On their own, our brains can only handle so much.
The cumulative burden of stress that the human brain manages—from work, life, and everything in between—is called our “allostatic load.” Every action, from choosing an outfit to coding a website to attending PTA meetings, adds to our allostatic load. Up to a point, adding to our allostatic load is good; it keeps us engaged, focused, productive. But past that point, we get overloaded, and our productivity suffers.
Our brains simply can’t handle stress past a certain level.
Beyond that level, all high-functioning individuals need productivity systems.
There are infinite ways to configure your productivity system. It all depends on your goals, your obligations, your natural preferences. No two people’s productivity systems will look identical, but by learning the ways others have managed their allostatic loads, each of us can build systems of our own.
Here are three core elements of a productivity system (and how I balance them):
Step one is defining what’s important to you—what outcomes you’re building toward. Do you want to spend more time with your family? Complete your work more diligently and efficiently? Reduce your anxiety?
Once you have a shortlist of objectives, split your life into digital and analog. Digital and analog organizational systems have different benefits. Here’s what I use:
- Tickler File (analog). A tried-and-true method for setting daily reminders, first introduced in David Allen’s 2001 book Getting Things Done. The system uses good old folders in a filing cabinet—31 of them, to represent the maximum number of days in a month (some people also use 12 additional folders for the months themselves). Each time you need to remind yourself of something on a particular day, write it on a piece of paper and stick it in the corresponding folder. For a flight you need to book on May 5th, put the sheet in folder #5. At the beginning of that day, take out the folder, look through your reminders, and start checking things off the list.
- Inbox 0 (digital). I use my email inbox as a to-do list. Early each day, I sort new emails into three folders: action (things I have to address), waiting-for (things other people have to address), and reference (things I might want to refer back to in the future). That way, I know where and when to devote my energies.
- Actions vs. Projects. A project is anything consisting of three or more actions. Classifying my responsibilities this way lets me allocate my time more efficiently. Within this, there’s the 2-minute rule: If I can complete an action in less than two minutes, I do it right away.
Organization isn’t just about your physical/professional world. Staying mentally organized is equally as important—it lets you bring your freshest mind to every task.
I meditate twice a day:
- Intentional meditation: I use this time to think about specific tasks, envision my future, and express gratitude. I often burn sage and listen to music (Alexi Murdoch has been on heavy rotation lately). 10 minutes.
- Mindfulness meditation: Where intentional meditation is object-oriented, mindfulness meditation is more free form. I listen to my body. I watch my thoughts arise and decay. I let myself fall into a calm flow. 10 minutes.
Reading through the health hazards of not getting enough physical activity is a little bit like watching a Jordan Peele movie. The human body simply needs exercise to function at a high level…or else.
My three main methods of physical activity:
- The gym. Three times per week.
- Walks. The pandemic reminded many people of the benefits of walks. A 20–30-minute walk has incredibly powerful mind-clearing effects.
- Hikes. Hikes are a weekend activity that I’ll do with my family. If you’re feeling a little fried, immersing yourself in nature can be incredibly healing.
At the end of the day, we’re all looking for fulfillment. If fulfillment is the outcome, then productivity is the mechanic. Productivity isn’t about doing more things, it’s about doing the right things, the right way—finding an allostatic balance and working it, day in, day out.