People often ask me how I “do it all.” I think they mean all the blogging, on top of my regular job as a researcher. The simple answer is, I work a lot, much of it in short intervals of time away from my office.
But I very much doubt I work more than the average person who asks, “How do you do it all?” It’s just that a substantial amount of my work product is highly visible: the blogging. I think that gives the impression that I’m doing more in less time.
For all that, I may, in fact, manage time well, as I’ve been told by others for years. People have asked me for time management tips since I was in high school. As has Tyler Cowen and some of the “most productive people on the planet”, I’ve written some down for you below and in no particular order. These are just some aspects of how I generally work and live, only some of which may enhance my productivity.
- I do not work to deadlines. I start early and revise often. I first drafted this post five days ago.
- I keep my pipeline full. I always have stuff to do, to write about, to read. I don’t wonder, “What should I write? What should I read?” I have lists.
- I have many things in process at once. For example, at the moment I have over a dozen posts for various outlets in different states of completion. Some are done. Others are lists of links or notes.
- I protect the morning for the hardest work of the day, requiring the greatest concentration. I try to schedule meetings and calls for the afternoon. I read papers in the afternoons or evenings, with one major exception (see next item).
- I don’t drive on my commute. I walk and take the train. Walking (up to 6 miles per day) replaces what would otherwise be time spent at a gym or similar. During my commute, I catch up on news and, yes, some entertainment by podcast (at 2x speed—people speak too slowly). I read and take care of email on the train.
- I use Twitter, but mindfully. When I don’t have time for it, I ignore it. When I need a short break, I look at it. This has the advantage of combining some entertainment (which is what I seek during a break) with a lot of valuable information (given whom I follow). What feels like a break ends up being more useful, without my even noticing.
- Otherwise, I don’t read a lot of “news.” I read nothing out of a sense of obligation. I skim things in my RSS reader, sometimes flip through The New York Times online or in an app.
- I stop reading or just skim ahead things that are not well written, don’t speak to me, or don’t teach me anything. Sometimes I read posts and articles backwards (last paragraph, next to last, and so forth). I’m hunting for the incremental update.
- I watch little TV. I miss most movies.
- I reply to email that I intend to respond to at all within minutes, typically (except when circumstances do not allow). This probably isn’t productivity enhancing. I just think my colleagues and friends appreciate the responsiveness. Providing it makes me feel nice and useful.
- Unless I have a unique take, I don’t write about things that many others are.
- I seek feedback on my products, listen to it, and make changes as warranted.
- I’m nearly completely paper free. All my work products’ inputs and outputs are electronic and in the cloud. Same goes for life management tools like my calendar.
- I rarely take notes. When I do, they’re either electronic to begin with or transferred to electronic rapidly and where they need to be for future use.
- I try to remember where to find useful information, rather than trying to remember all the useful information. This is why I blog and tweet. They’re searchable memory aids. Also, I am fortunate to have access to highly reliable, external (human) memory.
- I ignore most office and institutional politics, skip every possible meeting, and don’t pay close attention at all times in most of those I attend. (These habits can be potentially dangerous. I have some protective workarounds, which rely on the skills, interests, and good will of others. Gains from trade.)
- I don’t take calls that are not pre-arranged and with people I want to talk to. I don’t listen to voicemail promptly, if at all.
- I say “yes” only to things I feel I can do well given the amount of time I think is asked of me. (Doing something well implies I want to do it.)
- When I take breaks, they are real breaks, without guilt. When needed, I have blown off weeks of evenings playing video games or reading novels. I take internet-free vacations. I trust myself that my motivation to work hard will return, but don’t force it. It always works out. (This takes practice.)
- I love to learn and write. I don’t try to do it. I feel a need for it. Then I just do it.
Two final points: Information in any form (reading, TV, podcasts/radio, the content of meetings, emails, and so forth) is almost entirely entertainment, with little lasting informational value. How much do you recall from a book you read three years ago, a movie you saw one year ago, an hour-long conference call you were on last month, an article you read last week, or a radio program you listened to three days ago? How much can you write down about it? What was the key point or message? With few exceptions, what took many minutes or hours to consume has been converted to, at most, a few sentences of information in your long-term memory. The rest of the information is not retained. From a long-term perspective, most of what you consumed was filler, momentary entertainment (if that), packaging, art, which is all fine and good, but not necessarily memorable information. For gathering information of long-term value, skipping or skimming the likely non-memorable parts and finding ways to codify in a searchable form the important, new information is more efficient, though not necessarily easy. (If one is seeking entertainment, inspiration, and the like, this is not applicable. I like art too!)
Finally, there are many other ways to be productive and types of productive people. Some of my very productive cobloggers work in very different styles, for instance. It leads me to suspect that one is not productive because of one’s methods, but one is simply productivity-oriented first and then develops personalized methods to suit.