Unusual Subroutines

The blog and musings of Christopher Allen-Poole

Productive Activities

I've started to think about my own life efforts in the context of "productivity." I don't just mean work efforts, I mean life efforts. If you're only focused on productivity at work then you've missed more than half of your hours in a work day, and at least 60% of your week. Productivity can't just be focused on the office.

So, step one is determine what do you want to do? What are the things you would like to accomplish? 12 Week Year advocates a quarterly planning approach, Productivity Project advocates a daily "top three things". Other resources have their own prioritization techniques, but it seems that they all have some similar ideas.

  • What do you want to accomplish?
  • What do you need to do on a daily basis to accomplish this?
  • Create a rapid experimentation and feedback cycle to make sure you are accomplishing goals.

The first thing that I've noticed, personally, is that creating a list of priorities is hard. Actually, that's not true at all. A list of priorities, is easy to create. Just sit down and write. In my case, step two is equally easy. Throw it out. Unless I make my plans for a day cynically simplistic, I find that I encounter a large amount of unplanned activity (note: I'm using the term "activity" here because some things are not "work". Exercise is not "work" to me, but fits more on the "enjoyment" side.) on an almost daily basis.

Types of Activity

Unplanned activity falls into a few categories:

  • Recurring
  • Un-plan-able
  • Plan-able.


These are the "I don't even think about it but it needs to be done" activities. These are mundane things, like taking out the trash or folding laundry. They might less than an hour, but they have to get done. I also include walking the dog and exercise in this list. All of these need to get done, and I can plan for them, but I wonder if including them on a TODO list would be meaningful at all. Productivity Project recommends that your daily "list of three accomplishments" should be the things which will make you feel like you managed to win at today. If these fall through the cracks then something has gone seriously wrong. I feel gross if I don't get exercise and a shower.


The whole family is together and has the chance to go get ice cream, car breaks down, a tree falls in your yard, an old friend wants to meet for coffee. These are the things which require adaptation and re-prioritization. Unfortunately, it just about nukes your ability to keep your plans together.

When these happen, your only choice is to ask, "is this something that fits my other priorities?" If you can even manage to ask that question you'll end up coming out ahead of the rest of the crowd.


Second are plan-able, significant, but weren't accounted for. Think "car oil change" or "mow the lawn". You could know that these things are upcoming, but you don't, because that level of knowledge is extremely difficult to accomplish. These are the major weak points in the system. These are the place where the most benefits can be realized.


It looks like a task-based prioritization system is probably destined to fail. There are too many things which can get in the way so far, and too many things which can go wrong. Tasks or activities are spontaneous and take unexpected amounts of time. On the other hand, time blocks are a knowable resource, which always have the same cost. And maybe that is where the better approach lies.

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