BlogLeon Zucchini4 min read

What to learn to be more productive — insights from XKCD comics

What to learn to be more productive — insights from XKCD comics

If you want to learn how to be productive but aren’t sure where to start, this post provides a framework using wisdom from the XKCD comics.

What to Learn to Become More Productive?

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2022 is to become more productive, so I’ve been thinking about what to pick among the thousands of online courses from Coursera, Udemy, Google, etc..

Of course I’d love to learn all the things but that’s not realistic: There’s only so much time and energy in a year. So what should I focus on learning to be more productive in 2022? That brought to mind an XCKD comic that provides a perfect framework for deciding.

Insights from XKCD

The XKCD strip “Is It Worth The Time” shows how much time you should spend making a routine task more efficient. (If you somehow don’t know XKCD yet check it out right now you’re in for a treat!)

How long to spend making tasks more efficient — from XKCD

The idea is simple: The more time you save, the more you should invest in making the task more efficient.

XCKD breaks this down by “how much time you shave off” and “how often you do the task”, and the result is ingenious and informative.

Applying It to Learning

So how does this apply to picking what new skill to learn? The original comic has all the information, but I found it helpful to simplify it a bit:

Simplified version for prioritising learning

Prio 1 — Things to Learn First

With the simplification it’s easy to see were to start: Focus on learning things that will save you 5 minutes or more on tasks you do at least once a week. You can choose between learning skills that:

  • Save 5–30 minutes several times a day

  • Save >4 hours once a week

It’s clear that these are the low-hanging fruit — that’s a big amount of time to save!

Prio 2 and 3 — Things to Learn Later (or not at all)

The next group would be the Prio 2 skills for (a) super-common tasks where you can shave off a few seconds (upper left, e.g. learning keyboard shortcuts), or (b) rare tasks where you can save several hours to a day (lower right, e.g. doing that Python course).

Then there are the Prio 3 skills in the upper right. If you can find time for them then great — for me it’s somehow always Christmas again before that happens.

Deciding What to Learn

So what do you to focus on now? I’m sure you have some ideas already, and for additional inspiration here are some of my top picks (past and current):

  • Touch typing: Touch typing remains one of the best-invested weeks I’ve ever spent learning something.

  • Organise files / search: This helps me avoid wasting time searching for the files I need in different apps. Ultimately we built Curiosity exactly for this, when organising isn’t an option.

  • Master apps I use: At the top of my list this year is Affinity Designer, but giving yourself a strong foundation in Excel, Powerpoint and Word is a great start.

Some of my personal top picks

Final Thoughts

To continue getting more productive in the new year, it makes sense to invest in your skill set. The XKCD comic provides a great framework for deciding what to focus on.

Obviously, this is a strongly simplified view in many ways. First, finding more efficient ways of doing things may have additional benefits like repeatability or even drawbacks from a loss of serendipity. Second, focusing on effectiveness rather than efficiency (“doing the right things rather than doing things right”) can sometimes be the biggest lever for productivity. And finally, of course learning has much, much more to offer than just increasing efficiency.

I hope you found this useful. Now go forth and learn things!

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