Some notes on productivity

A colleague asked me to suggest some work productivity tips, and I thought perhaps I could share more widely. Ok, work prod. This stuff gets to be a little bit of an actual substitution for actually, you know, getting your work done, so careful not to let this happen to you. Also, you could probably take this with a healthy dose of ‘do what I say, not what I do’. Sometimes it is more aspirational than real for me.

General insights:
From a number of sources, it is pretty clear that working every day ‘works’ better than waiting for moments of inspiration. Twyla Tharp’s Getting into the Creative Habit, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, almost anything you read or hear from people who are successful in their writing/working will tell you that the danger is not too many days of getting not enough done – it’s too many days of getting nothing done. (of course, some are more religious about this than others, e.g., RKM reportedly started working at 4:30 am, seven days a week.

Bird by Bird suggests the ‘1-inch frame’ approach to fixing this problem, as well as giving yourself permission to write shitty first drafts. You don’t have to do much to get started, just write enough to fill a 1-inch by 1-inch frame. Start there, and let the rest follow. And don’t sweat the first draft, it’s just a way to get it started, not meant to be a final perfect copy. Tharp is more about ritual (I get up every morning and go to the gym to work out, getting in the cab is the beginning of the ritual, which ends with stretching on the bar). But the upshot of both is that everyday-ness trumps wait-and-panic.

Of course, in everyday life there are no green-fields, no opportunities to start at zero and work diligently for that project 5 years out. Instead, we’re already behind in something or other. So maybe in all honesty it’s something like a 70/30 ratio to start – 70% of your time on the most pressing lose-sleep action items, and 30% of your time on longer-range planning. As the immediacy begins to get done, the ideal situation is to be left with rolling deadlines (ha! good luck with that!). But on the other hand, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here.

Why to how:
Ok, so everyday works. But how to transform big stuff into doable stuff. I think it’s about turning everything into tasks. That’s the trick. Myself, I’m kind of a ‘getting things done’ kind of person, the David Allen book/cult that makes three assumptions: 1) that lots of energy is taken up on figuring out what to do, what’s left to do, what’s not done, and the like, which reduces your ability to think; 2) separating these things makes your life better; and 3) turning projects into the last actionable items, and having an excellent filing system will solve many if not most of your problems.

So ‘write chapter 5’ is too big. What is the very next thing you need to do in order to write chapter 5? Sometimes it is turn on computer and get typing, but sometimes it means emailing a colleague about a problem you have been having with Stata that needs to be solved in order to finish the data analysis, that needs to be written into chapter 5. So these are all tasks within the project ‘chapter 5’, and the next one means you need to dig up your colleague’s email address and start with that letter.

There’s a whole ‘getting things done’ cult, which I like a lot but don’t follow as much as I used to. Aside from tips and tricks, the other big insight is to split calendared tasks which are date-specific, and context-based tasks, which can be done as time and energy allows when you are in a particular context. My p thinks that’s where GTD goes off the rails, but your mileage may vary.

Per resources, there are some necessities:
– Writing for Social Scientists, by Howard Becker (“‘Getting it right’ means putting the argument so clearly that the paper begins by asserting what it later demonstrates”, p. 19). It’s an inspiration
– Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. The latter chapters are geared towards creative writing more than social science-type writing, but the first chapters are incredibly enabling.
– Getting Things Done, by David Allen.
– and maybe, though doubtfully, Getting into the Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp. Pretty, but ultimately, this is a sampling on the dependent variable kind of book which you might like or hate – I get annoyed by the ‘this inevitably works for me!’ kind of vibe, but you may not.

And online, I would perhaps start with KJ Healy’s indispensable applications discussion on Crooked Timber ( There’s a later version of this someplace. These kinds of discussions quickly become productivity tool porn (pr0n, in leet-speak).

So get to work!

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