The dark side of getting things done (a productivity addict one year on)

The dark side of getting things done

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a post about my productivity habits. People found it useful, I got to feel smug about how much I achieve…win-win.

Now I’m back in Chiang Mai, sitting by the same pool as when I wrote that post a year ago, and thinking about how it’s all worked out.

I have got an insane amount done in the last year, but my original post contained an early warning sign too:

“It’s addictive, and not always in a good way. I’ve become too rigid, and freak out if unexpected things crop up and derail my plans. I tend more than ever towards trying to optimise every single minute instead of having some flexibility and unplanned time.”

And it certainly feels like I took productivity too far, and suffered some negative consequences as a result.

So what is the dark side of being too productivity-orientated?

Makes you ignore tasks that can’t be “ticked off”

The feeling of whizzing through a to-do list (archiving Trello cards using keyboard shortcuts for extra efficiency, obvs) is highly satisfying.

But what about tasks that can’t just be ticked off a list – like interacting on social media, or just doing general reading around to gather ideas? I feel like I’ve been shying away from those activities because I can’t mark them as “done” and move on to the next thing.

Makes you take on too much

Because getting things done has become easy, I’ve probably taken on too many things and not helped any of them to reach their full potential. I probably also haven’t been discriminating enough about what to take on in the first place.

That’s probably because “writing a book” is the kind of thing where you can allocate a writing slot of 30 minutes per day, and before long it’s done. But then it’s time to promote it, which is messy, relies on social connections, and can’t just be “ticked off”.

That doesn’t feel satisfying, so it’s on to the next project while still having headspace taken up by the first one.

Leaves few gaps for the messy bits that matter

Things like having an impromptu Skype chat with a friend or commenting on a blog post just to say “thank you” are really important, and I’ve not been doing enough of them – partly because they can’t be turned into a task, and partly because I’ve taken on too much so genuinely don’t have the time.

Is addictive in a non-helpful way

A lot of people sit in front of their laptop all day, but between email, Twitter and a million other distractions they don’t get much actual work done.

I figured out how to produce actual work all day without getting distracted…but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to do it all the time. Rather than rewarding myself for getting to the end of my list, I’d be addicted to doing more and more – and start on the next day’s list.

So what’s the secret?

So having tried it all and taken it too far, what’s the secret to finding a happy medium between wasting time and being over-optimised?

Based on everything I’ve tried in the past year, these are the bits I’m going to be keeping. If you want to get more done, these are the tricks that will probably make the biggest difference for you – without the risk of taking it too far.

Use the Pomodoro technique as a tool when needed

The Pomodoro Technique is the most powerful productivity trick I’ve ever used, but I took it too far and basically lived my entire life in one giant rush to get things done.

So now, I’m going to stick to using it in specific situations:

  • For tasks when there’s a real chance of taking ages with no clear benefit, like replying to emails
  • When I’m putting something off and just need a defined period of time to force myself to get started
  • For those days when there’s genuinely a giant amount of stuff to do

Plan the day’s tasks, then not add more

I always plan out my tasks for the next day, but if I got through them all I’d come up with more, or move on to the next day’s list because “it looks like there’s a lot and I need to get ahead”.

Now, I’m going to plan my tasks the night before then refuse to add any more. If I get to the end of the list, that’s a good thing: I can either take a break or do some of those not-really-tasks-but-still-important activities like reading blogs or generating ideas.

Get the first few hours right

You can’t go far wrong by determining the most important task you do, and doing it before anything else.

For me, that’s writing. All of my projects involve writing in some form, and when I’m disciplined about writing every day I’m able to get my thoughts down much more quickly.

Whatever your most important activity is, it’s well worth scheduling a block of time to do that thing before anything else (including news and email). And it’s a pretty great feeling when it’s only 9am and you know you’ve already done something valuable.

Banish email

Misuse of email is a giant productivity killer, and taming my inbox is a productivity hack that I certainly don’t regret. I wrote a post about my entire system here.

I’m now taking it further by using instant messaging instead of email for all internal communication for the projects I work on. Hipchat is the tool we’ve chosen.

Before trying it, I was hugely skeptical: how much quicker can it be than writing a two-line email, and isn’t it distracting to have real-time communication going on? For some reason though, it just works. Even if you’ve just got one or two people who you email multiple times a day, I recommend giving it a try.

What about you?

Are you happy with your work habits?

Are there any tricks that have made a big difference to you?

Let me know in the comments!

  • Carl

    Great post Rob! I totally agree that it can be addictive and I’ve tried lots of different task managers like Todoist, Toodledo, Things and now Trello (definitely the best) – sadly I seem to have spent more time setting these damn things up rather than doing what I need to do!

    • Thanks Carl! Yeah that’s the danger with all those systems – more set-up time than you ever save. That’s why I love Trello so much: there aren’t a zillion settings to mess around with, and it just works. I can’t see myself moving on from that one now, but only time will tell!

      • I also ended up in the Trello department after years of trying out various stuff. It’s not perfect (nothing is I guess), but I’m trying to make it work for me better and better.
        How about we never mention other tools ever again, for avoiding temptation all together? 🙂
        (I guess that’s how fanboys are made)

        • I’ll do a post about Trello power user tips some time, with the mission of making sure you’re never tempted to stray from it again 🙂

  • I’ll raise my hand! I’m an Acheiver (yes, with a capital “A”). Over the last few months since I’ve started freelancing, it’s all task-orientation, and getting stuff done and out the door.

    For me, it’s like a dose of [choose whatever habit forming/addictive drug you like]. It’s a rush to get stuff done, get it shipped and get a fulfilled payment. But when you’re trying to unplug, relax and be with your friends and family, NOT getting stuff done is so distracting, and you just want that next hit/dose/whatever-the-kids-are-calling-it-nowadays.

    It definitely helps (nay, is *essential*) to have a wife that says, “you can only work on your side business X hours a week, and otherwise you have to spend time with me, be social, or de-screen”. And you know I always get the last word… “Yes, dear!”:-)

    • Glad it’s not just me Nate! I’ve been trying hard to be “present” by working 100% when I’m working and relaxing 100% when I’m relaxing, but it’s not easy. Having a wife to force sociability upon you sounds like a much easier method!