Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Five tricks for jogging your productivity

Ever had one of those days when you can't even get yourself out of bed? Where every time you try to do work, you end up checking your email? It's really easy to get sucked down into a spiral of less and less productivity. What's harder is how to get yourself out of it and going again. I used to think that this was a personality trait; I've always been a procrastinator, so it must be something inherent in me that I've got to learn a way around. More recently, however, I've started to think that procrastination is part of being human, and becoming more productive is less about changing your inclinations and more about learning a set of tricks. Here's a list of 5 tricks I've learned to help job productivity:
  1. One Dish at a Time
  2. One of the first tricks I learned (and wrote about) is the one dish at a time method. The name comes from doing dishes, and the trick is really about only committing to do one tiny thing. This makes it easier to do, but once you're started and have gotten past the inertia that was keeping you still, its usually easy to keep going.
  3. Go for a Walk
  4. Sometimes this is a long walk, especially if I've been feeling really stuck and it's nice out, but it can often be just a walk to the kitchen to boil water for tea. Somehow by getting up and moving, whatever sense of stuckness I'm feeling seems to drift away and be replaced with thoughts. By the time I get back, I'm activated and ready to make progress on whatever I'd been procrastinating.
  5. Do a Mind Map
  6. Mind Mapping is one of those techniques that seems a little silly in theory, but in practice makes a world of difference. Start by writing the topic you're thinking about in the middle of a big sheet of paper. Now start writing any fragment you can think of even vaguely connected to it, and connecting it. For each of these fragments, write down new fragments, and look for ways in which they connect. Don't worry if the first few things you jot down seem worthless or inane, keep going! Pretty soon you'll be generating new ideas, seeing new connections, and getting past your block. I've used these to get a better grasp on a subject area, to explore a new way of looking at an old idea, and to kickstart myself writing when I'm feeling uninspired.
  7. Switch to Editing
  8. Generating new content is hard. Really hard. Editing existing content, on the other hand, is much easier to do gradually and get going with. So you to write a new paper, and you don't know where to begin? Copy an old one and start hacking it apart. This trick works well for programming as well; cutting and pasting code is bad practice, but using existing code as a starting place and reference works strikingly well.
  9. Talk to a Friend
  10. Most programmers have experienced the embarrassment of spending hours debugging a particularly difficult problem, finally interrupting a coworker to get help, and in the midst of explaining suddenly seeing the solution, allowing your friend to walk away having helped you without saying a word. This has led to a form of debugging known as rubber-ducking... explaining the problem to a rubber ducky. This technique is useful not just for programming, but any time you're stuck on difficult problem. Havi Brooks, one of my favorite productivity bloggers, has taken this to an extreme. The power of relating why you're stuck to a second point of view, even imaginary, is not to be underestimated.
None of these tricks works all of the time, but its rare that I by going through my series of tricks I can't get out of a funk. What tricks do you use to get yourself going? Let me know in the comments! Liked this? Looking for more like this? You might likeOr subscribe by RSS using the links on the right.


  1. Great blog, Kevin! I've been reading for a few days now, and find your comments insightful and (especially in this case) quite helpful.

    On this topic in particular, you are certainly not alone on the procrastination front. I find myself struggling with it more and more at work in the past couple of months, to the point where I seem to find a way to be perpetually stressed about it, but rarely able to overcome the block. I'm glad to know that there are others who've found themselves in a similar boat from time to time, and I'm going to give some of these techniques a try right now!

    Looking forward to reading more,


  2. Hi JB! Thanks for reading! I hope these tricks prove useful to you, and let me know if you find any others that work! :)

  3. talking to a friend/coworker is a lifesaver for all teachers. it's called "i'm stuck, can't think of a darn thing to do in class today, and feel totally drained of all creativity, so i'll go leech ideas of someone else." what ends up actually happening, though (most of the time), is that they give you ideas that you then adapt and make your own, talking it through with them as you go. i always walk away from talks with colleagues (usually tpiglette) feeling re-inspired and ready to go.

  4. Hi Lara, thanks for commenting! I completely agree about the reinspiration thing... I think its a good reminder that we're social beings! We often think better in pairs or small groups than we do alone!