What Grandma Esther Could Teach You About Productivity

What Grandma Esther Could Teach You About Productivity
This post was previously published. It has been updated.

My grandmother Esther was a notable farm wife. She raised 8 children, including two with physical challenges, on a small dairy farm in the middle of Wisconsin. She was capable, hardworking, cheerful, and productive. She was also seldom idle, but she was relaxed as she went about her tasks. And even though she passed before the age of technology, Grandma Esther could teach you about productivity.

Single Task

Grandma knew the value of single tasking. Not only was it easier for her to remember what she was doing, but in some cases it was necessary for health and hygiene to single task.

When Grandma went out to collect the eggs, she only collected the eggs. When she washed her hands and moved onto the next task. By not mixing the chicken-tending with other tasks, she prevented people from getting sick from anything the chickens might pass on (such as salmonella).

Grandma also knew that by devoting her attention to a single task, she wouldn’t leave any steps out. This is important when you are canning your own food – forget a step and lots of people can become very ill.

Chances are you are not risking botulism or salmonella if you switch tasks, but you are wasting time. Task switching and attention residue are real! Multitasking takes longer than single tasking.

Batching Works

Grandma had certain days set aside for certain tasks. She would do the wash on one day, the ironing the next; she would bake on certain days and get all the baking done for the week. Certain times of the year brought other types of tasks: August was the peak of the harvest and canning season; spring and summer were gardening times. Winter was reserved for handcrafts.

Grandma knew that by putting tasks that required effort together, she would save time overall. For instance, baking meant firing up the wood stove to a certain temperature. By doing all the baking on one day, she would only need to heat up the kitchen one day a week.

Batching also meant that more could be produced at one time, effectively lowering the effort per item. Making 8 loaves of bread at once is little more effort than making 1, and saves the effort and cleanup of doing a single loaf 8 times.

Batching works in productivity as well. Batching means less overall setup/cleanup; it also minimizes the context shifts our mind has to go through as we move between tasks.

Little And Often

Grandma didn’t always complete projects at once. She understood the value of fitting things into lulls in her time.

She loved to crochet rugs out of strips of colorful rags. These rugs take time to make, though, and it wasn’t possible to work on the rugs when there was other work that needed to be done. So she worked on the rugs when she had a free moment here and there, and produced some beautiful items in her free time.

Grandma understood that working on something often, even for little bits of time, added up quickly.

We may not have large chunks of time to complete a project, but using the time we have can complete the project faster. Little and often is better than big and never.

Make Use Of What Is On Hand

Grandma knew that she needed to use up what was on hand so it didn’t go to waste. At the same time, she also didn’t want to use too much of things she had to purchase, because money was scarce.

Her recipe book is a testament to her methods of doing this. Most of her cakes call for 9 to 12 eggs. These were plentiful on the farm and saved the eggs from having to go to the pigs. Sugar was purchased and consequently used sparingly, so the baked goods were not overly sweet, but more rich from the eggs.

We don’t need the latest and greatest tools. Even the GTD guru himself stated that the system can be done with a notebook. Use what you have and make the your system for how you work. Don’t try to adapt yourself to a system.

Backups Make Sense

Grandma knew that new-fangled things like electricity, running water and septic systems can go awry given a good blizzard. She knew that even if the pipes froze or the heat went out or the lights were off she still had to care for her family. So she kept her backups. Oil lamps were in a cabinet, and the woodstove in the kitchen could be used to heat the parlor as well.

It’s important to have backups of important information. If you couldn’t access the internet, for example, would you be able to find the address and phone number for an emergency contact? Electronics fail, and backups are necessary to navigate those times without.

Grandma Esther’s simple, yet effective practices offer invaluable lessons in productivity. From the value of single-tasking and batching, to the wisdom of ‘little and often’, her approach is a testament to efficiency. She also knew the importance of making use of what is on hand and having backups, reflecting her adaptability and foresight. This article distills wisdom from her everyday life, presenting a unique perspective on productivity.