Ten ways to boost your own productivity

 

I recently worked with a senior manager at a large company who reckoned he spent at most half his day being productive. I told him 50% was pretty good – for most the ‘corporate overhead’ could take up a massive 60% – 70% of the day. That’s just a third left for the thing that makes you excited – and for which you draw a salary.

Here’s the list I provided him with, of how to boost your own productivity and concentrate on the things you want or need to. The list is constantly changing asa result of my own experience. My advice – try each one once, but utterly and completely, and you’ll see if it’s worth the effort to change your working style to implement it:

1. Use a task list – personally I use Wunderlist – to note what you have to do. Without one, you burn energy just remembering, or worse still not remembering. With one you can prioritise what you need to get done each day.

2. Then make sure each task is manageable at one sitting – ideally an hour or two, but never more than half a day. You wouldn’t expect a writer to have ‘write book’ on top of his to do list, so why do you think it’s acceptable to have ‘build website’ on yours? Chunk longer tasks so you can make progress in reasonable steps.

3. Refuse any meetings before 10am. Ever. Then start work at 8am. But don’t start with your inbox. Start with that document you have to write, or the thing that will really benefit from concentrated thought. If you have a truly unavoidable meeting at 9am, then block out two hours later that day.

4. Schedule meetings for 30 minutes. Most meetings seem to be scheduled for an hour, but that’s because people’s attention is flitting in and out. At the start of the half-hour meeting demand that no one looks at their smartphones, or pops out to take a call. Explain that the reason you’ve scheduled this for 30 minutes is to allow time for e-mails, time to consider the agenda etc, outside your 30 minutes.

5. Go to your inbox at pre-determined times each day. You know when those should be and how often. I am trying to do mine now in three stints each day – 11am; 1pm; 5pm. Then when you address your inbox, concentrate on it wholeheartedly. Don’t look through it once to see what’s urgent, then a second time to delete some spam, then a third time to start sifting for priority.

6. Use Twitter the same way. You cannot stay attached to the firehose all the time. So go in and ‘sample’ Twitter at certain times of day and then leave it alone for the rest.

7. Stop multi-tasking. Switching from one task to another kills productivity more than smoking a joint would.

8. Eliminate distractions. Particularly from the phone. I am always amazed at how easily people are prepared to allow their valuable concentration to be disrupted because someone calls / texts them.

9. Work in bursts of not more than two hours. Your brain uses up more energy than any other bodily activity. So after two hours take a break, have a snack or a cup of tea, go for a walk for five minutes.

10. Plan for leisure and family time too. If you have to work at weekends, make sure you get away from the family to concentrate on getting it done and then back to the people/things you love.

Changing your Mind

Getting you to change your mind (and thus your behaviour) is the objective of most marketing. But what if it’s the marketers struggling to keep up with our changing minds?

As we multi-task more, we emerge with a weakened sense of identity, finding it hard to empathise with others or concentrate well, warns (Baroness) Susan Greenfield, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Oxford University. She says that the amount of multi-tasking people carry out in daily life is dramatically affecting the human brain.

Neuromarketing author Martin Lindstrom agrees: “Our brains are rewiring themselves because of multi-tasking, so the new younger generation are in fact more able to multi-task than older generations. This isn’t because they have trained themselves to do it, it’s because the brain is literally redesigning itself around the fact they are multi-tasking from birth.”

Greenfield explains that the human brain and short-term memory can only cope with a limited amount of input: Advertising messages on TV and billboards have been replaced with multiple channels – social networks, email, websites and face-to-face communication. Everything is scrambling for our attention, but according to Greenfield we can only cope with so much.

For marketers, achieving cut-through in a multi-tasking, social media age will increasingly involve understanding the consumer’s sense of identity. Brands that feed consumers’ desire for individual acknowledgement will seem more interesting and thereby gain an unfair share of attention.

Individual interaction then becomes the key to being relevant to the younger generation. Back to Greenfield: “Brands will need to make you feel wanted, important and individual. Goods or services that help people be creative, do something that no one else has done, or join the dots up in a new way, will be very powerful as they give people a sense of uniqueness. Just as we adapt to the environment, the environment drives what’s happening to the brain and will create different needs and motivations.”

Dramatic distraction

More people are on the internet for longer each day, the working day continues to expand into the evening, and yet TV consumption continues to hold steady . How can that be?

The answer is multitasking. I wrote yesterday about the harm that multitasking can do to concentration, productivity and enjoyment in the workplace, but of course the same applies to the home.

The problem for marketers, whether creative or media-oriented, is that an eyeball just isn’t worth what it used to be when that eyeball is flitting between two or more screens, failing to really absorb or be absorbed by either as a result.

eMarketer has estimated US adults crammed more than 11 hours of media content into an average day in 2011, double-counting for simultaneous usage. That may be US research, but most would agree the behaviour here is the same as the behavior there. The optimists argue that there are as many opportunities for marketers in multitasking TV and internet use as there are problems, citing perhaps Nielsen research from last year that 19% of smartphone and tablet owners reported using their mobile devices to seek information related to a TV ad. I see only an audience already fragmented across channels now increasingly distracted by a cacophony of several simultaneous media.

Last year I had a conversation with a senior TV executive in the UK who said that he had more and more viewers telling him they no longer had time to watch a film. His view, with which I concur, was what they really meant was that they were losing the ability to concentrate for two hours on a film, and that a one-hour episode of a series was as long as they could sit down for at a stretch.

Suddenly this is a huge problem for more than just marketers. If we can no longer concentrate for long enough to sit passively, being entertained; if we are so distracted by modern life that we have lost the ability to truly relax over a film; if we are so distracted we cannot truly escape; then the whole basis of long-form entertainment starts to look threatened.

As a fan of Test Match Cricket, I can still appreciate the 20:20 game – but it’s not the same thing. Short stories have merit but they’re not as engaging as novels. Increasingly, it appears, episodic drama is taking over the small screen. The cinema remains a refuge from the always-on connected world outside – one of the very last places where answering your phone is considered taboo – but for how long? For the sake of our culture and our sanity, I hope it will remain so for generations to come.

Multitasking isn’t working

As demands from work impinge ever more on our family or leisure time, it’s under-standable that we try and fight back by squeezing a bit of our personal “to do list” into the working day. After all if ‘always connected’ means working on a Sunday afternoon, isn’t it only fair that I get to argue with the electricity company on a Monday morning at work?

Or is it the other way round? Maybe it’s not that work takes any longer than the mythical 40-hour week, it’s that we can’t manage, between 9 and 6, what used to fit into the 40-hour week? What if the very technology that was supposed to make us more productive is in fact killing our productivity?

My question marks are, of course, rhetorical. Regular readers of this blog will know that I have for long been concerned with the negative effects of always-on technologies. By constantly interrupting every activity, whether work, rest or play, we end up concentrating on none of them. We lose the enjoyment of everything, including our all-important work, become irritable and lose the ability to lose ourselves in what we love. By tweeting about the moment we forget to live the moment. By stopping to read an e-mail, we lose our place in the narrative flow of the novel we so wanted to be engrossed in. And then we don’t even reply to the e-mail, leaving that to fester ‘for later’.

I blogged last month about how e-mail harmed productivity more than smoking a joint. And a Vanderbilt University study has shown that when we switch attention from one task to do something else, we increase the time taken to finish the original task by 25%. There goes your chance to get out of the office at 6pm tonight. And so arrives your excuse for doing a bit of holiday research while you’re at work – after all you’re going to be here until 8pm anyway. Except of course that the travel agent’s e-mail in response is providing the very distraction that’s stopping you leaving the office at 6pm in the first place.

It’s becoming increasingly acceptable, it seems, to take your smartphone into meetings and check up on e-mails from time to time. The result? Meetings are half as productive and so take twice as long to achieve anything (whether meetings ever achieve anything is too long a discussion to fit into these brackets).

So much for the problem: How do we break out of the vicious spiral? Well here’s my starter:

  1. Refuse any meetings before 10am. Ever. Start work at 8am. Then don’t start with your inbox, start with that discussion paper you have to write, or the thing that will really benefit from concentrated thought. Try it once and you’ll get the habit. Once in a while you’ll find a client or a colleague is mildly put out that you cannot make the 9am meeting, so try explaining why you have the 10am rule and they might even adopt it themselves. If you have a big team meeting at 9am on a Monday, then block out two hours later that day.
  2. Schedule meetings for 30 minutes. Most meetings seem to be scheduled for an hour, but that’s because people’s attention is flitting in and out. At the start of the half-hour meeting demand that no one looks at their smartphones, or pops out to take a call. Explain that the reason you’ve scheduled this for 30 minutes is to allow time for e-mails, or preparation for the next meeting, or time to consider the agenda, outside your 30 minutes.
  3. Go to your inbox at pre-determined times each day. You know when those should be and how often. I am trying to do mine now in three stints each day. Then when you address your inbox, concentrate on it wholeheartedly. Don’t look through it once to see what’s urgent, then a second time to delete some spam, then a third time to start sifting for priority.
  4. Use Twitter the same way. You cannot stay attached to the firehose all the time. So go in and ‘sample’ Twitter at certain times of day and then leave it alone for the rest.
  5. Make sure you develop rules for your leisure and family time too. If you have to work at weekends, make sure you get away from the family to concentrate on getting it done and then back to the things/people you love. Using social media to conduct a conversation about what you’re watching on TV is one thing (a really enjoyable way of sharing the experience), but trying to read the paper and help with homework and cook? Well, I’ll be back with more views on consuming multiple media in my next post. In the meantime I’m off to concentrate on a good book with no distractions.

E-mail hits productivity more than smoking dope

E-mail was supposed to enhance productivity right? Well in fact the daily distractions of e-mails and instant messages cause a greater loss of IQ than smoking marijuana. Constant interruptions reduce productivity and leave people feeling tired and lethargic, according to a TNS Research survey of 1,100 Britons showing:

  • Almost two out of three people check their electronic messages out of office hours and when on holiday
  • Half of all workers respond to an e-mail within 60 minutes of receiving one
  • One in five will break off from a business or social engagement to respond to a message.
  • Three out of 10 people believed answering messages during face-to-face meetings was not only acceptable, but a sign of diligence and efficiency.
But Dr. Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist at King’s College London University, found the IQ of those who tried to juggle messages and work fell by 10 points — the equivalent to missing a whole night’s sleep and more than double the 4-point fall seen after smoking marijuana.

“This is a very real and widespread phenomenon,” Wilson said. “We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness.”

Note – this is 2005 research but I happened across it today and it reinforces something I have blogged about here in the past. Surely the problem has got even greater in the last seven years? I would be delighted if anyone could point me to further academic research in this area.

One at a time please

Check e-mail. Facebook. Read the paper. Tweet. Check voicemail. And all of that while watching TV.  We are increasingly becoming defined by connectivity.  Work and home life mingle as a result. Multi-tasking extends now into most of modern life.

Is that what we really want? Well, many people tell me that multi-tasking makes them more productive. Increasingly, scientists disagree. Even after the multi-tasking ends, Stanford University research shows fractured thinking and lack of focus persist.

“Nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment,” says Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

I see consequences in my own life. Only ten years ago I would read a novel a fortnight. Now I fill most of my reading hours with browser behaviour – the sort of material I can consume in seconds: Twitter, news alerts, blogs, e-mail.

Last summer Emily Yoffe convinced me in an article in Slate, drawing on more than 50 years of psychology experiments, to conclude that the internet feeds the “seeking” part of our brains, flooding them with dopamine, but never accessing the opioids to deliver pleasure to the brain.

Other research underlines that people interrupted by e-mail report increased stress compared to those left to focus.

Whether it’s reading a novel for pleasure, concentrating utterly on a work task or even just spending time just on a conversation with the children, it may be time to ask whether, for all our connectivity keeping us plugged in to what’s going on, we might do better to concentrate on the task in hand. For our own sake, one task at a time please.