A Productivity Manifesto

This article includes suggestions for specific implementations, but its chief aim is to make readers think about how they do things before continuing in their current ways.

There are three pillars that make productivity possible. If only one or two of these are securely in place, then the beautiful process of getting stuff done tumbles.

  • Productive people have to know what to do.

  • Productive people have to have some motivation to do it.

  • Productive people have to have focus while doing it.

Readers have been fooled if they believe that a particular productivity system, online or otherwise, does not require all three of these combined in some fashion. A valuable mental image used to recollect these three pillars is an agenda resting on a desk next to a cup of coffee that’s next to a pair of reading glasses.

The agenda represents a forward-looking perspective. Its owner does not think while working, “Oh no, what do I need to do next? How long will it take? I don’t remember,” because they have off-loaded future tasks to the agenda. This mental image of an agenda can stand for any number of physical or digital task management systems. OmniFocus by the Omni Group is arguably the best digital task management system. OmniFocus is a digital personal assistant (or butler, for a more Victorian metaphor) that constantly answers the question: “What do I do next?” For suggestions on how to implement an all-paper system that answers the same question, the book Getting Things Done is the most popular guide by far. Readers interested in carrying out the book’s suggestions ought to use Field Notes for the “capture” process. These task management suggestions aside, productivity simply does not come from a constant state of wondering what to do next.

The cup of coffee, because caffeine is clearly God’s gift to His children, represents the motivation necessary to start a task. Motivation is a tricky thing to speak authoritatively about. If there is a human quality that psychologists, pastors, theologians, neuroscientists, teachers, and many other groups of professionals all have something to say about, it will be difficult to reach any consensus. Motivation comes and goes, but all sorts of people struggle to explain what it is in detail. Giving a careful definition of motivation is a little like doing the same for “conscience” or “intrigue.” For the sake of building productivity however, the will to begin and eventually end a task remains fundamental. Buying OmniFocus or setting up a full-fledged tactile task management system will be worthless without a will to accomplish.

The reading glasses represent maintained focus through the distractions swirling around a productive person. Also called concentration, this last element can be controlled with practice and the right tools. Imagining an experienced man in his fifties doing manual labor alongside a young man of equal strength in his early twenties, one can see that a distinguishing factor in output would be focus on the work at hand. That focus comes from experience and refinement. Applying this to knowledge work, experience matters in building focus, but some simple methods and tools can help speed up the process of building focus. The Pomodoro Technique uses a mechanical kitchen timer to box off a section of time for undivided work. Recently, many mobile and desktop applications have replaced the famous tomato timer. Timeboxing in general is the most recommendable tool for developing focus in productive work. Saying to oneself, “Now I am committed to working,” and then, “Now I am committed to taking a break,” hijacks the dully distracted semi-work that permeates modern offices and dorm rooms. Focus and motivation seem indistinguishable until one of them fails without the other. Productivity cannot occur with only a task and some motivation; focus is vital.

Perhaps this article has only repeated what readers have already heard and read. Perhaps this article has only repeated what readers have instinctively known for years about their own poor habits. In both cases, it has still succeeded.

Productivity will always be a fickle thing, waxing and waning almost inexplicably. Yet it is quite literally how the world works. So be it.