Two surprisingly productive weeks

series: Productivity
After spending two productive weeks, I sat down to think why I could get things done

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tags: productivity; task management;

The past two weeks I’ve spent were surprisingly very productive. And by productive, I don’t mean that I just got a lot of work done, although even that. But by productive, I mean I worked and accomplished a lot without feeling burnt out, and without feeling like I’m living 48 hours in a day. It wasn’t like I was scooped up in a cage like a chicken waiting until the next egg happened to fall out. I had a routine, I didn’t waste much time, I played games, I watched stuff on Netflix, I went out, I watched films, and at the end of everything, I finished a few projects and successfully submitted a paper. And even after all of this, I still wasn’t tired, thinking I need a break, or that now I’m going to take it slow. Quite the opposite in fact. I found it odd and weird to stop and slow down. It felt like I have this energy and not using it was doing something wasteful. I wondered, quite a few times, why I’m productive, but then decided not to pursue it right in the middle of deadlines. But now that I’m free, I thought I’d give this a thought and write down what I found.

The first things I did was try to form a measure of whether I actually productive or just thinking that I had been productive. Thankfully, this was easy to reason about. Did I work all day long? No. Did I feel too tired to stand up and dance at the end of the day? No. Did I finish what I set out to do, in broader terms? Yes. Did I achieve something out of this? Yes. Was it accomplished to my taste, or was it wasteful and half baked? It was well done. So, yes, I had been productive. So far so good. Now to what I actually did all day. My routine started as I leisurely woke up. There was no fixed time, though the alarm combined with the sunlight coming through the window meant that I woke up anytime from 6am to 9am. If I felt like I hadn’t had enough sleep, or if it was too early, I would laze about or have another few hours. At no point did I have excess sleep, or overslept. But I also never underslept, and that was important to stay active throughout the day.

After waking up, I had a nice breakfast, mostly consisting of eggs. Now I was very conscious of what I was eating, in that I limited most intakes of sugar and processed food. Morning was eggs with tomato, garlic, onions, or chili tossed in. After that I munched on apples and bananas all day long as I worked. My theory is that eating a heavy or filling lunch or snack when working makes me sleepy, and therefore I get bored and don’t work as well. Eating a fruit, on the other hand, provides easy energy that isn’t heavy to digest, and more importantly, is absorbed and out of my stomach within the next two hours. This meant I could keep munching every now and then, which is great because it keeps a healthy supply of sugars and also helps with digestion moving along due to the fruits. I drank some tea, not a lot. I had one coffee a day, just the one. This was either around 11am if I started work early, or somewhere between 1pm and 4pm, whenever I felt that lull that meant my brain was overwhelmed. Other than that, I didn’t force myself to work.

If at some point, I thought that this work is too tiring, or my brain is jamming up, I switched to something else. I read random things, or worked on another project that contained more programming than academic writing. So it was a switch of labor and it usually worked because I could carry on working until I was bored of the current task, and then I could just switch to something else again. One thing I managed to figure out was identifying when I was in ‘writing mood’, which was great, as it meant I could great chunks of writing done in a relatively short time. This was usually when I was ‘happy’ and thoughts would naturally flow without stress or tiredness. Other times, I could create this environment through a combination of coffee and having a set of points already written down and ready to be expanded.

Music formed a big part of the work. I actively enjoyed what was being played, and it wasn’t something just for the background. I’m sure someone must have observed me twisting in my chair and tapping my feet. By enjoying the music, I shifted the drain of the work between enjoying the music and doing the chore. Due to my short attention span, I randomly checked emails or twitter in between. Sometimes I started reading something randomly on Wikipedia or Pocket. It worked like a short break. At the end of it, I didn’t have an excuse anymore to get back to work, and so I could outpour a few more paragraphs. At the end of the day, at around 8-10 hours, I would start feeling overwhelmed, at which point, no matter what I was doing, I got up and went home. I didn’t say, I will finish this part and then go home. Nope. I just literally got up, switched everything off, and went home.

Home was enjoyment too. I had food depending on how I was feeling. And then I played games. Or read something. The point was to leisurely indulge in my hobbies. I slept when I felt tired at the end of day, not because of work though. There were times when I managed to do some programming at home too, because it felt interesting suddenly. And so I managed to finish a little bit outside the office. I didn’t depend on it though.

In hindsight, what worked was the lack of a strict plan or routine. I had a general idea of what I wanted to do, and I kept pushing myself to do something, to achieve. But the pushing never felt forceful, but more like an active enjoyable challenge. I was afraid today (being a Monday), that I might have lost the track of how to get productive at work, and would start being a lazy procrastinator again. But then I managed to clear some things out, and then when that got too boring and overwhelming, I switched to a personal project, which I finished at the end of the day.

So on some days, it’ll be loads of work-work done, whereas on other days, it will be little work done and more other stuff. Realizing when this happens right at the start of the day is important. I get a good measure of how I am roughly going to do today by the first 3-4 hours. If it is going to be a productive day for work, then I get out the big projects and important work. If I’m feeling lazy and slow, I’ll get those little chores done and instead spend time doing something that interests me more. Somehow, I have to be careful (not by worrying) that I get all work done eventually. I find myself enjoying my time, and I don’t feel stressful or lost. I have a plan of what I’m going to do next, and even if it changes bit by bit, I’m fine because it’s all adaptable.

At the end of these two weeks, if I have to sum up productive working in a sentence or two, I’d say the biggest obstacle is worrying about finishing work and taking stress over it. Instead, have fun, be loose, but also cultivate a mood where it’s just another activity mixed with other fun things, and make sure you also indulge in hobbies. It works : )