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Saturday, 22 June 2013

Jeet Kune Do and the Art of Productivity

Kind of a quick one this week, since I'll be heading out to Amsterdam for work tomorrow (so no red light district and no coffee shops, presumably). But I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the productivity books and/or systems I've been reading about for the last 18 months or so, with some thoughts about the key things I've learned from them.

Productivity and time management are two things dear to my heart these days, as I feel they've helped me a lot, mainly at work but also in keeping myself broadly organized at home. I will admit, as well, to sometimes talking of nothing else, so I suppose it was a matter of time before I wrote this post.

Another quick point about the title: Jeet Kune Do was a system, or philosophy, or whatever you want to call it, coined by Bruce Lee to reflect his approach to martial arts. After having spent years studying wing chun kung fu with Yip Man in Hong Kong, Lee spent some time looking at the effective parts of other styles, and at last settled on a non-style, or jeet kune do, where he took the best things from each discipline and discarded the rest.

It's applicable here because I've tried to take the most useful points from each book or system, rather than slavishly sticking to only one thing. Credit for the idea has to go to Chris Hardwick in the first instance for connecting time management/productivity with jeet kune do in The Nerdist Way, and to Tim Ferriss in his books in the second instance. Anyway, without further ado:

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey

This is kind of the grand-daddy, and also the latest of all the ones I've read. It's not entirely a productivity book, but the first three habits are crucial to managing your time effectively, and Covey spends a lot of time defining what he calls "Quadrant II" work, or tasks that are important but not urgent - as opposed to the perpetual firefighting that comes from doing urgent + important tasks, or the time wasting that comes from doing tasks that are neither.

In any case, the first three habits are as follows:
1. Be proactive
2. Begin with the end in mind
3. Put first things first

They're pretty straightforward: if you want to accomplish stuff, get off your ass and do it. Once you've decided to take action, think about what you actually want to achieve (Covey was fond of saying something to the effect of, when making your way up the ladder, make sure it's leaning against the right wall). And when you know what your goal is, focus on the first tasks, rather than trying to accomplish everything at once.

They've been particularly useful for me when I have a lot of stuff to accomplish in the course of a day; I stop and ask myself what the desired end-state is, and then ensure that I know what the first things to accomplish are. Just stopping and spending a moment thinking about these points is enough to set my mind at ease (what David Allen calls "mind like water") and allow me to get through my tasks without freaking out about them and potentially forgetting important ones.

It's also worth mentioning Covey's seventh habit, "sharpening the saw", which is essentially sharpening your skills, through learning, relaxing, and detaching yourself from your work. It's an important one, but oddly enough, not one that I feel I've completely mastered.

The Four-Hour Workweek, by Tim Ferriss

From the grand-daddy to the rebellious son. 4HWW is probably the most fun of all of the books I've read, simply for the manic ideas behind it (outsource everything to India! Check email twice a week! Drop everything and go!). Ferriss comes off as kind of a snake-oil salesman at times, but it's all part of his charm - and since I've bought his two subsequent books, it's clearly not that off-putting for me, right?

Ferriss's four principles are as follows: Defining, Eliminating, Automating and Liberating, or DEAL. In common with the Seven Habits, you start by defining, or figuring out what you want (eg, to quit your job and go travelling), then increase your personal productivity through eliminating time-wasting activities. Automating is a bit more advanced, as that's where the outsourcing stuff comes in, and liberating talks about the actual implications of jumping ship.

For my purposes, eliminating has been the most influential concept, specifically what Ferriss calls "batching"; he advocates taking certain repetitive tasks and performing them less often. For instance, I've found it useful to turn off the auto-alerts on my Outlook at work, so that I don't get distracted every time an email comes in, and to check my email only every 30 minutes or so (I couldn't get away with checking it only twice a week).

The other big concept he advocates is focusing on the most important task you have to accomplish each day, and getting that done first of all, even before checking your email. It's a concept we'll look at again below, but it's worth repeating (prepeating?) here: focus is a big part of getting things done. In my case, I spend my first 30 minutes of each day looking for and writing news items (on weekends I go for a run and/or throw my laundry in the washer before checking email).

Getting Things Done, by David Allen

This brings us nicely to David Allen's GTD, which is meant to be a full-blown productivity system. Allen talks a lot about defining "next actions" on specific "projects", instead of filling out a to-do list. The difference between the two is that a to-do list is what he calls amorphous - "get the car fixed", for example, is so vague that your brain immediately wants to ignore it whenever it sees it on a list. Instead he advocates breaking each to-do item into its constituent steps: check Yelp/the yellow pages for mechanics, set up an appointment, take the car in.

More to the point, he recommends taking stock of everything in your office and/or home, deciding what needs to be done with it (if anything) and building your list of projects, goals, areas of focus and so forth from there. This is as opposed to figuring out your goals first, and then determining what you need to do to achieve them; once you know what all your "open loops" are, you can decide whether or not they fit in with what you actually want to do in life. If not, dump or delegate them.

To be honest, I've found it a little too time-consuming (ironically) to keep an updated list of 50+ next actions, as he advocates. But it is worthwhile keeping an eye on my overall projects, and figuring out the next action attached to each. He also uses a good decision tree for actions - dump, delegate, defer or do now. If an action will take 2 minutes or less, Allen says, just do it and get it out of the way. This is very powerful.

On an even dorkier note, one of his best pieces of advice was emptying out my email inbox. It fits in with the dump/defer/do thing, because I've created folders for reference stuff, things that I still need to take action on or read (two separate folders) and thrown a lot of crap away once I don't have to do anything with it. I can attest to a warm glow of satisfaction when I open my email in the morning and see everything that needs to be addressed on one screen (but only after I've accomplished a task as per Tim Ferriss's instructions).

Goals, by Brian Tracy

Goals isn't so much of a time management book, but it has a couple of good insights that apply. One of the best, which is probably well in line with Tim Ferriss's principles, is to determine what your most valuable tasks are at work and focusing on those. More globally (and in keeping with Covey's book), Tracy says to figure out what your most important goal is - the one that would have the greatest effect on your life if you accomplished it - and focus on that.

Tracy's also worth mentioning for another book he wrote (which I haven't read) called "Eat That Frog!" That title is taken from a quote by Mark Twain suggesting that if you start each day by eating a live frog, everything else you have to accomplish for the rest of the day doesn't seem too bad. For Tracy, eating a frog is tackling your most unpleasant task of the day first (ideally, as Tim Ferriss would say, finishing it before lunch).

The Nerdist Way, by Chris Hardwick

So yeah, honorable mention goes to the Nerdist Way, for starting me off on using my time more productively. His own approach is similarly catholic (note the small C), taking ideas from each as long as they're useful. For a good example, have a look at his Wired article from a few years ago, "Diary of a Self-Help Dropout", which was kind of an inspiration for this post.

BTW, another honorable mention goes to Lifehacker, although I have to qualify this a little bit. You'll find a lot of time-saving advice (my favorite's the Ian Knot, for tying my shoes), but it's so full of good stuff you'll blow a lot of time reading it all. Which just drives forward the vicious circle of forcing you to manage your time ever better.