Use your cognitive calories wisely

Unlike productivity, focus isn't something you can squeeze into a timeframe. It is something you nurture and protect.

Cognitive research on how our brains work shows that time is not our only limitation. Our brains have limited mental calories to spend per day. That means that if we want to optimise focus, we should make effective use of cognitive calories, then structure time around that.

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Time Management


Why productivity is outdated

Productivity became popular in the early 20th century as a way of optimising work in agriculture and manufacturing. A knowledge worker in the 21st century has very little in common with agricultural or manufacturing work.

Productivity made sense as a measurement metric when inputs and outputs were known, and the task was to optimise the relationship between them. However, knowledge work is about solving problems and being creative. To-do lists can't really improve the impact of our work.

Cal Newport states that we really only have four hours of focused work per day. It is up to you to take control of that time and your energy expenditure. Focusing deeply on something requires confidence and self-assuredness to put that piece of work first and shut everything else out.

Patterns that lead to distraction:

  • Internal: Boredom or feeling a lack of appreciation.
  • External. Too many tabs open, notifications.

Patterns that lead to focus:

  • Internal: When you are clear on your priorities and feel calm.
  • External: Your workspace is well organised.

There are many techniques aimed at providing a system to help determine what deserves your attention, such as Action-based Priorities or The Eisenhower Matrix.

We're facing the problem that we are primed to take on more information, projects, and communications that make it impossible to align them all with our priorities. We are exhausted from all the information and terrified of building a new way of gaining fulfilment that doesn't require putting out fires and getting dopamine hits.

We are not only complex human beings but have divergent goals and desires. We are also increasingly impacted by external pressures. We are often pursuing what we believe is our top goal when it has been shaped by someone else. For example, you work on a project that you think will get you a promotion in a company you dislike.

The first step to guide your focus is to consider what is expendable and then focus on the remaining true priority.

The digital work environment can become toxic. The new normal involves hundreds of daily emails and notifications, our browsers have dozens of open tabs, and we can't find the files we need. To date, there is no realistic and effective solution.

We should consider how much we need to be plugged in. Reflect on your current project and see what you really need. Files, applications, links, emails, slack channels, or anything else. Most people are surprised to know how little they really need.

Intentional attention = focus x time

This means that if you maximise your time spent focusing, you will maximise your intentional attention. Doing that will maximise the success of your knowledge work.

Instead of optimising an unhealthy and outdated method, we should replace it with a more appropriate system.

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The Art of Saying No (Gracefully)

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments—you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

That’s why the art of saying no can be a game changer for productivity.

Requests for your time are coming in all the time—from family members, friends, children, coworkers, etc.

To stay productive, minimize stress, and avoid wasting time, you have to learn the gentle art of saying no —an art that many people have problems with.

However, it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship.

The Gentle Art of Saying No for a Less Stressful Life

We Don’t Know What Productivity Really Is

Most of us want to be productive but do not completely understand what we do, why we do it, and who judges it as productive or non-productive.

Productivity can be defined as the effectiveness of an effort, measured in terms of input and output. This definition is limited, as modern knowledge work does not fall in the category of industries (like a sugar factory) or agriculture, where productivity can be measured tangibly, and the output is already defined in a linear way.

Knowledge work and productivity are incompatible.

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Deep Work: How to Develop the Most Valuable Skill of the 21st Century

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