[I'm using coding/programming as an example in this post, but the technique is applicable to any kind of writing or knowledge work.]

Anyone who has worked on a large enough project, spanning multiple days or weeks, would have encountered this:

Every day, before starting work, we spend a good few minutes (sometimes up to 30 minutes) just getting our “brain into gear” and re-familiarising ourself with where we left off the day before.

If you’re a coder like me, you may have your dev environment already open from the day before, giving you clues to where you left off. You may also look at your repository log to read your last commit to find out where you were.

And then you pick up the next task, and start working on it. If the next item is a small task, you get on with it. If it’s a larger task, you would spend a bit more time on the context of the problem… a bit of thinking time, which feels a bit heavy first thing in the morning.

Parking downhill

But here’s a productivity tip I picked up which has worked like magic for me, getting my brain into gear before my second sip of flat white (double shot) in the morning. It’s called “parking downhill” and the clue is in an earlier sentence above:

If the next item is a small task, you get on with it

The idea is to systematically give yourself a short list of small tasks, a.k.a. pickup tasks, for you to do at the start of the next day. These are tasks that won’t need much thought to complete.

For example, tasks like “Make page title bold” or “Order product list alphabetically”.

This way, we start the day by being productive straight away, with tasks that are simple, but help us “warm up” towards bigger tasks that require more thought.

The technique

So here’s what you do, at the end of each day…

Step 1. Create your pickup tasks

Before finishing for the day, or when you know there’ll be a significant pause on the work before you continue with it, identify the next set of simple tasks that you need to do. These will form your pickup tasks for the next day.

Step 2. Note down the tasks

Make a note of these pickup tasks somewhere easily accessible. I recommend that this “somewhere” be the one single place you refer to all the time for your pickup tasks, so that you won’t forget where they are. Remember that the whole point of this is to minimise having to think too much right at the start of your day, and get stuck in quick.

I always have a text file called __PARKED__ at the root of all my project folders, one file per project.

Step 3. Turn your computer off

And you know that when you come back to your project, you’re ready to lift the handbrake, roll down the hill, and get into cruising speed effortlessly.

When you start work the next day, open up your __PARKED__ file and work your way down the list from the first item. The tasks should feel really easy. If not, then try and make the tasks even simpler for your next day.

Bonus positive side effect: I found myself ticking off tasks quickly first thing in the morning, contributing to a real sense of achievement very early on in the day. That feeds into my motivation levels and keeps the momentum high.

Beyond coding

I actually picked this tip up while I was writing my dissertation at university, from an excellent book titled Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis.

Author Joan Bolker lists various productivity techniques to help dissertation writers but I think a lot of what is written can be useful for any sort of knowledge work. The original phrase “parking on the downhill slope” is mentioned in her book. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

“… you’ll come to a point at which you start to tire and feel like there’s not much left in your writing reservoir for the day. This is the time to begin to summarize for yourself where you’ve been, to write down your puzzlements or unanswered questions, to do what Kennet Skier, who taught writing at M.I.T. many years ago, calls “parking on the downhill slope”: sketching out in writing what your next step is likely to be, what ideas you want to develop, or follow, or explore when you pick up the writing again the next day. This step will help you get started more easily each day, and it will save you an enormous amount of energy and angst.”

Hope you give it a go. Would love to hear whether it works for you too in the comment below.

Follow me on Twitter, @farez, where I share more productivity tips like this.

I’m a productivity nerd. If you have any productivity tips of your own, please do share it with me here or @farez on Twitter!

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