I have been a productivity nerd since as far as I can remember. All of the tools and techniques that I have used so far have an underlying assumption that productivity is an outcome instead of a signal.
Here is what I used to do:
- Put the things that need doing in a To-do list 🏁
- Freak out & stay up until 2am to get shit done 😱
- Repeat until I burn out and feel miserable 😞
- Blame it on my To-do app and buy a new one ✨
I have come to strongly disagree with this approach - to an extent that I think it’s irresponsible to let people fuck with their heads like this.
Perhaps less importantly in this case, it’s not sustainable. Depending on the number of days since my last holidays, I can last between a week to a month before burning out.
About 1 year back, I started working on Dripl. The idea was to build a sustainable internet business funded by consulting gigs. Things got out of hand pretty quickly. I found myself drowned in my work until I couldn’t go on anymore. This happened several times. Each time, I had to take a break to recover. At some point I took a step back to try to figure out a better way.
Turns out there’s a better way - It’s simple, minimal, effective and requires nothing more than a Google calendar. I have been using this system for 6 months now. I am more productive than ever and I don’t pay for my productivity with my mental health.
In the rest of this essay, I will describe this system in 3 easy steps with plenty of examples.
Step 1 - Set up your calendar
All the things that you need to do must have a slot in a calendar.
- Do you exercise 3 times a week? Put an event in your Calendar that repeats 3 days every week.
- Do you want to try and write every day? Put a daily event in your calendar.
- Do you intend to call your parents every weekend? Calendar.
- Do you think it would be great if you can chat to your friends every month? ☝️
This is what my calendar looks like right now:
Very quickly, you would realise that you are running out of slots in your calendar. This is a good thing. An even better thing is to realise that you have a finite number of productive hours a day and this is precisely why we are doing this in a calendar.
A calendar - unlike a list - puts the things that you want to do against the time that you have.
Step 2 - Do what the calendar says
If you can’t - change the calendar to say what you did.
The first step is to show up. Try and do what the calendar says. If it tells you to write - write. Don’t feel like writing? Start anyway and re-evaluate after 15 minutes.
Still don’t feel like writing?
Delete the event titled “Writing” in your calendar - make sure you delete a single event and not all future events.
It goes without saying that if you find yourself checking emails instead of writing, add an event called “Check Emails” in your calendar for that day.
Same thing if for instance you or a family member were ill. Put an event in the calendar that captures this.
The aim is to get to a state where:
All future events in your calendar are plans & all past events in your calendar are logs.
Step 3 - Review your calendar
Every month or every week but perhaps not every day: Review your calendar.
- You planned to write daily. Does your calendar for the last month have 30 entries for writing?
- You planned to exercise 3 days a week. Do you have a dozen events called “Exercise” in your calendar for the last month?
- You planned to call your parents every week. Does your calendar reflect this?
Note the difference between what you planned and what you ended up doing. This difference is the signal. We are going to grab this signal and we are going to use it to find and commit to a plan that we can keep to.
If your calendar shows 5 events for exercise instead of the 12 that you planned to do, it’s not happening.
- It’s not happening does not mean that you should give up on exercise. That would be “It will never happen”.
- It’s not happening also does not mean that you ignore the data and keep going.
- _It’s not happening** **_means that you need to change something.
It’s not happening is a signal. What you do with it is up to you. For instance:
- You can change the time - Start exercising in the afternoon instead of first thing in the morning.
- You can change the type of exercise - Start cycling instead of running.
- You can mix your exercise with something else that you like - Run around with some friends.
The difference between your plans and your actions is a signal. Change your plans and your actions - one thing at a time - until the signal is no more.
Few months back, I committed to writing for an hour every day.
I put a daily event in my calendar called “Write”. I thought I would write after work and so I chose 5pm as the start time.
For the next month, I made sure that I wrote every single day or when I didn’t - delete the “Write” event from my calendar for that day.
At the end of the month, I reviewed my calendar and discovered a huge gap between my plan and my actions.
This was the signal. It was shit but that is fine - v1 of everything is shit.
Next, I wrote a list of hypotheses to explain the signal. This is what the list looked like:
- I am easily distracted.
- I don’t know what I would write about.
- It takes me half an hour to get going and by that time, I am already through half of my allocated time for writing.
- Maybe I don’t like to write.
In the next few weeks, I ran experiments to validate each hypothesis starting from the first one.
I started by putting away my phone when I sat down to write. This increased the quality of my writing but did nothing for the consistency.
The following week, I wrote a list of things that I would like to write about beforehand so that I don’t have to come up with something when I sit down to write. Again, this helped me reduce the time it took to get going but didn’t improve my consistency.
The third week is when I finally got to the bottom of the issue. What worked for me in the end was to change my cadence. Instead of trying to write every day, I switched to writing for 3 hours a week - in a single session.
I wouldn’t have been able to do this if I was not capturing the signal and using it as feedback to optimise my plans to improve on my actions.
I program computers for a living. This means that it was only a matter of time before I automated the shit out of this 🤷♂️
Couple of months back, I wrote an email bot. I share my calendar with this bot and I get weekly/monthly reports that contain an outline of what I spent my time on and more importantly the difference between my plans and my actions - The signal.
If you are starting out on this, you don’t need this. Please just use the Google calendar. It’s more than enough.
On the other hand, if - like me - you are using this system to run your life, you might want to send me an email for a beta invite.