As we approach the holidays and start to look toward 2019, many of us will be thinking about making resolutions. Aside from the ubiquitous (and usually short-lived) resolutions to lose weight and exercise, many career-minded people will also be resolving to be more productive.
And for many, boosting productivity looks like this:
- Buy a planner
- Schedule in every task, large and small
- Organize tasks into priorities
And if your major hurdle to getting stuff done is time management, this approach might be helpful to you.
But for lots of folks, time management isn’t the problem. The problem is managing energy and handling stress.
Whether your goals are personal or work-related, the following are several steps you can take to protect your mental energy, put it to good use, and be more productive (rather than just “busy”).
Get in the Zone
If you’re not familiar with the concept of psychological flow, it’s the “mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.” (Wikipedia)
In other words, you’re in the zone. And when you’re in the zone, you’re not thinking about what it’s going to take to “wrap this up.” You’re not even aware that you’re working. You are fully absorbed and fully engaged. It’s the absolute best way to do good, fulfilling work.
But getting there isn’t easy. Most of us can’t just sit down at our desks and drop into the zone. (You can learn to do that, but it takes time and practice.) Training your brain for deep, focused work starts with small steps. The first of these steps is setting aside dedicated time.
Dedicate Time to One Specific, Important Task
During your dedicated time, you need to commit to performing only the task at hand. If your task is to write 1,000 words, you will sit there until you write 1,000 words. Or, you will sit there and not write 1,000 words! The point is that during this time, you are not doing anything else. Even if your task doesn’t get done, you will not deviate from your plan. You are trying to teach your brain how important this task is. And if you allow your brain to wander, to focus elsewhere, to make another activity a priority, then you are not training yourself to think about this activity as important.
Don’t get crazy. Don’t set your initial time to three hours. Start small. Thirty to forty-five minutes is often a good start. Remember that the hard part of most of our work is just getting started. So give yourself the ability to start. The rest will come with time.
Set both a time limit and a concrete task. You will not move on to the rest of your day until either your time runs out or your complete your task.
If you’re familiar with author Steven Covey’s notion of the quadrants of time management, you already know that a distraction is something that is urgent but not important.
Classic examples: an incoming Slack message. A ringing telephone. A coworker dropping by your desk to talk. They’re urgent because they require you to stop what you’re doing and take an action right now. But they’re (usually) not important: dealing with these things doesn’t help you achieve your goals.
Set your Slack (and your phone) to Do Not Disturb. Remove yourself to a quiet room in the office (Many offices have phone rooms or conference booths or similar). Disconnect your laptop from the internet. The fewer distractions available to you, the less likely you are to get knocked out of your flow.
Overscheduling your day can be just as devastating to productivity as under scheduling. While its necessary to know what you need to accomplish in a day, it’s also essential to build in time for rest and the unforeseen.
How many times have you said to yourself, “Okay! Today is the day I’m finally gonna clean out the garage/redesign my portfolio/cut down this tree/finish this report!” And you set out with the best intentions, but:
- Your mother-in-law calls because the cat is stuck in a tree, and you’re the only person she knows with a tall enough ladder to get the cat down. And by the way, she lives 2 hours away.
- Your car wouldn’t start
- That cat came down before you even arrived, and now your mother-in-law wants to talk to you about how hurt she was that you didn’t eat her pie at Thanksgiving.
You couldn’t have predicted any of this. But it happened, and you had to deal with it. And now your productivity for the day is shot. Worse, you’re mad at yourself for not hitting your targets for the day. That anger turns into stress. Stress turns into the inability to focus tomorrow as well. Now two days are in the toilet. And it just becomes a vicious cycle from there.
Rethink Artificial Urgency
But what if, instead of thinking in terms of what we must get done today, we think about what we must get done this week? Or this month? By giving ourselves a little bit more berth, we are actually less likely to fail, because we give ourselves leeway to work when we have energy.
Urgency is a necessary trigger to productivity for the time management-challenged. But artificial urgency is a productivity killer for the energy management-challenged. Consider the balance between getting lots of things done at the cost of high stress, or moving more slowly but more sustainably.
Know Your Weaknesses, and Give Yourself Crutches
If you’re a procrastinator, artificial urgency is your friend. If you’re more Type A but easily worn out, give yourself longer timeframes that account for your perfectionist obsessions. Forgetful? Put reminders on your phone. Easily distracted? Set up self-control apps.
One of my favorite life hacks is gamification. You can get me to do anything if you gamify it. So I use gamification apps for everything: writing apps that give me prizes for hitting word counts, dieting apps that provide me secret codes and achievements when I hit certain milestones, and language learning apps that reward me for learning new grammar.
Productivity doesn’t have to be a chore. We let it become overwhelming when we don’t hit our goals: then we feel defeated, and we let that defeat stymie future efforts. But by training our brains to get into the zone, by removing ourselves from distractions, and by keeping an unwavering eye on a realistic prize, we can set ourselves up for personal success.