How do we organize our activities? There are many methods. I claim that if you like mindmaps, you will organize your activities in pipelines. This methodology is flexible and effective. It comes from the computer architecture universe.
How do we approach productivity?
While I briefly address common productivity subjects, my productivity course is very DIFFERENT. It covers organizing activities into pipelines, getting into the “flow” stage when you need it, and managing your own focus and energy. This is very much not the stuff you can find yourself unless you learn distributed software architecture, project management and recent research into psychological superfluidity.
Why is it better than organizing activities in simple quadrants or writing long lists? Well, we live in the 21st century. Every day we have a lot of activities specific for that day. We need to be flexible, yet we want to optimize the use of resources.
The main problem with resources
We have many kinds of different resources. Some are pretty self-evident: our time, our money and possibly our energy or attention. Other resources are more complex. Computers or subcontractors can do small tasks cost-effectively. The way we use space or setup and clean up time to build the right working environment is specific per activity. Then we disassemble and reuse.
For most of the activities that we do, there is more than one suitable time slot and more than one way of doing the activity. The combinatorics of all relevant resources are staggering, or as programmers may say NP-hard, like well known travelling salesman problem. To make things worse, a critical resource like our mindset and attention is somewhat unpredictable.
How do we handle this sort of optimization?
Use the right tool for every issue
We start from big hard issues. They cannot be easily distributed into smaller tasks. Usually we need to be focused and energetic. This state is called “flow” and it is achieved when the complexity of a challenge roughly corresponds to our skills and resources. Somehow brain chemistry magic happens and we get extremely productive and creative for a while. If we are prepared for the flow, and understand how to postprocess its results, we should be fine.
Next we use pipelines: groups of processes with similar stages sharing the same setup. For example, if we need to cut vegetables for a salad, antipasti and a soup, we can use the same process of rinsing, removing starch, peeling, cutting, and storing the product. Once we finished cutting, we can hide the cutting board, the peeling knife and chef’s knife, clean up the surface and move to the next activity.
Then we have activities that require very specific mindset. Some activities can be done when we are tired or defocused. If we happen to be in that mindset, we can as well do one of those activities, as we are not effective for anything else.
After we organize all of those, we are left with periodic activities like training and sporadic activities like reading a book. When we organize all of those, what we are left with are scraps good only for Pomodoro breaks.
In computers we love to multiprocess. As humans, multitasking often makes us dumber. There are easy ways to overcome this limitation.
First of all, many activities can be done by other people. We can ask kids to rinse the vegetables and we can ask the wife to cook, while we write a new lecture. Occasionally we can even get a subcontractor, like a company putting subtitles on our videos. When other people do our tasks, we can easily multitask. Clearly we will need to pay for such a favor, yet the tradeoff may be very favorable.
Next, we can use several processing pipes and switch between them. I have my video setup in the middle of our living rooms for weeks before Anna decides that enough is enough. This means I can write text and film it immediately after. Then I disassemble the equipment and put it in storage for several months.
Another cool methodology is assembling premanufactured elements. In this scenario, multiple elements are prepared and stored for future reuse, like articles in a blog. Then when needed, these articles can be collected and assembled into a backbone of a book. We can work on different elements from different projects all the time up to the assembly day.
To be honest, trying to optimize everything in the design stage can be hard. We usually start with a workable design that enables successful completion with suboptimal utilization. Then we notice underutilized resources and find ways to use those. Maybe we find ways to reuse garbage of one process in another.
For example, when we write long articles certain parts are removed in editing to streamline the text. We do not have to through them away, and can keep in a diary for future use.
If we do similar activities day after day, the routine builds up into a pipeline. For example, we start the morning by editing the previous day text because we are somewhat lazy from the sleep. Then we reach our prime time hours and we write texts using the previous day’s research. After the lunch, we are sleepy. This is a good time for online research. Next we are in prime time again, and we organize the research and prepare materials for the next day. We are tired once again, so we simply visit our favorite blogs hoping so stumble upon something useful. Then we go to sleep. And repeat.
This is a basic pipeline: each stage uses some inputs from the previous day, or maybe from a diary created months ago. It is workable and effective, as it uses the ups and downs of circadian rhythm and allows for some subconscious processing while we sleep. It is not optimal, since it does not include subcontractors, Pomodoro breaks, family time and so on. But it is something good enough to start from.
We design and memorize our pipelines often as we go. Fortunately mindmaps are very good for organizing flowcharts. This is even easier than regular flow charts, as we do not need to create as many branches. We can easily perform all the mindmap processing, like cutting and pasting branches, and we can reuse the same branches every time we do the specific activity.
Mindmaps are especially comfortable for memorizing parallel pipelines and dependencies between various branches.
In a way the traditional activity organization is more like mental palace, where the rooms and itineraries are fixed and we place various activities within. This is also a viable methodology, especially for recurring activities. However it is less flexible and does not have visualization for parallel processing and dependencies between the activities.
Flow as a pipeline
Often we imagine flow as a single step, but it is actually a part of a pipeline. Before we can experience flow we usually design the process and collect all the prerequisite assets and resources. After the flow, we usually need to organize the results and clean up the place. We also need to recuperate as flow tends to be exhausting. Possibly we also need to prepare for the next flow.
The tasks selected for the flow need to be big enough to be compatible with our skillset. So we may want to combine several simple tasks. At the same time, it is very hard to have more than two days of flow. So larger tasks should be broken into components.
Every activity needs some sort of design and preparation as well as refinement and cleanup. Try to design carefully and minimize the cleanup. In software people tend to spend too little time on design and too much time on debugging.
If this article is too short for you, take my productivity course. I talk about these subjects for 10 hours with many more tools.