resting my eyes from the screen – but it has given me a shot of joy to be improving my musicianship like this.

    I also want to use it help me memorise foreign language vocabulary and phrases.

    I am curious as to whether anyone feels that such a disciplined habit such as this would create negative “Attention Residue” during Deep Work periods – or – whether it would actually enhance Deep Work because it is integrated as a very positive long term predictable activity?

  27. Vanessa says:

    This content makes perfect sense, and is a deeper version of something I’ve done in the past – and will now re-invigorate.

    I’m just struggling a little with the terminology, for cultural reasons. In Australia, “rooted” is a slang word with two meanings, one being destroyed or ruined or exhausted, the other sex. As in “how was the shed after the storm?” “Rooted – the roof is in the neighbour’s paddock and the walls are just kindling”. And as in “is she really rooting him?” Rather like a well known word starting with f, but not quite such a strong swear word. So “rooted productivity” doesn’t quite inspire me!

  28. Tia says:

    I would love to read more about how you track and review your ideas. Everything else is written in one form or another in this blog. I did lots of reading – love this idea of rooted productivity – and managed to put myself together to some kind of rooted productivity (much longer that a page though :)). But I did not find much about how you track and review your ideas. Do you always write by hand into a proper notebook? Do you have other systems? How exactly do you track and review them? Do you make each of them a project, use a project folder with actions and plans and review them in the end? 🙂 Very curious! XXX

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