Pretty Simple Productivity

If you’re anything like me, you spent the last few weeks before uni browsing YouTube on how to get a first, how to manage your time, what to bring and enough ‘day in the life of’ videos that you started feeling like a student.

Lots of learning material, which is great, but how much of it did you actually take away and use? Watching and reading content on how to be more productive is great, but most of the time it’s pretty generic advice which can’t be actioned. And if it can’t be actioned, how can you apply what you learned?

This is a quick post primarily targeted at incoming first years (particularly engineering, which is what I currently study), although it comes at the request of several friends who had positive experiences from the advice.

There are 5 main objectives, all are simple, but that doesn’t make it easy.

Your key results from these objectives are targets you can set for yourself, such as getting above 70% in a module, getting a spring week, whatever you want.

Learning about something, however, is only half the battle. If you’re not actively applying any of this, then the whole thing is pretty pointless. That’s not to say that following all of this will turn you into some productivity powerhouse: progress is slow at the start, and may take weeks to notice.

But before getting into it, I can say that if you really stick with these points and reflect on how you’re getting on, it’s basically guaranteed results later.

  1. Go outside and exercise every day, no matter what

And yes, walking is fine.

Your mind, mood and productivity will suffer if you’re stuck inside a room all day, studying for countless hours with nothing to break up the day’s monotony.

I don’t study biology or sports science, but I’m sure everyone feels the immediate benefits of just being in fresh air and using your muscles a bit.

If you don’t take care of your physical wellbeing, the rest of the suggestions will always be playing catch-up, never quite being enough to get results.

2. Get a page-a-day diary and write in it every day, no matter what

This is the main point to make in all of this, and I’ve never seen this end badly for someone.

For £5–15 on Amazon, you can get pretty nice, durable A5 diaries. They’re easy to slip into a bag and pull out periodically over the day. If you’re on a student budget and don’t want to spend anything, notebooks are given out like they’re going out of fashion at freshers events and careers fairs.

Even if you’ve done nothing for the entire day but watched Netflix and went on a walk, write it down. The power in this cannot be understated, although it will feel like a huge waste of time when you start out doing it.

But stick with it, and over several weeks and months you’ll start noticing that it becomes way easier to plan your days, work schedules, whatever you need. The trick is to write in it every single day (I usually bullet point during the day, and then do a few sentences before bed).

It gives you a feeling of accomplishment as you’ve written down your successes, and holds you accountable for any goals you want to achieve.

And finally, it’s such a great tool, that every interview I’ve mentioned it in as a way to demonstrate time management, I’ve gotten extremely keen responses.

Just remember to be consistent with it: skipping days reduces its effectiveness.

3. Read ‘The Slight Edge’, or at the very least, summaries of it online

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably pretty set on improving your own productivity, and are understandably confused at the above two suggestions.

That’s fine, I was in your shoes not too long ago as well.

In fact, reading this book, or its summaries online, should be at the top of this list. But start something like this with a book suggestion and no one reads further.

To give a brief and potentially butchered summary, the book goes into depth about the importance of small, consistent gains compounding over time.

Do something small, but do it consistently, and over time you’ll experience the beauty of exponential growth, as well as all of the benefits that come with it.

That’s not to say you should be studying or doing high-intensity exercise every single day. Give yourself break days with lighter workloads, for example I leave weekends completely free, switching off from any uni work I have.

Keep it small, but keep it consistent, and stick with it long enough to see the compounding effect of your efforts.

4. Read ‘Atomic Habits’, or at the very least, the summaries online

Yes, another book suggestion.

This ties in so well with ‘The Slight Edge’, that after just these two you’ll already feel like you’ve tapped into knowledge that few others have.

As with the previous, there’s many summaries online. The relation to compound growth of your efforts is that the only way to sustainably get there is to build strong, positive habits, and make ‘bad habits’ harder for you to do.

That probably doesn’t make much sense, but the book covers so much insightful content that I don’t want to dilute anything down for this post.

In essence, chain your ‘good’ habits together, making them as easier to start doing, and stick with them for compounding. For ‘bad’ habits that you want to stop doing, put as much friction between them and yourself as possible.

There’s a lot, lot more involved to this, but enough digging into reviews and summaries online, and you’ll get a feel for why this is so highly recommended.

You have to read this, even if it’s just 10 pages a day over several weeks.

5. Train yourself to do Deep Work

Now this is more of an abstract concept, and will only really ‘click’ for you if you’re already familiar with the concepts of compounding growth and atomic habits. There is a book, but there’s enough YouTube videos and blog posts out there that go into better detail than I could here.

When studying, you’ve probably experienced having to put your phone on silent, or in another room, in case you pick it up and get completely distracted.

The philosophy of ‘Deep Work’ is to assign just a few hours a day of completely focused work, with absolutely no outside distractions available to disrupt you.

If you’re thinking that there is no physical way for you to get everything done without pouring hours in, you’re the perfect candidate to try out Deep Work.

I appreciate that someone just skimming through this post will be in complete disbelief at what I’m implying, and would not believe the effectiveness of this.

To those people, I say just try it.

When you next have a lab report, homework, lectures to go through, whatever.

Sit down at your desk, clear any and every distraction that may get in the way, set a Pomodoro timer or similar, and just work at it.

Completely absorb yourself in the task for just an hour or so, and see how much progress you make.

As an aside, something which is particularly fashionable currently is to dedicate your first few hours after waking up to Deep Work, doing high-intensity exercise around lunch, and reserving the afternoon for meetings and anything else which doesn’t require intense and sustained focus. If there’s enough interest as to why, I can write a further article on my own experiences and what evidence there is.

0. Just do, don’t think

I said there were 5 main objectives, but the most important takeaway from this it to just do all of these things, and worry about the boredom later.

Most people, as I was not long ago, will read through, feel pretty satisfied and productive, and then never give any of the points another thought.

If you don’t put anything into practice, learning it was an exercise in futility.