Oct 6, 2020

Lessons on productivity

How do we manage to be productive and efficient while engaged in many projects and constantly getting interruptions?

Being asked this question frequently by students, staff, volunteers and others, let me give my humble personal reflections. First I start by saying that Einstein was right about theory of relativity not just in physics but in life. Efficiency is not a measurable indicator on its own, it is relative. I maybe more or less efficient today than tomorrow (efficiency fluctuates). I am almost certainly relatively more efficient now than 30 or 40 years ago; chalk that to experience and by that I do not mean accumulated knowledge only, but actually learning from mistakes and from periods of inefficiency.

Here I list a few tools that I use to increase ability to do many tasks in shorter period of time so readers may (or may not) find them useful. But what me to advise?

My age (I am 63) means I have made many many mistakes and learned many lessons having worked also in many jobs from menial jobs to being professor at medical schools like Duke and Yale. I have published over 150 scientific papers, over 500 articles, several books and also write a weekly blog on politics and the environment. I have in the past and still now have successfully and simultaneously run several “jobs” (vast majority unpaid), each one of them would keep other people busy. For example in the past 12 months: teaching official university courses, supervising master students and other interns' research, doing my own research and writing (weekly has an output), writing grant proposals, managing over 10 projects in which I was the lead applicant, giving seminars/webinars and workshops (1-3 per week), consulting for local and international organizations, administering an institute for biodiversity and sustainability (including museum of natural history, botanic garden, community garden, and a children's discovery playground), advocating and working for political and human rights, representing institution and/or Palestine in national and international level, serving on the board of local NGOs, engaging in humanitarian/philanthropic work and many more. 

Anyways, based on experience these are some hints which may or may not be useful to others:

-In biological evolution, mutations give the variation upon which natural selection works. In doing tasks in life, learn to mutate your ideas regularly trying different methods and approaches to see which works to achieve results.

-Thinking about some tasks takes more time than doing tasks, so plan it but more importantly just do it (time efficiency.)

-Do not be afraid of pressure and complexity. Take on more work and immerse yourself in it.

-Learn to tune in and tune out based on judgments of value of information. Corollary: focus on important information leading to outputs.

-Talk less, listen more (and take notes) and act even more. Corollary: Productive work is therapeutic.

-Do not reinvent the wheel: read a bit more of what others' experiences in life and learn from them (I read 1-2 hours a day and it is my most productive time.)

-Say yes I can do it and avoid making excuses for it not being done. Corollary: look in the mirror.

-Be flexible but also know what is important. Corollary: can switch brain function to other tasks when needed without losing first task.

-Aim to do tasks as best as you can but do learn from outputs so as to improve in time. Corollary: Tasks worth doing are worth doing well.

-Watch the environment and adapt. Corollary: Discard procedures not working & implement procedures to match needs.

-Stay humble, keep your eyes on the ball (serving society and nature). Corollary: we are all dispensable but we can serve and make a difference. [lighting a candle is better than cursing the darkness]

- Know that team work, helping others and helping your society is enlightened self-interest as opposed to selfishness. Corollary: at death beds people do not regret not having fancier cars, more salaries, or fatter bank accounts--- they regret not helping others, not spending time with loved ones, etc. (non material things that can’t be bought). I came to this world poor and want to die poor.

-Make lists and tick out the ones done. Corollary: Learn skills of prioritizing but retain that flexibility to reorder.

-Develop passion and interest in your work (or seek other work). Corollary: you are most inefficient at jobs you do not like, so learn to like them.

-Organize your thoughts, your home, your desk, and your files in your computer

-Record interruptions and then create a program to address them (whether self-generated or imposed from others).

-Hang around successful people and learn from the way they operate. Corollary that is not contradictory: help others who want to learn from you but adjust your time investment according to judgement of their progress or lack thereof.

-Time is your most important (and non-renewable) commodity. Measure and economize its use. Make a schedule with deadlines for tasks.

-Be kind and compassionate to all starting with yourself. Corollary: Develop respect: for ourselves, for others, for nature)

-Keep hope alive and never ever give up.

For other lessons learned not relating to tasking, see http://qumsiyeh.org/lessonslearned/


  1. Thank you; a perfect reminder of the important accomplishments and how each fits overall into what makes each life successful.

  2. These is all wonderful guidance for a productive and caring life. I will return to some of that wisdom. I would like to add breaks in nature vital for nourishing body and soul. Let us go to any wild areas and be renewed with their wonder.
    Thanks so much for all your communication. Áine

  3. Grazie per questi utili suggerimenti di vita