Four productivity techniques if you love working with others but work alone
I love working with other people. I’m the most focused and have my best ideas when talking out loud, and I often rely on others to hold myself accountable. However, I work on a small team where we have each our own separate responsibilities, and so most of the time I work alone. The past five years I’ve found some workarounds that I thought I’d share. I use them daily at my job to cover parts of what I enjoy about working with others: talking through difficult issues out loud with someone else, building on each other’s ideas through brainwriting, delegating tasks that I find hard to do myself, and being held accountable by others.
1. Have meetings with myself (ideally walking)
Whenever I get stuck on something, or notice I'm struggling to wrap my head around a difficult issue, I schedule a meeting with myself. Most often, this means I go on a walk with my over-ear headphones and talk out loud, pretending I'm on a meeting call with someone else. If you worry less about what others think of you, you can of course do it without the headphones.
I start the walking meeting by stating the purpose: “Why are me and myself meeting?”, “What are we hoping to get out of it?”. Sometimes it’s not clear what the purpose of the walk is, and in those cases I start with the questions: “What’s on my mind at the moment?” and “What’s holding me back from making more progress on the projects I’m working on?”.
I then talk around the chosen topic(s), while I summarise the progress I make throughout the walk. I end the meeting by stating what we've decided and any next steps, which I write down as soon as I come back from the walk.
I prefer using a familiar route for these meeting walks, so that I'm not distracted by having to find the way or look at new things. The walks last between 10-45 minutes, depending on how much me and myself have to talk about. I sometimes just talk to myself in the office or at my desk when I’m working from home, but I find that I’m more easily distracted inside — especially if I have my computer in front of me.
A very similar concept is rubber duck debugging, which you might be familiar with. This is more common for people working in tech where e.g. someone developing a program will go through their code line by line to figure out where the bug is, talking out loud to a rubber duck sitting on their desk. I personally have a crocheted turtle that my sister gave me that I use for this purpose:
2. Brainstorm (or -write) with myself
If I want to brainstorm ideas or options, and don't have anyone to do it with, I brainwrite. I do this for all kinds of tasks, and of different sizes. I’ll sometimes use it when I feel stuck with how to respond to an email. I’ve also used it for identifying possible goals and metrics for my work or our team. I mostly do it on paper or use my reMarkable, but you can also do it in Word or Google Docs.
Here’s how I brainwrite with myself:
Identify the exact topic I want more ideas on or options for.
Create a mind map with the chosen topic in the middle.
Set a timer for 2-5 minutes, and write down as many ideas as I can.
Take a short break, e.g. get something to drink, walk around the block, go to the bathroom, do some stretches.
Do a second round of 2-5 minutes where I either build on my previous ideas, e.g. add more details, or write down new ideas.
When the time is up, if I feel like I have more ideas and thoughts, I’ll do a third round with another short break in between.
There are two important benefits to this technique. Firstly, setting a timer gives me some pressure and reduces the risk of spending too much time on the task. I also find that I produce more ideas through having a time pressure, as it lowers the stakes or amount of time I can spend to think whether it’s a good idea or not. Secondly, taking a break before adding new ideas allows me to reset my mind, and I find that it increases the chances of me coming up with additional ideas if I had just done it in one go.
3. Delegate to my other selves
I sometimes think of myself as three different people at work:
“Morning Eirin” who is confident, find it easy to make decisions, and can take on ughy or difficult tasks.
“Post lunch Eirin” who is easily distracted and is great at doing menial and small tasks.
“Afternoon Eirin” who gets in deep work-mode and can work on the same thing for hours.
I find it useful to "delegate'' different types of tasks to these three different versions of myself. If there’s a difficult email or a decision I need to make that I’m not sure about, I’ll leave it to “Morning Eirin” to figure out — she’s a lot more decisive and assertive. If I have multiple easy emails or admin tasks, I’ll assign them to “Post lunch Eirin” who might do them while listening to a podcast, watching a comedy show, or listening to the same one song on repeat (my current go-to song is a cover of Simply The Best by Billianne). “Post lunch Eirin” finds that listening to something or watching something helps her stay motivated as it directs all her non-work thoughts to one thing. If I need to work on a bigger project, I’ll carve out time later in the day, e.g. by moving meetings or going someplace where there are few distractions, and let “Afternoon Eirin” give her full attention to it.
For me, this technique helps me delegate a task I don’t feel as well-equipped to do at the time, which I might’ve delegated to other colleagues instead if I worked in a bigger team.
4. Productivity check-ins
I’ll admit that it doesn’t always work like this — some days or weeks are more or less productive than others. Some days, only “Post lunch Eirin” shows up, and I need to use other techniques. One thing that’s really helped me to have fewer full weeks of unproductivity are weekly productivity check-ins. The past couple years I’ve had a 30 min productivity check-in with the same person almost every week.
We each have our own checklists that we go through, and we then take turns talking about whatever is useful to talk about that week. We use a Google Spreadsheet as some of the questions we check in on ask us to put in a number (you’ll see below), and it makes it easier to compare over time and create charts. We also use conditional formatting on the number responses (good score is green, bad score is red), to make it more obvious how we’re doing.
Here’s my checklist:
Have you done your goals since the last check-in?
On a scale from 1-5, how motivated do you feel? (1 = not motivated, 5 = very motivated)
On a scale from 1-5, how tired or drained do you feel? (1= very tired, 5 = not tired at all)
On a scale from 1-5, do you feel like you can say what the most important projects you're working on are? (1 = not at all, 5 = I have full control)
On a scale from 1-5, is there anything you're worried about, or might be falling through the cracks? (1 = a lot, 5 = nothing)
On a scale from 1-5, to what extent are you doing things someone else could be doing? (1 = a lot, 5 = nothing)
Are you procrastinating on anything? Do you know what the roadblocks are, and are you working on removing them?
What are you most proud of last week?
What lessons did you learn this week that you’d like to share?
What do you not want to do / any ugh fields / anything you feel ashamed about?
Are there any habits that aren’t serving you well?
Anything else you want to discuss that isn’t covered elsewhere?
Goals for next time:
Here are a few direct quotes from our spreadsheet that will give you an idea of the things I bring up every week:
Working on something this week that feels like such a big project and like I need to set aside a bunch of time to work on, but it’s hard to get started and I’ve kept postponing it. I think the size of the project is making me procrastinate. I should reduce the size!
I feel like I don't have enough time to do all of my tasks this week, and yet I want to do all of them. What should I do?
So many emails 😢 How can I get to inbox zero?? (this one comes up a lot)
There are some smaller todos that come out of our meeting that it’ll take me days to do when I could’ve just done them during the meeting or right after. I want to set aside 5 min after each meeting to get through as many todos as I can.
I'm considering deleting TikTok again, I’m spending a lot of time on it. Won't for now, but want to check in next week on whether I should.
Sometimes the thing that helps the most is just writing down what I’m feeling and thinking about, and from that I’ll figure out what the solution is. My productivity partner will also ask great questions such as “How important is it?”, “Is that actually true?”, and “What would you tell someone else in your position to do?”. Very often she’ll also provide useful advice from a time she struggled with something similar.
We have our check-ins on Wednesdays at the same time every week, though move them if necessary. I’m confident that having these check-ins have increased my productivity on average, and because of them I very rarely have more than half an unproductive week.
If you’re looking for someone to do these check-ins with, I recommend starting with people who are in similar roles to you. My productivity partner and I have similar backgrounds in EA community building, and both our jobs involve a lot of admin tasks and project management. It’s not necessary to have similar roles for this to be useful, but it means we can to a larger extent give each other helpful tips and share lessons learned. That being said, the biggest factor is definitely just having someone who expects you to meet up every week who’ll ask you questions about your productivity.