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Productivity is Not Dead, Just Downgraded

The Cautious Return of Nuts and Bolts Productivity

Last year, around this same time, I wrote an article titled Welcome to the Post-Productivity World. In it, I claimed that we had moved on from the early 2000’s dream that David Allen, teamed with the Lifehacker RSS feed, could deliver us to a knowledge work nirvana — a place where success and distinction flowed effortlessly from a well-tuned task-management system.

The attention of the online world, I noted, had shifted toward bigger questions, like “how do I make my work the foundation of a good life?”. Building a remarkable career, we now know, has little to do with organization, and very much to do with focusing ruthlessly on a small number of important skills and becoming so good you can’t be ignored.

And yet…

Now that I’m a professor, I realize that I miss productivity. It’s still true that my level of organization has little to do with my success as a scholar. It’s also true, I’m discovering, that it has everything to do with my stress level.

I spend much of my time focusing deeply on important projects. But I still have a lot of small things to get done in the time that surrounds this concentration. And without a thoughtful system, these tasks are getting done fitfully, often driven by deadlines — causing unnecessary stress.

So this gives us a new vision of productivity. We have dethroned it from its prior role as the center of our workplace universe, but it still plays an important (albeit, downgraded) role as a stress reliever.

I am, in other words, re-embracing nuts and bolts productivity. (God help me, but I just spent 10 minutes browsing the web page for OmniFocus!) But I’m doing so with caution. I want to tune up my organizational systems, but I also want to remember that these systems play only a supporting role in my bigger effort to craft a remarkable career.

Now excuse me while I shift my context…

(Photo by tsmall)

31 thoughts on “Productivity is Not Dead, Just Downgraded”

  1. Haha thats great. I think even David Allen subscribes to the idea that productivity should be about getting the annoying points out of the way, creating room for our focus on our most important projects. Only after the small stuff is taken care of, are we allowed to focus heavily and move forward toward our important goals. Good luck!

  2. It will be interesting to watch your progress. I think it is a matter of putting in place “just enough” organization and task structure and no more.

    The dual, in some sense, of your deliberate practice approach.

  3. What you describe is what I call “the business of life” stuff — changing furnace filters, getting the car inspected, etc. Mundane, but they have to be tracked and taken care of, alongside the big projects where we’ve invested more of ourselves.

    I tend to favor paper/pen systems like Mark Forster’s free “Final Version” methodology (Google it for more info) for tracking those mundane tasks. But good lord, do timebox your investigations into all these systems and ideas. Merlin Mann can do incredible things with Omnifocus, but I don’t want to invest that much time in a product.

  4. Hmm, interesting.

    What I usually do is that I do a “to do list” for the day(including house chores) and start my work as early in the morning as possible(04:00am). No distraction and my mind is fresh.

    After I have done research about deliberate practice for a while now and applied it, you have no idea how fast I have progressed in my studies. It goes something like this:

    1. Choose a study skill that I need to practice(scotts metaphor technique for example)

    2. Decide a way to practice this particular skill in isolation from other subskills(if it is a complex skill)


    I dont believe in talent anymore.

  5. I like that you talk about broad concepts like what is best or what is work or how do I build a career effectively? However, you seem to presume there are people with the same access to resources like time and money in a similar context as your own. Do you worry that your approaches are not particularly universal and that you assume a certain size of network, bank account, and privilege?

    This is a legitimate question and I bought two of your books and read your blog regularly.


  6. Perhaps you need an assistant (virtual or otherwise) to take care of mundane details for you. The help of an assistant would relieve stress and leave you with ample time to work on academic problems.

  7. I think Cal is forgetting how important productivity is for students, especially those with zero prior experience with time management/efficiency.

    He’s getting to that professor-stage where he starts theory-crafting ideas in a lab…

    haha, just kidding

  8. I for one have never understood why these sytems were called ‘productivity’ rather than ‘organisation’ systems. I have used the GTD method for some time, but never expected it to make me productive per se. Rather, it clears the stress and distraction of always worrying about busywork out of my head, so that I can focus fully on whatever task or project is at hand – that’s where I’m productive.

  9. Just like you I also construct theorems and prove them for a living, but the theorems are usually a soundness check of the main result (which is an algorithm) instead of the main result itself. My usual way when reading this blog is to read what you have said and then go on and try to find strategies to apply it in practice, which have turned out to be surprisingly hard. One thing I have struggled with is that there is nothing in my field that obviously corresponds to learning additional techniques for analysis in your field, so I’m not sure where the deliberate practice should come into the picture. (Most our proofs are by induction or co-induction and that mostly falls under the routine work umbrella, it’s primarily a matter of figuring out what the right (and interesting) theorem to prove is).

    For once I had already figured out the contents of this post before reading it though. Doing a bit of introspection my first observation is that I spend too much time in meetings that do not accomplish anything what so ever. My second observation is that I spend too much time “chasing leads” for funding that do not lead anywhere, often disguised as meetings. Both these types of meetings could (and perhaps should) probably be skipped but the third observation is that there’s enough administrative issues on my plate for it to be cumbersome, and I can’t skip doing those things. My current organizational system is pen and paper but that is hurting in more than one way and I’ve started turning my eye towards the productivity systems. I’m terrified of being sucked into the productivity camp and not do anything that is important, but the monthly chores still need to be taken care of.

    I would be thrilled to read more about specific details of what you come up with. I’ve considered Sarah’s suggestion myself but academic salaries are not really to the level that we can start paying others from our own pocket.

  10. I think the key is to have a separate list for these nuts and bolts things, and 90% only work them during a pre-scheduled block of time. Things that require an hour+ of time should get their own calendar blocks.

  11. This post made me think of a life organization principle I’ve been working on:

    Simplicity in the right places, complexity where it belongs.

    Just because a simple system of “ruthless focus” serves our career effectively, doesn’t mean it will work for other areas of life (chores and mundane tasks). So I’ve been trying to consciously choose which parts of daily living I can treat simply and which require a complex management system that, once in place, allows me to reduce stress and improve productivity.

    Good luck!

  12. Hi Cal,

    As happens frequently, this post resonated with my own experience. I’ve found that I ricochet between a phase in which I attempt to stay on top of all of that small stuff that’s constant and always calling to me and a phase during which I give myself to and achieve some of that deep focus of which you write. During the attend-to-small-stuff phase, I lament the lack of deep focus and after a bit of time in the give-myself-to-deep-focus phase, I start feeling frustrated and irritable about the mess and chaos that seems to be piling up around me–not to mention guilty as a result of the friends I’ve neglected.

    I’m always tinkering, designing and re-designing systems.

    Task is made so much harder by the fact that I work in a high school self-contained classroom with kids who have emotional and behavioral issues. Love the work, but hate the fact that there is no autonomy in my work day. My schedule is pre-determined, and even within that framework, someone or something is vying for my attention.

    I love your blog. It’s one of the ones that I read through thick and thin. You tackle and talk about a set of issues that are extremely relevant to my own life. Bought your new book, one copy for me and one for my partner. Am always thinking about how to apply the craftsmanship, deep focus, and deliberate practice concepts to my own life in which I work very long days in a chaotic environment. I do practice meditation and have, at least, and have established a fairly-well established habit of mindfulness. That is a start.

    Hey, I’m grateful that you think about the things you do and that you share with the world.

  13. Oh.
    I call that the “absent-minded professor syndrome.”
    I think it’s common for academics and deep thinkers to have this issue. The projects we wrap our minds and time up in don’t let us out very often to do things that “life” says we have to do.
    But it’s so stressful. I want to stay holed up in my intellectual tower and not have to attempt action toward that vast abyss of “other responsibilities” that rudely beckon outside my window.
    That’s why I like your stuff, (all your information, systems, and philosophy). It gives an effective system that underlies the projects we have to do so that we don’t go crazy.
    Unless we’re already crazy.

  14. “It’s still true that my level of organization has little to do with my success as a scholar.”

    This is the reason top professors at top universities often teach classes that are not worth going to. As a plea from your current and future students, please please please do not forget the commitment you made to the young minds around you as you focus on the hard stuff.

  15. Luckily, I know a great blog that’ll help you solve this problem: Study Hacks! I recently re-read your posts on fixed schedule productivity and time arbitrage, and rearranged my schedule so that I spend the low-focus, low quality hours (late afternoons) on the lower priority, but necessary tasks. I still have big time blocks for deep focus. I look forward to any further insights you may have, however.

  16. Yes, actually, Study Hacks would be your thing!
    After all, it even shows you how to focus on your deep focus in an effective way.
    I wrote a nice paper in two hours because I followed your advice on building a “topic skeleton” first and filling it with research. You were right – more effective because I did all the deep thinking before I started writing.
    And your time-blocking approach is really helpful. I swear by it. It keeps all the horrible nasty little unintellectual to do items taken care of.
    OmniFocus looks great….except for broke college students. So I think I’ll stick to simple pen and paper.

  17. I wasn’t able to use Omnifocus until I splurged on Kourosh Dini’s book “Creating Flow with Omnifocus.” He is a psychiatrist, pianist (he puts out original music) AND author, so he’s right up Cal’s alley! Not only is it highly practical (because he’s got the perspective of a user, rather than that of a “manual writer”), but it also includes a lot of psychiatric insights about how to work efficiently, what prevents us from working on goals, etc. which really makes it 2 books in one. One thing he talks about, which I loved, was setting up templates for certain tasks that have a number of steps, and then just cutting and pasting them into your to do list area. Like dry cleaning is: ask spouse if they have dry cleaning, drop it off, pick it up, etc. (all with appropriate contexts so they don’t show up until you need them). But then the cool thing is he says when this routine becomes rote, where you no longer really need to think of it, delete the template because then that list becomes more time consuming than it saves time. This book is really genius. Totally worth the (gasp) $30 if you want to really use Omnifocus well. GoodReads link

  18. Doing the right things still comes before doing things right. By the way, I have been listening to the Audible version of So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Very good stuff. I’ll definitely leave a review on Amazon and I’ll also be reviewing it on my blog. Thanks for the post and the book, Cal!

  19. Cal, what you’re looking for is a system called Cyborganize. ( )

    It’s still rough around the edges, has a steep initial learning curve, and requires some customization to your needs, but once you’ve implemented it, it becomes your automated 24/7 personal assistant/scribe. The creator describes it as an exo-self, which I agree with wholeheartedly.

    Among the benefits:
    – zero stress
    – prioritizes your tasks
    – multi-tiered and easily accessible records for everything you think, write, or read of importance
    – requires little to no will-power
    – very minimal system overhead and will work on basically any computer made in the last two decades
    – peace of mind
    – doing 80% of your work in keyboard command based archaic software makes you feel like a nerd emperor
    – there’s a lot more to it than that, but if you’re not convinced so far then you won’t be
    – ok, one more point, it’s either the stepping stone to the singularity or humanity’s last gasp for excellence before we descend back into the dark ages.

    I don’t have a dog in this fight, just wanted to recommend something that has been very, very helpful for me since I started to use it.

  20. Someone above said to do the small tasks before your project. The problem I’ve found is the faster you do those meaningless small tasks, the more that gets piled on. Maybe the trick IS to do them first, but never turn them in until the deadline. I’ve also noticed something else interesting in terms of projects. If I take 2 weeks off and do NOTHING other than project work, I can get more done in 2 weeks than I can in 6 months of trying to fit thing in together.

  21. I’ve been reading study hacks for a while, but have never commented before. So, first of all, I love study hacks! The red book especially helped me a lot in high school and now, in the first quarter of college.

    Cal, if you’re considering Omnifocus, you might also want to try Things. I find Things a lot easier to use than Omnifocus. Also, Omnifocus (and similar apps with lots of features like Remember the Milk) make it tempting to just adjust your lists and your system rather than work. Things has just enough features to be a great GTD system and no more.

  22. Cal,

    Finished so good right after straight A. just wanted to compliment you on another great book.



    p.s. i invite you over to tomorrow for an inspiring piece from Chris Norton. 3% of walking after injury and already taking steps. wanted to invite you since your blog inspires me so much

  23. One of the best pieces of time management advice I read in a magazine several years ago. It was to schedule your to-do list as tasks into your calendar. That way, you do not have an ongoing, neverending list of things to do, and you get a better idea of how much time to allocate to them.

    I also like Leo Babuta’s (pens the zenhabits blog) approach to it – have three goals you are working on. Every day, your most important task list should reflect those three goals. He also recommends batching mundane tasks, such as returning a call or email processing.

  24. I think Things for iPhone could be an ideal app for everyday use. It’s because it allows simple to-do’s as well as implementing routines. Imagine: You wake up and your list says: study for 3 hours (routine), exercise(routine) and 7 other small tasks. You also can do a small morning review and quickly postpone some of the tasks if they don’t make sense for today.
    At the moment I don’t have an iPhone so I use a separate to-do app for ticking off the small, annoying stuff, as well as live-tile with my studying, eating, exercising and other routines that are the most important and form a foundation. I’d love to have all this in one simple app, sadly, for windows phone there apparently is no to-do app with repeated tasks that is good enough.

  25. Cal,
    you were right-from Straight A paraphrased. “there will be time where you will get out of your schedule rhythm.” I lost track of my daily paper calendar for a week, but am now back on it. I have encouraged this method with my staff and would encourage all the viewers here. Only 5 minutes a day.

    Congrats on the baby Cal. Great photo.




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