A Part of Productivity

Many times, people feel like one choice can have huge ripple effects on their life. They think that if they stop to get coffee they may meet their potential spouse. That will greatly impact their lives and they may end up living somewhere completely different than they would otherwise. One decision to get coffee could have widespread consequences on life down the road. Sci-fi movies make this idea seem accurate, but it is unlikely that such small choices have an impact on life. One choice may not vastly impact the narrative of your life, but small choices can greatly impact your life in other ways.
If you are trying to eat healthily, having a cupboard full of chips isn’t a good idea. Millions of times every day you would need to choose not to eat chips because the option is always present. The second your motivation wavers, you would eat the chips. To prevent this you could make a small choice to eliminate all the junk food from your house. 
If you don’t have chips in the house you can’t eat them. Even if your motivation fails, you won’t fail! When you are at the grocery store, you need to make the choice to put the bag of chips back on the shelf and move on. Thankfully it is much easier to motivate yourself to make the right choice once than it is to motivate yourself many times. You’ve also got a greater chance of success if you reduce how many times you need to make the right choice. Look at it like this: when flipping a coin, the chances it will land on tails is 50%.  If you flip the coin five times, the chances are the same, but the probability that it will land on tails eventually has increased. So the more choices you have to make, the greater probability you will mess one of them up. 
Strategically limiting options isn’t a new concept. It is common knowledge that most past alcoholics don’t keep alcohol in the house in case their resolve gets weak. I also motioned in a past article how using an internet blocker can help eliminate the potential to slip into distraction. This idea is to let your mature, highly motivated self make choices to “baby-proof the house” so that when your tired, unmotivated “baby self” comes out to play, you won’t be able to mess up. One well-placed choice can eliminate many other choices and potentially fallible situations.
Most people choose moment-by-moment what they will work on instead of looking further into the future. Even if we do plan, it is rarely more than trying to fit our whole to-do list into the week. Could the principle of selective choices be applied to schedules and routines?
Absolutely! Many productivity experts promote what I have dubbed a “premeditated schedule.” This applies to broad items such as choosing to spend time on research and not on meetings or Facebook. But it can also be in smaller things, like what you will focus on each day. One man recommends having a “theme” for each day. On Mondays he writes, Tuesdays are for meetings, Wednesday is for idea creation, Thursday for business and Friday for catch up. This system ensures he is able to dedicate quality time to each pursuit instead of having many different activities each day. 
Schedules are great to focus your life overall. Routines can also be helpful to govern day-to-day processes. But it can be daunting to develop a routine. “What if my routine isn’t perfect? I’ll be stuck in a bad routine!” It is an understandable fear. But it’s not founded. Routines are like recipes: they can be adapted.
Have you ever made a meal from scratch? Even if you wanted to, you could never make it again or try a variation of it because you don’t remember how you made it. I am working to perfect a recipe for flourless banana bread that I invented. I started with just an idea and made a quick loaf. It was good, but I knew I could do better. Thankfully, I had recorded the ingredients and process, so I could make a few changes next time. Each time I make the recipe, I make a few changes and perfect it. To properly adapt the recipe though I need to be intentional about having structure.
If you have a routine, you can change it and make it better. If you don’t have any routines or intentional habits, you can’t change them.
Even if you are strategic with your willpower, and even if you follow a routine, there is still room for errors. An off-road racer may have a ton of fun, but there is a large chance of getting lost (even if they are good with a map). But I have never heard of a stock-car racer getting lost on the track. The track gives security but has less freedom. 
Structural change is the art of making tracks to force progress. Say you want to get up early every morning to work on a project, but always hit snooze a few times. Structural change is moving your alarm clock across the room so that you need to get out of bed to turn it off. This forces you to get out of bed when it rings. One moment of motivation creates a system where the environment provides continual motivation for you the rest of the time. 
A good system will force productivity. You can’t really force inspiration though. You can however create a system to enable inspiration. Often, I’ve found that ideas come at strange times while doing everyday activities. But they can be tough to remember during that one time you sit down to work. Systems can help capture this inspiration. 
A method I have found works well is to use “running lists”. I use this method when I am packing. I live in a remote area, so anytime I visit my family I have lots of errands to do. There are toiletries to buy, banking to do, bills to pay, gifts for family, projects to get supplies for all in addition to normal packing. Often it is so much that it feels overwhelming. But I have developed a system. Any time I think of something I need to do, I take a moment and write it down on a list. I will also put the item associated with it in a box. As time goes on, I keep adding to my list and keep filling my box. I’ve been rearranging the furniture to fit my needs. When it is time to pack, I can take everything from the box, neatly arrange it, double-check my list and be out the door in 30 minutes. 
This is also a great system for projects. When I first get assigned a project (or assign myself a task) I take a moment to jot down my initial thoughts. Then whenever further ideas hit me, I write them down also. When I sit down to work on the project, I have a list ready with the accumulation of all the inspired ideas I had while I was in the shower, hiking or chatting over coffee.
When I don’t use this system, I spend lots of energy trying to remember all my ideas. Despite the effort, I will inevitably forget something. One choice to start a list saves me lots of energy and gives me better results.
A quality control expert was once asked how he improves the rigours of testing to ensure quality. He said that he chooses not to worry about testing. Instead, he works to perfect the process used to make the products. If the process is good, then the results will be good every time. If you have a good process, you can ensure you are ready to work on your project. When you evaluate your goals and set structure for your schedule, it helps. When you make strategic changes to the layout of your life and surroundings, it helps you stick to that routine and make progress on your goals. And when you can prioritize key choices it helps you maintain the energy you need to do what you want. One choice can improve the process.
But it takes one choice.


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