I don’t usually read books about self-improvement or how to increase your productivity. Not because I think there’s nothing I need to improve on, just that I believe that each individual’s life experiences, context, and goals need to determine what we do with our time and ourselves.
I have always felt that self-improvement and productivity books are somewhat theoretical. However, after reading the book Be Truly Productive: How to Take Control of Your Life in a Distracted World by fellow Moravian Andrés Ravello, my opinion has changed.
Be clear about life goals, passions, and talents
What I liked most about the book is that Ravello is not obsessed with any particular methodology or tool. Instead, he stresses that if we don’t have clarity on a larger vision of our life, our daily and weekly plans will not mean much. That is, if our short-term goals do not feed into the longer-term ones, you’ll be chasing tasks and projects that don’t mean much to you. This can lead to a feeling of emptiness even in a busy life.
So, what’s the key to gaining clarity on one’s life goals? Clearly understanding your “self”, of course. Ravello breaks down the self into priorities, talents, and passions. He rightly asks readers to distinguish between one’s talents and passions. If you only do what you’re good at, where is the growth?
Once we’re clear about the big things that matter the most to us, we can break them down into yearly, 100-day, weekly, and daily goals. Ravello cautions that it’s not easy to do this, because “Most of us know so little about ourselves that we seem to be a stranger to ourselves.”
However, it can be done if you set aside three to four hours of undisturbed time to think and reflect.
Social media and productivity plans don’t go well together
No surprises here. Don’t we all know very well the “few minutes” that we spend several times a day to check our social media accounts? These minutes easily add up to hours and the whole experience is extremely addictive.
Ravello quotes from Tony Schwartz’s article on what social media is doing to us: “The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulations, and immediate gratification creates something called ‘compulsion loop’. Like lab rats and drug addicts, we need more and more to get the same effect… Endless access to new information also overloads our working memory…”
Not scheduling specific time for social media is a strict no-no in Ravello’s view. Of course, social media is not the only culprit: email is equally toxic. While the former is a distraction that we seek, the latter may sometimes be unavoidable or beyond our control, especially work mail. The book provides tips to minimize distraction from both of these, but as always, Ravello says we need to have the will to act on his advice.
Being focused and present is key
Busy is not the same as productive, and if you find yourself chasing one to-do after another, you’re heading for burnout. In a good, successful day, perhaps you haven’t crossed out everything on your checklist, but you’ve taken care of the things that matter.
Of course, if you’ve sat down and taken the time to clearly define your vision for your life, you won’t end up cramming your day or week with tasks that don’t matter. Or, at least you’ll have clarity on the priority of things.
A side-effect of always being busy is that we are rarely present in the moment; we’re always thinking about the next thing we need to get done. “When your child takes his or her first steps, instead of worrying about the camera setting on your phone, …see it live, enjoying every expression of your child. You’ll learn to live the present, enjoy every moment, and achieve more in each minute. …stop multitasking and killing your productivity.”
In life, as in localization, measure always
Apart from designing one’s life as what one wants it to be and acting on this design, measuring progress is critical. How else can you know where you stand in relation to what was planned? This is similar to what we constantly emphasize: metrics to measure the efficacy of localization.
Design, Act, and Measure form the pivot of Ravello’s book. Measure life goals annually. The 100-day, weekly, and daily goals need to be tracked at the end of their respective periods.
One particular hack from Ravello that I loved was to choose a 100-day plan over a quarterly plan. This way, you’ll have three cycles of these plans and still be left with 65 days. He suggests that we take a break of one to two weeks between these cycles, so we can reflect on progress and get ready for the next one.
Lastly, a word about the tools
The book’s recommended arsenal of tools to get the most done with our time are:
- Note-taking app
- Task management app
- File storage
Preferably, all of these should be in the cloud to allow easy and immediate access. Bullet Journal-style offline tools are okay, too, depending on whether you’re a largely digital creature or not.
Don’t use email and calendars as to-do lists. Email inboxes can get crowded and calendars can get populated with lots of tiny tasks. Use only one calendar. If using more than one, have them synced.
Collect information from various sources through the note-taking app and email. Next, record an action item in the task management app as a to-do, schedule an event on your calendar, store the data, or delete it.
But the power is not in the tools, it’s in your habits. Don’t burden yourself with more and more tools to the point that managing them becomes another task for you.
My big takeaway from this book? Productivity is about getting things done — yes. But it’s also about knowing yourself and setting goals that provide your life with a purpose. Go beyond earning those millions or driving that Ferrari. Don’t confuse the means with the end.