The 3-Item List That Unlocked My True Productivity

August 1, 2016

I’ve recently finished reading Design Your Day, by Clair Díaz-Ortiz. It’s aimed at those who work freelance or in stressful managerial positions. While these aren’t workplaces I belong to, the book gave me some invaluable ideas that boosted my productivity. Most of the author’s strategies are pretty common sense, but the way she presented the information was unique enough to get me thinking about my life in a more organized, deliberate way. I want to share the “highlights” of the book that were most helpful to me (and can help anyone who’s looking to increase her productivity, regardless of profession).

Díaz-Ortiz outlines the steps to brainstorming ways we can increase work efficiency and also free up personal time:

1. Write out your goals for the next year. Hone in on the most important ones for you at this time, and make sure that the goals are measurable (“I’ll accomplish X things by X date”).

2. Think of some words and decide on one to help frame your goals. This becomes your Word of the Year, a touchstone for your challenging moments as time goes by.

3. Make two lists: one for activities, the other for “big wins.” In the author’s words, “This should be a list of one-off individual things like, ‘The deal I closed with that big firm.’” Obviously, a big win for one person is a no-big for someone else, so the process of defining your “wins” is very personal.

Because list-making can be daunting — and the personalized element of this productivity approach is so crucial — I want to share my own “homework” to give you an idea of the clarity this exercise can bring to your life.

1. Goals: I won’t bore you with numbers, but the biggest hope I have is to stick with a solid budget. This past year in my life featured some unfortunate events while abroad (including getting encephalitis, without health insurance). While I’m okay, my finances suffered heavy losses. I want to save up an emergency fund and then get back on track with student loan payments.

2. Word: I thought about words like “Resilience” and “Recoil” to frame my goals for this year, but here’s the thing: the biggest threat to my budget has always been my snobbish obsession with quality goods. From food to furniture, I want the nice stuff. I’m moving to a new city for a new job soon, and I have fantasized not only of having that high-count cotton sheet set over a king-size bed, but also of purchasing the $500 blue velvet loveseat I saw at World Market.

It’s not that I’m trying to impress anyone, or that I plan on cheating my budget for expensive versions of things that I could just get second-hand; I like nice things. So, I thought a little harder about my word of the year, passed by “scavenge,” and latched on to “vulture.” I know that sounds weird, but this year for me is about surviving, and it won’t always be pretty. So maybe with an ugly word-association, I’ll easily remind myself that my pride can take a backseat for the next 365 days. My wallet will thank me.

3. Activities and Big Wins: I have studied Japanese for eight years and written in my spare time for more than a decade. Those are my two activities. Two of my biggest achievements have been 1) Using my knowledge of Japan to guide the plans for an extremely important work event and thereby used less of my workplace’s budget than other similar events that term, and 2) Landing a paid writing gig for a leading Japanese culture and language blog.

In Design Your Day, the author encourages readers to categorize the items on the “Activities” list in one of three ways:

1. Things Only I Can Do

2. Things Someone Else Can Do

3. Things I Should Stop Doing

The Activity that meets both the “Only you can do” measure AND the Big Win metric should be your number-one priority for time, focus, and diligence. So, in my example: Japanese studies and writing habits should be my top priorities, because both activities led to Big Wins.

That said, Big Wins that “Someone else can do” should still be a priority for you. In the author’s words, these “Someone else can do” activities are worth 20% of your time, assuming you can’t quite get someone else to do the work. (Think about how much time we spend responding to emails, and how higher-ups usually hire personal assistants to manage tasks like that.)

Next, the author lists a third tier for the remainder of the list of things “Only you can do” that don’t lead to Big Wins. She writes, “Evaluate carefully the activities here, because they are not on your list of Big Wins. Some, you will see, you may need to continue. Some, you do not.” She goes on to list things in her life that fit this category, like sleeping and eating (lol) Then, she challenges us to reconsider tasks like housecleaning or lawn-mowing in light of a possibility of hiring help. I myself can’t afford to delegate these chores, but if you can, it might be worth looking into.

Finally, Design Your Day points out the obvious: there are some activities that just aren’t worth your time and effort. Díaz-Ortiz labels these activities “Not a Priority: Things You Should Stop Doing.” While she supports relaxation and down-time, she also talks about her own moments of looking things up on the internet for more time than is strictly necessary. Personally, I spend way too much time following suggested videos on Youtube or staring into fridge. These are activities you should limit with discipline, or at least pin up as “Stop Doing” goals, next to your “Start Doing” goals. For example, if one of your yearly goals is to do yoga once a week, how does an hour of aimless web surfing stack up? Is there a more valuable form of downtime for you?

The distinction between those last few categories are hazy, but maybe that’s because I wasn’t part of the target audience — there’s nobody for me to delegate tasks to. That said, Design Your Day is mostly focused on how important it is for us to narrow our work time towards 1) Tasks we are uniquely skilled at executing and 2) Activities that have led to important achievements. By focusing on these two factors, I have opened up a lot more rejuvenating personal time in my schedule while also organizing myself to make my work life better and easier. Just limiting the time I spend checking my inbox has opened up slots for more important things. And — perhaps best of all for my bougie spending tendencies — the author gave me the tool that will help me really stick to my budget, my new Word of the Year: Vulture!

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