The Productive Day
I follow a variant of Getting Things Done. On a good, productive day, I live in my next action lists — making sure that things that need to get done, get done. My inbox is emptied every night. People get prompt responses to e-mails. When I promise to get back to someone, I do. I meet deadlines. I follow-up. In short, I’m everything David Allen preaches.
Here’s the problem. Though this behavior ensures I’m “productive,” it doesn’t get the big stuff done.
For example: I study applied math. This means I prove theorems. I can’t break this up into next actions. This isn’t “cranking widgets.” It’s coming up with original, often devilishly tricky ideas, and following them through to their implications. This can eat up hours upon hours.
Here’s the thing: This type of work is completely incompatible with running a productivity system. If I’m going to spend a day trying to find a crack in the armor of a recalcitrant conjecture, I can’t also be returning phone calls, and handing in an overdue form, and updating my blog, and sending out some e-mails, and all the other gunk that sluices out of my next action universe. “Come up with original idea,” is not something I can schedule for 2 – 4, between the gym and updating my web site.
This same property applies to many other activities. Developing a big idea for a book. Re-thinking the direction of a business. Figuring out a new direction for your life. Exploring topics for a major term paper. Working on a major new project for your employer.
We need a way to balance productivity and big project focus…
The Solution: A Productivity-Free Day
Here’s a simple piece of advice to handle this reality. It’s based on the techniques that work for me.
Declare at least one or two days each week to be “productivity-free.” During these days, there are only two pieces of workflow management you should consider:
- You still need to capture. If a task pops into your head, jot it down. But that’s it. Don’t think about it further.
- You need to check your calendar to make sure you’re not missing an appointment or have a deadline due. (I typically take this into account when choosing which days to be productivity-free.)
Other than these two simple caveats, you should do nothing during the day but think, and work, and reflect on one or, at most, two really big problems or ideas. Let your e-mail box fill. Ignore voicemail. Don’t run little errands. Give over your whole day to one or two things.
You can do this without stress because, the next day, you can process your collection bins and once again be productive. Nothing’s lost. And big strides have been gained.
The key is to find a rhythm of productivity and focus that keeps you on top of the little things while still allowing the big things the time they require to thrive.
It’s a simple idea, but produces big results.
How do you tackle big projects?