How productive is a paleontologist?

January 9, 2022

Last week, I read four separate obituaries for Richard Leakey, who was a Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservator, and politician. I particularly enjoyed his National Geographic obituary because it includes photos from different phases of his life.

Here’s one great photo, of Leakey in front of a pile of burning elephant tusks, which he had set on fire to draw global attention to poaching:

Richard Leakey in front of a burning pile of elephant tusks, in the savannah.

I don’t recall having heard of Richard Leakey before reading his obituaries. Perhaps I did read about him once. I’ve read some books on evolution by Richard Dawkins and Dawkins might have mentioned him. If he did, the name didn’t stick.

(It’s interesting how that goes, right? When someone passes away, they suddenly get a lot of attention—and for good reason, in this case, because it is to celebrate the man’s life work.)

Anyway.

In the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of my energy thinking about productivity. What does it mean to be productive? How can we personally become more productive? How can I teach other people to be more productive? And I made a business out of this.

My productivity business started narrowly. I saw an opportunity: I could teach people how to use a specific app, the task manager OmniFocus, to get organized and be more productive. I had been using OmniFocus for years to manage the variety of projects I had going on in my life and I realized that I had something of value to teach others.

After about half a year, I saw another opportunity: many people did want to learn task management, but were put off by OmniFocus’s complexity and not-so-modern interface. A different app, Things 3, appealed to these people. I had been switching back and forth between OmniFocus for a while, so I decided to teach people how to be more productive with Things 3 as well.

After that, I expanded my scope beyond day-to-day and week-to-week task management. I asked myself: how can I help people achieve their long-term goals? This resulted in a new course, Big-Picture Productivity. I ended up completely recreating that course from scratch to incorporate new insights I gathered from the first batch of students. And then I recreated the course again, so it’s on version three now.

These courses are incredibly helpful for staying on top of things day-to-day as well as pursuing (and eventually achieving) your long-term goals. Students tell me this, but I also experience it personally, because I (of course) use the systems that I teach.

(I am keenly feeling how helpful digital task managers right now because I’m in the middle of my paper-planner-only experiment. It frigging sucks to not have access to my task manager. I feel overwhelmed.)

Still, my task management courses are highly focused on the nuts and bolts. What app should you use? How should you set it up? How do you make sure you keep using it? How do you keep your task manager clean? How do you set goals? How can you identify the action steps needed to achieve your goals? Which action steps should you work on first? What should your weekly schedule look like?

For me, these things come naturally now, having spent so much energy experimenting and figuring out what works for me. Not that I’m “done” figuring out my productivity system; your productivity habits should always evolve with your evolving needs. My point is that it’s just one aspect of productivity though.

And that brings me back to Richard Leakey.

I never met him. (Have you? If you have, please do share—that would be fun to hear about.) But I wonder what his productivity habits were. Surely he was an incredibly productive person in many things he did in paleontology, conservation, and politics.

Do you think he used a task manager? Certainly not for much of his life, because digital task managers did not exist when he was young. What was his weekly schedule like? Did he write down his goals? If so, how? How often? How did he break them down?

Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he planned everything in his head, or he only loosely wrote things down on paper. Maybe he had assistants who managed everything for him and his job was just to be creative and to convince folks—all the small things like replying to emails (or letters) were done for him.

For as much as the nuts and bolts of productivity systems matter, we shouldn’t let them cloud our view of what is important: the contribution we want to make to the world.

I’m proud of many things I’ve created so far and I’m really happy that I have a foundation for doing productive work. But I haven’t exactly found a calling. I am not satisfied with my personal contribution to the world. I’m not even sure what I want my contribution to be.

It’s about time I figure that out.

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