Firing on All Cylinders: Productivity Tips for the Knowledge Worker

We’ve all seen the movies and stereotypes. Maybe you read some book by a productivity guru telling you how to make the most of your life. Maybe he’s right because he’s rich or maybe these productivity gurus are rich because you believe their system works and no more. How do you know they follow their own advice? You’ll never know unless you get a fly on the wall glimpse. Maybe they have the luxury to follow the system because they also hire expensive personal assistants and have an army of lackeys to keep their hands dirty. I’ve tried my hand at a variety of schemes. I did that GTD thing and all I got done was GTD.

The cold hard truth is that you make the most of the limited time you have doing what you do to pay the rent. And how do you get things done? Just run like hell and don’t let anything get in your way. That’s really it. No philosophy or nothing. You really can’t package that into a million dollar idea but I can guarantee it’s what all the successful people do. They just shut out all the noise and do whatever it is they excel at. That’s really the secret. Find something you excel at or at least do better than anything else you do and run like hell.

The trick is not really in what you do when you’re running but what you do to relax when you’re not. Here are some tips I’ve come up with.

Set Limits

No matter how good you are at what you do or how much you enjoy it, you can only do so much. They say that good concentration doesn’t last any more than an hour. You need to find that sweet spot where you put in a 100% and take a good break without totally slacking off. Setting limits is really not just about setting limits on how hard you work but how much you take a break. If you end up playing solitaire for 5 hours a day on company time or surfing the web, looking up celebrities and posting on Facebook, I guarantee you’ll be lined up at the local homeless shelter’s soup kitchen.

Develop a Rhythm

I always wake up at the same time every day. Even on weekends. On weekends I allow myself to go back to sleep but it keeps me from sleeping in obscenely. This alone will prevent you from getting excessively fatigued and help you recover after a night’s sleep. It’s a sacrifice in a sense because it means not being able to stay up too late during the work week but it definitely pays off. Modern life is designed to screw with our natural cycles. You either need to set limits in steel or structure activities with a definite time limit.

Find a Way to Decompress Your Mind

I program for a living so sometimes I really get my mind fried up in code think of this and that. It’s really not a casual thing I can do. I’m not a super hacker or anything so I need to give it my all just to get through the day. At the end of work my brain’s had enough. I try to stay away from the computer when I leave my desk at work. Maybe I’ll take up programming as a hobby when I get more productive at it and it becomes more effortless. I doubt it.

In my experience, one of the worst things you can do to decompress is surf the web. It’s just a convenient way to keep your mind on cruise control but not enough of a change from office work to really rest your mind. It’s just my personal experience but it’s hard to really set a limit as there’s no end.

I tend to enjoy doing stuff that’s radically different from what I do at work. I’ve found my sweet spot to be movies and exercise. I watch movies during my long, dreary commute. Only it’s not so dreary any more. I’ll either watch two episodes of a show on the way and back each or watch the first half of a feature on the way and the rest on the journey home. It gives me something to look forward to on the way home rather and keeps me from becoming a zombie. The biggest benefit is when I hit the sack, I’ve completely left work behind. I let my mind escape into a different world. It’s hard to drag things from my workday into the home when I’m watching some mafia goon getting stabbed in the eye by a naked tattoo-covered tough guy in the sauna.

Sometimes it just isn’t enough during crunch time when you have to do a lot of overtime. Things start getting heavy sometime around Wednesday. This is where exercise comes in. I do it first thing in the morning. I really don’t care how busy I am. I’ll make the time to get a session in no matter what. Near the end of the week, when I’m drained I can already feel the remains of yesterday creeping into my psyche. I wake up with all the makings of a sucktastic day. By the end of exercise, there’s not a trace of it. I feel energized and ready to tackle whatever leftovers I have at work with a fresh mind.

The thing both movies and exercise have in common is that it’s radically different from work and both activities require your mind to be focused on the task at hand. It’s immersion that uses a whole different part of your mind. Exercise also releases all the pent up tension that no other activity can.

Leave it Behind

When you get off work, you need to get off work. If you find yourself thinking about work all the time when you’re away or feeling guilty about having fun away from it, maybe you’re not giving it your all or maybe you’re stuck doing something you suck at and shouldn’t be doing. You need to find a way to be guilt-free when you leave work behind. You should be confident and bold with your recreation. You need to feel like you deserve the rest 100% in order to feel refreshed. It feels better too. You put in a good day’s work, collect your reward to recharge your batteries for another day.

I don’t have any of the answers and finding the optimal combination is a continuous learning exercise but I tend to see that the super successful people also tend to be the ones having the most fun outside work, while being the most intense while working.