Early Warning Signs – Canaries In My Productivity Coal Mine

Canary Cage Early Warning

Do you know when you’re most productive? I bet you have some idea.  Perhaps it’s early morning, or late at night – or even in the middle of the night!

How can you determine that? Simple – measure progress. Even if you don’t do it, you know how to – counting calories, tracking where you waste time online, and looking at tasks completed.  In software development this is called velocity – the speed at which progress is being made.

That’s great, but it’s only useful when you’re looking backward – seeing where you’ve come from.  I’ve been thinking lately about approaching my productivity proactively – and keeping an eye out for warning signs that my output is going to slow down.  What are some signs I can look for to warn me when I”m going to be overwhelmed, and when my productivity is starting to go south?  Do such things even exist?  And can we act on these warning signs?


It turns out there are early warning signs that my productivity and focus is waning – my own personal canaries in my productivity coal mine.  For many of them, they are symptoms of a larger problem.  Keeping an eye out for these warning signs me make sure I deal with the larger problems before they get out of hand.

I’ll discuss a few, and start off with a a simple metric I’ve found to help me see when i need to cut back: how messy my desk is.

A Messy Desk Is A Symptom – Not A Problem

I talk a lot about not taking on too many commitments, and focusing on my goals – but I’m as guilty as anyone else of taking on too much at once.

For a long time I’ve tried to always keep my work area clean and organized. I don’t like stray papers, and I don’t even allow myself to put my cell phone on my desk: my workspace needs to be kept clear of any debris or distractions, because that is when I’m most productive.

I had an epiphany recently though:  my messy desk is a symptom – it’s not the real problem.  I realized this when I considered what kinds of things ended up cluttering my desk.  Each type of clutter points to another real problem that needs to be solved:

  • Post it reminders.  I already have an electronic todo list set up. Post it reminders mean I’m no longer using my system for tracking tasks and projects. It often also means I’ve temporarily lost faith in the system – because I’m not updating it properly. The real solution is not to clean my desk – it’s to get back on track with my todo list.
  • Papers to file.   When papers start cluttering my desk, even just one or two, it means I’m falling behind on collecting and filing. Sometimes it also means I’m falling behind on projects, as these might be urgent things that I’m leaving a physical reminder of to ensure it doesn’t slip through the cracks.  The real solution is to cut down on my commitments – because I’ve become too time-starved to keep my records in order.
  • Keys, wallet and cellphone.  I have a place for my keys and wallet on the counter, and a specific spot to the side of my desk for my cell phone. If these things are out of place, it most likely mean I’m in a hurry – I pulled them out of my pocket and threw them on the first available surface.  The real solution is slow my life down – relax, and once again, cut some commitments. Stop scheduling things so close together.

Disorganization On My Desk Isn’t A Problem – It’s My Early Warning Sign

In the past I’ve noticed the correlation between clear desk space and my productivity – but I had the relationship all wrong.  Being organized helps my productivity to a certain degree, but being disorganized doesn’t hamper it that much: rather, being disorganized is the first warning sign that I’ve got other problems that need to be fixed.

More Warning Signs

  • Skipping My Weekly Review. This often means I am subconsciously avoiding it, an indication that I have let my GTD system slide. When I start taking my weekly review less seriously, that’s when I really need it.
  • Not Looking at My Todo List, and Not Scheduling Items On My Calendar. As I alluded to earlier, when I’m not looking at my task list, that means I’m not longer taking my task list seriously.  The same applies to my calendar – if I’m not putting things on it, it’s because I’ve lost faith in it.
  • Searching For Pens.  There are 4 places I always leave writing tools: in my journal by my bed, in my pen holder, attached to my writing pad at my desk, and in my large writing pad (typically left in my backpack). If the pens aren’t where they should be, that’s a problem – though not as clear cut, it usually means I’m hurried and over-committed.

These are just a few examples. What about you?  What are the first little things you notice just before you lose steam or lose focus? What minor tasks and chores do you let slide?

Of course, during this time of year (family, friends and vacation) perhaps it’s time to let everything slide a little.  You may not be as motivated to stick to your goals during the holidays – and instead enjoy this awesome drinking song by my buddy Seamus Anthony about trying to stick to your goals -and failing: Friggin’ Christmas.

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