I read a lot about productivity and how to work smarter. I don’t usually read these hoping to find some magic piece of information that will change my life, though, because I think a lot of the tips in productivity blogs and books are restatements of what I consider common sense or things that I already know. More often, I read because I am fascinated by the details of how different people work. A couple of themes emerge and stand out for me: The real positive weight of specificity and the negative weight of interruptions.
I find that everyone explains their situation and challenges differently. A group of similarly busy high level executives will all discuss their routines differently. So will a group of entry level assistants. No matter what their rung on the corporate ladder, everyone is very focused on their own particular routine and challenges, and broad, sweeping tips for how to “be more productive” tend to wash over us and make little impact on our lives because they don’t address anything specific enough to lead to real actions of change, right away.
The trick to increasing real productivity is not just to read a bunch of tips and tricks and try to apply them in a general sense, but to make the effort to tie specific changes to specific moments in our routines. We have only to look to most past New Years resolutions to recognize the truth: General and vague changes, like “lose weight” or “Play more piano” are destined to fail because of their lack of specificity. “Exercise every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday” or “learn this particular piano music” are specific enough to become real life actions and achievements.
On average, office workers check smartphones 125 times per day, spend over 2 hours per day writing email, check Facebook over 14 times per day, etc. is it any wonder if we find it hard to have any sustained thoughts about anything?
The cost of interruptions in the modern workplace is staggering. Most corporate workplaces were organized, workplace behaviors and expectations codified, when communication was not instant and constant. Now that communication is both of these things, the modern workplace has yet to adapt. As a result, we’re making ourselves insane and draining employees’ creativity, energy, and, sometimes, their will and ability to work productively at all.
Tips for real people
I recently read a workplace productivity article that recommended simply not answering the phone. This is great advice in theory, but it just isn’t possible for many, especially those who aren’t at the top of the ladder. Ditto the often-repeated tip of not looking at email in the morning. Many mid-level employees simply don’t have this ability as they are expected to be on call at all times by sometimes inefficient managers.
I wish more productivity literature discussed this dynamic and offered advice for how to keep sane and protect ones workday from outside forces such as a demanding hierarchical workplace, or even just a demanding family, rather than offering tips for CEOs able to call all the shots with their own schedules. I don’t have it all figured out by any means but here are my own personal tips, for real people.
1. Plan phone calls that matter.
If your workplace relies on the phone and you don’t have the option of simply not using it, remember that you can treat calls just like meetings. Schedule and prioritize them. Create an agenda for your call and share it ahead of time. Make sure you have a goal in mind for your call, and give yourself an allotted amount of time. Don’t begin calls without an end time and an end goal in mind. You might find that people appreciate this and are eager to remain within these constraints, because it helps them plan, too.
2. Schedule meetings with yourself.
Some workplaces are social and informal, with coworkers dropping in to chat, invited or not. It can be hard to say, I’m busy, without feeling rude in these situations, especially for those of us who are naturally shy or reserved. If you are finding it hard to get through the social disruptions in your workplace, it can be very refreshing to schedule a meeting with yourself! If you decide to allocate a specific amount of time to a specific task or set of tasks, you might be surprised at how much this act of decision helps you focus. If you don’t have a door that you can close, you can still book a conference room, just for yourself. Meetings are generally accepted as Do Not Disturb time – no one needs to know who the meeting is with, just say you have a commitment during that time.
3. Group similar tasks.
The psychic cost of switching between tasks is huge. Minimize it by grouping like tasks. If I need to schedule a bunch of calls and meetings regarding big project X this month, it makes a lot more sense for me to schedule them all in the same week or few days, rather than spreading them out. I’ll reap the benefit for the brainstorm effect, where talking about and examining the challenges and to-dos for that project will inspire more, better ideas and solutions. If I spend two or three days immersed in that project, I won’t waste any time switching between all of my projects. I’ll be fresh and focused every day on the tasks at hand. Maybe I’ll even dream about it and have a brilliant idea.
4. Stop thinking about how busy you are.
Everyone is busy. You probably are busy. But no one cares. No one really wants to hear about it and it doesn’t get you much sympathy from anyone. If you forgot about some thing or took extra time to respond to someone, don’t make self deprecating excuses about how frantic and busy you are. Just apologize if necessary and move on. Continually telling yourself and others the story of how chaotic and stressful your life is makes you seem out of control and unreliable to others, and even worse, to yourself. Repeating negative ideas reinforces them in your own mind, making you feel even more stressed and busy than you did before. Thinking about how busy you are is a huge stress-inducing time waster. So stop! You won’t be any more or less busy, but you’ll be way less miserable about it. And happy people are more productive.