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On Productivity, Part 3

In March of 2009, only a couple years into the life of this blog, I wrote a post that attempted to summarize what I was up to. I titled it: “What the Hell is Study Hacks?” At the time, I was focused exclusively on advice for students. I had published two books for this audience with Random House and had a third about to come out. But as I reread this post recently, I was surprised by the degree to which my circa-2009 ideas for students seemed to resonate with our current conversations. Here’s what I wrote:

My philosophy for achieving this goal can be reduced to three simple rules:

  • Do fewer things.
  • Do them better.
  • Know why you’re doing them.

All of the important advice on this site circles back to these same three themes.

I meant it. For a while during this period, the tagline of this blog, listed right under the title at the top of the site, was: “Do less, do better, know why.”

A decade ago, I was directing this advice toward stressed out undergrads, who were lost and miserable, burnt out on overloaded schedules and fueled by a diminishing momentum whose original source they couldn’t really remember anymore. But there’s a more general truth lurking beneath this thinking. Many problems in our current culture come from this same place. We do too much, most of it not very well, and are not even sure why we’re bothering.

When you reverse this formula, you  give yourself the chance to end up somewhere deep.

(Photo by Giuseppe Milo)

17 thoughts on “On Productivity, Part 3”

  1. I’m reading through John Maxwell’s ‘Developing The Leader Within You’ for work.

    In the chapter of priorities, there’s a quote from Franz Kafka that I think addresses this series on productivity well, “Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.”

  2. It seems that our attention economy goes against every single of your principles :

    Do fewer things.
    ==> Youtube encourage you to watch video after video, carefully selected by an algorithm designed to keep you using their product as long as possible. Same with various app, whose smooth user experience and flawless design have you swiping, and swiping, and swiping…

    Do them better.
    ==> This lack of friction between user and app removes all incentive to be mindful of what you are doing. You end up being a passive consumer of content, not really minding anymore if what you are watching / using is a qualitative product.

    Know why you’re doing them.
    ==> At the end of the day you do not even remember why you turned on your phone / started using the app. We are mindlessly browsing our phones, watching stupid video after stupid video on Youtube, reading boring news articles after articles… and we don’t even know why we are doing it.

    And at the end of the day, we end with this terrible feeling of having doing nothing worthwile, having accomplished nothing… and a terrible and nagging sense of emptiness.

      • A few tips to prevent being sucked into the smartphone rabbithole :

        – Remove your internet browser from your phone. No Firefox, no Chrome. Though, i still have a browser embedded in the password-manager app “Lastpass”, but it is so tedious to use that i managed to keep it “in case of emergency” only. Plus it doesn’t open links from e-mails, whatsapp conversations, etc.

        – Limit the number of apps you have installed on your phone. For me, they should serve a few purposes :
        * having something to listen other than the radio when i am comutting (==> Spotify and Castbox for podcasts) or exercising
        * communicating with friends and family only (Whatsapp), not strangers (no Facebook or Twitter)
        * apps i have to use for work (can’t get rid of them), which sadly includes email

        – when you sit in front of your laptop or take your phone, you should try to always have a purpose in mind, and stick to it. I.E “i will use my phone this time to listen to a podcast, not to check work email late at night” for instance. And keep track of your behavior to avoid any drifting from this intended purpose.

        I always had a love-hate relationship with my smartphone, but lately it has drifted much toward hate, especially during this COVID19 pandemic when we are bombarded with anxiety-inducing news… the less i use it, the better i feel, really.

        I which i could switch to a “dumbphone”, unfortunately i am not sure i could use Castbox / Spotify / Outlook / other work apps comfortably with a small screen

    • Completely agree with you but the fact is we can do all the things that are valuable with cognitive mind for few days. But after few days, the concious mind slowly turns into subconscious mind and we start doing wrong things and then self regret part. Its very tough to sustain the same mindset or same cognitive mode like why we are doing this when we are actually doing those things.

  3. I like these rules, especially the last one of “know why you’re doing them”. As a student I often feel overwhelmed with the vast amounts of unstructured time. I think this rings true especially now when it can be hard to distinguish work from play; many of us live online now and that’s where we do both (sometimes at the same time—bad). Relating back to productivity, I think the word conjures up feelings of guilt in the work sense, as if your boss is forever peering over your shoulder. In times of leisure, we shouldn’t feel obligated to produce tangible output but still want that sense of autonomy. That’s why your rules really shine; they reflect the minimalism of an intentional life, even if some of it is spent futzing around.

  4. One funny simple way for me to stay focused (Windows PC) is to ALWAYS maximize all windows. The only one I see is the one I’m working on.

    No “ooh, what happen? that window scrolled” distractions.

  5. Do fewer things.
    Do them better.
    Know why you’re doing them.

    Follow this prescription and you will embrace your deepest work, be so good they dare not ignore you, and subjugate your digital life so you can live a real one.

  6. This is beautiful, it really is.
    This 3 part sequence on the nature of productivity has solidified some of my floating thoughts about the matter, and connected it to my own developing philosophy of life.
    The deep life, as you call it, is something that is intuitively desirable; not because of the pleasure of such a life, but the meaning that it ultimately invokes.

    In reflecting on what some others are posting above – in regard to the constraints of culture and society on squandering efforts to live a deep life – we can call upon ancient wisdom to this problem. Even thousands of years ago, Seneca said it best, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”
    We can maximise our chances of living the deep life if we viscerally understand how short life can be, if we spend it unwisely.

  7. We shall do fewer things and do them better. As per my opinion we must select these fewer things from different fields where we want to engage ourselves. For example, someone is doing a nine by five routine office job where majorly time is engaged in shallowness, then in the rest of the time he can choose any one of the things to do from the fields of Sports, Music (learning some instrument), or language. Subsequently, we can start doing those things in a better way.
    With this we can improve our productivity in some Deep Work since first we are draining our mind from the fatigue of shallowness and second we are getting a sense of doing or learning some worthwhile thing.

  8. I like to think I am a knowledge worker who has been gifted with amount of “free time” that was unimaginable just two weeks ago. Here is my current experiment:

    1) I have logged out of iCloud and put away my iPhone, MacBook, and an iPad.
    2) I have purchased and started using Thinkpad and a Blackberry. On Thinkpad, I got rid of Windows and installed Ubuntu.

    This could still be a honeymoon period, but so far, I use my tech far less. I am far more focused on the tasks I do use my tech for. And I am far more intentional with it (i.e. using my blackberry for phone calls instead of passively embracing the smoothness of iPhone’s user interface).

    In other words, I do fewer things, and I possibly do them better.

  9. This is such great wisdom, especially for someone who has trouble NOT doing things, like myself. It’s funny because when I first started my blog a couple years ago, my tagline was something like “Do More, Be More”. I shared the typical advice from culture to always been “grinding”. After reading most of your books Cal, my mindset has been dramatically shifting towards asking how I can do less.


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