Oct 28, 2020

Building Productive Habits

Building systems that make you more productive is a lot like building a software product these days. I've invested a considerable amount of time reading up on and implementing various approaches to making better use of my time, whether it's for learning and studying, or professional work, and forming productive habits that stick.

I've started by streamlining everything going on in my personal life, collecting all open loops and projects I was working on, establishing processes for handling mails, documents, and notes, all to make sure nothing would slip through the cracks, ever again.

While I'm still in the early stages, I couldn't come around to notice that continuously trying out, measuring, and improving upon a range of ideas and processes feels a lot like the lean workflow I've been enjoying for quite some time now.

Productivity is a highly individual subject. With nearly infinite resources on the table, picking what works for yourself can feel scary at first, but once you get into the flow, you could see it as designing and building a product that you'll use extensively every day.

I haven't reached the point where I'm done with my personal setup, I doubt that this point even exists, but I have collected a couple of ideas that seem to be foundational to productivity and personal knowledge management, as I've repeatedly recognized the same principles used throughout different resources and materials.

🧠 Building a Trusted System

Knowing where a document should be stored, a place to add your notes to, which task is up next, all of those questions should be ideally solved by a system that allows you access everything at a moment's notice, while also making sure nothing gets lost.

Building an organization system takes time, but with a wide variety of great digital tools available, you should be able to build something that fits your use case perfectly.

And most probably, one tool will not do the whole job, nor does it have to: Next to being a heavy Notion user, I'm also leveraging file storage, Calendar, and other software products that most of you might already use. It's just that I've set clear guidelines to myself on how I'll make sure that no chaos will build up over time, constantly clearing removing friction from processes, cleaning up files and notes, and keeping it all running.

What's most important: You need to trust your system and for this to work, you need to get it structured and keep it up to date. Throwing everything into a black box and expecting it to be useful never worked, so you'll have to put in some work. If you can't stand chaos, that helps, at least it did for me.

🖋️ Externalize Everything ("Your brain is made for having ideas, not storing them")

Keeping everything in your head might make you feel in control, busy, or even important, but I can guarantee that you'll feel miserable about missed appointments, forgotten ideas, or the general feeling that you can't quite fit it all.

And that's just natural, your brain wasn't made to keep track of all of what you might try to stuff in there, so a big part of improving your productivity is to externalize everything that does not belong in your head.

Whether it's the reminder that your best friend's birthday is coming up next week, the next big idea, your thoughts on last week's product roadmap discussion, write it down. Not only does externalizing help you clarify your thoughts, it also relieves pressure. While the initial gathering of your state of the world might take some time, you'll shortly experience peace of mind that you wouldn't trade back for whatever order you thought you had.

Doing this regularly is vital to staying in control, so you can focus on ideas, creative output, or react to the things you can't control, knowing that you're prepared.

🌀 Reflect, Iterate, Improve

A big part of feeling productive is to eliminate friction in everything you're doing, and that requires building habits that are custom-tailored to your life. This could mean setting up personal knowledge management, downloading a task manager app, summarizing articles you read, whatever it takes for you to think "This is awesome, let's repeat that!". Once you've found working ideas, repeat them, improve them further, or try out something else.

And if something doesn't work out for you, drop it, and don't feel guilty about it. This is not a competition about who can get the most habits working, in fact, it's not a competition at all. Building systems for yourself is a path you're going down completely on yourself, not a marathon.

I believe that with just those three core principles, a structured and trusted system, a habit of externalizing thoughts into that system, and a curious approach to new ideas and constant improvement, you should be more than well-equipped to embark on the journey of digital productivity and personal knowledge management, and more importantly, to a more relaxed and well-organized life. A life without forgetting and searching, a life focused on developing and pursuing ideas instead of procrastinating.