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On Rooted Productivity


The Root Of All Productivity

The new year is here, which means productivity tweaks are in the air.

I’m not going to offer you a specific strategy today. Instead, I want to touch briefly on a meta habit that will help you succeed in any number of areas in your life where you seek more effectiveness.

It’s something I’ve used for years but have never discussed publicly before. I call it: rooted productivity.

Before describing this idea let me motivate it.

A little discussed issue in the productivity community is the role that these strategies play in your mental life. Most people maintain a haphazard and shifting collection of rules and systems only in their head. When a blog post inspires them, this collection may grow, while approaches they once embraced might fizzle unexpectedly.

This unstructured approach to organizing the ideas that are supposed to organize your life can cause problems, such as…

  • Open loop syndrome. As David Allen taught us, having commitments maintained only in your head requires constant mental resources and can generate stress or anxiety. A commitment to a specific productivity habit kept only in your head can be just as taxing as any other type of open loop.
  • Fragile motivation. A commitment to a productivity habit casually kept only your head occupies a low status in your hierarchy of important things in your life. A lot of people get excited about a hack when they first read about it, but it’s all too easy for it to fade away along with their initial enthusiasm.
  • Evaluation entanglement. Keeping your productivity commitments all tangled in your head can cause problems when a strategy fails. Without more structure to the productivity portion of you life, it’s too easy for your brain to associate that single failure with a failure of your commitments as a whole, generating a systemic reduction in motivation.

The solution to these issues is simple: maintain a single root commitment, that you’ll stick to no matter what, which will in turn help you get the most out of all the other productivity commitments that come and go in your life.

To be more concrete, create a single page document that describes the key productivity rules, habits, and systems (which I’ll summarize as “processes” in the following) that you currently follow in your life.

I type mine and keep it near my desk in a plastic sleeve (for privacy reasons, I’m showing you only the back below):


Some of the commitments on my root document include: daily and weekly planning, GTD task capture, my deep work rituals, my exercise routines, and the systems I use to track and review ideas.

Once you’ve written this root document you must make the following unbreakable root commitment:

I will do my best to: (a) follow the processes on these document; and (b) on a regular basis evaluate these processes and update the document to better reflect what’s working and what’s not, as well as what’s important to me and what’s not.

This philosophy is simple to implement, but in a single stroke it eliminates most of the major problems of a more ad hoc approach to personal productivity; e.g.,

  • you minimize open loops, as all you have to remember is to try to do what the root document says;
  • you strengthen your motivation, as the processes you’re supposed to be following are printed in black and white as oppose to just wallowing in the churn of your cognitive landscape; and
  • it’s easy to modify or discard specific productivity processes without negatively impacting others, as these evaluations and updates are part of your core commitment.

My suggestion for the new year, in other words, is that before you make any new commitments to improve your life, start with this one root commitment that can serve all the rest.

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