No matter where you work or what type of work you do, everyone is looking for ways to be more productive. However, list-making, consuming large amounts of caffeine or testing out the latest technology won’t make any difference.
Why people are obsessed with being productive
Research indicates that it can take between 11 to 25 minutes for a person to return to the original task after an interruption. In this digital age, we are surrounded by stimuli and requests that demand attention. Staying focused at work and avoiding distraction is ever more difficult—which explains why so many are seeking out quieter environments which support the ability to concentrate.
The search for better productivity has led to misconceived notions about what productivity really is. It is not just trying to accomplish a multitude of tasks, using checklists and to-do lists. It is about doing less to accomplish the same goals, rather than more.
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, says that we often handle multiple tasks at once, but with a diminished focus. This kills our productivity.
Because of attention residue. Attention residue is a term coined by Professor Sophie Leroy of the University of Minnesota. She found through various studies on multitasking productivity that the more responsibilities people assumed, the more projects they tended to work on. When a person switches from one task to another without having completed the former, then a residue of their attention remains stuck as they’re thinking about the original problem.
The issue of multitasking is widely acknowledged as having a negative impact on productivity. The solution, as Cal Newport sees it, is to work free from distraction for long periods of time, with full concentration on a single task.
We can practice getting into deep work and have previously looked at steps and tools to help with the process. Deciding what work to start on can be a challenge. In the midst of the chaos and noise that surrounds us, how do we make sense of, bring order to and prioritize our work?
How to use a simple decision making productivity technique to bring order and priority to chaos
Tools and systems like to do lists to process documents can help you set priorities. However, it helps to have a personal productivity system that you can use on a regular basis. Here are two simple yet powerful productivity methods for bringing clarity to your priority setting and decision making.
Warren Buffett’s method
Warren Buffett, one of the world’s wealthiest people, has earned a reputation as a successful investor. His success is due in part to the way he prioritizes his time.
Here is his 3-step strategy for deciding on priorities:
1. Write down your top 25 goals.
2. Review your list and circle your top 5 goals.
3. Now focus only on those 5 goals until you have achieved them.
This simple exercise keeps priorities to a minimum while eliminating distractions and wasted effort. However, letting go of goals that we care about, but which are unimportant, can be hard.
It’s easy to rationalize spending time on activities or tasks that, in fact, produce little pay-off. However, all such activities take time, energy and mental space that we could have used on other activities. This is why we often find ourselves with 20 goals instead of 5 completed ones.
The Eisenhower decision matrix method
Among many other achievements, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States, is credited with having created NASA, DARPA (which led to the creation of the Internet), and the interstate highway system.
It is fair to say he was quite productive. A quote often attributed to Eisenhower reveals the secret to his productivity:
“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
So, how did he decide what is urgent and not important?
He used the decision matrix below, which classifies tasks into four categories:
1. Urgent and important—tasks that need to be handled immediately
2. Important but not urgent—tasks that you will schedule
3. Urgent but not important—tasks you can delegate
4. Not urgent or important—tasks you can eliminate
Using this decision matrix, you can decide on:
- what you need to spend time on during the week
- what you need to spend time on during the day.
Check out the video below to learn more about how to organize your tasks:
If you advance into a role that has more responsibility and requires leadership, you will do fewer tasks but more strategic planning. In fact, in many cases, doing tasks becomes no longer profitable as such activity is below your rank or pay grade. In other words, you need to intentionally spend more time in quadrant 2.
Two questions are helpful when determining which quadrant to allocate tasks to:
- What am I working toward?
- How are the primary goals I am working on helping me achieve my objectives?
Honest answers to these questions will help you decide where you need to invest your time and what you need to delegate or eliminate.
Most people tend to default to what gets the most of their attention. That’s why they end up dealing with urgent tasks and not the important ones.
Because urgent tasks scream the loudest, and there are repercussions for not addressing them immediately.
But if we spend too much time on urgent tasks, we tend to do little or nothing important that will help move the needle on our objectives.
An easy solution is to make important tasks urgent.
Assign a deadline. You will need to be held accountable, and there must be a system of rewards and repercussions Consider having others hold you accountable to these deadlines and also think about the consequences of not achieving them.
These two methods will help you make productive decisions and bring focus to your work. However, a problem you will encounter is sticking to your decisions and new habits.Is that task urgent or important? Learn how to prioritize work for maximum efficiency. Click To Tweet
How can you effectively create habits to make you more productive?
You can try different time management tools like the Pomodoro technique, GTD (Getting Things Done), Pareto principle, etc. But what you really need is the motivation to stick to your new habits.
A management science saying: “What gets measured can be improved”, can help.
Because once you have data and trends, you can spot areas that need to be improved. To improve your performance, consider gamifying the process. Reward yourself when you achieve goals and set “punishments” — like skipping a trip to get coffee — for when you slack off.
The Seinfeld technique
The Seinfeld technique (named after comedian Jerry Seinfeld), otherwise known as the “Don’t break the chain” technique or the “X-mark” technique, can help.
It works like this:
- Decide which goals you are going to tackle first. Choose no more than 3 at a time.
- Set a minimum requirement for each goal; as a designer, you might, for example, decide to create a new logo design every day.
- Decide how you will handle occasions where the chain might be broken (if you get sick, for example, or go on vacation). These situations cannot be prevented and do not require punishment.
- Place a calendar or a 7×10 grid with one goal somewhere visible. Do the same for each of your goals.
- Invest in a red marker.
Each day on the calendar or spot on the grid is an opportunity to practice your new habit. When you successfully execute your new behavior (by, say, creating a new logo every day), you get to mark the day on the calendar or grid with a big red X.
After a few days, you will notice that you are creating a chain of Xs. The goal is to not break the chain.
Why is it effective?
- It is simple to start.
- You can monitor progress and results.
- It is easy to stay on track. If you break the chain, you can start a new one.
- According to a study by Phillippa Lally at the University College London, it takes two months (66 days, on average) to form a new habit. Don’t give up before then!
How to bring focus to the right work?
Focusing on your real job is about harnessing your attention and bringing it to bear on the tasks you wish to accomplish.
Here are six ways to do just that.
1. Understand your focus pattern. A Harvard Business Review study shows that most people are most focused in the morning. Individuals vary, but understanding your focus pattern and what influences it, such as emotions or sleep, will help you plan your day.
2. Prepare for the next day. Before going to bed, plan for tomorrow. Remove some of the easiest decisions: identify what you will work on, what you will wear, what you will eat, which route you will take to work, etc. This will make it easier to avoid being sidetracked, and prevent wasting time and energy on unimportant things.
3. Tackle the biggest tasks first. Putting off difficult tasks will only eat away at your energy. So, tackle the difficult or biggest tasks first. After all, research shows that we are sharpest in the mornings.
4. Eliminate distractions. Emergencies will come up from time to time and you will have to deal with them. However, many situations that others deem an emergency can be dealt with later. In such instances, it’s best not to respond to such requests — or, at least not immediately. Over time, people will bother you less with trivial matters.
5. Take a break. Taking a break every so often will help to energize you. Eating healthy food, getting exercise, and staying hydrated also help.
6. To sustain your focus and productivity, remind yourself why you are engaged in these activities and where it is leading.
Use technology to turn the tide
Technology — with all the notifications, chime, and alerts — can be distracting and interruptive. These alerts get our attention by providing a dopamine release in our brains, causing us to be addicted to responding. However, it can also be used to turn the tide to regain productivity and focus on the right work. Here’s how:
- Get your priorities right by using one of the two simple productivity strategies we discussed above.
- Then use tools and technology that will block distractions and temptations.
- Tools like Hubstaff will help track productivity and provide feedback that you can act on to make improvements.
What works for you?
They say a rising tide lifts all boats, so help the Hubstaff community learn and grow together by telling us what works for you. Leave your comments below.
This month, we’re talking about finding more flexibility and freedom in your work. Check out our other posts on this topic: how to free your business from the pack and how to make a time management plan and stress less.