Today I have a treat for you. Cal Newport from Study Hacks is going to share some of his insights on productivity. Cal is also the author of How to Become a Straight-A Student and How to Win at College. He is currently studying for a PhD at MIT.
Last August, I published an essay on my blog, Study Hacks, that was titled: Productivity is Overrated. The basic idea: productivity systems, like Getting Things Done, reduce stress and help you keep track of your obligations, they do not, however, make you accomplished. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the act of becoming accomplished is almost entirely unrelated to being productive.
Productivity is Overrated
That is, the two don’t need to go together. Indeed, as an author, I’ve spent the past five years researching and interviewing unusually accomplished young people, and I would estimate that the majority of them are terribly disorganized. The minority that did have good productivity habits were certainly less stressed. But it played little role in predicting their ultimate success.
What Accomplished People Do Differently
From my experience, the most common trait you will consistently observe in accomplished people is an obsession with completion. Once a project falls into their horizon, they crave, almost compulsively, to finish it. If they’re organized, this might happen in scheduled chunks. If they’re not — like many — this might happen in all-nighters. But they get it done. Fast and consistently.
It’s this constant stream of finishing that begins, over time, to unlock more and more interesting opportunities and eventually leads to their big scores.
If you are productive without harboring this intense desire for completion, you will end up just being busy. We all know the feeling. You work all day off of your to-do list. Everything is organized. Everything is scheduled. Yet, still, months pass with no important projects getting accomplished.
In this post, I want to present a simple system, based on my observation of the highly accomplished, that will help you cultivate your own completion obsession.
Introducing Completion-Centric Planning
With traditional GTD-style methodology, during each day, you look at your current context and at your next action lists and choose what to do next. It’s easy, in this case, to fall into a infinite task loop where you are consistently accomplishing little actions from your next action lists but making little progress toward completing the big projects. This is what I call the Zeno’sParadox of Productivity. Give me any project, and I can fill days with easy, fun little tasks on the project without ever finishing it.
Here’s the reality: Real accomplishments require really hard pushes. GTD style, “one independent task at a time” productivity systems make it easy to avoid these pushes by instead doing a lot of little easy things.
Completion-centric planning rectifies this problem. It refocuses you on completion of projects — not tasks — as the central organizing principle for each day. It works as follows:
Setup: Construct a Project Page
Using a single-paged document in your favorite word processor, do the following:
- Make an Active Projects List
List 6 – 12 of the most important projects in your life. Pull from all three relevant spheres: professional (e.g., school or work related); personal (e.g., home, family, fitness); and extra (e.g., big projects like blogging, writing a book, starting a club).
- Label Each Project With A Completion Criteria
To quote David Allen, to finish a project you must “know what done looks like.” Next to each project type a concise description of what action must be completed for the project to be completed. (When you do this, you’ll notice how easy it was for you before to think about projects in a much more ambiguous, impossible to complete style).
- Label the Bottom Half of the Page as a “Holding Pen”
This is where you can jot down new projects that enter your life while you’re working on the active projects. They can be stored here until you complete the current batch.
Example: My Current Project Page
Below is my current project page, just started, on October 12th. Excuse the wrinkles, I keep it in my pocket all day:
Using the System: The Daily Check-In
Each morning, look at your project page and ask: “What’s the most progress I can make toward completing this list today?” Your biggest goal should be to complete projects. If you see a way to do it (even if it requires a big push, perhaps working late) go for it. If you can’t finish one, think of the single thing you could do that would get you closest to this goal over the next few days. Harbor an obsession for killing this list!
At the same time, of course, you should still reference your existing productivity system. Outside of your projects you probably have other, more mundane tasks that need to get done. Your goal here is to make as much progress on your projects as possible despite the other responsibilities you have each day.
Finishing: Rest and Reload
Don’t start new projects until you’ve finished the projects on your current project page. If you dynamically repopulate this list your are liable to let the least fun projects lie fallow indefinitely. If you come up with new project ideas before you complete the current active projects, simply jot them down in your holding pen.
Work as hard as possible to finish your projects as fast as possible. Once done, take a break. For at least a week. Try to do a minimum of work during this time. Recharge. Then, once you’re ready, build a new project page and start over again.
Why This Works
The work flow rhythm required by completion-centric planning is as close as I can get to describing how really accomplished people tend to tackle their work. This approach doesn’t have the same effortless, autopilot appeal of a pure, GTD style work flow. But, unfortunately, accomplishment is not pretty. If you want to make your mark, you have to learn how to charge after things with a furious zeal. This system will help you develop that trait. The rest will follow.
Related Articles from Study Hacks
- Dangerous Ideas: Productivity is Overrated
- The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More by Doing Less
- Dangerous Ideas: What if Everything We Thought Was True About Productivity Was Wrong?
Note from Scott: I completely agree with Cal here, as a completion focus is something I strive for myself. I generally do assignments and projects that are 1-4 hours in one sitting, and aim for speedy completion of bigger projects. Don’t confuse this completion focus (which deals with the process of getting things done) and a process focus (which deals with the broader theme of craving and motivation) as the two function together, just on different levels.