Lack of continuity really kills productivity

I have this tendency of working on many things at once, and as a result I don’t really finish anything, I just make small progress until I switch context to start working on something else.

This really kills my productivity. It seems obvious now but when I’m working on a project and start feeling pressured by not working on a different project, it’s not so obvious that I’m not getting either of them done.

The times when you are the most productive are undoubtedly the long stretches of uninterrupted focused work. Those moments when you lose the track of time, don’t feel hunger or thirst and you realise you exist only when you start moving a little bit and realise you’ve got terrible back pain from sitting for too long. The moments when you’re in the zone.

Stretches of high productivity work can last for a few days. Of course, with proper breaks and a good work-life balance but without switching to another work project. This didn’t happen to me in a long time since I’ve been switching projects way too often.

If I don’t work on one of my projects, I feel guilty. Guilty enough that if I am extremely productive on project A, when adding up the guilt of not working on project B, overall, I feel terrible. There’s no way to win.

I want to believe that I can juggle two projects effectively: PhD and ONE business idea. But that’s not true, and when I tried it just didn’t work. Setting up a new project takes a good amount of time and if I stop for PhD work blocks before I get the first minor success, I lose that sparkling enthusiasm about the idea that I had in the first place, and I move on at the first boring unrewarding task without ever acknowledging I’m quitting on the project.

As a result my current basket of ongoing projects is very large. But to be fair most are really in the graveyard of projects that I really mean to finish one day but I never really get excited about doing anything for them. It’s for two reasons: I feel like I should be working on something else, or the task that needs doing is really boring or otherwise off-putting. Generally an off-putting task wouldn’t stop me for too long but given that it’s before I had any kind of success with that project and the guilt of not working on something else (my PhD)… And the the longer I postpone things the less likely I am to get back to them.

To give an example, I had bought my first domain for my reverse to-do list journalling app, Done, in the first year of my PhD. I’m in the middle of my third year now and I still haven’t released the app despite having a kind-of-working MVP for most of this time, and I could probably polish it to good enough for initial user feedback in a (fully dedicated) week.

That’s not where I want to be. I want to have a small number of ongoing things (1 or 2 alongside my PhD) and I want to get them finished, not just barely started. How do I do that? I don’t really have the answer yet.

How to successfully juggle between more projects? You can’t. But the one thing you can do, and that one that I will try, is to set measurable minor goals that I could celebrate and be excited about. Things I can get done in a few hours or a day. I don’t intend to work on these projects for the sake of working on them. I want some results. Therefore I want to find the 20% of work for 80% of results, and focus on that.

Getting minor wins is good for productivity and motivation. It keeps you going. It keeps me going at least. I hope structuring work in a way that promotes small, regular wins in stretches of work that can take from a few hours to a day will also reduce my guilt of not working on a different thing.

For a long time I felt like I needed a weekly planner and that would solve all of my problems (by allocating days to tasks or projects to systematically reduce guilt and context switching). I even thought about building one (thinking: want a tool? build it, others might want it too. It’s hard to get over this mindset and just find a tool that already exists!). But every time I tried to use one nothing changed. The only effective use of a weekly planner was as a fancy to-do list on a whiteboard and I only used it to keep track of experiments and things to do for my PhD. I used it mostly as a today/not today list of tasks for a few weeks, where not-today tasks would be moved somewhere else in the week – often many times.

Also I built Done for myself, as a way to keep a log of what I’m doing with my time - especially because I felt what I described above: guilt and lack of success.

I really enjoyed Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity by Marc Andreessen. Especially the idea of doing whatever you want and not keeping a schedule. It helps with continuity and it allows you to keep going until you reach a conclusion/state that you want. Looking back, I’ve been practicing a version of that with the added guilt-induced context switching, which really defies the purpose - don’t do this unless you setup your environment to allow it without feeling guilt.

Side note

For a long time I told myself I’ll start blogging often. And it never happened because I thought I must have something really smart to say or have a huge success to share. Well, I don’t have either. And I’ll blog anyway. Some posts might be useful for some, some might not. From now on I’m starting to share my experience about doing a PhD and starting a business, as it is and as it happens.