Increase Your Productivity

Over a period of 4 years at a full-time job, I wrote a book and grew a blog from nothing to 4500 subscribers, typically writing a 2000-4000 word post every week. All my work was over a couple of evenings and Saturday mornings. For the latter part of the period, I was flex-working remotely from a different city so I had a lot more control over my schedule.

The following are the behaviors I learned and internalized. Now that my entire life is a set of side projects, these really come in handy. Without these I'd get nothing done.

Feedback: Create feedback loops involving other people. Blogging naturally contains this. At first you get hooked in a sort of superficial way to the positive feedback/comments. But later, that external loop goes internal, gets hooked up to a gyroscope inside you, and keeps you going even if the feedback is inconsistent. Harder to do with a book, but you can engineer things. In this case, I started a writing group. Not for critiquing (I didn't show my manuscript to anyone until I was done, I abandoned beta-testing after Chapter 1), but for simple writing company. The pressure of having to show up to support others on their writing projects got me into a rhythm on my own project.

Regularity on Main Stuff: You have to put your main life on autopilot to the extent possible. This means putting all your energy into just 1-2 projects, minimizing interactions to just the critical few people, and putting all the work there on a very steady routine. This does not mean slacking off. It means reducing meta-thinking at your day job as near to zero as you can. This does not mean you become a dumb cog though. It mostly means picking allies carefully, cutting off time wasters, developing extraordinarily strong noise filters, not picking pointless fights, and going for quick, decisive wins when you do fight. That last point implies a certain amount of corporate-warrior talent. You have to develop a solid reputation for a) Being a complete master of your own turf b) not standing fools gladly c) Being extremely effective in helping others when you do choose to help them d) Being a dangerous person to cross. Sweet-natured pushover patsies generally cannot control their work-life enough to do side projects well. They will be taken advantage of in ways that make such autonomy impossible.

Win Flextime Privileges: Many people take the low road to flextime. They beg their managers for what effectively amounts to leniency and special treatment. No. Don't do that. EVER. Win flextime by becoming irreplaceable in what you do. Do it so well, and so irreplaceably, that it is clear to all that giving you flextime privileges makes you more effective, not less. 

Use Flextime Properly: Flextime isn't just an accountability shield (though it is that too, if you mix it with virtual work). It is only a meaningful variable if you use it start partitioning work by type rather than which bucket it belongs in. If you do your best creative work in the morning, save the creative components of both your work and side-project for the mornings, once you have flextime. If your dumb/stupid time is after 6 PM, do the dull busywork on both fronts after 6 PM. Combine errands, look for ways to hit two birds with one stone (but don't rationalize; synergize... yeah, yeah, I used a buzzword). This leads at a higher level to...

Find Work-Life Chemistry, not Work-Life Blending or Balance:Most people try to find a mythical "balance." This is dumb. It means you will do both your day job and your side projects with exceptional mediocrity. Slightly smarter is looking for work-life blending: optimizing schedules, rituals and feedback (points 1-3) in ways that get you to "good" on both fronts. Even this is not enough. What you need is to turn a zero-sum or negative-sum game into a positive-sum game. To use a chemical metaphor, you don't want mechanical mixing or an endothermic reaction. You want exothermic. You want your side-project and main work to feed off each other so that people actually see your side project as an asset.  

Own Your Hedging: Unless it is a hobby, a side-project is generally a hedge, and your coworkers will (correctly) suspect that you are building a life-raft and question your commitment to your main work. It's the opposite of burning bridges. I was in denial about this for a while. Then I admitted it to myself. Finally I admitted it to others. The right way to frame your hedging is to openly own it. If you are valuable enough, your side-project serves as a credible BATNA threat (best-alternative-to-a-negotiated-agreement) that will get people to play fair with you. But you need to demonstrate best faith, since the burden of proof that you are notslacking is on you. You need to deliver at 2x or some other multiple to show others that it is worth negotiating with you. The BATNA should not be a signal that you'll run at the first sign of a fight. It should be a signal that you will fight more aggressively and level-up the game because you have risk insurance. It also keeps them on their toes, to make sure that the project doesn't fail for reasons they control, which gives you a reason to exercise your BATNA. Your "I have better things to do" held in reserve motivates them to increase their own work.

Understand Your Script: If you are doing side projects, be honest with yourself. Introspect and figure out what that says about your life script. Don't pretend to be a dedicated careerist when your side project suggests that you are looking for an opportunity to start your own startup. You're fooling nobody. Once you understand your script, enact it openly, in a best-faith way. It is important for others to understand where you're coming from. It is even more important that they understand where you're headed. You'll be surprised at how many people want to share part of your journey with you anyway, even when it is clear it isn't a marriage for life.


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