Do work, not too much, avoid interruptions

Obsessing over productivity is a sickness of a hypercapitalist society. But in a world where you’re only as good as the the amount of work you’ve done in last 168 hours, productivity systems are survival strategies. I’ve obsessively tweaked my own routines and apps over the years to find a workflow that feels natural for me and helps me balance the things I need to do with the things I want to do—not because I’m well organized and productive by nature, but because I need to find intuitive strategies to stay gainfully employed without going nuts or letting my house become filthy to the point of being uninhabitable.

“Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” – Gustave Flaubert*

But what works for you might not work for me, and vice versa. Still, I’ve been trying to figure out if there are some general principles of productivity that can be distilled into a few simple rules, the way Michael Pollan condensed dietary research to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” or the way former Marketplace co-host Tess Vigeland condensed personal finance down to just six tips.

Here’s my attempt: do work, not too much, avoid interruptions.

Do Work:

Pollan advises us to avoid what he calls “edible food-like substances”—things like protein bars and microwave dinners and breakfast cereal that resemble food or may contain trace amounts of food but are in fact food substitutes created in laboratories and factories. We all face a large number of work-like activities that can take up our time. Meetings are one of the most complained about. But Internet “research,” social media, reading productivity tips (hey!) and alphabetizing our bookshelves can end up taking up entire days that should be spent doing the actual work we need or want to be doing. Some of this stuff is unavoidable. But it’s toxic when used to justify procrastination on actual work.

Not Too Much:

Although it’s pretty clear that we see diminished returns on physical labor beyond about 40 hours a week, the research is much less clear about how much is too much white collar labor or “information work.” But it is clear that people have a tendency to burn out and 40 hours a week may actually be too much. The exact amounts probably vary from person to person, so it’s up to you to figure out exactly how much work is too much. And even though work-like activities often aren’t work, they usually aren’t recreation either, so they should count towards your limit.

Avoid Interruption

This is probably the hardest part. We all know that multitasking is worse for productivity than smoking weed, but even if we have the discipline to shut off our phones and Internet connections, we can’t necessarily stop bosses, clients or chatty coworkers from interrupting us.

Putting It All Together:

Consider this other oft-cited piece of research: the best violin players aren’t the ones who practice the most hours, but the ones who consistently practice sufficiently challenging pieces every single day. Those players practiced for “only” four hours a day, two sessions of two hours each. In other words, they did actual work (practicing sufficiently challenging violin pieces), but not too much, and they did nothing but practice during those two sessions.

I’m terrible at following this advice, but they’re the principles I keep in mind.

*Thanks to Deb and Willow’s for the quote!

Adapted from my weeklyish newsletter