In part 1 to this piece, we looked at how our modern information environment is, in fact, a productivity nightmare. We also talked about why productivity is important: not for the sake of it, but to buy time in a busy world in order to do the things that make you happy.
What I didn’t touch on is what productivity is not. It is not busy. Busy is the enemy. Busy is hell. Busy defines this modern mess of too little time, too much to do, half of which we’ve brought on ourselves. I can’t do justice to the best writing I’ve ever seen on this topic, so I’m going to link directly to The Minimalist’s article, entitled, ‘Not Busy, Focused‘, and take a quote from it:
Take a look around: everyone is multitasking. We’re doing more than we’ve ever done, attempting to fill every interstitial zone with more work. Every downtown scene is the same: heads tilted downward, faces lost in glowing screens, technology turning people into zombies.
We live in a busy world, one in which our value is often measured in productivity, efficiency, work rate, output, yield, GTD—the rat race. We are inundated with meetings and spreadsheets and status updates and rush-hour traffic and tweets and conference calls and travel time and text messages and reports and voicemails and multitasking and all the trappings of a busy life. Go, go, go. Busy, busy, busy.
Americans are working more hours than ever, but we are actually earning less. Busy has become the new norm. If you’re not busy, especially in today’s workplace, you’re often thought of as lazy, unproductive, inefficient—a waste of space.
For me, busy is a curse word. I grimace whenever someone accuses me of being busy: my facial features contort, and I writhe in mock pain. I respond to this accusation the same way each time: ”I’m not busy, I’m focused.”
And that is the point of the last post and this: tools and strategies to help you focus. So let’s get into some more hacks that I think you’ll find useful.
It’s often a badge of honour, worn by people who think they can multitask. There’s even a gender myth that women can multitask and men can’t. Here’s the kicker: no human being can multitask. Not unless they defy 50 years of cognitive science, and don’t even go thinking you’re that much of a special little snowflake.
You. Can’t. Multitask.
You are cognitively unable to multitask. Or, you cannot engage with various tasks at once be effective. None of us can. Multitasking has been a topic of interest for neuroscience and psychology since the term was coined in the 1960’s, and guess what: it is a myth.
When the brain has two or more task to engage with, it has to run back and forth between them in an attempt to prioritise. This is the crux – we always have multiple things to get done, but the brain wants to put them in order, not do them at once. The effect of trying to multitask isn’t subtle – it’s estimated to cause a 40% decrease in productivity, namely because it takes an average of 5 minutes for the brain to get “on task” again after an interruption.
It has also been shown to increase the number of mistakes made, and increase stress/anxiety over a task. So the message is clear – if you’ve convinced yourself you’re a multitasker, the weight of science is against you. Rather, it’s better to line up tasks – put a logical order on them, and move through them sequentially. You’ll get more done, to a higher standard.
So, how do you organise your work?
Too often, just when we’re on the cusp of making progress on a work task or academic assignment, impulse hijacks us and we shoot off and check email, take a call, or look at Facebook.
Remember that focus and creativity can be stifled by task-hopping.
For example, by casually flicking over to emails, we’re actually taking ourselves into administrative tasks that can kill off the brainstorming path we were just on.
So the key to staying productive, focused and creative is to batch tasks of a similar nature. By putting all of, for example, your administrative tasks together into one point in your day – emails, calling the bank, organising your workspace – you don’t have to worry about being in any other mode.
It saves space to batch your right-brain tasks – writing, problem solving, thinking – all together, so that you stay in that zone. Using this simple method allows you an easy way to structure your day for better productivity. For some people, they’ll find they are more creative in the evenings and are better doing admin stuff in the early part of the day. For others, it’ll be the exact reverse. Question begs, how do you know? You find out…
Moo-q is an app that helps you figure out when you’re most productive, using input from you and putting into an algorithm developed by a team of UK psychologists. It relates your mood to your cognitive ability, allowing you to identify the mindset and time that you’re at your best.
The enemy of productivity is getting sidetracked with little tasks. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, has an excellent check-list for how you can whittle down your task list:
This is a great way of sorting out the essential from the non-essential. If you find yourself with a lot of things on your plate, apply this framework:
If you can do it in 2 minutes, block 30 minutes in your day, make a note of each of these little tasks, and batch them into that 30 minutes and do them all together.
If someone else can do a task, then delegate it – don’t keep things on your desk that you don’t need to do.
If its going to take longer than a couple of minutes, but isn’t pressing, then defer it. Be ok with doing things tomorrow, if it means you get your most important task for that day completed. Never leave things half done.
And then if there are things that aren’t worth your time anymore, or your goals or aims have changed, then drop it. Never engage in the sunk cost fallacy; continuing to do something because you’ve invested time/effort/money in it. If its no longer giving you a return, then eliminate it.
Whenever you feel overwhelmed, sit down and do a quick overhaul of your tasks, using this method. You’ll leave yourself with more time, for the essentials.
Ok, what if you’re self-employed or a business of 1, who do you delegate to? This is something I’ve heard Tony Robbins mention several times: if someone can do something better than you, get them to do it. There are two main ports of call for internet outsourcing:
Freelancer is more advanced – go there if you need some serious website work done, or want SEO or anything like that. If you want something a bit less formal – graphic design, Excel work, etc., then use Fivver. Take some stress off the shoulders with these resources.
Did you know that research shows only 17% of people can accurately judge time passing? Think about this with reference to ourselves. It certainly makes sense to me: when you think it’s going to be a “quick look” at social media and 20 minutes later, you’re still there. How often are you in the middle of a task, and find yourself having a cheeky Facebook check, or email scan, or find yourself aimlessly having a surf in the middle of your work day?
Tracking time is one the simplest productivity hacks very few of us use. More than giving you a rundown of time spent on tasks, it allows you to be more specific in limiting your time on certain task (i.e. 1 hour of email a day; 30 minutes of social media, etc). There are various apps that can help you with this, and give you accurate feedback. My favourite is rescuetime.
My favourite feature of it is the feedback. It will give you a weekly email with your time broken down into cold hard data, whether that is time you’ve spent working on whatever your task is, or time spent on social media. You can’t hide from tracking your time: your productivity, or lack thereof, is staring you in the face.
If you use the Pomodoro Technique, this allows you to specify how much time you’ll spend on a given task, i.e. “two 25-min sessions.” What tracking your time allows you do, more than holding yourself accountable to your distractibility habits, is to start to structure and organise your time better. This helps with the overarching principle of why productivity matters; get stuff done quicker, so you’ve more time for the things you like to do.
Have you ever taken work on a flight with you, and noticed that you just sit into it and smash it out? When we fly, we have no choice but to switch our phones onto airplane mode, and we have no internet to distract us – although we do have crying babies, tv monitors, games, etc. – but you see where I’m coming from.
So try replicating an environment where our phones and internet can’t distract us. The premise of this hack is simple: shut down your internet, put your phone on airplane mode, remove all distractions and get stuck into your task at hand.
To help you with this, use the app, ‘freedom.’ Freedom lets you choose how long you want to block internet access on your computer for, up to 8 hours at a time. A sure-fire way to stop your impulsive Facebook checking interfering with your work.
So, pretend like you’re on a flight. Shut out the noise, and get it done!
Ever find yourself staring at a Word doc. or an email, feeling like you’ve written and re-written the same sentence over and over?
Pick up and pen and paper, and get away from your screen. The physical act of writing activates areas in the brain called the reticular activating system. This system activates processing filters in the brain, allowing thoughts that may be at the back of your mind to come to the forefront, and ultimately be expressed through writing. It acts as a wake up call for your brain to look for detail and link it all together.
So the next time you find yourself in a rut, get away from the keyboard and use the physical act of writing to engage your brain, call it to attention to detail, and boost your creativity.
50% of office workers complain of office-related physical pains – back aches and sore shoulders. Why does this matter for productivity? Because almost half of office-related sick days relate to musculoskeletal disorders, aggravated by poor workplace ergonomics. Avoid being within that stat.
It sounds farcical that people sitting behind a desk all day complain about physical issues, but it comes down to one limitation: workplace ergonomics.
So how do you improve your ergonomic set up in work?
1: Make sure your screen is at eye level – this will keep your head up and shoulders back;
2: Keep elbows dropped and relaxed and wrists flat – a wireless keyboard can help if you need to elevate your laptop to eye level, and keeping your wrists flat as if you were playing the piano will help avoid issues like carpal tunnel syndrome;
3: Sit with your knees below the level of your hips – using a prop cushion or a posture chair, or anything that will elevate your hips above your knees. This will keep your lower spine naturally more erect, and stop you from slouching over at the shoulders;
4: Get up every 30 minutes and walk around.
So there we have it: 14 productivity hacks over two articles that you can use to be focused, avoid the curse of “busyness”, and free up precious time in your life to enjoy on things that matter to you.
One thing that I didn’t touch, because it is a beast in it’s own right, is the area of cognitive enhancement – nutrition for cognitive function, nootropics for cognitive enhancement, and the important topic of brain health. I have some stuff in the mix, but if this is the type of article you’d like to see, leave a comment on the FB page and I’ll get it into the mix.
I hope these posts have given you some tools that you benefit from. So, to end on the theme: enjoy your time!