In Pursuit of Productivity (7 min read)

In Pursuit of Productivity | Be Do Have Coaching

Client: I am busy all the time, rushing from one thing to another. Sorting several things at a time. Sometimes they are not even my things, but I feel bad saying no. My to-do-list keeps getting longer. Some evenings when I am slumped exhausted on the sofa, I look back and think ‘what have I actually achieved today?’

Last week I wrote about poor time management being a strategy of self-sabotage. Very shortly after sending out the article to my mailing list, I received the above call from one of my existing clients. Curiously, time management has not come up in our coaching conversations. My client is a high-level executive (with 3 young kids in tow) who always appeared to be super organised and in full control. And before you jump to gender conclusions, my client is male and looks after his kids full time two weeks a month.

I would like to share with you some of the things we talked about. We focused on my client’s work life.

Time management is about managing our productivity rather than managing time. More specifically, it involves managing our attention span and concentration – both limited resources. While everyone has 24 hours each day, there may be only 3 or 4 hours of active attention. It is very tempting to multi-task during hours of active attention. So you get more done, right? Wrong. Multi-tasking can actually decrease productivity and accuracy as we reach capacity limits of our conscious mind and working memory.

In the oft-misquoted article ‘The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information’, cognitive psychologist George Miller observed that humans are generally able to hold only seven plus or minus two units of information in their short-term memory. So get into ‘monotasking’ mindset. Undivided attention is particularly important where accuracy is important.

Added to our internal limitations, there are external distractions, which interrupt the flow of our tasks and thought processes. Each day we are swamped with information from countless channels – emails, news, phone calls, adverts, meetings, social media updates. There are queries and updates from colleagues, family and friends. No wonder we are always playing catch up.

So given these limitations how do we get the important things done on time and efficiently?

What is prioritising and how do I do it?

Prioritising is working out what is important to you in each area of your life – personal, professional, family, friends, hobbies, fitness and wellbeing. Taking each area in turn, identify what you would like (or need) to achieve. Ensure that these goals are specific, achievable and measureable (SMART goals). Why? See The Art of Self-Sabotage.

Eisenhower’s Important/Urgent decision matrix is a useful tool for prioritising – divide tasks into 4 categories:

  1. Important and urgent
  2. Important but not urgent
  3. Urgent but not important, and
  4. Not important and not urgent.

Tasks in category 1 are fire fighting. Aim to spend most of your active attention and time in category 2 – completing important tasks before they become urgent and hijack your schedule. Category 3 is a curious one – ask yourself, what are the benefits of completing those urgent yet unimportant tasks?

“Lunch is for wimps” – Gordon Gekko in Wall Street

Tasks in category 4 ‘Not important and not urgent’ often get forgotten, so it is crucial to ensure that correct tasks end up in this category. My client’s category 4 list included taking lunch, planning next holiday, dentist check up, going to gym, drink with friends and meditation.

Much research has been done since Gordon Gekko proclaimed ‘Lunch is for wimps’ in 1987 film Wall Street. We are more productive when we look after our physical and mental wellbeing – that includes appropriate nutrition, fitness, rest, stress-management, socialising and fun activities. Ask yourself whether some of category 4 activities really belong in category 2 ‘Important but not urgent’. Spreading yourself too thin erodes productivity.

Where do I start?

Once you know your priorities and goals, the next step is to schedule them into your day, week, month and year. David Allen’s ‘two-minute rule’ provides quick productivity wins – if an action can be done in two minutes or less, do it right then because it will take longer to organise it and review it if you postpone it.

A certain level of preparation helps us to be more productive during completion of tasks. However, beware of procrastinating by over-preparing. You may never feel completely ready to begin, so stop sharpening the pencil and make your mark.

Start with tasks that will have the greatest impact on the results – moving you closer to achievement of your priorities and goals. Under the Pareto Principle, 20% of tasks produce 80% of results. Evaluate which of the high-impact tasks can be completed in shortest time and do them first.

“Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is the probable reason so few engage in it” – Henry Ford

Schedule your work according to your attention level. Start by identifying times of the day when you have the best attention span and concentration, and plan to complete more challenging tasks during that time (for example, writing a technical report or number crunching). Leave the less demanding tasks (checking emails, answering everyday queries from colleagues) to your low attention periods. In “How to be a Productivity Ninja…”, Graham Allcott advises separating thinking from doing, since thinking about the solution often takes more time and attention than actually putting the solution in place.

If attention span is an issue or you need to check your emails regularly, try the Pomodoro Technique – break down work into 25-minute chunks with 5-minute breaks in between.

What if the task is important but really uninteresting?

Ask yourself: Realistically, how long do I need to complete the task? Often tasks get put aside because we overestimate how long they will take. Once you estimated the time required, cut it by a third and begin. Have you heard of Parkinson’s Law? Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

“If the first thing that you do when you wake up in the morning is to eat a live frog, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that’s probably the worst thing that’s going to happen to you all day long” – Mark Twain

So ‘eat a live frog’ by completing first thing in the morning that uninteresting yet important task you have been avoiding. Brian Tracy (in Eat That Frog!) added two corollaries to this rule: if there are multiple frogs, eat the ugliest one first; and if the frog is very ugly, don’t look at it for too long, just eat it!

Another strategy is the three Ds – Do, Delegate or Ditch It. Having endlessly reappearing items on your to-do-list saps energy and motivation, and hinders completion of other tasks.

How do I boost my productivity?

There are a number of short cuts to short-term concentration gains, such as caffeine, changing tasks and engineering urgency by leaving tasks to the deadline. However, in medium to long-term, these strategies reduce productivity. Looking after your physical and mental wellbeing through enough rest, maintaining fitness, ensuring appropriate nutrition and regularly exercising your brain (see Teaching Old Dog New Tricks) will help you to maintain and develop your cognitive and physical capacities.

Drawing on your strengths and learning new skills are great ways of expanding your capacity and productivity. Consider what one skill would help you achieve more in your professional life? Which strengths are you underusing?

Are you a perfectionist? Do you worry about how others will judge your work? Often as the project nears completion, internal resistance and self-doubt slow down our progress and may even stop us finishing. Once you checked it twice, ship it. In Linchpin, Seth Godin observes that ‘the only purpose of starting is to finish, and while the projects we do are never really finished, they must ship’. What do you think about that?

During information overload, sorting information into ‘chunks’ makes it easier to remember, organise and process large amounts of incoming data. George Miller’s experiments on short-term memory span deal with ‘units’ of information, rather than volume of information. In Your Brain at Work, David Rock advises simplifying information by approximating and focusing on an idea’s salient elements. Just remember that some details will be lost during chunking and simplifying processes. The map you are building is not the territory, so if some elements need clarifying you may need to go back to the original data.

“Joining a Facebook group about productivity is like buying a chair about jogging” – Merlin Mann

Use technology to your advantage – there are great Apps for brain training, list making, organising your calendar and looking after your fitness and wellbeing. However, be picky and ensure that technology is adding to your productivity rather than to information bottleneck.

How do I minimise distractions?

Our time, concentration and attention are limited resources, so it is vital we use them wisely and protect them from interruptions and distractions.

Start by creating the most productive environment for your work – for some that means having a super organised desk, for others it is about minimising surrounding noise. Identify what environmental factors seep your productivity and address them. For my client, having a photo of his kids on his desk motivates and focuses him to be more productive at work.

Often our own minds create the most persistent distractions. Unrelated thoughts interrupting workflow, a sudden desire to check your emails, wondering what’s for dinner, cloud watching or even blindly panicking about the impending deadline. With thoughts, active resistance is futile. It is often more effective to acknowledge the thought, and gently return your mind to the original task. Regular meditation can help to train the mind and maintain focus.

Internet, emails and social media are great servants but terrible masters. Set up a ‘do not disturb’ mode by fixing specific time limits and lockouts on email checking, internet browsing, social media updates, answering phone calls and queries from others. If external interruptions are an issue, let others know that you will be unavailable during certain times of the day and request co-operation from your colleagues and family.

What if unplanned events disrupt my plan?

Even the best-made plans are not immune to disruption, so do not carve them in stone. Stay flexible and adaptable. Review your plans regularly to ensure that they reflect your current priorities and external circumstances. Most importantly, do not beat yourself up when you do not complete your to-do-list by the end of the day. Re-draft it and start afresh the next day.

There is one final thing – love what you do.

No amount of productivity strategies can equal the motivation and drive of doing something that you are passionate about. Don’t love what you do? See Time for Change and Should I Change my Job?

Would you like help with productivity or to learn more about Natalia’s coaching?

Contact Natalia

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