My original conceptualization of what it meant to be "good" at productivity looked something like this: I'd get up early and start working on a project that was important to me; I wouldn't be distracted and for 8 hours or more I would just crank away at this project -- making huge progress by the end of the day. Now that I'm wiser and older I realize this is a silly goal to have. First of all, how often do I get a complete day devoid of meetings, errands, and other commitments that draw me away from "being productive?" Almost none. Secondly, who ever just sits down and "does" a project? Most projects that really matter, that will make a difference in this world, are not so clear cut as to be obvious in their next steps. A very large percentage of our work is figuring out what our work actually is. In the past, I've neglected to think of this as important work when in actuality, nothing meaningful can be accomplished without it. No, instead I'm committed to taking deliberately small steps in my work -- and here's why.
The occasional marathon work session feels great. Every once in awhile I just find that flow and 8 hours later (which generally feels like 2) I've done an incredible amount of work. That's great when it happens but I don't think I should expect that every time I sit down to do some work. In fact, even if I could accomplish that I think I'd be setting myself up for some kind of burnout down the road. Instead, I think a work life built around doing projects that matter -- but in very small steps -- sets you up for the longest term success. I'm much more interested in creating a lifetime of well-respected and meaningful work than flaming out after one or two major projects. As Steven Pressfield says, "A pro shows up and does the work." Deliberately small steps will let me continue showing up and doing the work for a long, long time.
Huge projects, the kind that people notice, tend to go through many iterations. The original plan turns out to be unfeasible or a better idea or tweak comes to mind as you're working on it. Working in deliberately small steps allows me to take advantage of those changes in direction when they are presented. It's helpful to come up for air every once in awhile and make sure everything is still heading on the right course. Or, maybe the climate around the project has changed and that requires some rethinking and retooling of the project itself? Either way, if I don't work in small and deliberate steps I may miss these needed changes. If my original idea is awesome and I put my head down and work hard until it's finished I may miss the signs that tell me something needs to be changed. There's certainly something to be said for ignoring distractions or sticking to my vision but I don't think that should be done to the exclusion of keeping an eye to everything else happening around me.
It's easy to get stuck on a big project. Just their sheer size can be enough to intimidate me into never starting. Looking at my to-do list and seeing, "Start business," or "Write book," can be disheartening. When I find myself staring at my list of things to do and nothing jumps out at me as doable or enjoyable it's time to think about whether I've broken my projects into manageable chunks. When I'm breaking up my work, I try to aim for things that can be done in 20-25 minutes. If I can't figure out what the next step in a certain project is I'll generally make my next action something like, "Brainstorm X project for 20 minutes," or "Freewrite on X project for 20 minutes." Either way, I'm breaking something insurmountable into something that can be nudged along slowly. Eventually, with enough nudging, I'm usually surprised how much I accomplished.
What does this look like?
So you're with me up to this point. You like the idea of breaking work into small chunks. What does that actually look like, though? For me, this is where my Weekly Review and front-end decision making comes into play. Also, a healthy understanding of what can be done in what amount of time.
My Weekly Review is the time I set aside every week to review what I've done in the past 7 days and look ahead to the next two weeks (and longer) to see what's coming up. Even more importantly, though, is taking the time to look at all my projects and make sure each one has at least one concrete, actionable, and small task assigned to it. Regardless of the scope or breadth or importance of the project, it must have a next action attached to it.
For example, one of my projects is a 15 page term paper due in May. It's a big project that is a long ways away. But, it has a next action attached to it ("write structured interview protocol" for the curious among you). I also have a project called "SamSpurlin.com Article" with a next action ("spend 20 minutes writing first draft") attached to it. This is a much smaller and more immediate project but the point is that once a week I sit down and really think about what my work is, regardless of how big the specific project is. Therefore, I can spend the rest of my week actually doing the work I've defined during my review. It may sound like a small step, but figuring out what my work actually is always requires more time and energy than I anticipate.
Using Your Gaps
The second aspect of working in deliberately smaller steps involves being more okay with using small blocks of time. It's tempting to say, "I can't work on this project until I have 2 hours of completely uninterrupted time!" That's great if you regularly have periods of time like that, but chances are you don't. It's important to not let the gravity of the project you're working on overly affect how much time you think you need to work on it.
I had a hard time breaking myself of this habit. I used to feel like I needed huge swaths of time to do anything meaningful. I eventually convinced myself that if I can't do good work in small blocks then what makes me think I can utilize large chunks effectively? The added bonus of doing the front end decision making I mention above is that you have a ready made list of tasks you can do in small chunks of time. Even the most audacious of projects has some sort of next action you can take that'll take you less than an hour to complete. Get comfortable using weird gaps in your schedule to move meaningful projects forward. Jotting down notes, brainstorming, following up with people -- these are all things that can be done while waiting around for a meeting to start, riding public transit, or just twiddling your thumbs.
Get tiny, get consistent, and see big results.