I have decided to make up for my failure to read a full book in April by reading 2 books in May. The first one I read in a week. Not just to meet my goal, but because the type of book was i) easy to listen to, ii) focused on something I deeply care about and iii) it felt more productive to read it all in one go. It is called The Productivity Project.
Efficiency and Productivity
Some people may be astonished that I even have to even be learning more about productivity. After all, I DO so much, or so it seems. It is true, I kind of do a lot some times. There are GSD days when I could just challenge anyone on the floor to the amount of stuff that I can get done. It is impressive (I guess). And then I get home, spend time with the children, write a blog article and work on yet another spreadsheet for the charity. I get asked all the time – how do you manage?
My answer varies but more often than not I feel there is so much more I could do. And that I wish I had GSD days all the time. And be less tired. And stopped procrastination.
The start of productivity
Overtime, I have been toying with a few tools and approaches to improve my time usage. I feel like I have come a long way with time management, but I don’t rank highly in energy management and I definitely still procrastinate. I know, hard to believe. In a way, now that I know procrastination is an act easily explained by the way our brain works and resists to working on longer more challenging tasks I feel less guilty about it. Procrastination sometimes gets me a lot done. Just not what matters to me. Or I may be procrastinating on low impact things that need to get done but I just rather not. And they hang over me. Like minutes of meetings.
I can even be efficient when I procrastinate by getting a lot of stuff that is not urgent done. That is not being productive. Being productive is about getting done what matters.
The famous working smarter not harder.
I find that I have taken a few steps towards productivity in the last year. As I read through the book, I happily did a mental check on the things i am getting sort of right. However there are others where I had to be honest with myself and admit failure, or to say the least unwillingness. Like limiting the time I spend on Whatsapp, or stopping myself from responding to email right away. I have done occasional dips into it but not many.
As a fan of metrics and evaluation I picked up on the top things from the book that I have tried and tested with success and those that not so much. I am at most a B!
What worked: 4 things that improved my productivity
#1 Brain Dump – my bullet journal
I remember exactly the day I felt I was overwhelmed and needed a system. I was on mat leave, so I don’t remember exactly the day of the month, but I know I was sitting at my dining table, notepad in front of me and a long list of things. I did not know where to start. And even though I had some sort of to-do list, I kept on forgetting things that were more important. I felt hopeless, especially facing the prospect of going back to work soon. I felt my brain was never going to recover from lack of sleep and baby brains and I was anxious to remember what I needed to do each day.
It took a few months until Madalena told me about the bullet journal. At an unexpected dinner that changed my life meaningfully. Once I started this new system to “brain dump” what is on my mind, but find it all in an easy and organised manner, I was sold. Similar to Chris Bailey, I felt liberated. Finding a way to remove things from your brain creates an enormous space for you to focus on what is truly important. If the bullet journal is not yours, keep looking, or use what works from it for you. It is worth it.
#2 Stacking up or scheduling Maintenance Tasks
Included in my overwhelm moment, there were a huge amount of admin or so-called maintenance tasks. Things that need to happen to keep life going but really may not mean much to you. As such, most likely you do not want to deal with these tasks. It is like you are wasting your time. I like it to be food on the table, but going on Amazon Fresh to get it done every week is sub-optimal. No matter how streamlined my process is by now and how good the Amazon algorithm is.
I admit that I outsource a fair amount of household tasks, such as cleaning or cooking but none of the household management. I define menus, do shopping, organize school bags, organize after school clubs and pay different bills. As much as I maximise direct debits there always seems to be one more bill to pay.
In the past, I would do a few maintenance tasks every day, so that I would not feel like an entire evening was wasted on it. I was wrong. Now, I reserve one night a week to do maintenance, unless it cannot be avoided, such as a late penalty or a next day event. I found that it becomes so efficient that I enjoy it and I may even end up with spare time. Moreover, if I know when it is I will just add it to my journal to that day and my brain will more easily remember to do it almost without prompt.
#3 Goals based on values
A big part of the message of the book is the importance of defining what you want to work on and what you want to achieve on the basis of your values. I find that this one has been a game changer for me.
Earlier this year, I have defined my goals for the year and the key milestones that would be required to determine success. I also defined the small tasks needed to get there, to the extent I had visibility. On top, I review these quarterly. It has helped me enormously to help me plan my priorities and also avoid procrastination. Whenever I find myself in front of a more challenging task that is important for my long term goals, I can now see it more clearly for its overall importance and break it into achieve able parts.
I ensure I reserve at least a few nights a week to work on key tasks that contribute to my long term goals, either personally or at the charity. I used to always postpone prosecuting some tasks until I had a better evening or more time. Now, I learnt to just progress it slowly towards the end goal, as each task is not a goal itself.
#4 Structured Free time
Yes, I know it sounds funny. The book says the same. Many people interpret free time as fluid and spontaneous. I can do that sometimes. But for me, that is not that free. The brain is lazy and often goes for short term gratification. So many of the things I value doing in the long run would never get to fruition. We now plan to take the kids out to a different museum or park at least once a month if not more. With that we resist the temptation to just hang out in the sofa and take them to the park next door. We still enjoy when we go to the park, but we don’t do it as fallback plan anymore. And that feels all more intentional.
I plan my free nights in advance, knowing I will work on specific pieces of work for the charity, our house project or my writing. I will work around social nights and times where I know I need to travel or work. I feel my life has been ever more full since I have started doing this.
The 4 things I have tested for productivity sake and first thoughts
I am not a massive coffee drinker but I do enjoy my 1-cappuccino a day. Arguably, I may even need it, because it is not uncommon that I get headache when I stop having it during my holidays. I guess that means I should do it more often, if I am brave enough, given I have a severe tendency for migraine. Chris Bailey does not argue against any sort of caffeine, as per the other book I am reading on “Why we sleep”. He instead argues about having it habitually and to move on to have it intentionally. If you know you have specific slumps in the day, then aim caffeine at those times instead. Or if you want help dealing with jet lag. I found it fascinating and tested out over the last few days. In fact my replacing my morning coffee with a juice and then moving around my coffee time depending on how tired I felt and how I felt my productivity reducing has avoided my late morning decline in energy.
#2 Minimizing Distractions
As a tech geek I tend to like my devices. Moreover, I have become more friendly with social media as I build up The Viewpoint community. My phone ends up often in my hand, even when I have no need for it.
I have now installed screen time limitations specifically aimed at social media applications and also put my phone on my mandatory curfew from 10 pm, an hour before I am due to sleep. Furthermore, I am also making full use of the WiFi blockage I have in the office that often prevents notifications on Whatsapp to be less permanently connected to the world outside the building. I intentionally chose when it is time to read and respond to my messages. I dictate my phone usage, it does not dictate me. It’s a start, and it does not work every day, but I have noticed significant differences on my level of focus already.
The other experiment has been to move my laptop to my room in the evenings where I have no internet access. The evening is the harder time for me to be productive some days and the one I “need” the most. As such, disconnecting notifications and working with no internet has significantly increased my production levels over the last 10 days. On things that matter!
Did you know that on average we only focus 53% of our attention on the tasks at hand?
#3 White space Time
I have experimented with “white space time” a few months back. In a way, I felt it helped, especially on Monday mornings, but it did not help me every day. I am trying to reintroduce it in a way that works for me. What is whiteboard time? It is really time to allow your brain to dump out any things it needs to worry about, review projects, past weeks, upcoming tasks and prioritize accordingly.
In a way, it could include the “3 tasks per day” recommendation that I have so far tried once and failed once (see section below on failure). I don’t go after 3 tasks but I use the time to assess what I need to focus on for the day and if there are relevant prep materials I need to have handy in the days which are heavier with meetings.
I sometimes find that “admin” time to plan the day is not the best use of the morning, as that is in theory where I could dive straight into work. So I sometimes use my breakfast time to do it in parallel with cleaning my overnight email or checking on what I left pending. It is sometimes sub-optimal but it works in giving me better visibility of the day.
My most favorite is still my Friday afternoon sit-down-with-self 30 minutes before leaving the office to plan the next week. That has definitely been a high point on my productivity. Perhaps I will stick to that instead.
It seems weird that I am having water as an experiment. If you have been here long enough you know that drinking more water is one of my goals for the year and one that I have not yet cracked. I have severely improved over the last month as I made it a specific goal for the month and actively track how much I drink every day. But I am far from 2 liters a day, or whatever the recommended dosage is.
But why am I linking water with productivity? First and foremost it is just healthy and good for your brain. In addition to it, I find that water contributed to something I do not do – breaks. They are essential on maintaining higher energy levels all the way through the day. More water means I need more breaks, whether I want them or not. And I have noticed the difference. Despite being annoyed by it.
The 4 things I have not yet figured out for productivity
#1 Prime Time
This is about when you are at your best, which is the time you should select to work on your most important tasks. For Chris Bailey, it required him to experiment with dropping caffeine, sugar and other enhancements to find out his bio metric prime time. Based on that knowledge he knows how to design an optimal schedule for productivity. He also knows when to take aids like caffeine – always outside prime time!
I have not yet figured out when this is for me. I have a feeling there are a few hours in the morning where I can be massively productive. I am more certain that post 4.30 comes another peak, which is one of the things keeping me away from leaving the office on time. Typically at 5 in the afternoon is when I pick up on something I was delaying the entire day and I suddenly find a solution for. It is not uncommon that I write my full articles on my commute home at that time, as my brain is in very creative mode.
Arguably, I find that my prime time varies during the week, but that could be me going around my schedule that on Monday nothing important gets done and on Friday I do my best work as I reserve the day for no meetings.
#2 3-Task Rule
I have mentioned this one above, when talking about the mindspace or whiteboard time. Whatever we want to call it, the big point is to define what you want to get achieved. The book argues that we should define 3 tasks to be done each day and ensure they are scheduled for our prime time. These tasks should be aligned with our goals and move us a step closer to them.
I tried it one day at 8.00 in the morning one day last week. And then I had an 8.30 meeting that completely derailed any former plans that I had. I was so frustrated by the fact that the only time I really tried to get it formally done the universe laughed at me that I have not yet tried again. What I do try and do is to order 5 or 6 tasks that tend to be reserved for Fridays (my best day) to ensure I follow their order of importance rather than letting myself be dominated by procrastination.
#3 Schedule email time
We live from and by your emails in many of the jobs of the knowledge economy. As much as I have large pieces of work and analytics to do, I struggle to stay away from my email for too long. It always feels like the days I chose to do it I end up with someone saying “did you not see my email this morning?”. I can claim that I was busy but that is not an excuse I like to come up with. And it could be one of my bosses/ clients, which would make me upset no matter what my excuse would be.
I do want to switch off notifications from my outlook but I am struggling on how to reconcile with the need to know whether those emails come from 3-5 key people for me. I have found a solution for my evenings: switching off the internet for some periods of time and reserving the nights where I am too tired to “produce” to read email. However, for my day job I find it hard to do. When working from home I now avoid my second screen which only holds my email, and at work I now put the email on the more distant screen and I am programming special colours for some people on my inbox. But it is hard to resist and move to checking email 3x per day.
#4 Saying No
How can I? Now really, the book says something like “the most effective productivity word is one of the first 10 words we all learn and most use as toddlers – the word no”. I was impressed by the simplicity, even though I was not surprised. In reality, I am terrible at this productivity tip. At work, I have worked around no by working on my delegation. That way, the team can still achieve more but I don’t have to do it all. It has progressed over time. And sometimes, we try to say no, though it does not go well with our job description.
The hardest No I have to say though, is to myself. I constantly have new ideas, new things I want to do, new articles, new everything. And it is hard to stop myself. I rank an D so far. The only area where I have improved from an F is that I am no longer anxious about saying no, I am slowly removing FOMO from my life. Just at a very slow pace!
Productivity is a passion of mine precisely because of this last point. I like to say yes to new ideas. I like to say yes to new projects. I also like to have time for people. To be available. Or to have an engaging discussion. As such, I need every tool that I can get (including saying NO), to make productivity my way to work smarter, not harder.