Overview

I’ll level with you—odds are you’ve come across productivity advice before. We live in a productivity-obsessed era. There are plenty of productivity gurus who offer well-intentioned advice left, right and centre.

The problem is many people treat productivity as an end-state, something that has to be achieved in and of itself rather than as a supplementary means to our goals.

Some boast of their productivity gains like an ultimate victory, losing sight of the very thing they were being productive about in the first place.

Such people are ‘Productivity Monsters’—those who believe that the meaning of life is shaving time off tasks as if life is a personified being who’ll give them a round of applause for doing so.

Productivity Monsters struggle to make new contributions because they believe they can solve all problems in life with more productivity. This includes solving problems caused by productivity measures with more productivity measures. To the man with a productivity hammer, everything looks like a nail that can be made more efficient.

This post differs precisely because it won’t tell you all productivity advice is favourable. 

It’ll look at certain types of productivity advice through a careful lens so you know what’s legit and what’s not. It’ll also provide productivity tips for situations those who are abroad often find themselves in.

The aim is for you to come out with a balanced perspective on how proper productivity can supplement your lifestyle and not the other way around. If you’re an existing Productivity Monster, the best thing you can do is read this post. And if you’re not, read on anyway, it might just save you from becoming the next productivity junkie (which happens more often than you think).

Let’s dive in.

What no one tells you about productivity advice

As promised, we’re going to look at certain productivity ideas from a different angle. Some of this advice is treated as received wisdom even though there’s no on-size-fits-all prescription of productivity.

Say no mo to Pomodoro

The Pomodoro Technique is one such example of a method considered ‘received wisdom’. It’s a time-management technique invented in the 1980s that claims to improve your efficiency by separating your effort into specified intervals (typically 25 minutes) measured by a timer.

Between intervals you’re allowed to take a short break away from the task (say 5 minutes). After the break is up, you restart your timer for another round of the interval slot until you complete the task or reach the end of the working period.

Practitioners claim that the idea of boxing your time in this way is to remove frictions on attention which lead to procrastination. They contend that the human brain is optimised to work in this fashion.

The problem is that there’s scant evidence to suggest that the brain is set up to operate in this manner. As a productivity technique, it’s difficult to specify the criteria which allows for Pomodoro to be tested scientifically. We define productive effort based on the quality of the work not only quantity of output. For instance, we cannot determine the effectiveness of a writing session based on words per hour (which the Pomodoro Technique would likely prove less effective at anyway given the built-in breaks). The caliber of the writing is more important whether you’re writing a book for an audience or an email to a stakeholder.

By straightjacketing human attention into specific intervals, the Pomodoro Technique attempts to homogenise human nature believing there’s a universal method suited for everyone but this isn’t true. Everyone of us has unique attention spans that vary depending on our genetic makeup, energy levels (also affected by many factors) and the actual task itself. It’s impossible to assert that there’s a universal time box process that works for everyone at any time.

Pomodoro practitioners will retaliate stating the interval and break periods don’t have to be fixed, that a slot can be more or less than 25 minutes and so is aligned with individual preference.

However, while in theory a person may be able to find a general interval suited to them for very specific and frequent tasks, the technique still doesn’t succeed as a one-size-fits-all process due to the variation mentioned above. 

For one, it’s rigidity doesn’t fair well in the face of change. If an interval is interrupted in any shape or form, it no longer counts and the person has to start again. To bad if your boss makes an urgent call to you during the timed period, according to Pomodoro you’re no longer productive.

But the crucial issue of Pomodoro is interrupting flow states. Pomodoro’s time boxing is antithetical to the state of being in the zone for prolonged periods of time. This state is the hallmark of deep and creative work which is the type most fulfilling and purposeful to us.

We all have memories of instances where we were so absorbed in something that time flew by. Imagine enjoying the bliss of being engrossed in a task only to have a timer’s alarm snap you out of it…again and again.

The desirable state of flow doesn’t specify when it arrives or how long it lasts. Instead, we commit to performing deep work and allow it to arise for as long as needed to get the greatest combination of quality and quantity of output. It doesn’t matter if you change the timer to longer or shorter periods, your flow state under Pomodoro will be compromised or never experienced in the first place.

Take the act of reading. Reading books is a valuable endeavour for many both as a hobby and as work. Reading under the Pomodoro Technique would be the height of foolishness—allowing a timer to tell you when to stop and start reading would prevent you from properly engaging with the writing. You would struggle to enter a flow state of enjoying the material.

If you want a more effective method that uses the principles of cognitive breaks for productive effort, then consider ‘Flowtime’ (discussed below). Otherwise, limit use of the Pomodoro Technique to repetitive and banal tasks that are easy to procrastinate on or avoid using it altogether. It isn’t compatible with the deep and creative work that produces our best output.

Slack is beneficial: Routine isn’t the be all and end all

The word ‘slack’ has a negative association in the English language. It implies someone or something that is loose, lazy and behind. 

In our hyper-productive culture, we’re taught that there’s no room for looseness. That squeezing every minute of your day towards activity is the only path to salvation. Anything deviating from this is a sign of ‘weakness’.

Don’t get me wrong, routine is beneficial. It creates discipline, instills habits and provides a sense of control over our days and thus our lives.

But a life of only full calendars from wake to sleep is not actual control at all. It’s a life of slavery to busyness. It’s subjugation to active bias, believing it’s always better to do something, anything, at any time, no matter what. The philosopher Bertrand Russell summarised this mindset best when he wrote: “The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.”

Slack doesn’t need to have a negative stigma attached to it. It simply means a spell of inactivity. A freedom from rigidity. These are often overlooked desirables.

People submit to the bondage of busyness to avoid facing their inner thoughts. Slack loosens the grip of being occupied and gives you the space for proper self-reflection. This has many benefits:

– It allows you to step outside the ‘box’ of your routines and assess your activities from a better perspective

– It allows you the opportunity to recalibrate what you’re doing towards wider goals and new contexts that life brings instead of unquestioning pursuit towards existing routines which can lead to dogma

– It provides an incubation period that takes the latent learning you’ve built up and allows your unconscious mind to contribute towards high-level creative insights

The commonality underlying all these points is slack giving you time with yourself.

Introspection is existential—it forces us to come to terms with our own existence. Only when we take the time to ponder what we’re doing, how we’re feeling, where we’re going and marry that with our experiences do we ascend towards self-mastery. And there can be no endeavour more productive than the pursuit of self-mastery.

Slack can be as simple as leaving an open slot in your day’s calendar for a decent amount of time. Protect this slot at all cost: no last minute meetings, no phone calls, no binge-watching shows. Time with yourself is precious.

Contrary to expectation, allowing slack in your day is more productive. A person with a life of only dogmatic routine is unable to see the forest for the trees, their focus is only trunk by trunk whereas a person with some slack time has a bird’s-eye view of the woodland and navigates more effectively.

Productivity advice that works

Now that we’ve questioned the ‘unquestionable’ productivity advice out there, what are tips that actually work?

Focus on the one thing that can make your life easier

Good productivity starts with prioritisation

We cannot hope to make meaningful effort if we don’t specify levels of importance to what we do.

It’s all to easy to get swept up with inconsequential tasks over those that are the most significant. Agendas of coworkers, minds seeking easy outs and poor judgements over priorities leave us consumed over one thing when we should be focusing on another.

A quick heuristic for setting priorities is to list all the tasks you wish to complete in a day. Then determine the one task from the list that will make the rest of your day easier and/or make other tasks non-essential. After determining the first task, run the same process on the remaining tasks to determine the order you’ll tackle them in. Eliminate non-essential tasks.

If you find it hard to select between multiple tasks, extend the timeframe of ease, for example consider which task would make the rest of your week or month easier.

By projecting the completion of the tasks in the future, you’ll gain a grounded perspective on which ones are the most important in your life right now. Chances are the tasks that come up first are weightier and more impactful towards your broader goals. These are the tasks that we should be spending most of our time on—they have outsized influence on our lives.

An exception to this order is the ‘Two-Minute Rule’ discussed below. Otherwise, focusing on the one thing is a valuable way to put our energy behind what’s most important to us now.

Flowtime

If you’re seeking an alternative to the Pomodoro Technique, consider Flowtime.

Instead of the interruption of deep and creative thought that Pomodoro presents, Flowtime coordinates your effort with your natural capacity for focus that day. Think of it as a custom-made time management technique tailored to you.

The process of Flowtime involves working on a single task for as long as you can until you lose focus or begin to feel tired. Note down the start time before beginning and the time you stop.

At this point, you use the process of a cognitive break to recharge your concentration. Unlike the Pomodoro Technique, you decide the length of the break. The general Flowtime process suggests guidelines depending on the time you spent working on the task:

< 25 minutes – 5 minute break

25-50 minutes – 8 minute break

50-90 minutes – 10 minute break

> 90 minutes – 15 minute break

Despite the guidelines, there are no hard and fast rules so you can change the break times depending on how you feel. After a cognitive break, you resume work in the same way until you need to stop again.

Flowtime is a more optimal technique for deep and creative work because as the name suggests, it’s conducive to entering and maintaining flow state, the hyper-focused mode of concentration. You may have sustained focus for a handful of minutes or a handful of hours, either way Flowtime accommodates your productivity levels.

Structure your environment

Speaking of flow, there are further actions we can take to improve it.

Many people attempt to force flow, believing they can enter it through willpower alone.

But flow can’t be induced this way, it occurs when the right conditions are set up for you engaging in a task.

Instead of relying on willpower alone to make you productive, structure your environment for successful work. When you arrange your environment in the right way, productivity emerges from the lack of distracting friction.

Much of structuring your environment is evident but worth repeating. Turn off your phone or even place it outside of the room you’re working in until you’ve finished. Set up your work station for ease of use. Use noise-cancelling headphones if you’re in loud place with others. Consider blocking sites and apps on your computer or even the whole internet for several hours.

Take measures to be the architect of deep work in your life by making your environment serve you as best as possible.

Productivity Structure Your Environment

Batching

Ever wonder if there’s a better way to handle frequent and repetitive tasks than dealing with them daily from start to finish?

Batching might provide the answer. It’s the closest technique to a hack there is.

As the name suggests, batching involves doing a collection of similar tasks in one go rather than dealing with them each at different times.

You wouldn’t do laundry for one or two items of clothing, you’d wash a bundle of clothes together. Batching works the same way—by grouping tasks that can be done together, you save energy and time in the long run.

For example, instead of reading and responding to emails as they each arrive in your inbox, you could allocate a period of time to manage them all together.

Batching isn’t only time-efficient, it lessens the chance of ‘cognitive switching’, the loss of concentration that comes from changing our focus from one thing to another such as from multi-tasking. By doing similar tasks at the same time, you’re optimising your concentration towards their completion and the quality of your work will improve.

The Two-Minute Rule

David Allen, author of the time-management book ‘Getting Things Done‘ coins a simple technique to increase our productivity:

“If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it’s defined.”

Each of us is all too familiar with putting off tasks that come up to ‘later’. The problem is ‘later’ is an unspecified time in the future and since it’s unspecified, the task is likely to remain undone.

The Two-Minute Rule sidesteps this procrastination by providing a tool to know when we should deal with new tasks that appear, preventing overwhelm from small tasks piling up. It improves the way we play the Tetris of our workloads.

The idea is that the two-minute mark is a general cutoff point between when storing and tracking a task for later become longer than doing it. So you’re more efficient if you complete it then and there rather than postponing it.

Ensure that two-minute tasks are part of your priorities—recall that if a task is non-essential, you probably should drop it regardless.

Also make sure the task does take two minutes or less; if it’s longer then you risk getting dragged into something inconsequential.

Productivity advice for travel and moving abroad

The productivity advice covered so far applies to everyone in all situations. But what about extra productivity tips for people who are travelling or moving abroad?

Book flights sooner in advance

There’s a lot of speculation among travellers about when the best time to buy flights is. Too soon and there’s a risk of missing out on a better deal. Too late and you’ll have forked out more than desired. Flyers try and time the Goldilocks point for purchasing flights.

The truth is there’s no such thing as a magic point that can be timed for each flight. There’ll be times when waiting proves beneficial in getting you a discount but there’ll be even more times it’ll cost you dearly. Flights are subject to too much variation for any individual to game it from behind their computer.

The simple heuristic of booking flights as soon as you can not only improves the probability of saving you money but prevents the time and mental fatigue spent in double-checking prices. Prices follow the general trend of being cheaper the further out from the date and this will never change. 

As the saying goes, time is money and true productivity embodies this.

Productivity Book Flights Sooner In Advance

Stay in the centre of town

Time isn’t only money, it’s also distance. Productivity concepts also extend to physical locations and where we choose to stay.

If you’re a traveller, more often than not you’re better off staying in the centre of the town or region you’re visiting. By taking up space in the centre, you’re bound to reduce the average distance it takes you to get around during your trip. There are countless cities which can be navigated entirely by walking if you stay in the convenient centre. Even more place their key transport hubs such as train stations or airports in the centre meaning day trips or travels onward are more doable to those around.

You’re also more likely to be in the heart of things to do. The most historic areas of regions tend to be in the centre with business and attraction sites based around this core. This compounds the convenience of the centre upward.

The obvious trade-off for this convenience is price, there’s no denying that accommodation in the centre of town is more expensive. But location forms the bedrock of your trip and more than the type of airplane seat or bed you sleep in, where you’re based will have disproportionate impact on your trip so prioritise what you spend your money on wisely.

If you’re relocating abroad, living in the centre is the quickest way for you to become familiar with your new home due to the amount you’ll learn from what’s around you. If you don’t know anyone in town yet, it’ll put you in a place with higher numbers of locals and expats for you to meet and get acquainted in social circles.

Productivity ≠ Shortcuts

We’ve looked at the good, the bad and the ’produgly’* when it comes to being a productive person whether at work, leisure or travelling abroad.

I mentioned at the beginning how this wouldn’t be your stereotypical productivity article and there’s one more overarching concept I’d like you to take away: productivity tips are NOT shortcuts replacing effort to do the work.

At the start we addressed the pitiable state of ‘Productivity Monsters’ and how undesirable it is to get your bearings wrong by equating a meaningful life with productivity gains. In the same vein, it’s as flawed to believe that gains in productivity will allow you to ‘hack’ your way to a purposeful life.

Lifestyle ‘hacks’ don’t truly exist. If you spend your life looking for ‘hacks’, it means that your life doesn’t matter to you—if it did, you’d be absorbed in what you’re doing instead of looking for an easy out the ‘shortcut’ supposedly provides. By attempting to ‘hack’, instead of shortcutting your life you’ll be cutting yourself short.

Lifestyle design is about involvement. Absolute and unbridled involvement. Doing things because they’re worthwhile in and of themselves.

This isn’t contradictory to the usefulness of the tips covered. The tips presented never promised to be ‘hacks’. I mentioned one technique being close to a ‘hack’ because no method can ever actually be one. It’s when you grasp that lifestyle design and productivity aren’t one and the same that productivity advice becomes useful, supplementing your lifestyle, not dictating it.

Think of it as the difference between a worker and a tool. Take two farmers ploughing land using the same basic plough—one who enjoys his vocation and the other who sees it as a chore. The first farmer enjoys ploughing the land and is immersed in the process. The second sees it as tedious and his attention is not engaged in the work.

Even if the second farmer receives a state-of-the-art new plough that will improve the efficiency of his work tenfold, he’ll still never enjoy the process of his work because doing it faster is not enough to satiate his soul. The latest technology can never replace the fundamental motivation of committing to the work. Meaning is found in the engagement with the farming, not in the plough.

If the first farmer receives the same brand new plough, it will make his life easier but it will not change his underlying enjoyment of farming and it won’t ‘hack’ the job he loves. His livelihood won’t depend on the plough, he could go back to other ones and do fine.

Productivity works the same way—the latest tips and tricks can only supplement the way you operate, they can never provide meaning in and of themselves. Use them to amplify what you do but understand nothing beats you deciding to purposefully commit behind a task, rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in.

Summary

There’s plenty of productivity advice in today’s world. So much so that there’s a risk of becoming a productivity junkie seeing it as the end state.

Some contemporary productivity advice is flawed. The infamous Pomodoro Technique isn’t conducive to optimal productive mindsets cutting off our capacity for deep work and negating flow states. Confining your entire day to a calendar without some slack time risks tunnel vision; slack can provide greater perspective and boost latent learning for creative output.

Good productivity techniques are grounded in rationale about the human condition. Focusing on the most important task first enables your energy to be well spent on dealing with vitals. Flowtime’s time management operates in tandem with your brain’s unique nature. Structuring your environment removes the friction of distractions. Batching is a time saver that also reduces cognitive switching. And the Two-Minute Rule prevents small tasks from piling up.

When travelling or moving abroad, book your flights sooner in advance—you’ll avoid mental fatigue later down the line and you’ll probably save money along the way. Also stay in the centre of town when you can, you’ll increase productivity via reduced travel distances and you’ll be in the heart of the action in most places.

Finally, avoid seeking productivity for the sake of it. Never forget that productivity advice is just a tool to complement the base of your lifestyle. Don’t try and ‘hack’ your life, that’s a fool’s game. Instead, choose tasks that you can dedicate yourself to and commit. When you marry this action with productivity to supplement, powerful results are sure to come.

*Excuse my poor attempt to coin a new portmanteau relating to ugly productivity, I couldn’t resist.