The Secret to Productivity: Don’t Be Easily Bothered

One of the questions I get asked a lot is

“How do you get so much done?”

I sometimes think that growing up without advantages can be an advantage.

For example, when I was a kid, I never had my own room. I always shared it with my sister, or sometimes my sister and my youngest brother. It never occurred to anyone to be quiet so I could get some sleep or study. In fact, I’m certain that if I had suggested such a thing at least two of my brothers would have been louder just on general principle.

I never had a desk growing up. I did my homework wherever I could find a spot to sit and be out of the way. Sometimes it was the dining room table, but just as often on my bed, sitting outside, or even in the attic. Since no one told me I was supposed to have a spot to study, quiet and a lack of interruptions, I was never bothered in the least by any of this.

Grading papers at Ronda's practiceFor all of my life, I have been able to work anywhere and sleep anywhere. Darling Daughter Number 3 was in two Olympics. This meant that I spent an inordinate amount of my time for years sitting in bleachers while she practiced. Almost all of that time was spent grading papers, like tonight, or writing grants or doing data analysis. I spend countless hours in planes and airports every month. When the plane is taking off, I pull out articles I printed out to read for the latest proposal or publication I’m working on. When the plane hits 10,000 feet, I go right to writing or programming and can usually get four solid hours of work done while flying cross-country.

This isn’t the same as multi-tasking, really. I think the whole multi-tasking idea is a myth. I try having a conversation with someone while programming and it is usually a failure. I either miss what they are saying or delete a line I wanted to leave in – it’s not a good idea.

No, the secret to being productive isn’t always doing two things at once, it’s never doing nothing.

Waiting at the DMV, the Social Security office or on hold for some humorously named “customer service” representative, I can easily whip out 30 minutes of work.

Sure there is work, like a game design or coding that is best done in blocks of uninterrupted time. Guess how you get those blocks? By doing all of the 5- and 10-minute tasks, like answering that email or grading that paper while you’re waiting for your child to be done at practice.


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