Seeking Full Capacity
Since becoming a professor, my productivity (as measured by original publications in quality venues) has improved.
I’m happy about this fact.
But I’m also convinced that I’m still leaving capacity on the table. As my expertise in my area grows, I’m reaching a point where I have more ideas per year than I have time to publish (which can be frustrating). If I could increase my deep to shallow work ratio just a little more, I could, I think, close that gap.
Accomplishing this goal, however, has proved difficult.
According to my Monthly Plan archives, since September 2012 I’ve launched at least six different plans aimed at increasing my research output, with the goal of closing this final gap.
None made a major impact.
With this in mind, I’m taking advantage of the beginning of summer to try, as I like to do every now and again, the most radical of productivity plans — no plan at all.
I’m a believer in something I call anti-planning.
A normal plan requires you to figure out in advance when and how you’re going to accomplish important projects.
An anti-plan has you to throw out all such rules and just dive in, adapting, the best you can, to your circumstances. It requests only that you keep a record of your experience, capturing, for later review, your thoughts, triumphs, and frustrations.
(For this purpose, I like to keep a gournal — my word for an electronic journal based on automatically filtering Gmail messages, sent to a special address, into a journal label. See the screenshot above for my setup.)
The Anti-Plan Theory
The theory behind anti-planning is that it exposes you to a much wider swath of the productivity plan landscape. Your journal will keep you updated on how well you’re doing, which provides the selective pressure needed to drive you toward some novel approaches to getting more depth out of your working habits.
People sometimes worry that anti-planning will tank their productivity. The reality is usually the opposite: the flexibility and constant self-reflection tends to increase the rate at which you produce valuable output.
For these same reasons, however, anti-planning can be draining (all that reflection and decision making reduces willpower). So I usually only last a month or two before falling back onto a more structured set of rules.
The key, however, is that the system I end up after anti-planning is often more effective than where I was before.
I’ve only recently begun my most recent bout of anti-planning, so I don’t yet have new grand conclusions. But even the initial reflections now trickling in are proving quite interesting (I’m starting to realize, for example, that deep work is deeply cyclical, and not something that can happen every day of every week).
In the meantime, if you’re frustrated with the effectiveness of your productivity plans, spend some time without one, and see what bubbles to the surface.