The majority of productivity systems increase productivity through the use of elaborate systems and complicated rules. Therefore, increases in productivity typically come with a considerable time investment while learning and implementing the new productivity system. But, what if you just want some quick ways to increase productivity without investing time in a complicated system?
One way to increase productivity without learning a new productivity system is to decrease the time between thought and action.
The distance between thought and action is a bottleneck
Thought precedes action. The time between thought and action creates a bottleneck to productivity. Decreasing the time between thought and action increases productivity and focus. Productivity increases because less time is needed to accomplish a task. Focus increases as shortening the time between thought and action means you need less working memory (i.e., a brief memory store in your brain used to hold and manipulate information) resources leaving more for continuing your desired train of thought. Moreover, increased focus should lead to an increased propensity for further thought generation. That is, the less time spent holding any single thought in one’s head, the greater likelihood that the thought will continue to generate other meaningful thoughts on the topic (e.g., one cannot think of the next thing in a sequence if they are too busy ensuring they keep the first thing in their head). Working memory is fleeting and keeping things in it is effortful. Sometimes the thoughts that follow the initial idea are the ones that are important and worth remembering. Reducing the time between thought and action increases the likelihood that those second-order thoughts will occur.
Imagine Jane is working at her computer and has a great idea for her next book and wants to quickly write down her thoughts. To capture her idea, she must locate her book idea file, open her writing app, title the file, insert the date/time, title the note, and begin writing. While accomplishing these steps, she must also simultaneously hold her initial thought in her head in working memory. While Jane is doing these steps, the idea (and thoughts that surround it) are quickly fading and the train of thought that may have propelled her into new ideas beyond the original may be lost.
But, it does not have to be this way.
Now, imagine Jane increases her focus and productivity by shortening the time between her thought (idea for a new book) and action (capturing her idea). In this new scenario, Jane presses a keyboard shortcut which opens her book idea file in her writing app of choice, insert the date/time, title, and places the cursor at the appropriate place for her to start typing her new idea. When Jane finishes outlining the idea, a new set of keystrokes saves the document and quits the writing app leaving her to continue her original work. By minimizing the time between thought and action, Jane can get the idea out quickly and increase her focus.
How to minimize the space between thought and action
There are many ways to minimize the time between thought and action. Below are a few examples.
As described in the earlier example with Jane, one way to minimize the time between thought and action is by utilizing contextual computing. Contextual computing is using a computer in such a way that it minimizes the steps between thought and action. This requires that you set up your device such that, when you have a thought, you are immediately presented with the specific context upon which you can act. For example, if Jane wants to work on her blog, she could tap the blog shortcut on her iPad (or launch a script) that will open her blog writing platform and begin a new page with a “#” at the top for a markdown title. Thus, from the moment that Jane has the idea to write, she is one keystroke (or tap) away from capturing her idea. Contextual computing allows Jane to minimize the time between thought and action thereby maximizing her ability to maintain focus and attention. Contextual computing is not just limited to writing. You can use this concept to maximize productivity and minimize the latency between thought and action in almost all computing tasks. For example, let’s say that Jane would like to work on email related to her work. However, she is never as productive as she should be in processing her work email because she always gets distracted by the personal email messages that appear in her unified inbox. One way that she can shorten the time between thought and action is to set up an automation that opens her email directly to her work inbox only bypassing the distracting email messages in her personal inbox and allowing her to focus on responding to her work email.
Learning to touch type (i.e., typing without looking at the keys) is another way to shorten the time between thought and action. Touch typing increases the speed with which you can get words on the page saving you time from searching for the keys on the keyboard. If you can get the words out of your head quicker, you increase productivity and focus. The productivity boost comes not just from getting more words on the page quickly; it also comes from ensuring that the flow of thoughts and ideas, while you write, is uninterrupted. Touch typing should not only increase the speed you can create documents, but those documents should also be of higher quality. If you do not already touch-type, you can learn how by covering your keyboard and practicing on a standard keyboard. If you are a touch typist but want to improve, you can use websites such as Das Keyboards Typrx website. No matter your skill level learning to touch type will shorten the time between thought and action leading to better focus and increased productivity.
Making use of the idea
I hope that you will take ideas from this post and implement them in your life. The earlier examples should serve as two of many ways in which you can increase productivity and focus by decreasing the time between thought and action. How you decrease the time between thought and action will be unique to your needs and particular work setup. Your needs are unique to you and will require unique solutions. Thus, the goal of this post is to introduce you to the idea; it is up to you to meaningfully apply the ideas to your life.
How can you create systems in your life that minimize the time between thought and action?
- This idea may have been originally coined by Merlin Mann on his original 43 folders blog. However, the blog has been dormant for many years and I cannot find the initial reference. ↩
- Better yet, this entire process can be automated by writing a script that asks Jane for the pertinent information (e.g., title) and automatically appends that information to the appropriate file in place without forcing Jane to leave her current context. ↩
- Here is a great podcast episode in which the hosts discuss the concept of contextual computing in great detail ↩
- The easiest way to accomplish this is to take a large shoebox and cut a hole in one side to cover the keys from sight but still allow your hands to reach the keys. ↩