By Thomas Frank
It’s time for you to become a robot.
Robots operate on pre-defined instructions; every action they take is the result of prior programming done by their operators.
In fact, the word robot is a adaptation of the Czech word robotnik, which translates directly to “worker,” an in older Slavic languages, “slave”.
Workers and slaves do not typically take care of the planning aspects of a projects. However, when motivated properly, they do get down to business and get shit done.
As a student, you’re not often forced to go into worker/slave mode. Jorgen von Strangle, the toughest fairy in the universe, is not standing behind you in preparation to put his boot up your rear every time you have to study.
A pity, that… because it’s often exactly what you need. Your freedom of choice is one of the most devious culprits in the sabotage of your productivity.
In this post, I’ll show you how to eliminate that freedom when you need to get down to business by planning ahead. You may not have Jorgen around to motivate you, but you can essentially become him. Here’s how.
The Cost of Choice
Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School, has done a lot of research into the topic of choice. Here’s a quote from her that summarizes a lot of her work:
“There are times when the presence of more choices can make us choose things that are not good for us. For me, the clearest example is that the more retirement fund options a person has, the less likely they are to save for their old age.”
If you’d like to dig into the research behind this quote, Iyengar published a paper with her findings that you can check out.
It makes sense though, right? A lot of people never start investing because they feel there are just too many options, and they’re afraid of picking the wrong one. Ironically (and tragically), the most wrong option is usually waiting too long to invest.
As an entrepreneur, I run into the productivity-related version of this problem a lot. Instead of worrying about marginal financial returns, I’m fretting over marginal opportunity costs.
Should I write a post or work on my book? Maybe I should rewrite the About page since most people visit that. Or maybe I should tweak the design of the homepage to increase the amount of time people stay on site.
When I get to worrying about this stuff, I usually just sit around looking at the site and getting nothing done. Worrying about marginal returns in my head, I actually harm myself in reality.
And this is exactly what you do as a student as well. You wonder which homework assignment you should tackle first, which class you should study for now and which to save for later. A successful student doesn’t spend very much time on this problem at all; instead; they deal with it during a short period up front, and then immediately go into robot mode.
Planning vs. Doing
I was hanging out with Kanye West the other day and asked him for some productivity advice. He said, “Go get me a pumpkin spice latte; this infinity scarf feels all wrong without one.”
After that, though, he told me:
“You’ve got two modes: Planning and Doing. You can only be in one mode at a time, so get all your planning done up front. Also, the most important thing is to-OW I BURNED MY TONGUE”
I never learned what that most important thing was, but once I woke up from the dream I realized I had known this advice deep down in my heart the whole time. It had just been tucked away in an unseen corner, hidden by a sign that said, “Beware of the leopard.”
Planning is the first step to eliminating choices and forcing yourself to focus on a single task. Before you start getting into Doing mode, take some time to actually plan out what it is that you need to do. Pay attention to:
- The context of each task – how mentally taxing it is, where it needs to be done, what tools are needed
- The priority – which tasks are most urgent
- Your mental state – are you energized right now or not?
By paying attention to your mental state and the contexts of your tasks, you can batch tasks of similar mental intensities and get them all done at once.
Likewise, considering priority will help you decide what order to tackle your work in.
When I wake up each morning, I have a task I have to check off in HabitRPG called Plan Day. To check that off, I have to write down what I’m going to do that day on my whiteboard – and in what order.
By doing this, I always know what I need to be doing and when to do it. I highly recommend doing something similar as well.
Likewise, individual projects should be broken into steps and prioritized as well. “Study for Calculus Final” isn’t a good task – it doesn’t implicitly tell you exactly what to do, so it should be broken up into action steps that a robot could do, like:
- Set up study area and download practice problem set from Blackboard
- Review chapter on L’Hôpital’s rule in textbook and take summarized notes
- Work through problem set
I call this the Captain America Method, because I like superheroes and shaky metaphors.
Captain America was able to break a large-scale alien invasion down into components and direct his resources (the Avengers) to each portion; similarly, you should be able to break up your tasks and devote your resources (blocks of time) to each step.
Here’s a real-world example: For each of the videos I make for my YouTube channel, I have to create B-roll – all the graphics, animations, and other things that go over the main footage of me talking.
Without B-roll, the videos would be much less interesting. However, creating it is a lot of work. It’s a messy process and takes a really long time to do. So, in order to keep my mind focused, I created this list for my video on active reading:
Look at the legend at the top: I’ve broken this list of 20-something B-roll items down in to contexts. Some are just text, some are graphics, and some are full-blown animations.
They’re also written in the order that they appear in the video. Lastly, the two columns of checkmarks let me track my progress on both creating the B-roll in Photoshop and including it in my Premiere Pro video project.
With this list in hand, I was able to go down the line on a per-context basis. First, I created almost everything in Photoshop, and then I moved onto Premiere. This was a lot more efficient than switching between the two for each item.
Once you have your plan created, you can finally switch out of Planning mode and into Doing/Robot mode.
One last tip here: try using the Pomodoro Technique to keep yourself focused once you go into Doing mode. Set a timer for 25 minutes (or another interval you choose) and try your best to work only on your chosen task for that time.
Afterwards, give yourself a 5-minute break. Repeat. If you want a really simple tool to help you with this, try Tomato Timer.
In short, be a robot when you’re in Doing mode, and make sure you go into Planning Mode ahead of time.
Here are your action items:
- Keep up to date with all you need to do – have your tasks in a system you trust (Quick Capture helps here)
- Create a daily plan of action – and make it a habit
- Use the Captain America method to break down big projects into small tasks – then prioritize them
- Try the Pomodoro Technique to further reinforce robot mode
- Cut out distractions that could derail you