Want to be more productive but don’t know where to start? Now is the perfect time to learn. Remote work is the new normal, which means output matters more than ever.
I’ve spent over a decade experimenting with productivity. (Yes, I’m fun at parties). In this article I will share the key lessons I learned during that time.
Email defines your productivity
My biggest productivity wins have been email-related. When I’m following good email habits my productivity soars. When I let them slide, I get nothing done.
Keeping Outlook open all day is like browsing social media. There’s always something to read. You develop a sense of purpose and busyness by keeping up with it all.
Unfortunately, unless you work in customer service, you’re not paid to read email.
I usually read email once a day and nobody has complained. Do some research and find a method that works for you. The good news is anything is better than reading everything as it arrives.
Work shrinks to fit the deadline
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allocated to it. This explains why meetings last exactly 30 minutes, every time.
I’ve discovered the inverse of this law is more important: work shrinks to fit the time given to it.
Short deadlines focus the mind. They make you prioritise important aspects and discard the rest. Give yourself less time to get something finished and it still gets done. Magic.
Automation rarely helps
This one may anger the engineers in the audience. Yet, I’ve decided automating tasks usually takes longer than doing them manually.
Imagine needing to delete a character from every cell in a spreadsheet. You could write a cunning find & replace pattern to do the work for you. The trouble is, that takes five minutes. You would have finished already if you got on with it.
Only automate a task if it takes more than five minutes to do and you’ve already done it five times.
Why five times? Because people are terrible at estimating the lifespan of tasks. Circumstances change. Many recurring tasks need to change or stop sooner than you think.
Meditation helps with distraction
People think meditation is a tool to calm your mind and reach a Zen-like state. While that’s partly true, I’ve found it essential for productivity.
Meditation increases your awareness of emotion. You get a split second to decide how to react, instead of doing it instinctively. This helps you spot boredom before you leap out of your chair to find a snack. You can make a deliberate choice to sit with the emotion for a short while, then get back to work.
If you’re never meditated before, grab the Headspace app and try it for ten days.
Constraints make work easier
If you’re doing creative work, impose constraints on yourself. This gives your work character, while reducing the decisions you need to make.
An example of this is the Visualize Value account on Twitter. The artist restricts himself to black images with white geometric graphics. The results are distinctive and the reduced decisions help him be prolific.
Apply this in the office by choosing a simple style for your presentations. Naked bullets can be more powerful than fancy slides. Yet fancy slides take hours to polish.
When writing emails you could constrain yourself to five sentences or fewer. This gives your emails a recognisable style, while limiting writing time.
Communication is critical
Turn your productivity up to eleven and you’ll get a lot done. But if no-one knows about your work, you’ve wasted your time.
Inside your head you’re the star of the film. It’s easy to assume people know your name and what you’re doing. But the reality is you have to share your work to get noticed. If you don’t, you won’t receive the recognition you deserve. There’s also the risk of other people duplicating your efforts.
Before starting a project, take time to plan how you will communicate it. This applies whether you’re a cog in the corporate machine or an entrepreneur.
The type of break matters
It’s important to take breaks as you work harder. Not only does this prevent burn-out, it frees the mind to think and make leaps.
The trick is to have the right kind of break. Opening Facebook feels like a break because you’re consuming rather than producing. Yet I find the best breaks have no distractions at all. Going for a run without music. Walking and listening to nature. Sitting and doing nothing.
All these leave the brain to relax and synthesise all the problems you’re working on. In due course, the answer you seek will appear.
Improvement requires action
You won’t truly learn something until you do it. Reading books may give you a great start, but there’s diminishing returns on each further book you read. The 80% version of you who practices will outpace the 95% version who’s still researching.
I’m reminded of the scene from The Big Bang Theory, where Sheldon assures everyone he can swim because he’s read a book about it.
Productivity is personal and experimentation is the only way to make progress. Take the ideas from this article and apply them today. Keep what works and discard the rest.