Know thyself. The New Year's resolution that underlies all productivity advice

By Charles Sutton on January 5, 2019

I’m a sucker for New Year’s resolutions. Every year I make up a half dozen resolutions, usually the same ones each year, and carefully track my progress for at least two or three months before I get busy and forget all about them. And in all seriousness, I’m happy about this, because sometimes, for maybe one resolution in four, I’m still able to make a lasting change in my habits. That’s more than enough to justify the effort, as long as I take the failures in good humor.

You don’t have to be as silly about resolutions as I am, or even to have any resolutions at all, but the underlying principle is important for any creative work. You could say that it’s the underlying principle behind all of the advice in this blog.

You need to know yourself, understand the way you think, adapt the way you work to the way you think, and always keep looking for ways to work better.

You will have all kinds of little preferences about when you are most alert, creative, and productive. Maybe you like to work in the morning. Maybe you like to have a bit of background noise, like in a coffee shop. Maybe you need almost absolute quiet. Maybe you like to work from home, or maybe you prefer the structure of having an office, where your work space is separate from home. Maybe you like to pace around the office, talking to yourself and gesticulating wildly. Or maybe that’s just me. Ahem.

Whatever it is, you need to learn what makes you think most effectively, and seek out that environment. No one can do that for you. Your best work space will be different for you than it is for me. (And good thing, too, otherwise all of Google would be people bumping into each other in the hallways because they were too busy talking to themselves.) The only way to know is to experiment and find out what works for you.

And it’s also vital for us to keep experimenting, no matter how senior we are in our careers. One reason is (I think this is from David Allen), “The better you get, the better you’d better get.” As you become more accomplished, you gain a reputation which means that more demands are placed on you. Another reason is that no matter how good you are, you haven’t learned all of the tricks. Your mental rhythms change as you get older, just as an athlete in his thirties trains differently than a teenager. Finally, the creative challenges change as you get later in your career, as you need to learn to adapt to the way that the field has changed in twenty years.

What’s always appealed to me about the research career is that you never stop learning. This is as much true for how you set up the environment of your work as it is for the content of your work.