How I Stay Productive

By Nat Eliason in Productivity

Ryan Kulp published a post on how he stays productive a few weeks ago, and I thought it’d be fun if more of us loud Internet people wrote up our own versions.

I’ve discussed productivity on this site before, but most of it is more prescriptive (here’s what you should do) and less “here’s what’s working for me.”

It’s tricky to write about it this way since my process is constantly changing, getting better over time as I find new ways to modify it, so I’ll try to come back and update this post in the future as the process shifts.

I’m going to approach this post like an inverted pyramid: starting at the super high level, macro planning point, working down to the day-to-day execution, then back up to the macro level in terms of reflections and reviews.

As for what this productivity is going towards, here’s the current list:

  • Growth Machine - A boutique search-focused content marketing agency with four full-time team members, 50+ contractors, and over 1M in ARR.
  • Cup & Leaf - A premium tea ecommerce store, started as a Growth Machine project.
  • Made You Think - A weekly podcast where Neil Soni and I read books and discuss their main takeaways.
  • This Blog - Where I write articles like these and publish my book notes.
  • The Medley - A newsletter where I share everything I’m finding and reading from the week.
  • Other miscellaneous things, like exercising, learning poker, training Pepper, whatever I’m temporarily obsessed with this week, etc.

I should mention, too, that I came up with < 10% of this process on my own. Almost all of it can be attributed to a combination of articles by Tiago Forte, a conversation I had with Anthony Gustin, the books “Work Clean,” “Getting Results the Agile Way,” and “The Effective Executive,” and most importantly, constantly screwing with this process for the last 6 years since I first started caring about productivity.

The Most Important Part of Staying Productive

Here’s the biggest thing to keep in mind when you’re reading about my process:

I’m almost always working.

This is not some Tim Ferrissian “here’s how to work 2 hours a day and make lots of money” post. I tried that. It sucks. You’ll get depressed in about two days if you have an ounce of ambition in you. If you’re trying to optimize around working less, find better work.

It doesn’t mean, though, that I’m always doing things that feel like work. It means I enjoy the work that I do, and I’ve found ways to make my hobbies productive.

Here’s an example. I read for ~1 hour every morning, and read more in the evenings, in transit, on the weekend, etc. On the one hand, that’s leisure time. But on the other, it’s productive, since most of the time I’m reading a book for Made You Think, and at the very least I’m going to publish my notes on it.

Or when I’m working on training Pepper, that’s material for articles. Learning poker? Material for articles. Out drinking with friends? Most of my friends are entrepreneurs, or know entrepreneurs, and that’s where most of the Growth Machine clients come from. None of these things are “work” in the nasty way you might think of that word, I’m just having fun, but they lead to productive output nonetheless.

I’d say that ~80% of my waking hours, so 12-14 of them, are spent on things that have the potential to create productive output.

The Macro: Planning

Everything starts with my areas of focus. An area of focus is anything that you will have a bunch of different projects within. For me, some of them are Growth Machine, this site, my health, my apartment, and so on.

From those areas, I set annual goals. These aren’t really “annual” in the sense that I expect them to be finished right on December 31st, rather, they’re goals I want to accomplish or work towards during the year. You might think of them more like targets.

I organize my areas and goals in a spreadsheet. I’ve tried every single productivity tool under the sun, and this is the best solution (h/t to Anthony for showing me how he did it and how silly my attempts to force this system into Asana were).

In a spreadsheet tab, I’ll list out my Areas of Responsibility (from Tiago’s PARA system), and then my associated annual goals below them:

productivity annual goals and next steps spreadsheet

Each goal, as relevant, is linked to the Asana project where I'm making progress on it. Some of them (like meditating) don't need a project, and others where I haven't started to make much progress don't have one yet either.

If I decide a goal no longer makes sense, I’ll highlight it in red to keep a record of it. When I hit a goal, it gets highlighted in green. White ones are the ones still in progress.

Next to each goal is the “next step / goal,” which helps me break down the goal to its next milestone. This can help with making the big goals less intimidating, and with planning out the next two levels of goals: monthly and weekly.

Each month, I’ll pick three goals to focus on. These are the goals I think will make the biggest impact in my life, that I’ll be happiest if I get done this month. They’re also the things I think I’ll be unlikely to do if I don’t set a specific goal for them. I’ll always pull them from my annual goals and their next steps, to make sure that I’m staying on track for the bigger goals I’m aiming towards.

Those go in a separate spreadsheet tab, in their own row for the month:

monthly goals tracking spreadsheet

I’ll highlight them in blue so they stand out in the sheet, and then go back and make them green when I hit them.

Then from the monthly goals, I can set goals for my weeks. I’ll show you how that looks in the spreadsheet then explain what’s going on:

weekly and daily tracking goals spreadsheet

I have two sets of weekly goals: the goals that I want to do every single week (publish article, finish book, publish notes), and the Week X goals, the goals specific to that week.

These are usually based on the monthly goals, though sometimes there will be other big things that need to get done that will take precedent. In this case, I wasn’t working on the migration and fulfillment at the beginning of the month, I was wrapping up a couple other projects.

Then from the weekly goals, I can set goals each day. Again, everything is limited to three to force me to focus. As I go through the day and week, I’ll highlight goals in green as they get done, and add numbers to the right of them based on the number of project goals completed, which gives me a score for the week (the 66% at the bottom of this week).

I’ll also track a few core habits, which gives me a score for the day that you can see on the right. This makes it really easy to reflect on each week and see how it went, based on what I care most about accomplishing.

Again: all Anthony’s system and I hope he publishes a more in-depth post on it. It’s a fantastic method for tracking and hitting your goals.

Organizing the Week

My week is designed to maximize the amount of time I can spend on offense, working on what will produce the most meaningful results for me and my businesses. That means I maximize my unscheduled time so I can work for long periods on wherever the intersection is between what I think will be the most valuable work to do, and what I feel like doing.

Here’s a typical week for me:

organizing my week to stay productive

Very, very few meetings. Lots of unscheduled time. And except in very rare cases, I don’t take meetings outside of Monday and Wednesday.

I also don’t try to schedule what I’ll work on when. If I want to spend four hours on a post like this one, I don’t want to feel bad for it. The work will get done, and I’d rather follow my energy than try to stick to a rigid schedule.

The only other important thing I’ll try to do in my weekly planning is to frontload the weekly goals. If I can bang them out in Monday to Wednesday, that gives me Thursday and Friday to get ahead of where I was aiming for.

But the week isn’t really where the organizing magic comes in, that’s at the daily level.

Organizing the Day

All of my day-to-day execution lives in Asana. I’ve used Trello and other tools before, but Asana gives me the best mix of organizational styles, especially for all of the work we do at Growth Machine.

In the “My Tasks” view, I’ll have a list of everything that would ideally get done today, and then I’ll split it out by “Top Priority” and “Good to Do”:

organizing my day to stay productive

The top priority tasks are, you guessed it, the daily goals in the spreadsheet. Copying them over here lets me just look at the spreadsheet once a day, and then execute in Asana for the rest of the day.

As much as possible, I will not do anything in the Good to Do until the Top Priority tasks are done. Sometimes there’ll be a fire, or something really quick, but as much as possible I’ll avoid the less important tasks in favor of the three that I chose as the most important.

There are only two other fixed parts of the day: I’ll read for around an hour right when I wake up, and I’ll go to the gym around 4pm. I read right when I wake up because I know if I don’t do it then, it’s unlikely to get done later, and I go to the gym around 4 since it’s much less busy, and I’ll have more time to do work after the gym and before dinner.

Then there are all of the other little pieces to staying productive during the day.

Staying Productive During the Day

1700 words later, this is the part that most “productivity” articles focus on. But, the more I’ve refined the process, the less and less important I think most of this is. If you have well organized goals you care about, you’ll get them done. You won’t need to do silly things like the pomodoro technique, you’ll just do the work. But there are a few habits I’ve developed that I think are really helpful.

Quiet Hours / Deep Work

At Growth Machine, we only expect each other to be rapidly responsive between 12 and 4pm EST. That means for the rest of the day, we can do deep work on the important stuff and get less distracted by constantly responding to messages.

I’ll wake up and read and have my coffee / tea and usually start work around 8, which gives me four hours of completely uninterrupted focus to get my most important work done. I also (almost) never schedule a meeting before noon, so I can be sure that I’ll get at least a few hours of Deep Work in each morning.

Email Management

I hit inbox zero at least once a day, sometimes more. But I’m also deliberately slow at responding to emails.

How does that work? I turn emails into tasks in Asana and treat them like any other tasks (Front makes this super easy), and sometimes an email from someone isn’t important enough to get done for a few days.

And since I clean out my inbox at the end of the day, I’ll rarely need to respond to anything before noon, which means I can do my morning deep work without checking email at all, or just peaking at it to make sure there are no fires.

Information Processing

If someone sends me an article, or I see something on Twitter, or I want to Google something, I’ll save that page to Instapaper to look at it later. Then when I feel like reading articles, I’ll open Instapaper and scroll through all of the options I have available, archive most of them, and read the ones that look the most interesting in the context of all the other options I have.

This save a ton of time and productivity by avoiding reading on the fly, and avoiding reading “meh” articles that I’m only interested in because they’re in front of me at the moment.

And since I’d usually rather read a book than an article, I’ll probably spend five times as much time on books as I do articles, which is time well spent since I’ve found the ROI on time spent in books much higher (if you disagree, read better books).

Micro Procrastinations

Procrastination is a simple, easily understood process. It’s what you do when you’re not sure what to do next.

If you find yourself procrastinating on something, it is almost always because you have some vague idea of what you should be doing, but you don’t know what the next step is, and procrastinating on it by going on Twitter or cleaning your apartment is easier.

I don’t try to avoid procrastination, I just try to keep it small. I used to play hours of video games a day, and the issue with a video game is that it’s easy to get sucked in for thirty minutes or longer. So I might hit a point where I’m not sure what to do next, say “I’ll just play a little Fallout to take a break,” and then realize I haven’t done anything for the last three hours.

99% of the time now, I procrastinate by going on Twitter, where I can be in and out in under a minute. Check my feed, mentions, save an article, and go back to Asana and try to figure out what I should be doing.

Procrastination is fine, you just want to keep it small and quick, and you want to keep the idea in your head that you can quickly conquer procrastination if you ask yourself “what am I not sure how to make progress on.” Then go figure out a clearer next step and get back to it.

Minimal Distractions

This is over-discussed so I won’t harp on it too much, but minimizing distractions is the last big piece.

I keep my phone on silent, don’t allow notifications from almost any app, and only let Slack interrupt me during that 12pm-4pm period. I also try to work in places where I don’t know anyone so they can’t interrupt me. Even better if I can work around poeple speaking a different language.

What Do I Lose?

It’s worth mentioning what I lose, or don’t spent time on, by working this way. A few things come to mind:

TV / YouTube: I watch maybe an hour of television a day, and I almost never go on YouTube. And if I am watching something, it’s usually while doing something else like packing tea or cooking.

Social Media: I spend a decent amount of time on Twitter, but none on Facebook, Instagram, anywhere else. I downloaded that app “Moment” that tries to train you to use your phone less, but it told me I was already only using my phone for less than an hour a day compared to the average 4 hours, and I think a big part of that is the lack of social media time. It’s also related to…

Responsiveness: I’m a terrible texter, messenger, basically any kind of communicator if we don’t work together or you’re not in front of me. Luckily, most of my friends are too, so we just catch up when we get to actually see each other. I actually think this is better since we have a ton more to talk about when we do hang out, instead of already being completely caught up on each others’ lives.

What Do I Not Lose?

There are plenty of things I don’t sacrifice too, though:

Sleep: I sleep 7-8 hours a night, almost every night. No need to skimp on sleep, and I think the extra time when you do ends up being less effective anyway.

Social Life: I don’t go do things every night, but I go socialize enough. I’m not a super extroverted person anyway so I may have an advantage here.

Health: When I’m in my normal routine I’ll exercise in some capacity almost every day, walk a good amount, eat well, etc. Health is like sleep, it’s worth investing in to make the other hours more effective.

That covers most of the micro execution level. The last part of how the whole productivity system works is a few scheduled review sessions where I go back and see how everything went, and plan for the next period.

The Daily Review

At the end of each day, usually before the gym or before dinner, I’ll go through a quick daily review.

The goal of the review is three-fold:

  1. Assess the day
  2. Clear the slate from today
  3. Plan the next day

Assess the Day

Assessing the day is simple: I take what I got done during the day and mark it in the spreadsheet, highlighting in green the goals I hit, adding tallies for the habits I hit, and seeing if there’s anything I need to adjust in my goals for the week.

Clear the Slate from Today

Next, I try to clear out everything left over at the end of the day. This means closing all of my tabs, exiting any open applications,. capturing any work that’s still in process and making it into a task in Asana, clearing my Asana inbox, clearing my Evernote inbox, and getting to email inbox zero.

Plan the Next Day

Once that’s done, I can set goals for the next day. I try to do this in the evening when my completed work is fresh, since the next morning I’ll have “unloaded” all the stuff I was doing the day before. Also, this way I can wake up and dive right into the biggest tasks, instead of having to spend time and energy figuring out what to do.

All I do for this is take my weekly goals and work in progress in Asana, see what would have the biggest impact if it got done tomorrow, set those as the three goals in the spreadsheet, and add them in Asana in the “Top Priority” section so they’re there in the morning.

The Weekly Review

At the end of the week, ideally Friday evening but sometimes Sunday, I’ll do a weekly review. This has the same goal as the daily review: reflect, clear the slate, set new goals. I’ll see how the week’s goals and habits went, clear out and capture everything from the week, and set new goals for next week.

There are a few other little things I’ll add, though:

Biggest Constraint Question

I try to ask myself each week: “what’s the biggest constraint on my output right now,” based on the book The Goal. I find this helps a lot with framing my goals for the next week, by making me focus on where my time is being wasted and I could be delegating, automating, or not doing work that I should be doing.

Finances Review

I’ll hop into Mint and look at a list of transactions from the last week, just to make sure everything makes sense, to capture anything I shouldn’t be paying for anymore, and to split any big bills.

Clear Folders

Last, I’ll clear out the typical purgatory folders, like Downloads, Documents, and my Drive and Dropbox home folders. I’ll either file stuff where it should be, or in many cases, just delete it.

The Monthly Review

The last piece of this is the monthly review. It’s essentially just the weekly review but on the first of the month, with the addition of reviewing my annual goals and projects to make sure they’re still appealing to me, and to make any adjustments as necessary.

Final Thoughts

This may all seem like a ton of work to maintain, but I’d estimate it takes me 15 minutes on most weekdays, ~30 minutes on Friday, and maybe an hour at the end of each month. It’s very fast once you get in the groove of it, and it’s endlessly flexible to how you want to customize it for your own projects and workflow.

Last, like I said in the beginning, I hope more people post these. So as I find other good ones, I’ll keep a running list here at the end of the article. Right now, it’s just Ryan, but hopefully it expands over time:

Footnotes

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