Productivity is doing what really matters

Alice to the Cheshire Cat – “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”, said the Cat. “I don’t much care where —“ said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. “— so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation. “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat. “if you only walk long enough.”

Excerpt from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

It is easy to feel that you are moving forward by simply doing. Walking long enough will certainly get you somewhere, but there is no guarantee that the destination will be a good place.

Ever since I graduated from college and started my career, I have been interested in finding ways to become more productive. I think everything started when the company I worked for put me through a week of training on how to use the Franklyn-Covey method and I got to read 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The idea of being able to do more sounded to me like a superpower that would take me places.

I kept reading many other productivity books and implementing and fine tuning different methods until I got to Getting Things Done (GTD). To this date, I don’t think there is any better method to help you become more focused and productive. Like many other methods, it is based out of having one main inbox of things to-do that you can later categorize.

GTD relied heavily on paper and file folders making it difficult to translate into digital productivity apps. Simplicity was lost due to a focus on features. GTD website now sells setup guides for each of the major software tools such as Omnifocus, Trello, Things, Evernote, etc. Those guides are useful to make applications fit to the methodology, but it always felt like forcing square into a circle, and I ended up spending too much time tweaking apps and rearranging my workflow. Over time, a sense of managed chaos ensured and I was never able to gain a mind-like-water state for too long. In this process, I realized was missing was a sensible way to prioritize.

Life contexts

The most difficult task is to decide where to begin from a list of items. From all the people on my call list, whom should I call first? Which action item should I tackle from my computer list? I always ended up with tons of items on my lists, but not knowing where to begin paralyzed me every single time.

A common method to prioritize is the Eisenhower matrix which divides items on urgency and importance. This method is useful when dealing with single dimension to-do lists but I kept thinking that urgency is an un-efficient (and stressful) way to sort out action items.

All this built up frustration led me to drop all my lists every few months and start again from scratch. This is how life contexts came to be. I needed a system to do things that really mattered, at the right time, and with enough frequency to help me achieve my long-term goals.

Life contexts provide a clear way to build purpose into what you do and help you balance how you spend your time in order to move forward in life. So far, I have developed six life contexts: Earn, Do, Learn, Connect, and Think.

  1. Earn: These are tasks that lead you to generate economic value, not necessarily money per se, but are related to exploring opportunities that take your game to the next level. For a sales executive it could mean prospecting new customers, while for an office manager it could mean doing something different that has potential for a promotion or career enhancement.
  2. Do: These are tasks that you simply have to get done without much thought or ultimate impact. These are the items that although possibly dreaded just need to be addressed (think laundry, dishes, travel expense reports, updating salesforce, etc).
  3. Learn: These are actions that would help deepen your understanding of the world around you or beyond. These tasks represent an opportunity to explore new areas of knowledge to improve what you do today or give you give you the ability to do new things.
  4. Connect: We are social animals, we thrive when we work together and we gain so much from other’s perspectives. Collaboration goes beyond networking and helps our communities move forward. Networking has an unfortunate negative connotation that scare or turn people off. But honest networking is really just reaching out to offer oneself to the service of people around you.
  5. Enjoy: Sounds very basic, but we need to have things that we enjoy just for the sake of having a good time. Experiencing pleasure is one item more that we should all include in our to-do lists. I try to make time for one small or large thing a day that I know will bring me joy and I make sure it happens the same way that I make sure I respond to an email. It makes me happy and makes me feel accomplished at the same time.
  6. Think: I find myself not truly thinking deeply for many days at a time but it’s probably the one that has giving me the most. I pick a topic to ponder and make sure I spend 10-15 minutes of free-thinking . I put on headphones or go to a quiet place, close my eyes and just focus on solving the issue at hand.

Having tasks for each life context every week gives me a balanced workload while scheduling work for each context with the right frequency provides meaning. Balance plus meaning is true productivity.

(A follow-up post will address how I decide what the the right mix is.)