Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” —taken from 10 learnings from 10 years of Brain Pickings

There’s a lot that has been written on productivity — books, apps, gadgets, apps, bio-hacking etc. that you can buy and do to get that edge in work and life. In the sea of ‘productivity porn’, getting productive itself can become exhausting and unproductive.

I have been through the ‘busyness trap’ and also tried various productivity methods to the point where I have ended up pulling my hair out.

My biggest learning is that all productivity tips are wrong…and right. If you’re still with me, the reason I say that is because just like medicine, it all depends on their efficacy and what’s right for an individual in a particular context.

The critical thing is that instead of following the tips from other people, one should have an experimental mindset to try and build a lifestyle that suits them(its a process). Productivity at any cost isn’t always great.

Here, I share my thinking and process of how I (try) to keep on top of things.

Productivity Growth Mindset

I have found a lot of value in reading about the value of productivity/non-productivity from both sides.

The productivity-industrial complex is one that teaches you to think about productivity as a series of neat linear steps that will make your life heaven. Whereas, a lot of the spiritual teachings shine a light on doing something meaningful first and delving in an iterative process-driven approach to achieving it.

From Tim Ferris’ 4 Hour Work Week to Jordan Peterson’s — 12 Rules of life, where you are advised to put your life together from the ground up — a.k.a clean your room, to the art of minimalism and essentialism, and obviously the new rage — Marie Kondo, there’s a lot of commonality.

These are the mental models that I have taken out of it all, and use for being productive.

Discipline → Creativity

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” — Gustave Flaubert

For me personally, ‘discipline leads to creativity’. Which means that by putting your life together, de-cluttering, and making the main thing the main thing, you do get to actually be more productive and achieve more.

Multi-tasking is possible, multi-focussing is not

Another mental model is that multi-tasking is possible, but multi-focussing is not. Here’s another piece on the value of focus and doing focussed work.

Productivity as a habit

We can all be productive by building good habits and letting go of the bad ones. It is easier said than done, and one book I recommend on this is the power of habit.

Being aware of your own internal clock

In particular, it is important to look at your internal clock (circadian rhythms) and monitor your own natural energy levels to find times to do your best work. Here’s an interesting article to explore this further.

Productivity compounds

Following productivity as a habit — I have focused on consciously building habits one-by-one, instead of trying to change everything at once, and use compounding as an iterative way of levelling up.

Productivity as practice

In the book, the practising mind, Thomas Sterner writes about developing a practicing mindset and utilising it to get into the ‘flow state’. The aim of the process is to be so embedded into what you do that time loses relevance.

Similarly, I view productivity as a practice that you can’t monitor while you’re being productive, but only when you are not. Because as soon as you start monitoring your productivity you stop being productive and move away from focusing on the task at hand.


My process

Now you might be wondering, this is all available information from various books and blogs, how the hell do I actually apply it?

When I started working on Catalysr in 2016, I was extremely unproductive, checking Facebook every 10 minutes. But overtime I became obsessed on how leaders get things done. I worked on improving myself, from reading and listening to podcasts, to getting some fantastic mentorship from my co-founder Jake Muller and others, and finally applying it to develop my own regime over the last 3 years.

Week-days

During week-days, I dedicate each day for a specific type of activity.

In my first iteration, I broke down all my weekdays into 2–3 hours of deep work and then did other task work. However, after trialling it out over a year, I found the task switching costs too much and that I was trying to fit too much in on every single day.

This meant that I would either do the deep work well or get the menial tasks done, but there was still work getting left behind.

Currently, here’s what my calendar looks like:

  • Meeting Mondays — Each Monday is reserved for meetings, internal and external. I work out of my company’s office to run planning and various other progress meetings, and check my email, slack and phone during the day. Unless, I have to talk to an extremely busy mentor, funder or advisor — I try to schedule things in on Mondays.
  • Thinking Tuesdays — As a part of my role, I need to be able to read, think and synthesise information from books, blogs, news etc to stay on top of my game. However, this work gets deprioritised if not planned for and in the past I spent weeks not reading anything new or dedicate some time to thinking. This can lead to what I say ‘surfing syndrome’ — where I surf over the work, without actually thinking deeply about things reducing my ability to do my best work. By creating a day in the week purely for reading and thinking, I am able to scan and organise my thinking. I check email and slack twice a day, but turn my phone off to avoid distractions. I also work out of different places such as cafes/museums/train/ferries/nearby islands etc, during the day to stimulate creativity. I normally take 1–2 books/kindle with me and have a pen and journal handy.
  • Deepwork Wednesdays — Wednesday is the day for deep-work, where I lock myself in a room and work on chunky projects. This normally includes writing a big grant proposal, developing a new product etc. I do deep-work using a white-board to list everything I know about the project, structure it, allot time and clarify my thinking. On Wednesdays I am unreachable from all means of communication, email, slack or phone. Given that I don’t work in emergency services, everything can wait a day.
  • Terrific Thursdays — In the past, I have found Thursdays to be the days where I have the lowest energy after hustling for the past 3 days. I also have an ability to underestimate the time it takes to finish various tasks and projects, therefore I have actively built in a day to ‘buffer’ me from my own optimistic self. This means, I spend this day in the office, taking meetings, doing project work, emails or anything else that has spilled over from other projects.
  • Coaching Fridays — As my role of a mentor and coach at Catalysr, I often have to work with our teams in various capacities. So, now I have set up a seperate day for coaching our migrapreneurs on Fridays. It is a first come, first serve basis day for coaching, where people can book in a face-2-face or virtual coaching session with me through calendly for 15/30/60 minutes depending on their need.

On each week-day, I have two activities that remain the same. I take a lunch break at the same-time every day and do one of the 3-minute mindfulness meditations by Elie Calhoun. And after work, I get dinner followed by hitting the gym/swimming pool. These are two consistent habits that I have built over the past year.

Week-ends

  • Slow Saturdays — I make sure I catch up on sleep on Saturday and do home-chores to get back in shape for the next week.
  • Open Sundays — Sunday is my no-plan cheat days. Given that I try to plan out the whole week, I keep my Sunday open to anything. My focus is to not focus. I spend time with friends and family, read a book, travel or just watch Netflix. At the end of each Sunday I spent 2 hours reviewing my weekly priorities to refocus myself and kickstart the next week.

The above routine is something I have developed after a couple of years of testing. It is just a blueprint for me, and I strongly recommend you to develop your own routine based on your time, energy and commitments. I have personally found that by organising and prioritising my own week, I am able to meaningful work, while staying on top of my physical and mental health.

I make sure I spend ‘non-productive’ time, consciously during the week, eat healthy, exercise, and sleep at least 8 hours a day as it helps me with being productive when I need to be. I also try to take a few days off (1–2 weeks) every 3–6 months to avoid burnout.

Also, by no means do I think that this is a final iteration. This is an iteration that works for me at the moment. If it stops working for me in the future, I will evaluate it and make changes to it, as I have done in the past to ensure I can get the most out of my time without sacrificing the two most important things in my life — health and family.

The crucial thing to remember is to be kind to yourself and don’t judge yourself too harshly because some days and weeks will go to plan while others will be completely out of whack.

What’s more important is the practice. Getting the work done, eating healthy, enough sleeping, meditation, exercise are all habits that you can also develop, one at a time.

The most important point, perhaps, is a meta one: A reminder that no specific routine guarantees success, and the only thing that matters is having a routine and the persistence implicit to one. Showing up day in and day out, without fail, is the surest way to achieve lasting success. Taken from this article.

As a summary, get started on your journey, build good habits, be open to experimentation, believe in incremental improvement and the power of compounding. And, don’t forget to enjoy the journey.

Usman Iftikhar
Usman Iftikhar

Usman is the Co-Founder and CEO of Catalysr, a startup pre-accelerator for refugee and migrant founders. He's also a space fanatic, and the recipient of the 2018 Commonwealth Young Person of the Year award.