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Cover image for What Productivity Looks Like to Me

What Productivity Looks Like to Me

aspittel profile image Ali Spittel ・12 min read

First off, productivity is all about balance. You will not be fully productive if you don't take breaks, don't get enough sleep, or you don't take care of yourself. I do not work all the time whatsoever. I work a very standard 40 hour work week and then do 10-20 hours of side work per week. I do not do it all, I don't work non-stop, I'm not perfect.

I also have a life that allows me to dedicate a lot to my side-work. I live with just my dog, I don't have children, I've been working remote for the last year and a half, and I've been single for most of my time doing side-work. I also am at a place in my career where putting in a 40 hour workweek most weeks at my day job is sufficient. It's a huge privilege that I'm able to be in the position that I am, and I know that my life will shift a lot in the future.

A few of the books linked in this post are affiliate links. If you buy something through those links I may earn a small commission at no cost to you. This helps pay for the costs associated with running my blog. I promise to only recommend products I use and love!

Early in my career, I worked a lot more than I do now -- I don't even want to do the math on how much, but it was a lot. I didn't have much balance in my life, and I let my social media-life consume me. I wanted to do it all, which wasn't possible. I ended up getting super burnt out, anxious, and unable to be as productive as I wanted to be. Balance is so important. I can't overstate that enough. If you're dealing with burnout, Becoming Super Woman was a super helpful read to see how bad burnout can really become and how to be more balanced.

I highly prioritize time with friends and family, runs with my dog, reading non-work related books, and being a total foodie in addition to my day job and the company I run. I am more than my work, and I don't want to lose my other identities.

Here are some things that I've learned that help me be my most productive. This will look different for everybody, but I hope some of this is helpful.

Health

First off, take care of yourself. Sleeping the optimal amount for you will make you more alert and focused throughout the day. The same thing is true for drinking enough water. I also try to eat protein, fat, and carb balanced meals frequently throughout the day. I run most days and try to do other strength-based workouts too. Plus, I take a spa night on Sundays where I do face and hair masks and teeth whitening.

Don't take health advice from me -- it's not what I do. Still, I do think prioritizing your health is one of the most important things you can do for your productivity and overall well-being.

Scheduling

As far as scheduling goes, I live by my Google Calendars. I put everything on there - I'm the person that sends my friends GCal invites for every hangout session. Otherwise, I'll forget. It's as simple as that.

I have three calendars, one for my personal life, one for We Learn Code (my company), and one for my day job. Sometimes, I'll forward events to my personal calendar, so they're all in one place. If I'm super overwhelmed, I'll calendar block everything. So, I will have every minute of my day, even free time scheduled in. I don't do this often now, but it used to be really helpful for me to see my schedule upfront.

Note: this was a week where I was in between jobs and had a lot I wanted to get done. I was also on vacation for the second half of the week.

Prioritization

In order to prioritize what I am going to work on, I first ask myself if it's something I'm passionate about. If it is, then I think about the time commitment and what I wouldn't be able to do if I decided to take on the new task. So, if I were to pick up a new freelance client, I would have to postpone working on an ebook, for example.

My greater goals and priorities have shifted over time. I initially wanted to build a bigger audience, and the activities I took on were correlated to that. Now, my financial situation has changed a bit, and I rely on my side-work being a larger portion of my income. In the future, I may prioritize more free time, which will change things again!

To help me prioritize, I use toggl to track my time spent on every project I do -- not just paid ones. I'm even timing myself writing this post right now. I do this so that I can see where my time goes, which inefficiencies exist, and the payoff of each activity.

For example, here's my Toggl report for the week I'm writing this. Each of my projects is color-coded, and different views show my hours worked per day and listings of each activity by time.

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I also ask myself, "What are the three most important things for me to get done?". For my side work, I have three big to-do items for the week. For my day job, I do three per day. I use a pinned Google Keep sticky to keep track of these things, and I have another sticky with any time-sensitive tasks I need to do that day. Mostly things that won't take long, but need to get done then and there. Having just a few essential things to work on helps me to stay focused. I try to only work on what I've set out to do at the beginning of the week. I'm pretty dedicated to getting these few tasks done and worry a lot less about everything else.

I read the book Essentialism recently. It got pretty repetitive at some points, but it does a great job at explaining how to prioritize and why prioritization matters so much. Just do what's essential, nothing more nothing less.

Also, I do not do it all myself. If there's something that makes sense for me to have someone else do, I will hire a service to handle those tasks. I do wash and fold for my laundry, I used to hire a cleaning service for my apartment, and a large portion of my diet is take-out. I'm in a privileged position to be able to outsource some of these pieces of my life, but it allows me to do more of the work that fires me up: teaching code.

Motivation

Motivation is also a challenging piece of doing side work, and I'm so imperfect at always being motivated. I give myself lots of breaks, and I remind myself that this I'm choosing to do. I do have some advice for getting and staying motivated.

First, I love having groups of friends that I "mastermind" with. We inspire each other with our work, commiserate over the hard parts, and discuss strategies for growth. I love working with other people, and working on projects with other people or at least talking to them about those projects is a huge source of motivation for me.

I also utilize the two-minute rule -- if something takes two minutes or less, I just have to get it done. Having one thing crossed off of my to-do list starts the ball rolling, and I usually get more done.

Sometimes, I set a timer and timebox how long I'll spend on something -- "I don't feel like writing right now, but if I spend five minutes on it, I'll be closer to where I want to be." I rarely want to stop at the end of those five minutes, but it's a great trick for getting me started on something.

I also am really motivated by finishing things -- leaving them half-done really bothers me. So I usually break tasks into smaller and smaller sub-tasks and focus on completing sub-tasks. This makes me feel more accomplished and like I'm making progress, so I'll be much less likely to abandon the project.

Communication

One of the most difficult things to handle when my social media following grew was the non-stop messages. From people requesting advice to spam to lovely comments about my work, I was all the sudden getting hundreds of communications a day. I receive, on average, 100 mentions on Twitter a day, 15-20 Twitter direct messages, and 50-70 emails. It's a lot.

At first, I would respond to everything. With a lot of thought and care -- essentially writing personalized blog posts for anyone who asked me a question. It wasn't scalable. I still feel some guilt, but I don't respond to everything anymore. I have so much content that's open to the public, which scales so much better than offering 1:1 advice. I also mute my own tweets after a little while if they get a lot of attention, and I have filters so I don't get any notifications from social media. I do, however, have Tweetdeck set up to show me all mentions and quote tweets so that I can quickly mass respond to people.

I also have a system for my emails. I have three folders in my inboxes: today, this week, and this month. When an email comes in, I delete it or put it in one of these folders. I respond to today emails every weekday, this week emails on Mondays, and this month emails at the end of the month. I also add emails that will take some time to my to-do list so that I can allot that time better. I'm also really interested in implementing this email system down the road. It seems awesome, it just takes some time to get used to.

Note Taking

I take notes on everything. I take short-term notes that I won't keep forever in Google Keep. Then I can archive stickies when I'm done with them. If they're something I want long term, I take notes in markdown and upload them to GitHub. I take notes during meetings I'm in, on books I read, on courses I take, etc. It's good for learning, and it gives me a synthesized version of the material to come back to.

If I have an idea for a project or a blog post, I write that thought down, otherwise, I'll forget it. I even have a notebook next to my bed for this reason!

Related to notes, I also have checklists for everything I do -- for blog posts before I publish, for recording Egghead videos, for my morning and evening routines, etc. Making a checklist makes it so I don't have to think, I can refer to the list. I am not very detail-oriented, so having the steps for something written out is so helpful, so I don't forget anything.

My morning and evening routines are all written in large text on a whiteboard sticker on my fridge -- even just brushing my teeth is on there! I have my weekly workout schedule and chores list on there too.

For large projects, I usually use Trello to stay organized and motivated. I'll have checklists for each sub-task on each card. Breaking an enormous task into smaller ones helps me keep motivated and feel like I'm making progress.

I've heard great things about The Checklist Manifesto, a book all about keeping checklists for everything. I haven't read the full text, but reading a summary of it inspired me to start creating these checklists.

Habits

If I can convince you to do one thing after reading this article, it would be to pick up Atomic Habits. This book changed so much for me. Instead of focusing on goals, I try and focus on building up habits that make me who I want to become.

I use Done habit-tracker to keep track of habits I'm trying to build. Some things I have on there include: reading a chapter of a career-focused book each day, drinking enough water, and cleaning my apartment for at least 5 minutes. There's the immediate reward of having the habit change colors after it's completed, and there's an incentive to keep the habit chain going!

Organization

As far as file management goes, I keep everything on Google Drive. That way, if my laptop dies or something, I'll still have a backup. I also only keep files I'm using frequently on my computer to keep that organized. I have folders for projects and for life stuff! I also try to keep my personal and We Learn Code drives separate. Gotta keep work/side-hustle/life balance!

I also keep my browser bookmarks super organized in folders. I only keep things I need, otherwise, I'll save links elsewhere -- like Pinterest or in my notes about something. Bookmarks are for links I frequently come back to. I also have a to-read folder filled with articles that I want to read. I try to allocate some time to get through these from time to time too!

Work-Life Balance

I think the term work-life balance is imperfect, but I work to make sure that I'm not working all the time. I'm someone who very much has a tendency to work a huge number of hours and to abandon other aspects of my life and health to do more work. This isn't good, and I actively work to not do this, especially since I have been much more prone to burnout recently.

First of all, I don't have work email or Slack on my phone. I only have them on my work computer, which I don't touch outside of work hours.

I also try to make my bedroom a technology-free zone. I will say this is way easier when I'm not working from home -- quarantine has made this pretty much impossible. But, I find I sleep so much better if I put my phone and my computer in my living room before I sleep. I also think having dedicated workspaces when you do work from home is so helpful, and it's something I wish that I could more fully implement in my own life (darn city rent prices!).

Concentration

I am someone who works best without interruption and with long blocks of time. I don't do well with random 15-minute slots to work, rather I'd prefer to have one long afternoon to work. I used to do all of my blogging from the same restaurant in DC, Busboys and Poets. I'd go there every Sunday afternoon and crank out a post. Having that routine and that long block of time was perfect for me.

I also work best in the afternoon as compared to mornings or nights, though in college, late nights were my everything. I usually do side work immediately after my normal workday ends and on weekend afternoons. Everyone is going to be so different with this -- experiment and find times that work best for you!

I know that the Pomodoro technique works really well for some people, but I work best in long focused blocks. I tend to follow the Flowtime Technique instead. I take breaks when I need to or when I finish a task, but frequent breaks aren't helpful for me, nor do I need them.

Sometimes, I have a tendency to get distracted. Especially by social media and the internet more generally. During times like that, I'll use the SelfControl app to avoid distracting sites. Sometimes I'll even shut off the internet in my apartment if I really want to get some writing done.

Batching

One additional productivity system I find super helpful is batching. Batching is when you do a bunch of similar activities at once. So, for example, when I did Instagram I would write all my captions for the month at one time, and I'd pre-create graphics and find images. Or when I'm filming videos, I'll do multiple at once. When you're in one headspace it can be optimal to keep doing similar tasks instead of changing your focus to something else. Amy Porterfield has some excellent content on why batching is so great.

Conclusion

My productivity system is just that -- my system. Don't feel like you need to adopt all of this or follow any of it. I just hope it's helpful to have a peek into my life and the things that help me. Remember -- balance is so important and looks different for everyone. I'm so far from perfect, and I think it can seem like I do so much more than I actually do on social media. I am also in a place in my life where I can spend time on side-work, and I love doing it. Please let me know if you have any questions, or I can answer any questions on Twitter!

Posted on May 21 by:

aspittel profile

Ali Spittel

@aspittel

Passionate about education, Python, JavaScript, and code art.

Discussion

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I'm going to give Toggl a try!

Thanks for the article <3

 

Definitely use Toggle! I recently started using it and loved it!

 

FINALLY someone with my style of productivity! Techniques like Pomodoro never made sense to me; I tend to zone into an activity for hours at a time before needing a break. I've been in a quarantine-induced rut lately, so something like Toggl and the "Flowtime" technique should definitely help with visualizing my todos day-to-day.

A lot of gems in here. Bookmarking in case I need motivation in the future 😁

 

Very cool your publication. I really liked Google Keep, it will help me a lot in the division between my school studies and computer technician studies and with my remote repository on GitHub, because sometimes I get very excited, I start coding at 8 am and I stop just for lunch, so I start again and so on until 4 in the morning. I completely forget that I need to study for the entrance exam to enter a university.

 

Great article! It seems that you have been working on yourself for a long time and also observing and analyzing all the records and documents too. Just a guess though! I loved many short, sweet, straight but very effective sentences like whatever you have said in the very first paragraph and in the conclusion. Thanks for sharing what has worked for you! Kudos to your efforts... Have a productive day ahead... Keep shining, Keep inspiring 😃🎉🎊

 

I like your thoughts about concentration, reminds me of Deep Work principles you can find in Cal Newport’s book. I’m just starting to write a book about improving as a developer, and I put a big focus on productivity, with one chapter dedicated to deep work :)

 

Hey guys, I have been working on my very first APIs project and in that project I'm making a "QUIZ APP", where from an API. I have been taking 10 question and giving them multiple choices and at end they will be getting scored. I'm using NODE.JS, EXPRESS, REQUEST, EJS for the app.

The problem comes here when i get a string from API. I change it to an object using JSON.parse() and sending it to EJS files and then displayed. but when their are symbols in question like ", ' , and more they are displayed as &139; , " like that.

                      HOW DO I FIX THAT.
 

Always interesting to read others' routines. I've recently added kaizen to my workflow, meaning that I look for a small step to improve a process every day. It had the most impact on my personal life so far. For example, yesterday I improved the way I prepare avocado for eating (there's a better way to deal with kernels than what I had been doing). I got the ideas from this book.

 

note taking and scheduling has always seemed as a work itself...
i guess it takes practice to implement it as a daily habit :)

 

Another tool that I use in a similar way to the flowtime technique is RescueTime checking the report from time to time to see in which categories I was working on and how the time was spent.

 

I have tried Pomodoro technique and I am on the same page as you that I don't need breaks too often. Will try to understand what is Flowtime, thanks for sharing this 👍

 

When you say you are more prone to burnout recently - is that to do with global events or some imbalance in your routine?

 

Highly recommend The Checklist Manifesto (and Cal Newport's Deep Work, mentioned in another comment)

 

Interesting thoughts will defenetly use something from that, thank you.
By the way going to read Essentialism is there any recommendation on summery of books service ?

 

Super nice post. Thanks for sharing, probably I will try some them.

 

This is so helpful Ali. Thank you. I also find the Pomodoro Technique not quite working for me as I would want it to. I'm definitely going to try out the Flowtime Technique.