Choosing tasks for the day is somewhat of an overwhelming process. With so many opportunities and so many things we can be doing, how do we make the most of our limited willpower? In this post I'm going to cover some familiar productivity concepts, introduce new concepts, and show you how I'm applying these concepts to make my workday easier.
The concepts: Popular concepts you've either heard to not heard of, but have already been written about:
1. Maker Schedule vs. Manager Schedule - http://paulgraham.com/makersschedule.html
Some concepts I've been thinking about that are important for consideration:
4. Task on-ramp vs. Marginal Endurance:
Task on-ramp basically takes the idea that for certain tasks, its easy to be in the mood of working once started, but the initial effort of getting yourself to start that task requires a lot of inertia. So we want to find ways to on-ramp us into a particular task that otherwise might be hard to get started. Cal Newport's book Deep Work gives examples where some authors go for a walk in the woods in order to spur their creative minds for writing.
Marginal Endurance is the idea that certain tasks we have no problem getting started on but we can easily get bored of doing. For example, washing dishes -- I have no problem starting the task of washing dishes, but if there's a lot of dishes, I would get really tired of washing 20 minutes in.
5. New Task vs. Routine Task: Many times a particular task is really difficult to do, not because it takes a lot of time and effort, but simply because its a new task we've never done before. Because of this, a routine task would require way less will power to execute. Tactically if you're swamped with work, it might not be as effective to push yourself to do a task you've never done before. you've probably heard the advice of breaking up a large task into smaller chunks, but its helpful think about only setting aside a huge chunk of time and expectation to do a large task if you know its a routine task you've done before. For example setting aside a Saturday afternoon to start and finish an oil painting sound super doable if you're already familiar with oil painting, if you've never finished an oil painting before it might be better to break up that project into chunks by just set aside an hour of time to paint the background.
Quick note on my thought process after learning these concepts:
My entire thought process on these concepts begins with thinking about Design vs. Marching (concept #2). A few months back I was going about my days relatively smoothly, until I told myself I should be more productive and that I should march and use more will power to get more things done. During that time, I did notice myself being more productive, but it felt pretty brutal (at least compared to my happy-go-lucky style of not constantly pushing myself to do work). Upon reflection, I decided that my quality of life would be better if I just focused on doing things through design. And this blogpost is basically the way I'm thinking about leveraging the concepts listed above to design a productive day as much as possible. If I'm to utilize willpower, I think it'd be better spent marching on habit building than task crunching.
A few things we should agree on:
1. Maker schedule vs. Manager schedule has the biggest impact: As you've read in Paul Graham's article, it just takes a ton of effort to switch momentum when you're in the mode of making something vs. being in the mode of a manager.
2. A small amount of Deep Work is more valuable than finishing a ton of shallow work: You really need read Cal Newport's book in order to fully understand the argument, but I think his reasoning is pretty easy to agree with.
Application (How I'm applying all this):
The first thing I do before I put tasks onto my daily task list is to decide whether it'll be a maker day or a manager day. I usually only classify it as a maker day if I see that my calendar is free from scheduled calls or events, which means there will be a strong likelihood that I'll probably classify the day as a manager day. I like to assume that all events, meetings, calls should automatically have a task that requires two things: (1) planning and prepping beforehand and (2) notes/analysis/debriefing to be logged and organized afterward. Other types of manager schedule tasks include teaching / managing / leading / sharing, basically anything where you schedule a set time for an activity, even measure activities, like head to yoga or the gym mid-day.
This puts me in a nice groove of just following my schedule. You might think, well how does this differ from maker schedule? I'll explain my reasoning in a little bit when I discuss maker schedule.
So if I'm arranging my schedule, I would try to time it to pack anything communications related into this day if I can. This applies to sales meeting or calls, but also if there's anything I need to explain or clarify to the team, I try to schedule a specific time to do this. The main emphasis I want to add here is the scheduling. In "Getting Things Done", David Allen recommends only scheduling things you know you're going to do, not things you hope you'll do.
Manager schedule entails management...clearly, so its management of the team but also project management and routine operations. A manager-schedule-themed day would be a good time to check in on metrics, cashflow, and dragging Trello cards around. Other stuff of similar grounding include emails, networking, browsing on social media, FB groups or forums. And depending on how mentally draining the day is I would also group in mindless tasks like cleaning, organizing, or looking for useful software and tools.
If there's a lot of extra time that day, the rest of the day I'll spend on very light work. Dreaming, setting vision, decision making, thinking, strategizing, watching content to hone my craft, journaling, reading, gathering resources for the future, or systemizing and documenting processes.
Now if you notice, aside from the calls and meetings, most of the tasks are pretty non-intensive tasks that don't require a lot of concentration to do. This is intentionally so that I can jam pack the rest of my day with this type of work in between my calls and meetings. The extra five minutes here and there all add up to getting a lot of small things done, and these are things I'd rather not spend time doing from my precious maker's schedule. I want my maker-schedule-themed days to be devoted to creating things and executing things.
I feel like manager's schedule is pretty easy because it's pretty much laid out. If you watch Dailyvee and you wonder "how the heck does Gary Vaynerchuk work so hard?", well his entire day is a manager schedule day. Its blocked out and all he does is take calls, have meetings, and give speeches. These aren't things that people tend to procrastinate on. Not to downplay his hardwork, I think its still a lot of work, but these are things that he enjoys doing and is already familiar with. Remember the new task vs. routine task concept I wrote about earlier? Well Gary Vaynerchuk doesn't have any new tasks. He might have new ideas for projects, but the tasks he's responsible for are things he's done for over 10 years; VaynerSports might be a new thing, but his tasks within is role like leading his team, giving speeches, and checking out new social media platforms to advertise and develop content in isn't new for him at all.
Okay, let's get into maker's schedule.
Maker's schedule is much harder and I feel like its also rare to get pure maker schedule days because it's so easy to get caught up putting out fires and the plethora of small tasks that nag at our attention.
If i've decided that the particular day is a Maker-schedule-themed day the first set of tasks I put on my task list are tasks that have a due date. Its important for me to do the urgent tasks first, even if they're of low importance because I've found that knowing I have nothing due (or that the things that are urgent are going according to plan) frees me up to work on the big project. I've noticed that when I try focus on that one main project that if I have small urgent tasks, even if they're not that important, they keep popping up in my mind and distracting me. When your mind is free from nagging things, it tends to be a much less overwhelming process to focus on the priority.
Oh, I'm going to go on a slight tangent here and bring up a few other concepts that I didn't mention in the concepts portion earlier:
6. 1-3-5 Task list - http://lifehacker.com/5994155/make-your-to-do-list-more-doable-with-the-1-3-5-rule
7. Eat that frog - http://www.briantracy.com/blog/tag/eat-that-frog/
If I'm on manager's schedule I almost always set 9 (1+3+5) tasks to do that day. If I'm on maker's schedule, it really depends on how I'm feeling, some days I choose 9 tasks some days I aim to put work into 2-3 really important projects.
So picking back where we left off before that slight tangent, I usually pick a task I'm excited to do and put that on the top of my task list. The reason is, I want a warm up task just to get me in the groove of work-mode. Then I start putting in work on eating the proverbial frog. This is where the task on-ramp concept comes into play. Only you know what gets you into deep work mode fastest and like I mentioned before Cal Newport has a whole book written on this, but it's strategically beneficial to be intentional with your on-ramps and to put them into practice. For me, I do video copywriting and if I ever feel a ton of inertia preventing me from writing or editing copy, I can watch Apple or Nike commercials for inspiration, and I can also print out the rough draft I've written and make notes and comments onto that print out. Of course I could use pure will-power and force copy out of myself, but being aware of what reduces inertia just smooths out the day.
There's a lot to explain so I'd like to end this post with questions that might have arisen as you were reading this and to answer and clarify.
How does morale and willpower play into my workday?
A lot. On days with high morale and high willpower, none of this matters. For most of us, during those types of days we just push through and get done what we want to get done. However, those days don't happen to be as common as I'd like them to, so I rely on structuring my days where I'm most likely to get those tasks done, and if I plan it like this then I won't beat myself up when I don't do a task because I'd have properly planned when to work on that task. I'm aware that there will be days where you need to get something done and utilize willpower to do so, and I think the best way is to develop the awareness to sense when those days are coming up and plan ways ensure motivation though igniters and also to failure proof those days with firebreaks.
What if my days are mostly somewhere in-between maker's schedule and managers schedule?
I only explained Maker schedule and manager schedule with dichotomy so that its easy to see the distinction. I'm aware that most of the time, there's going to be a lot of overlap between the two schedules. When there's a day of overlap I'd recommend still trying to set a distinct point that separates one schedule from the other and add a buffer time so you can mentally shift. For example, If my last call of the day ends at 3pm and I have up till 7pm to still do work I can mentally assign morning to 3pm as manager schedule, an hour of buffer time to chill, and then 4pm-7pm to be maker's schedule.
You mentioned a lot of types of tasks for manager's schedule, what types of tasks are there for maker's?
There's nothing wrong with doing small manager-schedule type tasks on a maker-schedule day especially if you think it can help you on-ramp to a maker-schedule task, but just know that the focus of this day is on focused creation, execution or deliberate practice.
Woah, I think this might be the longest post I've written, and If you've read to the end, thanks for tuning in. If you have any questions or if any of this is confusing to you please write in on the comments section. This is a lot and I know some of this can sound convoluted, but thanks for reading, and really as much as I'm writing this post to internalize all of this into my productivity, I hope my writing is clear and readable enough that you can find these ideas useful for your own daily productivity.
After sitting in as the audience member on many talks and listening to a lot of Q&A’s from experts both live and digitally, I’ve noticed that many people end up asking the same question. Not just the same questions, but the same type of questions, usually in the format of: what’s more important? this or that?
What’s more important passion or hardwork?
What’s more important product or marketing?
What’s more important? idea or execution?
A year and a half ago I was invited to sit at a workshop and be a guest expert at a conference. The event was Hardware Con, and because I had just been invited briefly before, and have never been a “guest expert”, I had no idea what to expect. So, because I had no idea what to expect, I didn’t think much of it until I got there. While sitting in the room 5 minutes before our workshop session started a small feeling of anxiety began to creep into me.
Thoughts popped up like: What kind of answers would I give that would even be helpful to these guys? Am I gonna tell them what camera to buy or what the difference between a grip and a gaffer? Would it benefit them for me to give feedback on the videos they’ve made?
Nothing out of the ordinary happened. They didn’t ask me questions that we’re related purely to the technical aspects of video production as I had initially worried about, but instead asked me to give feedback on some video ideas or to give feedback on their video strategy. This is all good and logical enough, but for some reason I felt like the advice I could in this domain wasn’t enough and wanted to give higher level advice, so I asked them about their overall marketing and what their funnel looked like. This was 2014, mind you, and internet marketing was still somewhat an obscure thing to learn, and because I was so interested in it at the time (still am) I felt like there was a lot I could give input on.
As so, when I transitioned the conversation to talking about internet marketing, things started to go south. People started getting uninterested and confused. One person even felt provoked by his skepticism and and asked, “Wait, what expert are you a field of again?"
Principles by Ray Dalio is basically a collection of all the wisdom Ray Dalio has ingrained. Halfway finishing the book I thought This book is amazing, but it has too many good lessons. How am I going to remember to apply these lessons when the situation arises?
The typical route for developing your own principles is to make a mistake, feel the pain of that pitfall and think, how could I have avoided that error? At which point your brain replies, You developed a wrong opinion about this person. Didn’t Ray Dalio say something about opinions in his book? At which point you flip back to the page and read:
This is nice to keep in mind for the next time a similar problem occurs, but wouldn’t life be easier if you didn’t have to go about making mistakes and learning from them — if you could see the situation and apply the right protocol?
The problem isn’t that we don’t have foresight, the problem is that when we’re going through life events, we don’t have a mental clarity to consciously remember to apply the right protocol to the right situation. If we were robots we could. If we we’re robots we could just set an IFTTT trigger event (or a Zapier) that pops up in our mind and tells us what to do. Obviously we’re not robots, but I think there’s something that clues us in on how to move toward this, and that something is If / Then statements (Conditional Statements).
I like to think a lot, and as a result of thinking a lot I come up with a lot of theories and mental models. When I was younger I was one of those “Why don’t you believe me!?” types, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve noticed that I had been wrong so many times, that just because a theory I came up with made sense to me, it could very likely be false.
But if I immediately dump my theories, then I think I could be dumping a lot of value. Because all high level work — anything conceptual or longterm lives in the realm of theory.
So how does one make sure they're not stuck in theory, and that they're actually getting results that apply to the real world?
In my opinion, the easy answer, and the answer you hear most often is: "take action”. While this is accurate advice, I think it’s one of those simplistic pieces of advice that doesn’t really get you anywhere.
I want this post to be helpful to you, but in order to do that, I need to quickly explain what I think theory is.
I remember when I first wanted to get good at basketball. Like anyone of course, I Youtubed Kobe Bryant moves and tried to learn them. I remember thinking that his advice was generic and inapplicable. His advice, however, is actually really good advice, it was just that it was inapplicable for me. That’s how many people view strategy; their inability to value it isn't because the strategy itself is bad (although sometimes it is) but because they don’t have the referential compression to understand it and see how they would apply it. With those Kobe videos, I was still new to basketball, I could barely shoot the ball let alone do a post up—fadeaway jumper...
This perception of generic advice was very similar to my early days of attending business conferences. At the end of the conference I would ask my fellow friend/audience member what he thought of the keynote and they would say something like, “Wow, it was so good. Thinking of retargeting pixels as a form of long term branding, that’s going to be amazing for my business”, and I would be thinking What? why can’t he tell me something that I can actually do today.
Only after I got better at basketball and learned fundamental movements, could I appreciate Kobe’s strategic choice of moves. Since I now know how to do a spin or finish with a reverse layup, I can string them together. I can appreciate the strategy behind that combo: your defender thinks you’re going to drive hard baseline, so instead you spin back into the paint, since you’re in the paint the big will come in to block your shot so you reverse layup using the rim as protection.
And as for my understanding of business, back then I didn’t even know what retargeting pixels were, and I still don’t really know what they are. But I’ve practiced running Google ads and Facebook ads, and I know how to use the Divi theme for Wordpress, and I’m decent at writing copy so basically I just write three ads and copy and paste the script that Google gives me near my contact form. Quick note: I haven’t actually done that yet, and I intend to implement it soon.
And the result, well, it’s not perfect, and will take refining, but the point is I can scrap something together, and when I can do that I can appreciate simplistic advice that sounds heady and do higher level work.
I walked up to the front desk and asked, “I have some questions about my account, can I speak to a manager?”. I was at the gym, and my plan was to ask about why they charged a $30 fee, and a mailing I got saying they offered a $7 membership. I wanted to see if there was leverage in negotiating a waiver of the $30 or my membership fee ($15) down.
The manager explained that the $30 fee was a yearly fee and that the $7 membership is a special membership that allowed you to only go 3 times a week. So, I didn’t get a negotiation win from that —
If you know me, I’m a big fan of Ramit Sethi and one of his main financial teachings is to have you negotiate a lot throughout the course of your life. When I first read his material I immediately agreed with his advice, but the thought of negotiating things seemed weird and out of the norm. I mean, I’m Chinese so I naturally inherited a lot of my Mom’s skills, but I didn’t know how to apply these skills outside of flea shops or Craigslist.
But since for the past year I’ve been playing the credit card signup bonus game, and incurred credit card fees and bank fees, I’ve made many attempts at applying Ramit’s negotiation techniques. His blog posts basically walk you through each step, and by following it, I’ve experienced how easy it is to win at these things. For example, I lost track of my Amex card and didn’t realize I didn’t pay the card for 3 months. This resulted in late fees of over $100. But Amex’s customer service is so good, all I had to do was call in and ask for them to be waived, and they did. When you experience wins like that, success can be addictive.
I remembered when I first got out of college. I spent half my time building my video production agency and the other half doing content marketing for Fuzed. Once I got the hang of managing the podcast, Jake, my boss, gave me the project of creating feature release landing pages with an accompanying explainer video for each new integration that came out. (Fuzed makes integrations similar to how Zapier works)
At the time, it was such a struggle to write the copy for the video, then write the copy for the landing page, then go into Wordpress and put it together. It took me days to get one done, and was painfully frustrating. This frustration lead me to think I would be much better off putting my time building my agency, why am I working for Jake? My agency work is creative and fun and these copywriting tasks are a pain. Of course, this attitude lead to a lack of initiative on my end, leaving Jake with disappointment.
When we parted ways, my initial thought was Yes now I have the free time to work on what I want to work on. But It’s been a year since that time and I regret dropping the ball and allowing Jake to be disappointed in me. It's not that I feel regret because of a loss of opportunity to work at Fuzed, but because I went from being an A player to being a C player once I was assigned set of projects that I wasn’t excited about.
If I think about completing the same project now, I could knock out a feature release landing page + video in a few hours. It seems so easy now.
I use this to take all of my ideas, no matter how irrelevant or how low it is as a priority and I write them all down into swipes. Then I just "later" those ideas far into the future so future me can be reminded. Maybe then I'll decide to actually take action on those ideas when its a better time.
In this video I:
Mailbox is an App by Dropbox that syncs with your laptop and your phone. The best thing about this app is that you can boomerang emails to yourself so that when you want to reply to an email later you don't have to do it right away.
In this video I cover: