The slow death of productivity: work smarter, not harder

Sensible people know that being busy and being productive are two different things. As are being present and being productive (anyone who’s worked in an office knows that).

It’s easy to fill your days up being busy, so busy that you just don’t know how you’re going to manage to fit everything in, but this feeling of busyness often leads to the death of productivity.

1. Letter trays

I am firmly of the belief that letter trays were invented by a person fully intent on destroying my last vestige of organisational zeal. That’s why my triple stack of Satan’s desk equipment is now lying in a dismantled heap.

All it does is encourage you to stick bits of paper in random piles, telling yourself that you’ll “look at that later”, only you never do. Sure, once in a while you’ll carefully remove the great stacks of paperwork and try to organise them (usually at 4pm on a Friday, or the last day before Christmas break), and it’s then that you discover that important bit of paper that vanished in mysterious circumstances eight months previously.

Well, to steal a phrase from a certain time traveller, NO MORE.

Paperwork will be received, processed the same day, and then never grace my desk again. (Getting Things Done is a great system to use if you’re living in a chaos of paperwork.)

2. Lunch at your desk

Oh this will be a hard habit to break. Even if you don’t need to work through your lunch hour, who doesn’t like to take some time to catch up with the news online, or chat to your friends sitting at their own desks, eating their own lunches?

The thing is, I’m starting to realise that people weren’t designed to stare at a computer screen for eight hours a day – it feels like you’re doing more work, but you really aren’t. What’s more, your work will probably be of better quality if you take time away from your computer.

Things that can help include: Workrave (a great free programme that reminds you to take screen breaks) and f.lux (another free programme which adjusts the light of your screen to mimic the light you’re working in).

3. Smartphones

Smartphones are helping to blur the line between work and play, especially for people in the comms industry. Who knows what you might miss if you ignore the incessant alerts from your phone? It could be some insignificant bit of information, or it could be a new social network, or product launch. Where will you be then?

Smartphones allow us to continue to be chained to our computers, despite being half-way across the world on a beach, or in the labour ward, or in the audience of an award winning play.

But people need leisure time. We need time to decompress, and focus on something, or someone, without the addictive pull of a smartphone pinging for our attention. It certainly doesn’t make us more productive.

Are you one of the 62% of smartphone users (aged 18-44) who reaches for their phone as soon as they wake up?

Here’s a great slideshare deck about dopamine driven smartphone addiction:

4. You’re trying to do too much

Ten years ago, multi-tasking was the Holy Grail of time management and productivity. I used to be great at multi-tasking, but found that constantly switching from one task to another led to burnout.

Switching is what the brain does. We have a limited amount of bandwidth, so the brain switches back and forth between focusing on one task –  say writing a blog post – and another “ooh, I’ll just quickly check my email for that client approval”.

Keep this up for too long, and we can quickly get overwhelmed, distracted and fractious. It leads us to think that we’re the busiest person ever, when really, we’re not. Important tasks get lost in the mix, or we get interrupted from one task and go straight into another, leaving a to-do list full of loose ends.

Stanford researcher, Clifford Nass discovered that the brain can handle a maximum of two tasks a once, and that chronic multi-taskers tended to use their brains less effectively even when dealing with one task. He suggested:

  • focusing on one task for 20 minutes before moving on to the next (which sounds similar to the Pomodoro Technique)
  • restricting yourself to checking email a few (scheduled) times a day

In 7 Habits of Highly Effective people, Stephen Covey talks about a woodcutter who won’t take the time to sharpen his blade, instead he continues to cut down trees – working harder and harder as the blade becomes blunter over time. Yet if he took a few minutes to sharpen it, his work would be easier, and his progress swifter.

It’s a good analogy for the way many people work – becoming so focused on doing that they don’t spare the time to take a break, go for a walk, or even stare out the window for a few minutes. Our brains may be powerful, but we need to remember that we’re not machines. We’re people, and we do our best work when we remember that.




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