Personal Productivity by Marc Andreessen

by Krishna on June 14, 2007

Recently, I came across Marc Andreessen’s blog. If you remember, he was the co-founder of Netscape Corporation which, for some time during the late 1990s, gave Microsoft a scare with its dominance of the browser market. He has been writing some really good articles, which, like Paul Graham's, are a joy to read.

One of the articles talks about his guide to personal productivity. It was pretty interesting, so I thought I would add my thoughts to his. Please read his article first so that my comments below make sense:

  1. I agree that not keeping a schedule is liberating to an extent. When you have a meeting planned for a certain time in the day, everything else has to be scheduled around it. You sometimes postpone certain tasks that may interfere with the meeting, and instead, remain idle or work on unimportant tasks.However, tasks (that you don’t enjoy doing) like legal paperwork or certain meetings are better off scheduled. This way, you can block other activities and get them out of the way, instead of having them festering at the back of your mind. Also, you cannot entirely get away from schedules, because the rest of the world doesn’t quite work that way.
  2. Keeping only three lists is good, ONE is better. The idea is that you should know where to look for your tasks, pending or otherwise. Many people have things scattered at multiple places and it wastes a lot of time. Keeping things organized by 3 lists (To Do, Watch and Later) is good. But it can be further streamlined into one list, and perhaps, scheduling.For example, if it works for you, you can use your email Inbox as your list. Anything that is in the Inbox must be acted upon at some point and you can ignore what is not there. You can add new tasks for yourself by sending an email. Clear out items from the Inbox as you finish the task. You can also use the Calendar in conjunction, especially with regard to recurring tasks. Automatic bill payment can also save a lot of time.
  3. Index cards — why? This seems like additional work. From the previous point, we already have a list. Why not look at that list and decide what you want to do the next day? Preparing and carrying index cards is really not simplifying life. Also, my personal opinion is that you should do the prioritization work at the end of your day’s work (at office or home) and not wait before you go to sleep. Planning to do something before you sleep conflicts with Point (1) above.
  4. Anti-Todo List — more lists? The list of lists keeps growing! I can understand the reasoning behind what Marc is saying, but really, isn’t work its own motivation? I think a better use of one’s time is to figure out why you couldn’t do all the things you wanted to do. And then, use that information to avoid activities that have disrupted you. For example, if someone is constantly interrupting you, it is a sign that they probably don’t have enough information to be self-reliant. Hence, you may need to have a longer meeting with them to clarify all their questions and reduce future interruptions.
  5. Structured Procrastination — I like it. If you don’t feel like doing something, do something else to fill the time. Even sleeping is good — give your body the rest it needs. Certain chores at work or in the household keep getting postponed because of other urgent matters. But they still have to be done, so use the procrastination time to wipe them off your list. In fact, when these minor items are dealt with, it is easier to concentrate on the tough, unpleasant tasks.
  6. I remember seeing an episode on “Everybody Loves Raymond” about Strategic Incompetence, though they didn’t use those exact words. The husband doesn’t “know” how to do household work like ironing or cleaning while the wife doesn’t “know” anything about electronics. That way, they could get out of doing the work even though they profess to be interested in helping the other person.Although it seems like an interesting method, it depends on the situation. Sometimes, delegating it to someone else or telling the truth about lack of time and/or interest may be the right solution. The problem with strategic incompetence is that people may not come to you for something important that you could do better than others. And they end up creating new problems for you while you are oblivious to the situation.
  7. I like the general point behind the tactic of doing email only twice a day: If you are doing anything creative or something that needs dedicated attention, email is very distracting. Instant messaging is even more so. It basically depends on how you operate at work: If your work revolves around using email as a dashboard to drive your day, then this advice may not apply to you. If your day consists of many different tasks and real-time communication and decisions are important, then email cannot be relegated to the back burner.Marc mentions that someone who really wants to reach you can call you, but in a later point, he says, “Don’t answer the phone.” Shutting off email and not answering your phone means that you are effectively unreachable for several hours during working hours. Someone at a different geographic location desperately trying to inform you about some work-related issue is probably going to get more desperate.
  8. I agree with his idea that when you finish processing email, you should try to have an empty inbox. But I don’t agree with achieving that by moving items into Pending and Review. Then your Inbox is not really empty. You are just creating another folder you need to pay attention to. There is only one rule for an email message: Do you need to take any action on the email again? If so, keep it in your Inbox. Otherwise do what you have to do and move it out.Keep the “Review” items in the Inbox itself. If you really need to review them, you will review them soon and then move them out. If they stay for more than a few days, they didn’t really need to be reviewed and you will move them out. As for any emails you want to keep for reference or backup, move them to a well-named folder and use Search to find them again if you need to. Use a task management system or calendar scheduling to remind you about any follow-ups.
  9. Don’t answer the phone, but only if you don’t know who is calling. If it is something important, the person will leave you a voice message. If you recognize the phone number, my feeling is that you should pick it up out of respect and courtesy. I get irritated when I call someone and they don’t pick up the phone, especially when it is an urgent matter. Following the Golden Rule, I think it doesn’t make any sense if I also do the same.Once again, it depends on your job. If your company is in its early stages, you want to take every single call that comes because every individual who talks to you matters. It could be a potential or current customer or employee. You want to open the door when opportunity knocks. Not everything should be a slave to productivity. You should use productivity measures within the context of your overall goals.
  10. If you don’t want to be distracted, hiding in your iPod is a good thing. There are other things you can do, like closing your door and shutting down your instant messenger. If you display any signs that you are available, people will interrupt you. But even after you do all this and somebody still interrupts you, maybe it is something important. Pay attention.I think a question to ask here is: why do people interrupt you? If it is a work-related interruption, then somebody needs your attention and you should probably take time out to help them. Better yet, help them understand the way to solve the problem so that it doesn’t occur again. If somebody interrupts you at work for something non-work-related, muster the courage to tell them that you have a lot of work to do and can talk later. Being open is much better than hiding.
  11. Have a good breakfast. Definitely. Take care of your health. Sleep well. Laugh. Enjoy life. You will be much more productive and full of energy when you get down to work.
  12. I also agree with the idea of taking up new commitments only when both your head and heart agree, but it is not easy. Sometimes a new project or activity looks very exciting, but then the amount of time and effort drains you and leaves you unable to devote sufficient time to existing work. Always leave some free time on your hands which you can use as you wish. Instead of adding more items to your plate, start clearing it by completing existing tasks and not accepting new ones unless they are really valuable.If you are already stacked up with activities, try to delegate. Buy more time from people waiting for you to complete the work. Apologize profusely to those collaborating with you. Postpone any tasks that can be delayed. Cancel any that can be canceled. If you have money to buy time, do so — for example, order out instead of cooking, or buy a software application to automate a tedious task.
  13. Doing something you love is great advice. Practically speaking, though, while you should try to maximize the time you spend on interesting things, you must accept the fact that there will be boring and unpleasant tasks you need to do. As a manager, you have to manage conflict, do fire-fighting, prepare reports, etc. These don’t really add value, but it is part of the game. You have to learn to love them, otherwise they will drag you down until you cannot even get satisfaction from the interesting things you do.

Productivity” essentially means “doing more with your time”. But the question is what time period are we looking at? Are we looking at maximum productivity each day, each month or each year? Sometimes, taking a longer-term approach to productivity can mean reductions in immediate productivity.

For example, avoiding interruptions may mean you can get more of your personal work done, but your co-workers don’t get theirs done properly or on time. Accepting the interruption and spending 15–20 minutes addressing someone’s concerns and teaching them to find solutions may go a long way in setting up someone for success. Down the road, that can save you a lot of time, money and aggravation.

So I will leave you with this thought: Productivity is just one aspect you need to improve on. To focus on that entirely without paying attention to other concerns such as customer satisfaction and employee morale can lead you down a wrong path.

{ 3 comments }

Josh September 10, 2007 at 4:55 pm

With respect to Marc's productivity article, I really liked the 3 lists approach he advocates. I started out doing it in notepad, but that quickly because cumbersome. I wrote a small program to help keep track of it. It's free to download and use forever. It runs on Windows. Here's the link:

http://vizonware.com/downloads.html

If anyone has any suggestions, comments or ideas please don't hesitate to email me.

Krish September 11, 2007 at 6:45 am

Thanks for the comments, Josh

I liked your blog and have subscribed to it.

Josh September 13, 2007 at 6:26 am

Krish,

Thank you. Also check out http://hippofondue.com . I am known to rant in both places. I think that Hippo Fondue is more up to date. I'll try to keep them synchronized in the future though.

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