How to be More Productive

Most of us struggle to be productive or feel like we could be doing more with our time. Getting things done is at the forefront of our minds and yet keeping busy all day still leaves us feeling we could use our time better. However, this is a flawed way of thinking about productivity. Time management and productivity are conflated. It’s not about managing time. Yet many fall into the time management trap, where the more focused you are on managing time the harder it is to control. Managing time is impossible so escaping the trap requires that we look for alternative ways of managing our productivity. Our focus shouldn’t be on time but on managing the things that are within our control. To improve productivity you don’t need time management. You need to manage your choices, attention, energy, attitude, habits, knowledge, emotions and yourself. Managing the first five is necessary but not sufficient for productivity. That is, it is possible to be productive without struggling against yourself, but often you will have to overcome your desires (to procrastinate or be lazy) to move toward achieving your goals.

How to Increase Productivity
8 things that need to be managed:
1) Choice management – making the right choices given our goals and self-knowledge
2) Attention management – directing your attention toward your chosen activity 
3) Energy management – managing energy levels so you can undertake your activity efficiently 
4) Attitude management – holding the right attitude toward carrying out your task 
5) Habit management – developing the habits that will keep you consistent in the long run 
6) Knowledge management – keep all of your knowledge organised and ready to hand so you can leverage what you know to achieve your goals
7) Emotion management – keeping control of your emotions is essential to getting things done (anxiety can prevent us starting)
8) Self-management – applying enough self-control to actually do what you need to do when wanting to do it isn’t enough (when perfectionism/procrastination get in the way)

Our time is not something that it is possible to manage if by that we mean that we should be in charge of it. We all have the same number of hours in a day and, given our commitments, our time is not always completely in our control. The only thing we can do is manage how we work within the time we have left over. That is, when we talk of ‘managing’ time we mean using it sensibly, given what we want to achieve. To work effectively within the time we have and be productive when it comes to our overarching goals it is necessary for us to make the right choices, pay attention to our chosen activity, have enough energy to undertake it, show the right attitude, develop the habits that keep us consistent in moving toward our goals, organise our knowledge in such a way that we can leverage what we have learnt to achieve them, overcome emotions that prevent us from working and apply enough self-control to do what we need to do when we don’t want to. Until we manage all these things it will always seem to us that our time is running away even if we are keeping busy and working all day, because we will nevertheless fail to be productive if we don’t manage these things. It’s not that we don’t have enough time, or even that we don’t use it, it’s that we fail to use it well on account of our mistakes in these areas. We struggle to use our time for the activities we want to use it for because of a mismanagement of these other things.

Managing our choices, attention, energy, attitude, habits, knowledge, emotions and ourselves will allow us to use our time more productively than if we tried to do the same activity without having considered how well adjusted we are in each domain. For, if we don’t manage these things, our time is wasted on us because we won’t be disposed toward using it well until we get these others things in check. Managing these things is a precondition of ‘using’ our time well. To the extent that we fail to we are necessarily less productive than we could be. In their absence we can’t get anything done. It seems to me that saying that we need to ‘manage’ our time is a misnomer because time itself is beyond management. We can categorise it into minutes, hours and days but that doesn’t change its fundamental nature. We have no control over the fact of times passage so we cannot be in charge of it. However, we can reorient ourselves by focusing on using our time well by managing other things that are within our control. Comporting ourselves toward managing these will help us to do whatever it is that we want to do much more effectively. In managing all these things we make it the case that we will use our time well, assuming we are right that the goal we are pursuing is appropriate to us given our self-knowledge. ‘Time Management’ gives us the wrong idea, we have to manage other things before it becomes possible for us to ‘use’ the time we have well. Time is just the space in which all our work happens to get done so we come to see it as valuable in itself, when what matters crucially is what we do in that time, not time itself. All that counts is whether we use our abilities and capacities to achieve our goals.

If we say that we used our time well we mean that, in a certain period of time, we did something that we found meaningful. The time itself isn’t being managed, our choices are leading to actions and behaviours and consequently, results, that we deem meaningful. If we say we wasted our time by relaxing all we mean is that our actions and behaviour in that time period were incongruous with our self-chosen goals. In both cases, our choice management is relevant, we manage it well in the former case but mismanage it in the latter case. Someone else who did exactly what we did might not think they wasted their time if they chose to relax. Whether or not time is used well or wasted turns on what the person wants to use that time for, so in reality it comes down to something else like our choices. Time is ‘wasted’ if we regret our choice. To regret is to prefer to have chosen otherwise. If our choice is right for us we will not regret it and our time will have been ‘used’ well.

Comparisons are drawn between time and money and what it is spent on is only productive insofar as it is an activity that an individual values. In either case, whether we talk of money or time, what it is spent toward determines whether it has been used well. It is not money or time that has subjective value, but the things and activities we use them on. Money has objective value in a society to the extent that it is the currency needed to buy necessities. Time seemingly has objective value in that the temporal dimension is the dimension of spacetime across which we live our lives and pursue our goals. People will always have time in which to pursue their goals, you start with a lifetime and lose time as you go along, but not everyone starts with money and has some left over to waste. Hence, while not spending money is saving, not spending time is ‘wasting’ it. That is, we can possess the former physically and amass it but we cannot try to hold onto the latter without it eluding us and drifting further away. The more strongly we try to hold onto time, the less we use it and the more we ‘waste’ it because the things we spend our time doing are what ‘use’ it up. Moreover, we feel that we have ‘wasted’ time when we use it as well. The more engaged we are in something the quicker our perception of time’s passage. That is, the more focused we are on something the faster time will seem to waste away. Yet this is illusory. After all, even while we are being productive it can feel like time management is beyond us because time is not something we can grip.

Time is a concept rather than an object like money. We might set aside a certain amount of time, say an hour, to get a certain amount of work done but if we fail to complete it we feel we have ‘mismanaged’ our time when really we had failed to manage something else like our attention (by getting distracted), energy (if we are tired), attitude (if we are unmotivated) or ourselves (if we lack the self-control necessary to complete our task). Time itself cannot be wasted but our abilities and potential can be wasted if these things aren’t managed and failing to act and pursue our goals across the temporal dimension would still qualify as ‘wasting time’ because our lifetime is constituted by an indeterminate amount of time. Even though someone else may do the same thing and not feel they misused time we would feel we have wasted our lives if we did not develop our abilities and grow into our potential by choosing the activities most important to us and pursuing them across our lives. Practicing what we love will improve our work and make us more ‘talented’ at that activity, whatever it may be. The goal then is not to think about how to spend time most wisely, but simply to fill our days with productive work directed at our ultimate goals. 

Time slips through our fingers

Time itself is intangible, impossible to grasp, it is not an object but a concept and in reaching for it we find that it will always elude physical reality. What is objectively real and therefore amenable to change or use/misuse, is our ability and potential, our capacity to achieve things that we choose to do. Whether or not our actions move us toward our goals does not tell us how well we are using time, it only tells us how successful our actions are in helping us to achieve them within the temporal dimension, which we cannot escape. That everything happens across time does not mean that time itself is being spent or wasted by us, we do not possess it. When we say we have time, that is as meaningful as saying we have space. Space and time do not belong to us, we just happen to exist in spacetime. All we own is ourselves and all we have control over is what we do so, given that we cannot choose how much time we have over our lifetime to do what we want to do, all that remains in our volition is the ability to choose how we behave and act in relation to our goals. Therefore, we should focus on the things in ourselves that we can and need to manage rather than time, which cannot itself be managed. The intangible is beyond management. You can’t hold onto time anymore than you can hold onto space. You can, however, manage yourself.

Active Learning

Often I find myself finishing a book without remembering much of what I have read. The gist of the argument is apparent to me, but its nuances and particulars elude me. If asked what it was about I would be able to contrive a response that seemed meaningful, but it would be sketchy and laced with misunderstandings. The truth is that I usually understand little and have read the book from cover to cover aimlessly. Of course, this misses the point. While fiction can be read purely for pleasure, non-fiction is generally read with a view to assimilating information. The point is to understand something by it.

Reading alone cannot achieve this because we are passively receiving the information and no real thinking is being done. It is only when we actively learn that information can be assimilated in a way that is memorable. Whether this means writing down your convictions about the matter, or speaking on the topic, the information must be used in some way before it is understood deeply enough to be remembered. But for most of us this seems too long a process to be worth our time or effort. Nevertheless, where we would read and reread to no effect we can instead write notes in the margins or take down summaries, and in this way actually save our time.

The cone of experience or more appropriately, its myth, is shown above. While it is peddled on many educational websites as being an accurate representation of how much we retain from different activities, its creator admitted that the figures are arbitrary and that the point of the cone is to show the deepening levels of abstraction, and in this way show a continuum. This is to say that the further we move down the cone the deeper we take our understanding. The statistics themselves are without evidence, but seek to demonstrate the extent to which we abstract and use the idea in question. While reading the idea is being used at a superficial level whereas during a presentation it is being applied at a deeper conceptual level. This is obvious enough, in order to be able to expound on a subject we must at some level grasp the concepts at play. In other words, to learn anything deeply we must move from using it passively through reading, hearing and seeing to actively learning through writing and speaking.

The course of action then suggests itself; we must prefer active learning to passive incomprehension. While some of us feel we lack the time even to read, let alone to do so slowly and critically, it makes little sense to read a book without learning its contents. Solely reading and later finding that you have forgotten what you just finished suggests that you have wasted your time and effort. This is not to say that reading gives us nothing, but that if we want to remember the information it is unsuited to this end if we go no further. For the best understanding to be developed it is prudent to read and either take notes or highlight key points. Admittedly, I have always felt heartburn at the prospect of writing in my books, feeling that this somehow damages them. All the same, a book’s value lies in what you can get from it and the means employed to extract this information is of no consequence if it is successful. What do we read books for after all, if not for understanding their content?

A Philosophy of Procrastination

We all would like to be productive, to finish our work comfortably within deadlines, and free ourselves up to pursue the goals we have beyond whatever it is we have to do everyday. Our problem is that we allow rein to doubt, so that we feel justified in putting things off presently because we will be better prepared in the future. However, when the time comes we make the same argument and do so indefinitely, until we cannot possibly delay any longer. At that point we have recourse to the excuse that if the result is not perfect it was because we did not try that hard and, while this is clearly our fault, it allows us to think that if we had done more we would have approximated that standard better.

Nevertheless, our preoccupation with perfectionism conceals a hidden aspect that guides procrastination. What we are really after is freedom from judgement. The things we procrastinate around generally have criteria by which they can be judged. We don’t procrastinate around walking or listening to music because we aren’t judged on those activities. The prospect of being judged (negatively) causes us anxiety that we would like to be free of but, because no work we do that is imperfect will be spared from it, we aspire to an illusory perfection that would put us beyond scrutiny. That is why, for example, we put off writing essays; there is a standard by which we are judged and the only way to escape it is through perfect work.

However, this strains us because, try though we might, nothing we ever do will be perfect. How well we perform is ultimately a matter of indifference if it is perfection we are after, because improvements can invariably be made. The solution to procrastination may then lie in accepting that we are going to be judged and being comfortable with this so that we can begin the work as earnestly as we can. If people are going to say something about what you do, invite them to it, but don’t for a second think twice about doing it for fear of judgement. The only way to avoid judgement is to do nothing, say nothing and be nothing; in a word, to cease existing.

Recognising this, that procrastination achieves its aim only by doing the impossible, by attaining perfection or obscuring us from judgement, see the doubt for what it is. In that context it is perfectly rational – we can’t ensure those things. The problem is that the aims set by perfectionism are absurd. The only way past procrastination is then to reassess our goals. If we are to achieve our potentials and live our lives to fulfillment we have to give up aspiring to perfection, which is nothing less than a neurosis. Even more simply if we are struggling to start it is helpful to realise that something is always better than the nothing we would end up doing.

Law of Attraction or Law of Action?

Can thought really shape reality?

The law of attraction holds that your thoughts, whether good or bad, will attract events of the same nature. Positivity then brings about welcome events while pessimism gives rise to undesired outcomes. In this way your thinking is said to create your life and to bring about what you focus on. Thought is held to be a powerful tool which the successful learn to use effectively. At first this seems an exciting prospect, our life is placed firmly in our hands and we can guide it in the way we choose. We need only think with enough purpose. However, there is no reason that it should not likewise work the other way – for our worries to then also take effect negatively. This brings contradiction as our response to disquieting thoughts is to reassure ourselves that they usually fail to materialise.

The reality is perhaps as simple as a chain of influence where thoughts, strongly believed, dispose us toward certain behaviours which elicit the corresponding results. It is not the thinking itself that ‘attracts’ events of our choosing but the actions the thoughts give rise to and the attitude thereby encouraged. If you believe a thing will happen any doubts that might prevent this being the case will be robbed of their strength and your actions will have more effect, if only because you feel free to carry them out without restriction.

The law of attraction would then more suitably be called the law of action – thoughts cannot shape reality without being acted upon. They can change the behaviour of the person who then interacts with the world in a different way, but at bottom action is the catalyst. ‘Attraction’ implies passivity or waiting for a thing to occur and is appealing to those who want their goals to come easily to them. Nonetheless, acting on what we want is the only way to truly attract the life we would like to live.