Internal vs. external productivity

Internal vs. external productivity [PMP #267]

As a student of stoic philosophy, I’ve read many times about the importance of focusing on what you can control and how this impacts your happiness and quality of life. The same idea applies to your productivity.

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If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your work and everything’s getting a bit disorganised, there are a few internal factors that you can control that will help you to be more productive:

  • Habits – You can choose to adopt habits like time blocking, journaling, meditation and reading. All of which can help you to feel more organised and less stressed. Thinking you don’t have time for these things isn’t good enough. If you choose not to adopt good habits, don’t be surprised if you don’t operate as efficiently as you can.
  • Routine – The same is true of your routine. When and how you start your day is incredibly important. Having the right morning routine will help set you up for success for the rest of your day. Books like The Miracle Morning have been a great resource for me that has helped me appreciate the importance of starting the day right.
  • Mind and body – If you don't look after your body by getting enough sleep, exercise or eating correctly, you’ll always be running in 4th gear. I describe sleep, diet and exercise as productivity multipliers. Everything else unchanged, when you look after your mind and body you will be more effective not just at work but with everything you do.
  • Discipline – There is no replacement for showing up, doing the work, being consistent and getting things done. Productivity is simple (but not easy). If you find yourself feeling “busy”, this is often the result of a lack of discipline. As per one of my Tim Ferriss quotes: “Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.”

While it’s best to focus on internal productivity factors that you can control, you should also be aware of and try to mitigate external factors:

  • Other people – Other people are a very common source of distraction and lack of productivity. Especially if in order to do your work you’re waiting on someone else to do their part first. This is why I love the dependencies feature in Asana; it clearly shows who’s responsible for what and how everyone’s work is connected. How I try to mitigate other people is if I need something from someone, I take responsibility for making sure they get it to me by following up as many times as needed so I’m not put out.
  • Emergencies – Sometimes urgent work comes up that we can’t avoid. It sucks because it can completely throw off everything you had planned for your day. When this happens all you can really do is try and get back on track as soon as possible. I recently wrote about how to deal with “fires” at work. If you’ve decided that you’re going to stop what you’re doing to put out the fire, take a second to park your existing work. If needed, leave yourself a note detailing what you’re working on and the next steps. This will make it a lot easier to pick up again where you left off when you start the work again later.
  • Distractions – Unsolicited phone calls, unnecessary meetings, social media, videos and even personal errands are all forms of distraction that should be minimised as much as possible. The good news is that most of these distractions can be dealt with by strengthening your discipline as discussed above. Even if it’s a meeting you’ve been invited to or a phone call you’ve received, you can make the choice to postpone or decline if you feel you have more important work to attend to.

I find categorising your productivity into controllable internal factors and uncontrollable external factors helps me to spend more time and energy on the right areas of my work. It’s also quite empowering when you realise you actually have more control than you think and ultimately how you choose to spend your time and how you choose to respond to external distractions is 100% within your control.

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