The inconvenient truth about productivity

31st August, 2023

I didn’t ask to become a personal productivity guru, but somehow my colleagues keep volunteering me for the role — most recently for Isabel Berwick’s Working It podcast, in the recording of which I blushed and generally felt like an imposter.

This is partly because the practice of managing your own time well is fiendishly complicated. There are so many things one could be doing at any particular moment, and so many variables — where you are, how much energy you have, whether you’re being interrupted — that the whole exercise can feel like a game of five-dimensional chess that frequently leaves even the most skilled and seasoned players bewildered by an unexpected move.

There are plenty of good tactics that seem so obvious I feel embarrassed mentioning them: write tasks down, stop looking at TikTok, make time for what’s most important. All very true, and yet far from the whole story.

So, I wondered, what are the secret principles, the deeper truths, the underrated ideas that might help us all get more done, with less anxiety, in less time? I suggest three ideas. None of them is heretical but each seems under-appreciated.

First, look ahead. Look ahead further, and more frequently and more thoughtfully, than seems sane. Start by looking at tomorrow’s calendar at the end of each day before you draw up a list of things to do. On Friday afternoon, look at next week’s calendar — and the week after that. Where are the pinch points? Is there anything you need to do to prepare for the meeting, the party or your wedding anniversary?

David Allen, author of the crunchy-yet-brilliant Getting Things Done, advises that you keep looking further and further ahead until tasks no longer pop into your head as you do. You may be surprised at how much occurs to you during the diary-driven attempt at foresight. Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism, advocates making a quarterly plan containing the broad outlines of what you hope to achieve in the next three months and reminding yourself of it each week.

Allen also advises a full “weekly review” not only of the diary ahead but the diary behind, along with tasks, projects and sundry scribbles on Post-it notes. This weekly review is arguably the cornerstone of his entire system. It’s also the step that people are most tempted to skip.

Looking ahead matters for all the obvious reasons, but there is a hidden benefit, too. You feel calmer when you know — rather than just hope — that you are aware of what predictably lies ahead. And if you get into the habit of checking your calendar and your lists of tasks, you are more likely to trust them. This allows you to write things down and then relax, knowing you’ll be reminded of them at the appropriate moment.

Second, clarify. Far too many things linger in the inbox or on the desk because we fail to take the moment required to think about what they are. Does this need to be archived for reference? (Usually not.) Does it need to be simply deleted? (Very often, yes.) Is a simple, one-shot action required? (If yes, maybe do that immediately.) Or is there something more complicated implied? (If so, take a minute to think about what steps might be involved and write them down.) It is astonishing how much work, clutter or vague anxiety can accumulate simply because we hesitate to take this quick step of clarifying our thoughts.

Does this really matter? Yes it does. I was staggered to discover that not only does my esteemed colleague Pilita Clark have more than 100,000 unread emails, her friends and colleagues have 300,000 or 400,000. How does this happen, I asked myself? Then I realised the answer. If you keep looking at incoming emails and thinking, “Hm, I’m not sure what to make of that,” you’ll eventually get to 400,000. It is simply the accumulated result of 400,000 individual failures to make a decision. As Clark demonstrates, it’s perfectly possible to thrive with such an inbox but, personally, I’d rather not.

Third, be content. There is an endless temptation to believe that at some stage you’ll get on top of all the tasks, that you’ll clear the decks, and then at that point you’ll either be able to get on with the real work or rest. These goals are mirages. You’ll never clear the decks; there will always be more to scrub and tidy. Let’s not volunteer for the role of Sisyphus: “Yes, I will book a holiday and begin writing a novel, but first let me just roll that boulder up the hill one more time.” Each of us is just going to have to do what we can in the time allotted to us (whether that’s an eight-hour working day or an 80-year life) and realise that perhaps we couldn’t reasonably have done any more.

David Allen has pointed out that if, by some miracle, you were able to tick off everything on your to-do list tonight, by tomorrow afternoon you’d be fizzing with energy and ideas. The to-do list is not finished until you are. Learn to live in peace with that fact.

Or, for a more philosophical take on much the same idea, Oliver Burkeman builds on a line from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges: “Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river.” In that case, says Burkeman, in his delightfully wise book Four Thousand Weeks, stop yearning for the moment when you’ll grasp a handhold on the bank, climb out of the river, and relax as you watch it flow by. You are the river. Don’t waste the journey dreaming of the riverbank.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 4 August 2023.

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