Splitting Firewood and Some of My Favorite Productivity Hacks
It starts as a massive pile of wood. Leftover from our home's previous owners, there was a 20 x 20 pile of wood sitting under two big pines in our back yard. Calling it firewood is a bit generous. Many of the rounds were left for several seasons and were covered in needles and dirt. After being left in the snow for several seasons, many had started to decay. In theory, it could work as firewood, but it had to be split and stacked first.
For anyone who has split firewood with an ax, it can be a bit of fun. When the wood is properly seasoned (dried) and has a relatively straight grain that splits on the first swing, it can be satisfying to release tension. It's also gratifying to see your productivity stack up in a tidy row of ready to use firewood.
This is not the case with our pile of firewood. It is knotty, unevenly cut, and in oddly long and misshapen rounds. Swinging the ax might yield an explosion of rotten wood or the dullening thud of hitting yet another knot. It's not fun. It's not that satisfying. It's just hard work. And the result of several hours is a small ugly little row of wood chunks that looks like it could tip over at any time.
Splitting our firewood got me thinking about work productivity. When it's easy to measure progress, like the clean stack of good firewood, it's easy to stay motivated. It's easy to keep working, keeping swinging, and push yourself. When work is hard, complicated, or when the result is messy, it can be an effort to swing just one more time.
Here are 3 of my favorite work productivity hacks that have helped me keep swinging when the work is all dirty, knotty, junk that someone else left behind.
There is a famous quote, attributed to Abraham Lincoln that says, "Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax." I think starting work early in the morning is a bit like beginning work by sharpening the ax.
Before the calls start, before the Slack pings, and the "hey got a sec?" begin to pile up, I work. I start my day at about 4:00 am when I take the dogs out for a walk. I used to listen to podcasts, but now I walk in the silence of the mountains. The time with a fresh mind to think about the day ahead, daydream about projects and ideas, or talk myself through problems has proven to be more valuable than anything I hear on the latest podcast. I think of this as sharpening, or maybe just cleaning the ax, before I get started.
Once I sit down to work, about 6:00 am, I start by reviewing my notes from the previous day and pulling forward anything that I didn't get completed. Again, more cleaning. After this, I will tackle some big piece of work, maybe a blog post, market research, or writing a design spec, before I start to get pulled in to the distractions of meetings, calls, etc.
Starting work early in the day has proven to be one of my most effective productivity hacks over the years.
I've tried to take notes in the latest software apps, I tried to take notes in a tablet app using a stylus so the notes would be searchable, but nothing has replaced the benefits of taking handwritten notes throughout the day.
I use a plain black Moleskin notebook and unless it's stolen in a moment of need, cheap black pens. It's not complicated. I don't use a fancy system of checkboxes or a scientifically proven method of capturing important notes. I just write things down. And the simple act of handwriting notes throughout the day has proven the most effective way for me to remember meetings, outcomes, and next steps.
In my Moleskin notebooks, I keep my running to-do list. Again, not electronically organized or searchable. Just a simple list of things that I need to do. When I complete a task, I cross it off. The next morning if it's not crossed off, I pull it forward or ask myself if I really need to do it.
How I tackle the to-do list is another personal productivity hack. It's a bit like how I dig into the messy woodpile. I start by looking for a couple of the rounds that look easier to split. I pick a couple of easy ones to put some points on the board, loosen up, and build some momentum and confidence in swinging at the knotty junk.
Similarly, when I start working on my to-do list, I look for a couple of easy wins. Return an email to a customer, update my project plans, or test the latest release. After I have a few crossed off, I will start swinging at the big complex items on the list. The items that will take more than a few swings to put in the done pile.
My last productivity hack is, of course, Olifano.
When I am splitting firewood, I try to minimize wasted motion. For example, I don't take my work gloves off between splitting rounds, I don't set the ax down, I don't stack wood as I split it, I split it all and then stack, and I don't break motion unless I need to catch my breath.
Similarly, I use Olifano every day to minimize wasted motion. I use Olifano to grab my Zoom meeting link, my calend.ly link, the URL to my latest blog post. I don't stop writing and open a new tab and search for these things. I just hover over the Olifano highlight and grab the URL or drag and drop the link from Olifano so I can keep swinging without loss of momentum.
These are 4 of my favorite productivity hacks for getting work done when the pile is deep and dirty.