Over the last 10 years I've read pretty much every book on productivity and most of them say the same basic things - break things down, focus on one task and switch off your phone. Productivity tips might sound practical but they're often overly simple and don't actually get to the root of our procrastination and help us to get work done. Even if we turn off notifications and chunk things up we can still get overwhelmed when it comes to tackling a large project like starting a business or revising for exams.
1. Steal Like An Artist
The first productivity tip I want to talk about is one I use all the time and it consistently saves me hours and hours when it comes to getting started with pretty much anything I'm doing.
In his book Steal Like an Artist Austin Kleon points out that most things have been done before. And this title itself is taken from a quote by Pabloc Picasso who said “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” To steal like a good artist, you have to re-work the idea and make it your own.
If I'm getting started with anything the first thing I'll do that saves loads of time is to look at what else is out there. It's basic market research. Specifically I'll look at people or projects that have succeded.
If I have an idea for a new business I'll search Crunchbase or Google for similar business concepts, if I'm wanting to write a twitter thread I'll look at similar accounts and identify which of their tweets went viral.
Research what others have done, search for relevant books and podcasts, and ask ChatGPT for the best examples of what it is you want to do.
We're not replicating what others have done, but we're using this research as a starting point on which we can add our own creativity. I'll think how can I improve and expand on these ideas, concepts and processes. For me when it comes to being productive and beating procrastination this research phase saves a tonne of time and can be broken down into 3 steps.
The Research Process
- First I'll look for examples of how others have successfully tackled the project or task I'm doing. I'll google the problem and I'll look for practical examples, walk-through blogs and case studies which are the most practically useful and I'll bookmark these or save them to Notion.
- Next I'll pick up books and listen to podcasts and immerse myself in the problem I'm trying to solve. I might also ask people who have been successful or pick up courses dive into ChatGPT. For example when I was revising for medical finals I picked up lots of past paper questions and asked previously successful candidiates how they revised. If I'm writing a LinkedIn post myself or my team will search LinkedIn for posts with high engagement and then save these using the Save to Notion chrome extension.
- The final step I use here is to then summarise the commonalities of everything I've captured into Notion. This can be in a single page word document or a simple slide or note in Evernote or Notion. Try and be practical in what you write, this is especially important if the project involves others as they will need to understand your research.
2. Reverse Planning
My second productivity tip is called reverse planning and I use it all the time. Once I've researched and saved some successful examples of what I'm trying to do I'll then reverse engineer these examples into templates.
We're starting from the end and working backwards defining what we need to do to get there. And we're also creating a template that can be used again and again that will save us a tonne of time.
In practical terms let's say I'm writing a blog post about iPad apps for studying. A quick google search has shown me the top ranked posts on iPad apps and I've saved these links to Notion. What I'll then do is look at the titles of these articles and I'll look at the structure and how they're presented and I'll look for commonalities between multiple high-performing posts. So I can see that most are basically lists, most of them have 5 to 7 apps in them and most have an introduction and then an image of each app with a short description, a star rating system and maybe a price list and a link.
Now even if I know nothing about search engine optimization I now have a basic outline for my own blog post. I can create this structure as a template in Notion or word and then I can add in my own title like "The Top 5 Chrome Extensions" and quickly add the extensions that I use.
If I have no idea how to get started writing or I don't have a structure I'll get stuck even starting and begin procrastinating. By reverse engineering and creating templates that I can use again and again I've saved myself hours and hours of frustration.
If you are studying for something like a test reverse planning might simply be revision schedule that focuses on the high yield topics using the resources used by successful candidates with whom you've spoken. If you're running a marathon it might be mapping out your running programme and building up to the required distance.
Whatever it is you're trying to achieve working from the end backwards helps me to not feel overwhelmed and always makes things feel achievable regardless on the size of the project.
Productivity tip 3 is anti-perfection and it's about getting down to work and executing relentlessly. Common productivity tips like setting false deadlines and not multi-tasking are all really helpful but they don't really address the biggest issue that most people need to overcome to become more productive and that is to beat perfection paralysis.
When I first started building websites as a teenager I would spend ages making them look nice and wouldn't publish them until every pixel was in the perfect position. When I started making money online through websites and started building lots of sites around my day job as a doctor I realised that actually the first few sites I'd built I'd spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to look nice compared to the others but the function was pretty much the same. Interestingly the sites I designed and published quickly made exactly the same amount of money as the sites I'd spent ages perfecting.
And for me this was true of submitting coursework and getting tasks done.
The principle of good enough suggests that you should identify the point past which putting more resources into something won’t improve it in a meaningful manner, so you should finish with it and move on.
Essentially, this means that you should embrace the idea that good enough is good enough, instead of wasting valuable resources—such as time, money, and effort—by pouring them into a place where they won’t make a meaningful difference.
Life is messy and for me my biggest productivity hack is that you don't need to always be perfect. You don't need to wake up and make your bed everyday. But you do need to get up and go straight to your desk and execute and work on whatevr it is you're doing.
4. Batch Processing
Productivity tip number 4 is called Batch processing. I'm a huge fan of time-blocking. I'll block out time in my calendar every day to focus on deep work. But one thing that isn't talked about often enough is exactly what you should be focusing on during your time-blocked sessions.
I find that even in time blocked sessions if I'm trying to switch between the type of work I'm doing I'm way less productive than if I'm doing similar things together. For example if I set myself the goal of doing a YouTube video in a time blocked session the tendency might be to research titles and thumbnails, map out some basic script ideas, record B-roll and then record the video before uploading. The issue that I find here is that I'm jumping between different ways of working. Researching uses a different part of my brain to actually talking to camera. And switching applications and in this case setting up recording equipment takes time and effort.
Instead I'll batch process. So using this same example I might research 10 youtube videos on a single deep work session on a Monday and then script ech of these on a Tuesday and then record all of them on a Wednesday. By grouping similar tasks together I'll avoid time lost to application switching and reduce the risk of becoming distracted.
5. Focus On Fun
Author Seth Godin has an awesome short blog post called Get to vs. have to. It's literally 3 paragraphs and it starts with the question "How much of your day is spent doing things you have to do (as opposed to the things you get to do.)". It's a mindset shift. Are you working on tasks that genuinely interest you? When I set up my first business I remember being genuinely excited to jump up out of bed and work on it because the concept excited me. It was way more fun than going and having to do work assigned by someone else.
And I think this factor is massively overlooked in the world of productivity. Tasks that we find boring we'll naturally not want to do them and we'll put them off and they'll end up taking longer than those tasks that we find fun and enjoyable.
Now not everything that we do is inherently fun and some things we just have to do. For example when I was a doctor writing TTOs and prescriptions was pretty tedious and surgery was way more exiting. Seth Godin suggests we redefine what we do all day. We should view all tasks as opportunities instead of drudge work. This simple redefinition can transform the quality of your day, and more important, the perception of your work.
Another way to look at this is by thinking what tasks am I doing that can be automated so that I can focus on the things I'm interested in. Let's take studying for example. Rather than having to read through a textbook why not jump into ChatGPT and ask it to break down complex topics or how about getting it to save you time writing a study plan or even brainstorming ideas for a side-hustle business. AI tools can help fous you on the 20% of the things you do that have the biggest impact on your results while automating the remaining 80%.