Over the last year I have become obsessed with productivity. My older brother calls me an “Optimized Robot” because I’m always looking for a way to waste less time and improve my daily output. To most, the way I live my life would be maddening. To me, I can’t live any other way.
Much of this has to do with my meditation practice making me more mindful of where I waste time. Part of it has to do with my inability to deal with monotony. To preface, it’s important that I give you some insight into my life and how I’ve arrived at this point.
I have severe ADHD and I get distracted easily. A year ago it was common for an idea to pop into my head and next thing I know I’m on a 3 hour research tangent. A single email would derail me from my entire days work. When an employee did something I didn’t like, I would immediately react to it. I had to constantly bring myself back to whatever else it was that I was doing before I became distracted.
This was the story of my life…up until about a year ago. Until meditation (and Tim Ferriss) came into my life.
In meditation I focus on my breath>mind wanders> realize I wandered>bring attention back to the breath. Similarly, I noticed how this was happening in my work — Working> distraction arises that takes me on a tangent> oh shit! I’m on a tangent>back to my work>repeat.
As I started noticing these small distractions limit my work, I became obsessed with how to stop them. If you want to implement a new habit or remove a bad habit, you need to create a system to make it happen. I devised systems to help me become less distracted and more focused.
Because I’m easily distracted, I developed systems to minimize distractions from happening. Because I hate systems and planning, I developed systems so that I never have to plan. Because emails and phone calls constantly took me away from my most important work, I created systems so that I never had to take another phone call or answer an email myself.
I developed systems to help me focus on what I do best, rather than struggling to do what I hate.
This is my attempt to document the systems that have helped me become a productivity powerhouse. This combines a lot of literature and thinking from the last year, so it’s long, but I hope that these concepts are as useful to you as they were to me….
Before we get started, I want to give a big thank you to Tim Ferriss. Many of these systems came from his books and guests on his podcast (especially Josh Waitzkin and Derek Sivers), and I wouldn’t be where I am without his help. Much of what I am about to say is recycled information from his work. Tim — you’re the man.
Here we go:
1) Minimize input to maximize output — The low information diet
One framework that has worked very well for me is to look at my day in the context of Input vs. Output.
Inputs are the external information you are consuming. This can be what you read, listen to, watch on TV, etc. Anything from the external environment that comes into your head. Out>In
Output is what you get done. Your productive work — whether that is writing, analyzing, strategizing, or deep thinking. Anything that comes from inside of your head and pushed out onto the world around you. In>Out
Many people consume inputs from the moment they wake up. Within minutes of waking, their brain is being filled with inputs of what they read on FB, watch on snapchat, and see in their email inbox. Despite not having been awake for 30 minutes, their head is already filled with all the things that they need to do for the day. By the time they get in the shower their mind is already racing.
Then throughout the day phones become a constant source of distraction. Swiping through tinder and bumble, push notifications, group chats, phone calls and emails — continuously derailing you from what is most important — OUTPUT.
As we are flooded with inputs, it becomes increasingly difficult to maximize output.
I struggled with this as well. Most of my business is in Asia and my team works remotely, so I would often wake up with a flood of notifications from emails and messages that came in while I was sleeping. Throughout the day I had phone calls,text messages and push notifications distracting me. Facebook was a never ending stream of things to think about instead of doing my work…and because of this I would work 12 hour days thinking that there wasn’t a better way — it drove me crazy and it needed to stop.
So what did I do to stop? I implemented the “low information diet”. I minimized the amount of inputs that I would expose myself to so that I could focus more on my output instead.
Here’s how I did it:
a) Airplane Mode — Around 10pm at night, an hour before I went to bed, I put my phone on airplane mode. When I wake up it remains on airplane mode for the first 3 hours of the day while I meditate, shower, eat breakfast, and map out the day. Only once I finish with these activities do I turn my phone back on.
b) No Notifications — Once the morning madness subsided, the next step was to go to the source — notifications. I turned off all push notifications. FB, snapchat, gmail, dating apps — I turned em all off.
c) Deleting Apps — Once the notifications were gone, I noticed that I was still compulsively checking apps during break times and while at lunch. I would often go on Facebook and think to myself “why am I here? I checked 10 minutes ago and saw nothing interesting.” Or I would be mindlessly scrolling through my feed and think to myself, “none of this is interesting, what am I doing?”. Apps had to go. If you’re going to cut down a tree, go straight for the roots, not the branches.
d) Newsfeed Eradicator — Newsfeed Eradicator removes your newsfeed and replaces it with an inspirational quote. This helped me cut the habit of checking Facebook when on my desktop. Now I only use messenger, and my entire feed is gone. This was revolutionary.
Once I removed the inputs I didn’t desire, I replaced them with new, better choices, for the content that I DID want to consume. I carefully chose a few mediums that had a positive impact on my life, and I stuck with those.
Here are the inputs I put into my life instead
- Books — I wanted to read more books, so I purchased a kindle and read during downtime. Last year I finished 2 books/month, a personal all time best.
- Audiobooks — I downloaded Audible for audiobooks so that I can read while I’m on the run.
- Podcasts — TIM FERRISS!!!! His podcast changed my life. Can’t recommend it enough. He’s the only podcast I listen to.
- Duolingo — When I did want to spend time on my phone, I would use it productively
- Math flash cards — I’m shit at mental math, so I have fun playing mental math games while I’m on the crapper or don’t feel like reading/studying a language.
When selecting content to consume I like to think to myself, “will this add any meaningful value to my life? Will I be able to implement these learnings into my life in some way?” If so, I’ll consume it. The learnings from books and podcasts are priceless, and I thank myself every day for ditching mindless content for mindful content.
I do also love a good book of fiction. While many people consider fiction as pure entertainment of no real value, I love fiction because it makes me more imaginative and creative. There’s also usually great philosophy embedded into the messages of a work of fiction.
Now onto the 2nd way I overcame distractions…
2) Busy doesn’t mean productive
Have you ever been through a full day but felt like you didn’t get anything meaningful done? Do you have a never ending to-do list of activities you cross off one by one but don’t seem to make the progress you want to?
If this describes your days, it’s because you’re busy, but not productive.
It’s something we’ve all experienced. We’re working and an email arises that we HAVE TO respond to. Or we’re working on emails and a phone call arises. Or we’re following up with someone we spoke to on the phone and another phone call arises… and then someone comes and talks to you… and then an hour later you realize that you still haven’t finished answering that same email… By the time it’s all said and done, it’s lunchtime and you’re wondering where the morning went.
We’re often in a state of perpetual reaction, rather than proactively blocking out the time we need to get shit done.
And then I came across an essay that changed my life — Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule
This essay says the following — if you want to get your best work done you need long periods of uninterrupted time.
The key word here? Uninterrupted.
To get your best work done, zone in, block out distractions, and work on ONLY ONE thing for periods of 2–4 hours at a time. This doesn’t mean working on ten tasks that take 20–40 minutes each. That’s creating busy work. This means choosing the one thing that is most important to your day, and doing only that one thing.
Here are the implementations and steps that I took to implement these philosophies:
- Phone call vacations — I made it a rule that I would no longer take phone calls. Seem unrealistic? When you think about it, chances are you repeat yourself on every phone call you make. Most clients ask you the same questions, and your pitch is generally the same from client to client. The parts that are different? Handle it over email instead.
- Check email 1x/day — Similarly to phone calls, I found that I was answering the same questions over, and I spent a large chunk of my day on email. I made it a rule that I would never write the same email twice. If I had to answer it once, I would create a template out of it, and use it for similar situations in the future.
- FAQ’s — Then it dawned on me, “if I can put every single question someone can ask me into an FAQ, I shouldn’t ever have to answer another email or jump on another phone call again.” I started paying attention to the common questions people ask, and I made an FAQ that I would send instead. Want to jump on a call? Read my FAQ first. Random question comes into my email? Please see my FAQ. As new questions arose that weren’t in it, I would add it. If people had questions after reading, I simplified it to make the language clearer. The goal was to eliminate my need to have to speak with anyone, ever…and it worked.
- Email Autoresponders — To drive this point home to the people constantly mailing me asking for a call, I put up an autoresponder telling people that I only check my email 1x/day and to go read my FAQ. I put all the necessary links anyone would need, and made everything self service. Once I did this, the emails and phone calls slowed to a trickle.
- Virtual assistants — This was the biggest of them all — VIRTUAL ASSISTANTS. I realized that I couldn’t push all my emails away (especially my outbound ones I used for business development), so I categorized the remaining emails and then outsourced. I created rules and procedures, tags, folders, and templates for every type of email that I could ever want to send. Then I outsourced my inbox to my virtual assistant.
- Then I did the same for the rest of my busy work. Facebook posts? Outsourced. Twitter posts? Outsourced? Transcribing videos and adding subtitles? Outsourced. Posting on job boards? Outsourced. I looked at every single solitary aspect of my business and outsourced everything. If I couldn’t outsource it I would do it on my own for 2 weeks, learn the ins and outs of the processes, and then once I had everything outsourceable I would send it off for someone else..
- Block time — The last step in the process? Block out large periods of time for the most important work for the long term growth of my business.
At first after implementing this I was a bit confused where to spend my time. I felt like I outsourced everything and I had nothing left to work on. I felt like there was nothing else to do.
As time continued though, and I spent time thinking about how to GROW my business, the answers rose to the surface. Spending time in deep thought illuminated all the areas of the business I wasn’t scrutinizing heavily enough. It made me question myself and say — although I’m doing x, y, and z, is this actually growing the business, or am I just doing it out of being busy and creating work for myself? Do I actually NEED to do this? If I could simplify the business, what would this look like?
This is what lead me to the next step in my evolution in thinking….
3) Efficient doesn’t mean effective
We often get very good at doing something that isn’t even important in the first place. You might be incredible at writing emails quickly and getting them out of the way, but did you need to do those at all or was there something more important you could have done instead?
You might be great at making sales calls, but if you sent emails with robust FAQs and product links could you reach 10x the customers in half the time and schedule more calls?
Question assumptions of what you’re doing and you’ll often find it wasn’t necessary in the first place, or there was a better way to do it.
My favorite example of this? Vanity metrics — Traffic, page views, signups — oftentimes meaningless metrics in the grand scheme of things.
As a recruitment company, the only thing that really matters to me is placements — and I was focusing on all the wrong metrics.
Take for example writing blog posts. While I love writing blogs, and I would often prioritize time to write blogs, were blogs driving placements? When I looked at the numbers, no, no they weren’t at all.
Then the same thing happened with social media — FB didn’t drive meaningful signups. Neither did twitter. Neither did instagram. Although I kept myself busy on these mediums THINKING that this is what I had to do, none of these were actually EFFECTIVE at growing the business.
What worked well for me? linkedin, job boards, word of mouth. Instead, I began to focus my time in these areas, and in the next six months we made more placements than we did in the previous year.
What were some other exercises that helped me to focus on being effective rather than efficient?
1) Mapping out my day
Spend 10–15 minutes scrutinizing what the lead domino is for the day. Asking yourself “if I only get one thing done today, what is the most important thing that I do? If I only get one thing done, what will have a domino effect and make the rest of my week easier?”
I’ll give you an example. Last week I was struggling to line up new companies to recruit. I scrutinized my email copywrite, I a/b tested subject lines, but I wasn’t getting the response I was looking for. I was about to go on another cold email hunt when I asked myself — is there a better lead domino? What am I missing that could be making my efforts more effective?
Then it dawned on me — a landing page for companies. Ahhhhh, that’s what I’m missing.
So instead of emailing companies, I spent the day building a landing page for companies. Since building that landing page we have lined up our first companies in Germany and my emails get 3x more replies. WIN
2) 80/20 Rule — 80% of your successes come from 20% of your efforts
This one hit me like a ton of bricks. I sat down and thought to myself about the 20% of my efforts that were working best. Take for example my blog post reference above — was this in the 20%? Nope. But linkedin was, and when I ran the numbers I spent far less time on linkedin than I did writing blogs. This had to change.
Then I flipped it and did a handful of other exercises — What 20% of the business causes 80% of my headaches? What 20% of my clients generate 80% of our revenue? And so on. I realized that 80% of my headaches came from visa processing and handling candidates, so I stopped doing it. I realized that 80% of our revenue came from full time placements instead of internships, so I focused on full time jobs.
Determine what your 20% is, and then focus on spending as much of your time there as possible. The more time you spend running through this thought exercise, the better prepared you will be for the long run.
3) Slow down to speed up — The Eisenhower Time Matrix –
In the book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, the author refers to the time matrix in where we spend our time.
- Quadrant I is for the immediate and important deadlines.
- Quadrant II is for long-term strategizing and development.
- Quadrant III is for time pressured distractions. They are not really important, but someone wants it now.
- Quadrant IV is for those activities that yield little is any value. These are activities that are often used for taking a break from time pressured and important activities.
Many people find that most of their activities fall into quadrant I and III. Quadrant II is often under used.
The key to being productive? Spend as much time as possible in Quadrant 2.
Do the things that are important but not urgent. The long term planning, the strategy and deep thinking, the work that will set up your future success. I call this “slowing down to speed up”, or “sharpening the saw.” These are the things we perpetually procrastinate on, that never get done.
I’ve found that the more time I spend working on these activities, the faster I can move in the long run. It’s amazing what happens when you sacrifice one day to make your entire month better.
If you’ve made it this far — bravo for you! You clearly don’t struggle with ADHD like I do 😛
The techniques mentioned above helped me tremendously throughout this last year, and I hope they help you as well. Implementing these systems has revolutionized the way that I work, and in general provided me with a better way to spend my days.
In the past I felt like my time controlled me, but now I am the one who is in control of my time. I know what is most important, and then I go do it, rather than reacting to whatever has arisen since I last checked my cell phone.
This has been a gradual process in discipline, and I am by no means perfect. I still struggle with much of this today. Having said that, when I look back on how I worked before I implemented these techniques, I shake my head and laugh at how silly I was.
In the end, this quote best summarizes my feelings about how I will continue to prioritize my time in the future:
“To me, ‘busy’ implies that the person is out of control of their life.” — Derek Sivers
I hope that this helped you in some way shape or form. If you’ve had any similar experiences, let me know in the comments below!