September 26, 20213 minutes to read — Tags: productivity, management

Two colleagues recently asked me for personal productivity advice. I suspect one of them even gave me the Disco compliment:

Aaron Suggs always gets projects over the finish line.

Unfortunately, there must be some misunderstanding because I don’t feel like I get an unusual amount done, nor am I particularly strategic about it. My motivating principle is to avoid constant anxiety.

So here’s some free advice from an unqualified amateur.

First, I’ll point to better resources:

  • Getting Things Done (GTD) — I first read David Allen’s GTD book in 2005. It has a lot of durable, influential ideas. Though the implementation of notepads can be updated for a smartphone era.
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear. I really liked the emphasis on mindset and environment in changing habits.
  • The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done by Cal Newport. This is a modern, wide-lens perspective on GTD and the personal productivity domain.

Here are some productivity techniques that I’ve found useful:

  1. Touch-it-once: Once a task has your attention, try to see it through to completion so you don’t need to ‘touch’ it or think about it again. For example, when I check my mail, if there’s a bill, I open and pay it right away (or better yet set up auto-pay). Then I can recycle the bill. I never set it down nor remember to pay it later. It means checking the mail sometimes takes a few minutes, but it doesn’t generate future work or accumulate in piles.

  2. Ubiquitous capture: Make it easy to leave notes to your future self, whether by your bedside table late at night or first thing in the morning, at your computer, in the car, or anywhere. I use the Reminders app on Apple Watch (usually via Siri), iOS, and macOS. And I use Things app to organize complicated projects. I organize my reminders to notify me when and where I can act on them. E.g. say in an 11am meeting we make a decision I need to communicate to my team. And say I’m busy until 3pm. I’ll make a reminder to share the decision with the team at 3pm. I can relax knowing that my system will notify me when I’m able to act on it.

  3. Write down the next action. If you need to interrupt a task (see #1 for why this should be rare), leave notes to your future self to make it easy to pick up where you left off. What were your about to do? On a project, you’re usually doing one of 4 things:

    1. Researching - understanding the problem
    2. Brainstorming - generating ways to solve the problem
    3. Communicating - getting approval/alignment, informing or training stakeholders about how it affects them
    4. Implementing - executing the work you brainstormed + said you’d do.

    If you’re stuck, ask yourself which one of those 4 things you should do to make progress.

  4. Be easy to follow: Write down your work process so others can imitate it. Put it in the first place you’d look for it in the future (code review comments, Jira ticket, wiki, etc). Share the checklist, notes, thought process that you went through. This feels like extra work in the moment, but pays off in the long-run.

  5. Know yourself. When do you focus best? What type of work is a chore that saps energy? Get the chores out of the way, and then treat yourself to the more enjoyable tasks. And don’t force yourself to be productive if you’re really not in the headspace for it. Focus on the work you’re able to do.

  6. Consider Satisficing vs maximizing: Ask yourself if this project benefits from a quick, low-effort satisfying and sufficient solution (i.e. satisficing), or a high-effort maximizing solution. Most of the time, the answer is satisficing.

Those are six strategies that help me remember details and stay focused. Please let me know on twitter if you have any to share.

Aaron Suggs
Hi, I'm Aaron Suggs. 😀👋

Welcome to my personal blog. I manage engineering teams at Instructure, previously Lattice, Glossier and Kickstarter. I live in Chapel Hill, NC. Find me on LinkedIn, and GitHub.