He also wrote several e-books on productivity, learning and behavioral change. Scott is currently doing an MIT trial, where he’s trying to learn 4-year MIT computer science curriculum in one year without going to lectures or even being enrolled in MIT.
Agota’s note: This interview is based on the outline of one of Scott’s e-books, Think Outside The Cubicle . It’s a great e-book for students, freelancers, entrepreneurs and other people who work from home and have a flexible schedule. As a freelancer and blogger myself, I totally recommend it, so if you liked the ideas in the interview, make sure to check it out.
Scott, please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m an author and a blogger on productivity and learning. My writing started when I was in the process of building my (now full-time) business while I was still a full-time student, part-time employee and freelancer. As many other people who want to make a leap forward in their career or escape the 9-5 feel, it can be hard to get all the things you want to accomplish finished when you don’t have much time and energy to devote to it. That’s why I started researching productivity intensely, because it offers a solution.
Many people imagine that being productive equals being a workaholic who works 80+ hours a week and has no life. You don’t quite fit into that description. What does productivity mean to you?
Productivity means getting the most done with the least exertion, with that definition it’s closer to laziness than to workaholism. It’s the skill of taking your limited time and energy and getting the most progress on your goals and projects.
You say that “..the way you work in an office is not the way you should work outside it”. What are the main differences between working in an office and working at home? Why you shouldn’t confuse one with the other?
You’re less restricted if you work at home – you can set your own hours, pick your working environment and often choose your own projects. But that flexibility also comes with a danger as it’s even easier to procrastinate and waste time on irrelevant activities.
You recommend a very simple “Weekly/Daily Goals” system for managing your tasks. Can you briefly explain how it works and why it’s so powerful?
It’s very simple. You keep two to-do lists. One contains the tasks you want to accomplish in the week, which you write again every Sunday. The other contains the tasks you want to accomplish this day, which you write each evening (pulled from the weekly list). The only rule is that you only accomplish tasks from the daily goals, and you don’t work more than that. The power of this technique is it culls the infinite volume of work you should be doing down to what you need to focus on right now.
You talk about strategic breaks quite a lot. When is the best time to take a break and what’s the best way to do it?
Focus tends to have an inertia to it. That is, when you start working it can take awhile to build up to a good pace. But too long without any breaks can also ruin your focus. The key is to break when your energy is in that latter, declining phase.
The best way to break is to do an activity that isn’t engaging. A short walk or stretching are great because you won’t get caught up in doing them instead of your actual work. Facebook or email is usually too distracting.
You recommend a method called “Two-flow theory” for dealing with creative blocks (such as writer’s block). Can you briefly explain what it’s all about?
The idea is that what call a creative task is actually two separate ones. First there is the idea-generation phase, or creative flow. Then there is the perfecting phase, or destructive flow. They’re both necessary to accomplish any creative task, but they tend to require opposite mental states to perform well. The idea behind two-flow theory is that if you separate these tasks in time, you can greatly boost your creative output.
Internet is one of the biggest potential distractions for those who work from home. What would be your advice to people whose internet addiction is completely out of control?
Take a 30-Day Trial to limit your usage. I’ve done this several times in the past and it helps to reset some of the bad behaviors.
You talk about having a life outside work a lot. You also put a big emphasis on having an enjoyable social life. Why is that? What’s the connection between productivity and life outside work?
The most obvious reason is that all the areas of our life are interconnected. You don’t create a strong foundation by only working on one pillar. Similarly, your career suffers if you work obsessively but don’t have a social life (and therefore can’t build the relationships you need to advance it), your fitness suffers or your family life is in a mess. The other, subtler reason, is that these things are necessary to rebuild your energy. I always take a day off each week, especially if my workload is intense.
Last, but not least, if you could give one piece of advice to our readers that are not very productive, but want to improve, what would it be?
Build new habits one at a time. We already spoke about weekly/daily goals and that can be a good start. Being productive isn’t about having mythical discipline and focus, but about having core habits which anyone can learn.