Being consistently productive is one of the most difficult and draining goals in life. It's also one of the most rewarding, because productivity is what leads to the realization of all other goals.
Four months ago [note: this article was first published 4/13/10] I designed something I call the "Go Board" to organize my daily efforts - since then I accomplish more on a daily basis and have also managed to strip away a lot of stress. Now I'm going to share my method with you.
"Slow and steady" and "One step at a time" are phrases we've all heard, but most of us don't actually subscribe to this principle. Instead of working slow we want to do things all at once - I myself am guilty! Do you remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hair? It exhibits these ideals perfectly.
An "Easy" Win
A real-life example of working slow and steady is Steve Bradbury's speed skating gold medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics. At the last turn Bradbury was at the rear of the pack, going at his own pace just like the tortoise, while a group of five skaters were jostling in front of him. They ended up knocking into each other and falling, and he glided to what some would call an "easy win" - but let's not forget how much hard work it took to get into the gold medal finals.
The Go Board
Basing my ideas on the "slow and steady" principle, I knew I wanted to organize my work in a way that wouldn't be overwhelming, but I wasn't sure the best way to go about it. I did some research and found an interview in which Jerry Seinfeld was asked how he managed to make so many good jokes and stay so productive. He explained that he set up a calendar in his office and every day that he worked on his jokes he marked it with a big red "X".
According to Jerry, "After a few days you'll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You'll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain." Simple as that.
Since I want to cover more areas than just one, I modified Seinfeld's method to fit my needs. On a whiteboard I wrote all the areas I want to work on in my life. This is what I came up with.
So what do they mean? Design, Write, Read, and Draw are all pretty obvious. Music means practicing either my guitar or hand drum. Maint. stands for maintenance, which simply reminds me not to forget about taking care of the "other" things that need to get done, like paying bills, cleaning the bathroom, doing laundry, going to the bank, etc. Work applies to freelance work, volunteer work, and other projects.
Every morning I place the colored tacks in the circles according to what needs to get done—red and yellow for important, green for moderate, and blue for low pressure. Then I go about my day with this in mind and work in as many fields as I can without compromising the quality of my output. I don't draw for 2 minutes, read for 3, then play the guitar for 5 and call it a day. (And no, reading about design writing doesn't count for Design/Write and Read.) The idea is to further yourself in each area, even if it's just in some small way. Over time, it adds up to progress that almost seems effortless.
To track my progress, instead of using a red "X" I use a number from 0 to 7 - if I get all 7 I highlight it red. At the end of the week I tally them and see how much I accomplished; the following week I try to meet or beat that number. Rinse and repeat. Currently I aim for 35 per week, which averages to about 5 a day. Some days I get 7 - usually on my days off - but some I only get 3 or 4.
Good luck, and don't forget that you can change this process any way you like to best fit your life.
[Since publishing this article over two years ago I have transported the Go Board to the digital world. Now I use the app Daily Deeds on my iPhone—give it a try.]