To Become More Productive, Notice Friction

I, like most people, want to be more productive.
I also find that one of the most important skills to becoming more productive is not necessarily related to actual productivity habits themselves, but rather the meta-skill of noticing when something is full of friction.
What counts as friction?
Well, since we are discussing “productivity,” we may as well use an example from my own life that I’m feeling pretty good about.
One of the key tenets of Getting Things Done – or “GTD” as geeks like to call it – is having a universal capture mechanism for ideas. So, rather than having random scraps of paper, some notes in your phone, a few voice memos, and some half-remembered notions bouncing around your head, you have one spot where you put all of your inbound stuff.
“Your mind is for having ideas not holding them.”
I use Asana as my homebase for tasks, projects, reminders, etc.
I have a project called “Inbox” where I collect pretty much any input into my system. This includes starred Slack messages, emails that I forward to an email address linked to Asana, and random Siri-transcribed voice memos of things that strike me as a good idea during inopportune times.
Theoretically, I clean out my inbox every other day or so – completing tasks that are quick to-dos on the spot, relegating other tasks to repositories of ideas, creating projects out of confusing thoughts with bad grammar, moving reminders to projects for “Follow-Up” or “Someday,” etc.
And I hate doing this. Because it’s full of friction.
My brain has to work so hard to figure out how to categorize everything, and I oftentimes can’t summon the energy to spend 30 minutes moving stuff around.
So the list grows. And then I know it will take 60 minutes to move everything around. So there’s more friction.
And this is where most people quit. We say things like, “Yeah, I tried to do something like that, and it was more work to use a system than to just remember what I need to do.”
And then we go on with our lives constantly forgetting to do things and having unclear priorities in our work, levying a tax on everyone who has to work with us and constantly remind us about accepted obligations, check on progress of to-dos, and generally keep us on track.
Instead, that friction  – that discomfort, that ugh, I don’t want to do this – is something to be leaned into.
Friction is indicative of a messy process. Something that isn’t quite right. Something that hasn’t been properly broken into an actionable task. A categorization scheme that doesn’t make any sense.
In the case of my Asana Inbox, I had too many disjointed things coming in, and I didn’t have good spots to put them. Here’s why I was having such a hard time:
•I was using Asana to capture notes that weren’t related to specific projects – more “general interesting things” or quotes from articles or papers that I wanted to save for future reference
•I was using Asana to capture things that I wanted to read and research more
•I didn’t have a clear system for how to catalog tasks and projects for things that I wanted to do “someday” – either things to learn, projects that aren’t a priority now but that are good to keep on the radar, events that I should consider attending, etc.
Based upon this, I would have nebulous tasks, links to scientific papers that I want to read, and quotes from articles cluttering my inbox. And I would hate going through it since I would rarely be in the mood or have the bandwidth to make high level decisions on priorities, read a dense academic paper, or categorize some abstract idea from a blog post into a useful project.
By recognizing this friction, I’ve been able to clarify my thinking around capturing tasks and develop cleaner systems for different types of ideas. So now, I no longer need to push through a mental molasses every time I think about what to do with my uncategorized tasks.
I’ll keep rolling with this example, since I think that having very tangible, in-the-weeds flows can be helpful (even if you don’t use the same system or have the same struggles that I do):
•I now have an Inbox in Evernote specifically for notes from articles so those don’t even touch Asana. This makes the Asana workflow much simpler – and doing all of the “note categorization” at once flows nicely once you get in a rhythm. While David Allen advocates having one inbox, I find that separating things like “notes” from “tasks” is very helpful. Besides, going through multiple notes at once can spark some interesting connections between seemingly disparate ideas.
•I refined the way I think about things that I want to do “someday” or ideas for projects that I’m not currently working. I have more clear categorizations for “Things that should be considered in the next few months” vs “Things that seem cool that I should periodically check on.” I also clearly split out different types of ideas: ideas for SLSC, ideas for Legion, things I would like to learn, courses I would like to attend, etc. This results in much cleaner buckets for these “maybe someday” ideas, and allows for easy categorization.
Has this made me more productive? Tough to say – but it certainly feels a lot better.
And the point here isn’t to “get better at understanding how to categorize your ideas and create better buckets for them to fit into.”
The point is “recognize when there’s something that causes a lot of friction in your brain and figure out a different way to do it.” If you do this enough times, you’ll be astonished at how much progress you can make.
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