When it comes to productivity, some say you should focus on one thing only, working on that sole project for many hours a day, for as long as it takes. Others believe in small daily progress over a longer period of time (maybe with more variety and additional projects that you shift between).
Personally I run into difficulties with… well.. every approach.
Some difficulties are practical—for example, deciding how much time to spend on each. And some are emotional—for example, I tend to discount small amounts of time spent as if they’re the same as spending no time at all, so I end up feeling guilty, slow and useless… particularly if I’m comparing myself to, say, someone who planted an entire forest.
I wondered how others manage, so I asked the Puttyverse to share their experiences. Here’s what I found out.
The power—and limitations—of small, sustained bursts
Many people talked about spreading their attention across multiple projects by making small contributions to each over a sustained period of time—precisely the inch-by-inch scenario my brain wrongly discounts as “not really counting” as real progress.
In reality, these small contributions aren’t zero, so they do add up. A quick calculation reveals that writing a couple of hundred words a day leads to a medium-sized novel every year. An hour a day on a task adds up to 2000 hours over five years. Even walking for 15 minutes a day would let me circumnavigate the globe twice if I lived to the average lifespan!
The forum-goers shared many examples of this approach, on everything from tending a home aquarium for a few minutes a day to “the never ending project of keeping this body fit: a few short activities built into the daily routine work best for me.”
So all I need to do is let go of the idea that “small progress isn’t real progress,” and spend a few minutes a day on various tasks. Pretty soon I’ll be fit, write many novels, AND develop an incredible aquarium. Right? Right?!
Unfortunately, no. At least, not for me. Experience tells me that I struggle to manage these contributions on a long-term basis. For example, I’ve recently restarted breathwork meditation. It’s excellent. Every morning, I spend 10 minutes—just 10!—on the exercises, and afterwards I have incredible clarity and peace. But despite the positive results from such a tiny commitment, I already spend every single morning putting off doing the meditation for as long as possible. Each day I say to myself “That was great! I won’t resist doing it tomorrow.” But, when tomorrow comes, I still resist.
There’s a lot to be said here about habit-formation, discipline, willpower, microhabits and routine. Over the years I’ve become very good at actually doing the good things that require willpower to maintain. But it still doesn’t come naturally.
Luckily, I’m not alone in finding regular discipline hard. One Puttyverse member shared:
“I’m currently experimenting with writing a book in short daily bursts. Honestly, I tend to lose the motivation and excitement when I’m not seeing the results and these projects fizzle out for me.”
This was a relief to hear because it describes my experience with writing perfectly. Both of my books were written by stringing together long, hard days in intense months of creativity. In between, I’ve tried many, many times to write just a few words a day, but I either lose motivation, or the words I write tend to be rubbish. (Hard to imagine, I know.)
It’s tempting to conclude that this means deeper focus is needed for creative work such as writing. But that conclusion would be wrong. After all, the daily technique works for some people. Check out this tweet from writer Cory Doctorow:
“That’s my daily word count – 500 words/day, 5 days/week. Novel every 8 months or so.”
My difficulty, then, isn’t purely with the task. And nor is it a purely personal failing of my own. After all, I manage this sort of small, daily commitment in other areas of life, such as cleaning or keeping fit.
I can only conclude that any given task can be done in frequent, small bursts by some people… and for others, long periods of focus may be required for the same task.
Some contributors demonstrated this perfectly:
“I think very short amounts of time are great for language learning. I can sit down and do five minutes on Duolingo or Memrise, easily, and see great progress. But anything that involves using my hands is an absolute disaster if I only have five minutes.”
“I honestly can’t think of anything other than knitting or sewing where I’ve successfully made noticeable progress by spending short periods of time. But I often set aside 15-20 minutes from my lunch break to stitch.”
One member can’t use their hands for a short period, while the other happily stitches for the same duration! Once again, we’re all different.
Not all goals are created equal
Not only are we all different, but our goals vary too. Maybe I only ever wanted to plant a few trees instead of a forest. Or, to take a more personally relevant example, perhaps I don’t want to be fluent in Japanese, but I would like to understand a menu. Many goals are better suited to one-off burst of intense enthusiasm than a sustained day-by-day effort. Take this example:
“I needed a home server for a project. So over the course of a day I taught myself unix commands, installed an ubuntu server, and set it up to run the specific applications I needed. I had achieved my goal by the end of the day.”
And, of course, you can mix-and-match your approach by making smaller subgoals as part of a larger overarching project, as this contribution demonstrates:
“We have an urban homestead and a pretty austere budget for upkeep and improvements so I prioritize one specific sub-project per year as part of a longer 10(ish) year plan. For example, this year the goal was replacing our chicken run.”
When I’m hoping to make progress on a new goal, I can experiment to see whether I just need to show up daily (like with cleaning and fitness) or if I need to set aside longer chunks of time (like with writing).
And knowing that we all have a unique relationship to dividing our time between projects helps me to avoid comparing my progress against others. They might set aside whole days for cleaning and then write for a few minutes at a time… but I don’t have to feel guilty that I work better if I do it the other way around!
The final lesson I learned is that self-knowledge always helps. One contributor recognized that their natural approach has often been both a strength AND a weakness:
“When I gave your queries some thought, I could retrace much of what I’ve achieved, and much that I messed up on, by seeking my aims more in bursts than in slow, steady appliance.”
Are there places that you’re attempting bursts of enthusiasm where slow, steady appliance might work better for you? Or the other way around? Perhaps there’s a way of working towards your goals that would be more natural for you.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.