SLATE: My System for Productivity

In today’s off-topic post, I wanted to talk about how I’ve become more productive in recent months. I’ve learned that simplicity is key to stay motivated, at least for me. So I’ve developed what I call the “System for Low-Anxiety Task Engagement” (or SLATE). All you need is a white board. Here’s how it works, using this morning’s project as an example.

tl;dr: Use a white board to track current projects. Start with a daily routine. From there, choose one project at a time, even if the choice feel arbitrary. Map out the full project by breaking it into easy steps. Get to work. Choose the next project (which can totally be a “play project”). Rinse, repeat, and at the beginning of the next day, wipe the SLATE clean before starting over again.

START WITH A MORNING ROUTINE: This part of your white board will be stable from week to week. List the things you want to do first thing in the morning, and build it up gradually if you don’t already have the habits established. For me, the goals here are “cold shower,” “meditation,” “daily report” (where I track goals / weight in a Google Doc), and “choose first project.” By having an established morning routine, you always know where to start and you can give your day momentum.ONE PROJECT AT A TIME: Beyond the morning routine, I only put one to-do project on the board at a time. The idea isn’t to catalogue everything that needs to happen. The idea is to get to work. If I’m freaked out I’ll forget something, I just scribble a reminder in the bottom right of the white board.

BE DECISIVE: I make myself choose a project without much deliberation. If there’s a clear high-priority project? Great! I jump on it. If there are multiple competing projects? I choose one, even if it feels totally arbitrary.

BREAK IT DOWN: Once I’ve chosen the project, I break it down into pieces that feel easy. Easy is the key. So, I just submitted a job application, and if I’d just put “job application” as a check-box item on my board, I would have felt intimidated and not gotten started. But instead, the first item was “cover letter,” with the sub-items “outline cover letter,” “draft cover letter,” “edit cover letter,” “proof cover letter,” and “print cover letter.” Each of those steps are so easy that they create no emotional hurdles.

MAP THE PROJECT TO A RESTING POINT: I try to map out the project until it hits a place where I can quit and feel like the project is done. Sometimes that’s “finish the project,” but sometimes it’s “finish the chapter” or reach some other milestone. The goal is to be able to keep my mental space tidy by not having large numbers of projects that still feel open and underway. For me, this morning’s project would still open until the application was in. So I wrote other check-box items to go through my resume and apply for the job online.

GET TO WORK!: I don’t think about it too much. I don’t over-organize it. I just get going so you can let the momentum carry me. While I sometimes feel anxious, I know that this method lets me get more done overall, which means I’m likely to get to a better place even if I don’t spend a bunch of time doing high-level thinking.

ALWAYS “CHOOSE NEXT”: The final item on any project for me is “choose the next project.” That keeps the momentum going.

USE PLAY PROJECTS: After finishing my job application (and my morning routine and a few other tasks from earlier), I chose the project “Play Fire Emblem: Conquest.” It’s a project! It takes real time and energy! I get real rewards out of it! I try not to discount the value of things that aren’t work work, and as a result I can consciously choose the direction of my day at any given point.

WIPE THE SLATE: At the start of each day, before I do my morning routine, I look back at the projects I finished the day before. Then I congratulate myself before wiping it all out and getting ready to start the new day.

USE A REMINDER SYSTEM: While I think the white board is really the only system I need, it’s useful to have reminders of events or deadlines. So I use Google Calendar and have email reminders sent to me. I only schedule things that are hard deadlines. I don’t put in self-managed or self-enforced stuff. That way, if it comes in by email, I know it’s real and important and can prioritize it on that day’s SLATE.