First of all, if you’re anything like me, you’re used to having many distractions and queries thrown your way at work. “Can you re-arrange that meeting?” “Can you send that updated report to me at some point this afternoon?”
And there I am flapping around trying to clear my inbox and meet these never ending requests so that I can finally – yes, finally focus on my priorities. At the same time, I have my e-mails open, in a constant state of switching out of what I was doing so that I can quickly read the new incoming email and address it before getting back to what I want to work on. I’m switching tasks so often that I forget what I was working on before I was interrupted. Does this sound like you?
This is called ‘task switching’, and, according to research carried out by the American Psychological Association, it can affect your productivity by up to 40%.
40% of your time at work is wasted on task switching.
Of course, this is compounded if your job requires you to manage multiple caseloads of work – common in the Information Age.
But here’s something more disturbing: on average, it takes 23 minutes to get back on task after task switching if the event that distracted you required more than a few minutes of your time. Let’s explore this statistic a little further.
According to observational analysis carried out by the University of California, employees task switch every 3 minutes and 5 seconds.
This means, most of your working day you’re scrambling to get back on track. That’s most of your working day. No wonder we feel overwhelmed, helpless and unsure about what to do.
The common causes to your lack of productivity
E-mail: You can’t focus on task because you’re too tempted to check and address every e-mail that hits your inbox
Facebook: You instinctively check your Facebook to see if you’ve received a notification so you can enjoy that dopamine hit like you’re hooked on a drug. Hang on, you’re actually a dopamine junkie.
Colleagues: They want to socialise, ask you favours, need your help and you love helping them. It’s way better than helping yourself because, afterall, you don’t know how to.
Your mind: Your mind constantly wanders. Thinks about worst case scenarios, what you said that pissed off an old friend, overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a more humanitarian system,
Why you shouldn’t keep your e-mail inbox open
This demands it’s own heading. According to (admittedly old) research by the International Journal of Human Computer Interaction, office workers look at their e-mails 30-40 times per hour. So we know that email is a temptation. I’ll show you how can cut out that temptation later on.
Your mind is distracting you, not them
According to a study by th University of California, half of all interruptions are caused by self interrupting. This is surprising, as we commonly blame interruptions on those around us. But then again, we do attribute blame to the outside for many things because we probably lack self reflection. We’re busy and stressed so it’s always more cathartic to put the blame on others. Self reflection takes too long? (Wrong. Keep reading).
The good news is that you can do something about the 50% of interruptions caused by you. It’s within your control.
Your inner feelings are causing your reactions. Consider how you ‘view’ your work.
Now, I neither I have the time nor the energy to try to convince you or myself to change our minds- not that we ignore that- however, I’m a huge believer in systems and processes to elicit desired behaviours. Think of it as a shortcut with long-term results.
Instead of changing your mind, create routines that influence what you do. So, in terms of overcoming these problems that are related to you and how you view things, try to think in terms of systems and processes in order to mould your beliefs. Don’t rely on sheer will power. It’s a limited muscle. And don’t rely on motivation because you’ll give up and find yourself in a similar loop. If you’re not with me so far, just follow along and you’ll be fine. I’ll give you some examples in a few moments.
Thinking about how to overcome your lack of productivity is the war, achieving your day to day priorities is just the battle – win the war first
One of the most paralysing side effects of a lack of productivity is that it fatigues you. You’re caught in this overwhelming fog of procrastination and you don’t know ‘what’ to do next or ‘how’ to address your lack of productivity. You begin to obsess over it. There are tons of articles and methods out there to help you get more done, but the more you read, the more you suffer from ‘paralysis by analysis’.
If this is the stage you’re at, don’t get too down about it. It’s absolutely worth noting that trying to find a strategy and believing in it is just as overwhelming as the lack of ticks on your checklist. So we’ll work on a strategy with actionable solutions that can help you command control over your work and what you want to do.
Personally, not having a strategy used to make me doubt my abilities. I still have doubts. These can be put down to human nature I suppose, but I have more faith in myself because I’ve put systems and processes in place to get more focused work done.
Lack of strategy = bewilderment and perpetual self doubt
You need a productivity strategy to build your foundations real strong
Strategy sounds fluffy, but it’s crucial to have a strategy in order to learn how you’re going to manage yourself going forward. Off the back of that, you’ll have a plan of attack.
Under your strategy you need a system which helps you own your work and allows turns you into a Marcus Aurelius type stoic. Anything that falls onto you, you can manage because you have your system. Your workflow.
Here are some principles your strategy should take into account:
Mindset – why you’re doing the work
Flow – time on task, deep focused thinking
Get your mind right without becoming a buddhist monk
If doing your best work is determined by the way you feel about your work then you need to ensure you’re in the right frame of mind before you even start. If you’re involved in some creative venture, this is especially important. I’ve started projects enthusiastically only to see them fall by the wayside. And these projects began with a real purpose and energy.
I think the problem is down to the fact that we get stuck in the micro, engaged in the task, rather than thinking about why we’re doing it in the first place. The ‘why’ can motivate us to get that buzz we felt when we first began working on an idea.
Techniques and methods which prime you to make things happen
Start with why you’re doing the work that you’re engaged in. Whether it’s a report, a book, or something else, before you embark on your work, ask yourself why you’re doing it. This is particularly helpful in that it forces you to remind yourself why you’re engaged in that task.
Create a pre work ritual – Put on your headphones, listen to something that gets you pumped and go for a walk
Meditation – Meditate for 5 minutes. Focus your attention on your breathing and be aware of your mind. If meditating in the open office is something you’re paranoid about, head to the toilet. Put on some headphones so you can’t hear your fellow workers next door 😉
Don’t ever just start work. Do some activity that helps give you perspective in the real world, by creating awareness. It’s easy to get suckered in to your work, the pixels on your computer.
Prioritisation means ‘own it’ so own. It.
Boring old prirotisations. Being good at priorities is what your mom, teacher and your annoying manager preached to you when they imposed unrealistic deadlines upon you . Scrap what you’ve heard before. The way you do priorities is that you own them. This is all about you deciding what you want to do first. Own your priorities, it’ll give you power over your work. Mindset + Priorities is a great momentum setter for flow to take over.
Consider these principles to guide you:
80/20 rule – prioritise the inputs that are going to generate the biggest return on your effort investment
Work to your energy levels – if you work best in the mornings, your mind should be clearer in the mornings; tackle the work that requires deeper thought and analysis
Most important tasks, projects come first, less important is second best. You’re in the business of getting the most important work done first. Everything else is secondary. Remember and apply this principle, otherwise you’re always helping other people and will end up feeling exasperated that your so called priorities were never given the prominence they deserved.
Batch check your e-mails: Close your inbox and set specific times in the day where you’ll commit to checking them. Let your colleagues know.
Capture your priorities to keep the crosshairs on what matters
Always write down your priorities. Whether you use a pen and paper or a to do list app. It’s important to keep to capture it in some way and refer to it because by doing so, you begin to hold yourself accountable to it. A to do list also helps you to keeps razor focused on ‘what’ needs doing. Anything else can wait. Be strong about this.
Okay, I shan’t drum home prioritisation techniques here; there are tons of resources out there, but as a principle, prioritisation is fundamental to knowing ‘what’ comes next.
Establishing flow, means establishing time on task
Being undistracted and totally on task primes you to get into a deep state of focus allowing you to immerse yourself in whatever it is that you’re working on. That’s where the magic happens. You get into flow when you have a clear focus and minimise all forms of interruptions.
Methods to get you into a flow state
Pomodoro Technique – works by getting you to focus on activities in 25 minute time slots. Almost like a sprint dedicated to just one activity. After the 25 minutes, you take a 5 minute break before you go again.
Use apps like Coffitivity to drown out the sound of colleagues.
Being mindful – Whilst you’re in flow all is going great, but from time to time you will self distract. Be mindful when this is happening and snap yourself out of it. Acknowledge that you’ve self interrupted “Okay, done it again”. As you practice this you can get better at knowing when you’ve self distracted. Our minds are active and we’re not conscious that we’re self distracting, so practice becoming conscious.
Practice Meditation for 5-10 minutes a day. If that sounds too hard, try a guided meditation [application] such as [Get Some] Headspace.
Tell your colleagues you’re going ‘Time on Task’ – Send an email or simply tell them that you don’t wish to be interrupted unless it’s an emergency. Your manager will think you’re the consummate professional that you are and your colleagues will be jealous.
Reflect on what happened
Reviewing your day doesn’t have to be some formal exercise but you might wish to consider assessing your to do list and reflecting upon what went well. If you can see that you’re getting more done because of your strategy, then you will feel good about yourself. You’re of a rare breed. You’re empowering yourself to take charge of things that are important to you.
If however, there are tasks that you were unable to complete, get in the habit of understanding why. Here are some common reasons:
You got distracted
Other deadlines imposed themselves onto you and dictated your priorities
You didn’t stick to your system
It’s important to review in some way. It helps you master the art of identifying root causes to find out where you’re falling down. That way you can put fixes into place that will have a profound impact.
And another to reflect: take a breather. Don’t get bogged down in/hung up on those pixels on your computer screen. Go for a walk, chat to a colleague- sometimes it’s good to unplug yourself from the noise. Think ‘perspective’.
Information overload and why you Must consume less
So you’ve managed interruptions that occur from people, but how about the other common insidious interrupter – technology.
Common technological interrupters:
Facebook on your smartphone or desktop
I’m sure you can think of a lot more which are relevant to you/And any others that are relevant to you
Cutting out the information stimulants – Information overload
I don’t think information overload is discussed enough in productivity circles. If one of the primary reasons that you’re getting distracted is because you read and consume information, which gives you great ideas that you can’t put into action in the short term then it’s not helping you right now. Get good at helping ‘you’ right now. The future can take care of itself. If you subscribe to eastern wisdom, then thinking about the future is futile because only what you do now matters and can help shape your future.
It pulls you into future thinking instead of focusing on the present moment.
The Internet is the information highway and we’re addicted to information/one that we can’t seem to pull ourselves away from. This includes news, gossip, educational material – everything. Both the good and the bad come with an additional downside, which I don’t think is considered all that much when we’re talking about productivity advice.
The more information we consume, the more the brain has to process. Now, if you’re constantly reading articles about your sector/profession as a means to learn more, then you’re probably not helping yourself get better. Why? Because you’re an information bottleneck to the brain.
Practise filtering the information before you decide to consume it. Ask yourself the following questions:
Is this information relevant to me right now? – If it’s not, but will be in the long-term, postpone reading until another time.
Can I action the information in the short term?
Add potential inputs to your bookmark, watch how many build up and how many you actually read in the end – this approach satisfies your urge to think you need to read the article sooner rather than later.
Focus on quality sources of information
What are the results so far?
For me, there has been 3 high profile benefits:
I’m thinking more clearly – because I’m processing less information and focusing only on the most important things
I’m more confident – because I feel in control. My system is God so whatever is thrown at me, I can handle, most of the time.
More energy – because of less stress, less information overload and more time away from my computer when I’m not working.
Better quality and more work – I’ve been able to deliver higher quality outputs because I know my priorities
Give it a try and let me know if any of this has worked for you.