Staying Productive in a Noisy World
The world is becoming more and more noisy, loud and less productive; that’s the cost of progress, and in the midst of all that noise, its becoming harder and harder to focus and be productive.
I consider my self a creative person; I do my best work when I’m inspired, excited and focused, so it should be no surprise that I rarely have the chance to be productive with all the daily distractions around us. It also doesn’t help that my daily job has shifted from creating to facilitating and enabling, which in part include a lot of distractions, discussions (meetings) and interruptions, basically a creative introvert’s worst nightmare!
To overcome this I started to seek out practices and create habits, those might sound obvious to you (they certainly sounded obvious to me), tedious or even old news, but they certainly help me a lot to overcome the challenge of staying focused.
You should nurture boredom
It sounds counter intuitive, the first time I heard that advice I was listening to an audio book (unfortunately I can’t remember which 😅), and to be honest, I didn’t really give it much thought, but after a few busy weeks I’ve found myself lost in details and failing to see the bigger picture.
Week in, week out, I hadn’t any idea what I needed to do to stay on course with my long term plans whether personally or professionally. I was so deep into daily details that I felt exhausted and uninspired, not to mention a growing sense of no progression towards my objectives.
That’s when I decided to take some time just to think and actually being bored, my hands however were eager to jot down ideas, objectives, due dates and todos, it just felt like the best way to think and figure out tiny details, not to mention the need for prioritizing and making effort more realistic & visible (I’m more of an optimist when it comes to estimating effort).
With boredom, I’ve managed to reorganize my mind, sort of like defragmenting a hard drive, each and every thought gets archived in its rightful place.
It started with just 10 minutes on a Saturday, writing down what I’m thinking of for the coming week, just writing down what needs to be done, and maybe elaborating more when I feel a task or idea is unclear and that I’d quickly forget what I had in mind for executing it.
But what started with 10 minutes, quickly became 30 minutes and now 1 hour each week.
It also evolved into a complete system, now I take an hour each week (usually on a Saturday - preferably before the beginning of the week) to write down all the tasks I should attend to during the week, be it personal tasks or professional ones.
I also quickly found it would be much better if I had them laid out on a weekly calendar, so I found a nice weekly organiser -The amazing dots planner- that lays out the days of the week in small boxes, and made it a goal to fill out the boxes with what needs to be done on each day.
Each week I’d sit down for 30-60 minutes to review the previous week’s items, mark what’s complete as done, reschedule what I failed to complete, and write down the new week’s items.
First I only added bullet points, simply an asterisk (*) at the beginning of the line, and whenever I complete an item I’d strike it out. If I’ve failed to complete it, then I’d strike it out and write next to it the date to which I’ve rescheduled it.
This however quickly became messy and was hard to read -its equally important to be able to go back and review your performance- so I replaced the asterisk with a box; if I manage to complete the item I’d tick the box with a right tick (✔️), if I don’t complete it then I’d tick it with a cross (❌) and add a p symbol next to it followed by the rescheduled date.
One of the important things is not biting more than you can chew, so I make it a rule to only schedule items that I can fit in a single calendar box. Also I try to write items as clear as possible, and as detailed as needed; this makes it so that I can make sure I make full use of both space in the organiser, and my time during the day.
For example, I’d write complex items on several lines -the more the lines the harder the item-, so if an item takes extra space in the daily box, it means I can’t schedule as much items compared to if I had mostly easy items at hand.
Example; an actual hard task I have coming up next week is writing down reports for 11 startups, I could write this item down as simple as Write down startup reports, but that way it allows me to schedule more items below it, when in fact, that task is extremely time consuming and might need a full day on its own. So what I do is break it down into several items, for each startup I’d write Write down X startup report, that way my daily box is filled up and at the same time I can visually see my progress and effort I still have ahead.
Its not a perfect system yet -and I don’t think it will ever be perfect-, but I’m going to keep improving on it as I learn more and discover its limitations, and for now its doing its job.
Why not digital
A question/comment might be Why not use a digital format to do this?, and its a valid one, but here are my two cents; digital formats invite distractions, remember you are now on a platform that has several entertaining outlets to distract you from thinking and organising your thoughts.
Another reason why I went with good old pen and paper, is muscle memory and to sway my procrastination habits away (I’ll cover that later); when I write things down it just sticks and I feel more confident of what I need to do having written it down.
Sticking to the plan
Now comes the hard thing, actually sticking to what you planned, and here is what I’ve found:
- You will get distracted, after all, your days rarely go as planned, and entropy will always get its way and mess up your expectations.
- Being hard on your self for not sticking to the plan is not productive and can actually make you stop planning all together
To address the first finding, you need to identify the distractions, for me I grouped them into two buckets:
External distractions are those outside your control.
Its that production incident that you have to attend to with the team, or a frustrated client that you need to deal with, or a team member looking for some help, … etc., the examples are numerous but they all share one thing in common; its out of your control and you can’t really plan for them.
To deal with them I quickly asses, if they are urgent then they warrant messing up your plans, otherwise then you can schedule them into your day or week depending on the urgency level, most importantly the number one rule is to say NO, its hard, but its not rude, and others will appreciate it when you say I can’t right now, but will do it in an hour, day, or on this date, just make sure you take your organiser out and place that promise where you promised it will be done.
Unlike external distractions, internal distractions are under your control, its those times when you browsed over to Facebook to check your notifications, or when you got carried away searching for music on Youtube and found yourself watching Funny Cats and Dogs Compilation (literally happened while writing this blog - true story), again the examples are infinite and you probably know what I’m talking about.
Unfortunately, this time you need discipline to deal with those.
One form of discipline I’ve found effective is the Pomodoro Technique, how it works however is beyond the scope of this post, the gist is, I try to schedule my internal distractions; whenever I feel an urge to check Facebook or surf Cat videos, I just schedule it to a Pomodoro break.
The three Rs: Review, Regroup and Reschedule
For the second finding, as I mentioned, its not productive being hard on your self when you fail to stick to your plans, so what I advice is the 3 Rs approach™ (😜):
Make a habit of reviewing your days or week while planning the next week, by doing so you learn your daily and weekly capacity, and that helps you planning more accurately in the future.
If you screwed up a couple of items, don’t sweat it, just try and understand why you failed to complete them; were you too optimistic? Maybe the items were too complex or had a ton of external dependencies, whatever the reasons may be, try and write them down next to the item (if applicable and required).
Don’t leave incomplete items hanging, simply marking them with a cross (❌) is not enough you also need to reschedule them, even if you are going to schedule them 1 month in the future.
You’ll rarely go back in your organiser more than a couple of weeks, so if you don’t reschedule them right away, chances are, you’ll completely forget about those items.
The next hard thing is Procrastination, and to be honest one of my tricks to handle that is the paper and pen, let me explain; I have some OCD tendencies, one of which is messing up nice notebooks/organisers, so when I commit to writing stuff, I want them neat, and if I have a system then I’m more inclined not to mess it up.
So when I feel the urge to procrastinate, I remember how bad my organiser will look like the next Saturday, and given my OCD/perfectionism tendencies, I commit to completing the item just to avoid messing up my fancy notebook (I think I need to get checked up…).
I’m pretty sure I haven’t stumbled on a discovery with the habits and exercises I mention here. They are pretty obvious and I’m sure I’ve picked most of them from books, edutainment and others, but my intention in this post is to highlight the importance of planning and how those seemingly simple and obvious practices, actually help keep you sane and focused in an extremely noisy and messy world.