What do you think separates the most productive people you know from others?

Here are two clues from the two of the most productive people that I know”

The first one is from Elon Musk:

“I think that’s the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”

And here’s the second one from Chris Brailey the author of Productivity Project:

What separates the most productive people from everyone else is that they make course corrections every week to gradually get better at everything they do. — (emphasis by me.)

So, the answer seems to be simple: constantly make changes in your working routines and see how they affect your productivity.

But something crucial is missing here. 

How do you measure your productivity? If you make some changes in your routine — let’s say waking up earlier — how do you know objectively if it has increased or decreased your productivity?

As the management guru, Peter Druker puts it:

If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Improve It.

So, let’s see what tools can you can use for measurement. 

The Two Ways of Measuring Productivity

In my quest to increase my productivity, I have found two useful ways that help me measure my productivity in a tangible way:

  1. Tracking Milestones: For example, the number of articles to write in a month. 
  2. Tracking time spent on working toward the milestones: for example, you can track the sum of the hours you spent on writing those articles.

But, which one is a better way to measure productivity? This question plagues me for a long time until I figured:

It depends on the nature of your goal or task …

1. When to Measure Productivity by Tracking Milestones?

To know if tracking milestones is a good yardstick or not, ask yourself this simple question:

Is the task I’m going to finish, predictable?

If you have a lot of experience with the task, and the task has few unknows (like writing an article, or gathering sales data, etc.), then you will have a more sense of how productive you are, if you track milestones.

You know, for instance, writing an article is something that you can finish in a finite period of time. Therefore, you can use the number of articles you finish as the yardstick to measure productivity. 

Now that you know how to measure your productivity, you can start experimenting with productivity hacks to see what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s how: 

A Case Study of How I Used Milestones to Measure and Increase My Productivity

When I started my blog, I would write 3–4 articles per month. So I decided to adopt Elon Musk’s advice and try to be more productive.

Followings are the simple hacks I practiced to increase my productivity. And thanks to my yardstick (number of articles written per month), I could measure and judge if the hack worked or not:

  1. Initially, I would arrive home from work at 8:30. Then, I would have a dinner followed by a 20-minute nap (charged me for hours). After I woke up, I would start writing (from 9:15) until 12:00 PM. This way, I would produce 3–4 articles per month.
  2. Then I started changing things. Instead of having a nap and waking up to start writing, I decided to sleep (around 9:30 PM) and instead wake up on 5:00 AM for writing. What a remarkable move I proudly thought. But it didn’t work. In the month that I followed this approach, I wrote only 2 articles.
  3. The third approach I tried, led to a huge leap in my productivity. I usually finish work (my day job) at 7:00 PM. As a change, I decided to leave at 6:00 PM. Again, I would arrive home, have dinner followed by a nap and then start writing. But, this one hour of leaving work earlier, made a huge difference. In the month that I tried this approach, I wrote 6 articles. 

This is why I believe that the bedrock of constantly increasing productivity is a solid system to measure it. 

But there’s a subtle problem with using milestones to measure productivity.

Let’s say your goal is to prove a new mathematical formula or to understand Einstein’s theory of relativity

How do you know you’re being productive in such cases?

Such tasks are not repeated regularly. So, you can’t count the milestones to see if you have been more productive. 

This leads us to the next approach.

2. When to Measure Productivity by Tracking Time?

Like the previous method, to know if you must track your time or not, you must ask this question:

Is the task I’m going to finish, predictable?

If the answer is no, you will have a better sense of your productivity by tracking the hours towards finishing your task.

As a rule of thumb, productivity about a task that has a large number of unknowns can be best measured by tracking hours of working hard on it. For me, such tasks are writing code, doing research for an academic paper, etc.

This is also one way that Cal Newport, the author of the best selling book deep work, follows:

The advantage of tracking hours, […] is that many of the important but non-urgent projects I pursue cannot be forced. I can commit, for example, to finishing a proof in a week, but this doesn’t mean I will succeed. Some proofs never come together; some take months (or years); others fall quickly. It’s hard to predict. 

A Case Study of How I Used Time-Tracking to Measure and Increase My Productivity

To increase my productivity in my career, most often I track the duration of my focused-time. Here’s the sheet I use for this purpose:

self-monitoring
Fig 1. Tracking Focused-Time Toward Completion of Tasks

The vertical axis is the hours (each square represents 30 minutes of focused work). The horizontal axis is the days of the month. 

My goal each day is to make the colored bar taller and taller (which I find also motivating). Then, I make changes in my working routine to see what hack makes the bars grow. 

You see the numbers 1 and 2 on the horizontal axis? On those two points, I have noticed an increase in my productivity and I have made notes on what I have done differently on those days.

What I had tried differently in those cases has been to start my days by planning every single minute of the day. Even though I was skeptical, it proved to be very effective. (I have written before on the amazing power of writing down your intentions and pre-commitment.)

That’s not all there is to tracking milestones or time. 

In addition to being perfect measurement devices, both have other benefits.

The advantage of tracking milestones, for example, is the urge that comes with it to make you hustle and hammer down the task till it’s finished.

Whenever a task of mine (predictable) hits stasis or fall prey to procrastination, giving it a deadline is almost ensures that I get it done.

But there’s an evil lurking behind setting deadlines. 

If your task lies in uncharted territory (like finding proof for a mathematic formula), and you set a deadline for it, you will most probably procrastinate on doing it (our brain hates ambiguity). 

This is where time-tracking comes to rescue. 

Again, in the words of Cal Newport:

Tracking hours ensures, at the very least, that these projects are getting a good share of my time, even if I can’t predict what will finish and when.

I believe just about anyone can tell which category a task belongs to, and that tells you how to measure and optimize its execution.  

As a final word, I want to add that happiness for me is directly proportional to the level of my productivity. I hope this article helps you measure and increase yours as well.

Now it’s Your Turn 

If you use any hacks to increase your productivity, I would like to know it. In addition, if you have any questions or thoughts about measuring and increasing productivity, let me know in the comments below. 

Amir,

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