To Be Productive, Be Prepared

Often we think of motivation and productivity as being connected by a sort of feedback loop. When we're motivated we make progress and seeing that progress keeps us motivated.

But that relationship is missing something important.

Motivation is the willingness to want to do something. This is of course an important first step in potentially being productive. We are better at things we want to do, rather than things we're forced to do by others, or by our own self discipline.

But motivation is nothing more than that. It helps us start, but it doesn't mean we'll finish, or even produce half of what we want to. Even when we are motivated, if we don't make enough progress our motivation has a way of epically disappearing.

I could be 100% motivated to learn to speak German, literally jumping out of bed each morning to do another lesson. But what if my tutor is too hard on me? What if she gives me work far beyond my ability? Of course I won't progress as much as I want to and my motivation will start to diminish.

Motivation by itself gives us the willingness to do something, but nothing more. Once we make a start, the game changes and it becomes about knowing how to make progress.

Knowing how to make progress and making progress are two different things, but we often conflate them and treat them as the same thing. We basically jump into the task and start. Only, it's not really starting because we're repeatedly stopping to think about design, architecture, security, how it will look, how it will work, which database to use [the list goes on].

But knowing how to make progress before you start is important. Before you start your next task, complete the following in as much detail as possible:

  1. Describe exactly what will the new [feature/bug/work unit] will do
  2. Describe exactly how it will do it, giving technical details
  3. If it has a visual element, quickly sketch what it'll look like

If you can do this before you start, you'll have a good idea of:

  1. What you're doing and what the definition of complete is for this work
  2. What to add and what to change in order to make it happen
  3. Roughly how it looks, which often clarifies details of point 2

Your mileage may vary in terms of how much detail you're able to think about before starting, but the more detail you have the fewer interruptions you'll need to bear while actually trying to make progress.

Productivity doesn't come from feeling motivated, it comes from knowing what you need to do in enough detail that you can complete it without continually stopping and losing your focus.

In the end, it's all about preparation.

You need to be prepared in order to be productive, don't just expect it to happen as a side effect of feeling motivated.