How to be insanely more productive

People like me think ourselves meticulously organised. But sometimes the best laid plans go to waste. How does it happen?

Charles Assisi

[Photograph by FirmBee under  Creative Commons]

Every Sunday, I write a column under the slug Life Hacks for Mint, India’s most respected business newspaper. I missed a deadline and some readers wrote in to ask whatever happened. I apologised profusely and promised I would be back the next week. It also compelled me to sit back, wonder whatever happened to the so-called “efficient me”, introspect, look myself as a third person in the mirror, and ask some questions.

  • You are an organised and focused person. So how come you hadn’t factored in for the unpredictable with room for slack? Why was there no backup plan in place?
  • I see your calendar is a meticulously organised one. Why is it then you are always in fire-fighting mode?
  • You claim to maintain TBD (to be done) lists so you know all of what you’ve got to accomplish on any given day. What stops you from accomplishing all of them?

Two people helped answer these questions.

Help first came in the form of insights from an online course on productivity available from Farnarm Street Blog for $59. Shane Parish, who conducts the course, starts by posing a set of pertinent questions I hadn’t spent too much thought on earlier that compels you to start with the basics: “Why do you want to be more productive? What is your intent? What do you want to do with more time?”

Good questions these, I told myself. “You fail because you don’t know what to do with that extra time,” says Parrish. The more I thought about it, in hindsight, the man has a point. I have a heck of a lot of things in my bucket list of things to get done. That is when the full import of what Parkinson’s Law means started to fall into place: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. (As a complete aside, Hortsman’s corollary to Parkinson’s Law retorts: Work contracts to fit the time we give it.)

The second insight came a few days ago from Haresh Chawla, partner at India Value Fund Advisors and the former group CEO at Network18. In conversation with a few of us and in an entirely different context, he was pushing us to think about why is it that organisations and leaders we place a premium on fail?

For instance, once upon a time, Blackberry was considered one of the most innovative companies in the world. It still is to recover from its precipitous decline in 2013. How many of us remember Orkut? Whatever happened to MySpace? For that matter as recently as last week, Yahoo, a company valued at $100 billion in 2000 was sold for $4  billion to Verizon.

Whatever happened to all of these entities? Much questioning later, Chawla distilled the sum of his experience into two “simple things” as he called it. As complexity goes up, leaders at the helm of organisations like these blur the boundaries between what is “repeatable” and what is “relevant”.

Repeatability does not require that you expend too much energies on things. But to stay relevant, you must expend disproportionately. The latter demands you think, you learn, you unlearn and you evolve.

If I were to extrapolate Chawla’s analogy into our daily lives and Parrish’s questions, I see a fairly interesting answer.

I want to be more productive to stay relevant.

Now, here’s the thing. Productivity of the kind Chawla and Parrish are talking about isn’t easy. It does not demand 12 to 16 hours at our work desks. It does not demand we be always on either. Instead, it insists we start looking at how we live and work in an altogether different way.

That takes me back to basics. Why should I stay relevant and what do I need to do to stay relevant?

  • The world I live in is changing rapidly. I need to take calls on what is it I ought to stay on top of what I do and thrive there. Else the next dog is going to have me for its next meal. To do that, I ought to be learning all of the time.
  • Then there is the question of deploying what I learn in my domain. How do I do it most effectively in a world that is increasingly a multi-disciplinary one? I cannot be on top of all disciplines. So I ought to compress my learning times by seeking the finest minds from across the world using all of what I can. I’m not sure who said this. But as the line goes: “If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.” How do you get there?

Simple. By getting a few things right. Read a lot. Learn a lot. Schedule ruthlessly. Practice Getting Things Done (GTD).

1. Read a lot

That is the primary reason I pay a premium to be a part of various online forums just that I may listen in to what the smartest people in the world are talking about. I need to stay abreast the business of technology. To do that, Stratechery is my go to place. To stay on top of ideas that lie at various intersections and talk to people as well from other parts of the world, a premium subscription to Farnam Street Blog does the job. It invites some brilliant minds who are interviewed regularly. Listening in to them expands my universe exponentially.

A subscription to The New York Times is now available to Indian readers for as little as $1 a month for 52 weeks. That’s a little over Rs 3,400 for a year’s access to the best journalism in the world. For that matter, I’m willing to bet those of you reading this wouldn’t mind paying Rs 2,000 for a half decent meal at a restaurant. So why would you baulk at paying that money for a month’s subscription to The Wall Street Journal and gain access to the finest business news and archives to all of its contents as well? As that cliché goes, knowledge is power.

Until a few weeks ago, I had dissed Blinkist, a premium app that offers book summaries as the go-to place for the intellectually lazy. Fact is, I cannot read all of the books I want to read. There are only so many hours in a day and I have to prioritise ruthlessly. So now I pick and choose the ones I want to get into deeply. The others I engage with on Blinkist that offers me well written summaries of key take-aways on what I need to know about a theme. I think it mandatory now.

2. Learn a lot

Places like Coursera, EdX, Khan Academy, Talks at Google, leave you with no excuse to stay uneducated and uninformed. I had never imagined a time when I could take a course on morality under the tutelage of Paul Bloom, a philosopher of global repute and part of the faculty at Yale University. I didn’t have the resources and my exigencies were such. But that is exactly what I am doing now.

A few years ago, I would never have imagined I would have tried to learn how to code. But why not? Coding is a language. I can see my friends who know how to write clear code can think clearly. Anybody can learn how to code. For free. All you have to do is sign up for an account on Hour of Code. It serves a few purposes.

  • You learn humility. Just because you have a few fancy gadgets does not mean you are tech literate.
  • Technology stops intimidating you. Instead, you begin to embrace it in the truest sense of the word. Coding, you figure, is another language, just like the one you are reading these lines in. The more you practice it, the more fluent you get in it. Right now, I’m trying to learn Python out. If I need help, there is a community of people willing to help me understand it.
  • It is an activity you can engage in with your kids and have a truck load of fun making new games, thinking the logic through and wean them off the trash that is television.

3. Schedule everything

This is tricky territory. It works for me. It may not for you. And I may change my mind in the future. But as things are, here’s how my defaults are set.

  • I like to be up early, anytime between 4-4:30 am is good. It gives me a good hour to be with myself and perform my morning victuals. My phone is switched off. The only people who can reach me are those who are on my list of exceptions. I don’t go on social media. This is when I find time to process ideas, write uninterruptedly, and think through my big, hairy audacious goals, all of which are placed into Evernote, my software of choice to collect all of what I read and write.
  • By 10:30 am, I’ve figured my brain has used up significant parts of the creative resources at its disposal. That’s when I usually stop my “creative” part of the day. I hate meeting up with anybody during these hours or getting on the phone, unless it is with family or co-workers whom I interact with closely—and only if it is important or scheduled. Else, it is my time.
  • I need to spend a certain number of hours every day to read, learn, and catch up on all of what I subscribe to. These are scheduled as well. So once again, no meeting up with people, unless it is going to add significant value to my life.
  • In my earlier assignments, I neglected my older daughter. I regret that now. I’m trying to make up for that. But I do make it a point to spend time with my younger daughter. It shows in how we bond. That is scheduled time as well.
  • I need to spend quality time with my co-founders because we are not just business associates, but friends as well with whom we can confide in. For instance, every Friday between 9:30 am to 10:30 am, I get on a call with them. It brings us all on the same page, we share all that is on our minds, plan, and chart things out. That is scheduled time.
  • Then the all of us at work need to spend time together brainstorming around how to take things forward, review, and think of new ways of doing things. This is scheduled time as well.
  • I am acutely aware I am an introvert and do not enjoy the company of too many people. I need time out with myself. Else I wouldn’t be able to function. That time ought to be scheduled as well. So while most people like to exercise in the mornings, I haven’t come around to it. I’d much rather do it late evening when I go for my long, rambling walks.
  • I ought to pay attention to home and time out with the spouse, which I confess I haven’t done enough of and she doesn’t like it one bit.
  • Then there is the routine stuff to be taken care of—like replying to emails, ensuring all of the financials are in order, meeting up with a few close friends every once a while, entertaining visitors that I hate with a vengeance, et al. But this needs to be scheduled as well.
  • Into all of this, I need to factor in for episodes like last week when I couldn’t meet a deadline. That means I need to schedule time for slack as well. I failed to do that.

“Scheduling,” says Cal Newport, author of the bestselling Deep Work and a researcher in the computer sciences, “forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take.” This is because often times we underestimate the amount of time we will actually take to complete a task.

When looked at from this perspective, legendary investor Warren Buffet says it as it is: “You’ve got to keep control of your time and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.” This translates to shifting our default mode to saying “No” to pretty much everything. But “Yes” is what we are intuitively programmed to do.

When translated into real terms, what scheduling does for me is that by the time most people are just about beginning to fire at work around 11 am, I am done for the day with my creative output.

4. Now deploy GTD

What follows then are repeatable jobs that can be moved around if need be because it doesn’t require too much will power on my part. This is not to suggest repeatable jobs are to be dissed or undermined. For instance, to study Python, read a book, absorb the contents of a new course or pay full attention during a meeting, I have to switch off from everything else.

This is where the power of good old David Allen’s powerful methodology as described in his bestselling book Getting Things Done kicks in. I know I’ve recommended it in the past. At the risk of sounding repetitive, allow me to suggest once again, it takes the cognitive load off the subconscious mind and allows you to be present in the moment. After having read his book you can choose what works best for you. A regular diary to keep track of things, a piece of software called Omnifocus and one that is endorsed by his firm. Another app that I’ve cottoned to basis his philosophy, and one that I am evaluating right now, is todoist. Both of these are available in Indian rupees. I have tried Omnifocus in the past. It’s time I upgrade though. Before I do it though, I intend to give the latter a good spin before I make up my mind. As things are, I do not endorse either because both come with their share of quirks.

Now that I look back, I get where I failed. I read a lot. I learn a lot. But I got caught in a bind between scheduling right and Getting Things Done. Now that it’s clear, I intend to deploy “No” a lot more ruthlessly than I ever have and to use a cliché, get insanely more productive.

Hopefully, this insane way of getting more productive will allow me to do some other things I don’t do as often as I ought to. Like just sit by for a lazy afternoon lunch and watch the world go by; convince my little one to gulp down that dose of Crocin when she needs to and not throw a tantrum because I’ll have time on hand to show her videos of germs invading her stomach and how this pink, yucky thing I’m administering her is not medicine, but small little guns that can kill those dirty green creatures getting into her little tummy; get my backside up the mountains of Ladakh with my friend Rajat Chauhan and crew for the La Ultra that he promises will change my life forever; or simply go traipsing down the roads of Europe with a friend in tow, headed no place until I hit Vienna, dig into the best Tafelspitz ever made at the Plachutta, and if I have some space left, add a Wienerschnitzel as well.

(A mildly modified version of this article was first published in Mint under the slug Life Hacks, a column that appears every Sunday. This has been reproduced with permission.)

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Sumanth Cidambi on Aug 03, 2016 9:41 a.m. said

Having been recently appointed Chief Executive of a business, I have been thinking through ways I can be more effective and better at what I do.

Thank you for this article, it is among the top 2-3 I have read recently in this vein. And thank you also for the reccos, I have just subscribed to Blinkist.


About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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