Short note: A bit late on this piece because of a few side projects. Hope to unveil one of them very soon! And it’s related to yoga.
Productivity – something all of us struggle with on a regular basis just because of the multitude of distractions around us in this day of age.
When I read a piece (pay walled content) from one of my favourite writers right now, Zat Rana’s point about going beyond just efficiency (doing more in less time), and achieving true effectiveness (doing more and good in less time) – I immediately thought about exploring my own work habits and how they all fit into the modern landscape.
What people did in the past that required years, now take months or even weeks, especially if the main resource is knowledge or information. One good example is building a website or an app – there are so many tools out there that make building something so complex, easy for anyone without the need for coding knowledge.
I’ve recently written about managing time in the “new norm” that is working from home (WFH), at least until 2021 or even 2022, and Zat’s article about this just takes it one step further.
To reiterate: doing more in less time alone isn’t enough – we need to think about how to do more high value things in less time. Basically, increase the volume and quality of one’s output, especially in a professional context.
I’ve been thinking about this for sometime, and I think distilling it into three aspects would be helpful.
Getting into a state of flow
A concept made popular by a psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (watch his TED talk), the state of flow is where one totally loses one’s self in the moment doing something that is in the “Goldilocks Zone” of difficulty – just challenging enough to keep one engaged in the activity, enjoying the whole process while honing a skill.
To put things in perspective, a state of flow allows us to perform the professional task at hand effectively and efficiently. That’s also how most working professionals can relate to the 80-20 rule where they spend 20% of the time doing 80% of the work.
How about the small minority who spend maybe 50% of the time doing 100% of the work, and the remaining 50% of the time exploring new ideas, allowing them to achieve so much more than the vast majority? How do they do it?
Well, I’m guessing the answer lies with how they set up processes to allow them to enter the state of flow more often than just 20% of the time, which is the average for most of us, especially so when deadlines are just around the corner.
Setting up such processes can start from identifying the time of the day where we’re most effective (early larks vs night owls), constructing a conducive environment, and sketching out a rough plan of how we will tackle the day’s tasks.
Generally speaking, I prefer to tackle the toughest tasks that require the most brain power in the morning (I’m an early lark) and leave for the mundane, “brain-dead” tasks to the latter part of the day.
Maintaining the state of flow
Getting into the state of flow alone wouldn’t be enough – if we get into the state of flow just once a day and that lasts for less than an hour, we won’t get much done in the limited time we have for the day.
In the article, Zat is suggesting that those who can go one step further by setting up systems to help them switch between tasks while maintaining the state of flow, which he calls “contextual flow”, is the rare bunch who gets even more out of their time.
There’s always this person (or company) in our lives who constantly produces without fail like clockwork, and we all envy that kind of productivity. The best part is the quality isn’t compromised too.
Some writers that give that kind of vibes to me include Zat Rana, Julie Zhuo, Tim Urban from Wait But Why among a few others. They put in a lot of thought and effort into their writing to make their readers feel something, which is rare among the crowded ocean of online content.
In its essence, it’s maintaining the energy and motivation to keep pressing forward, regardless of the obstacles and challenges that lie ahead. It almost becomes a habit to just trust, enjoy, and love the process.
I believe it’s a combination of believing in what one does and having a lofty goal that is always ever so slightly just out of reach, so one will push forward without thinking.
And I realised people like that all have something in common that allows them to maintain the quality, and most likely, the state of flow that produces that kind of high value.
Saying “no” to many things
Rejecting or dropping something, or even someone, is what I’ve learned the hard way over the course of my teenage and adult life. We can’t say “yes” to everything because that also means saying “no” to many.
Most of us just go with the flow (…ha!) and choose what seems to be the best option at the very moment.
For instance, choosing fast food over a healthy meal, spending excessively on our short-term happiness instead of saving for long-term stability, skipping a workout for mindless YouTube binging, and the list goes on.
Now, apply that to our professional or personal lives at a macro level. If we want to be good at what we do, and have some achievements we’ll be proud of, we need to put in the work and time. That means sacrificing a lot of other things all in the name of hard work.
It also means choosing our battles. There are probably dozens of jobs that are suitable for any single individual. Suitable as in you would do decently well and won’t get fired.
But if we want to carve out a career that reaps rewards after a decade or so, we have to focus our time and effort on a vertical. It involves a conviction to not look at the many other seemingly green pastures all around you, but focus on sowing the seeds on your chosen plot of land.
That’s why getting into a state of flow is when you’re fully immersed in the activity in the moment. Maintaining a state of flow for a longer period of time than the average person requires processes and systems in place, so it’s repeatable. And focus is the only way the accumulated hours of flow will pay off.
The next time we’re puzzled why someone can produce so much more than others in less time, we should slap ourselves awake. Because the puzzlement itself is a distraction. Set up an environment, system, and goal for ourselves, get into our own state of flow.