What is the secret to insane productivity?

by:  Yanting Shen, PhD student in machine learning at University of Oxford

I recently finished a 4-page conference paper within 24hours of being informed such a project using a system I call '139 system':

  1. list all tasks you need to do in the day, big and small, and chop-up big projects like writing a paper into small tasks (I had 79 things that day, about 30 are paper-related)
  2. organise them by importance/priority:
    1. level 1:  1 top-priority task
    2. level 2: 3 secondary-priority tasks
    3. level 3: 9 tertiary-priority tasks
    4. level 4: all the rest
  3. do the tasks level by level. after finishing a level, select a few tasks from the next level to fill up the finished level(s), and repeat till you are tired and call off the day.

(The numbers of tasks in level 2 and 3 don't have to be 3 and 9, but I recommend level 1 has only one task. If you have more than 121 (=1+3+9+27+81) tasks you can add a fourth level with 27 tasks, and so on...)

Before I started, my goal was only to finish a very rough draft, with broken language, illogic structure and imperfect figures tolerated, as I am a chronic procrastinator and the deadline was 3 weeks away, so I would not push myself too hard, but the 'momentum' and the good feeling of finishing the very most important task of my day motivated me to finish as much as I could, and I didn't really care about the orderliness of my system as I finished some tasks as they sprang without putting them into some levels. By the time I called off the day (it was only 18:30) I still had 28 (least important) tasks left, but had finished the paper to ready-to-submit quality and sent to my supervisor to review first, read 2 hours of textbooks and 4 papers and wrote a peer-review for another paper, and coded up some complex machine learning models. And I'm deliberately limiting my work hours using this system to pace myself and avoid using up my data too early... I think this qualifies insane productivity.

I think this system works because there are limitless to-dos but we only have limited time. So the optimised use of time is to do the most important thing at all time. Even though one can't follow the system strictly like a machine, one can still achieve relatively high productivity. The key is not to beat yourself up when you feel like to deviate from this system. Also every time I pick up some tasks from the lower level to fill up the higher level, I feel motivated, and think of the top task the task of my choice rather than the task I have to do.

I had tried 'schedule everything' system (allocate everything a time to do) and found it didn't work for me for some reason, perhaps the same root of my procrastination - don't want to do what is predetermined. This also echoes in the caveat of the '139' system: if I complete the selection of the tasks of all levels before i am ready to work, it can be difficult to start, because the top task can be difficult or stressful or boring. So my advice is to make the selection not the first thing in the morning, but when you are ready to work.

The final words: the '139' system is an insanely-productive system for procrastinators who don't like to do pre-determined things, just don't select any tasks before ready for work. Although I don't know anyone else using it, I think it should work for non-procrastinators as well, but they may not need this sophisticated system anyway...