I have been listening to podcasts a lot as I mentioned in a post recently, and
one of the things I have been thinking / reading / listening about is how to increase one’s productivity. Specifically, how to get more of the right things done. Things that will bring in income, or things that will improve my skills, or things that will make me a more successful writer. Its a question a lot of people are asking, not just writers, because we all need to get better at what we do, and we are all interested in learning at least, how to stay relevant, and at best, how to become one of the best in our fields.
So in the quest to figure out what I should do more of, what I started to learn is what I should do less of. Paradoxical, I know. But this idea has been coming at me from several angles, so I figured I should pay attention to it. Here is what I learned.
1. Figure out what is important
Getting things done, especially the right things, means that we need to know what these are. What skills do you really need to hone, what projects do you really need to complete, what tasks do you need to pay more attention to? If you take a moment to think, this is actually not that difficult. We all know deep down what is really important to do to move our career (or side project or writing career) forward. Figuring this out is the easy part. But make sure you are being truthful, and getting to the heart of what is crucial. If you are a writer, writing your next book is important. Spending time watching three seasons of Downton Abbey as “research” for your historical novel, not so much.
2. Make a list of what is less important
This is really the hard part. I could list all the crucial projects, or at least a half dozen crucial projects without blinking. But deciding what is less important, what doesn’t make the cut, that’s the hard part. I can see that Facebook and Netflix aren’t so crucial, but what about time spent making connections with other authors on Twitter? Or commenting on blogs and forums on writing discussions. Or attending a conference that may net some potential ideas? It is hard to know where to draw the line.
I have been reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, where he discusses the importance of making time for work that will move your career and professional skill level forward, and limiting as much as possible all other types of work. This actually made me radically re-think my time - I have been spending a large amount of time doing things that I thought were moving my writing career forward, but in retrospect I realize, were easy ways to put off doing what was truly important - writing my next book. I can make dozens of connections on Twitter, but if I can’t write a good book, and another, and so on, those connections won’t help. I rationalized to myself that I was doing things that were useful and productive, but how many words did I get written? How much progress did I make on editing the book that I am revising? How many blog posts did I write? It is easier to read the work of others, and comment, and re-tweet, but is that truly productive or just busy work?
Productive people are far more mindful of where their time really goes. Some years ago, my boss at the time had taken a sheet of paper and drawn 2 lines, separating the page into 3 columns. He wrote down 3 headings - yes, no, and maybe. He then told me to put down the projects that we had committed to doing at that time under the yes list, and he added some things that we were considering working on under the maybe list. And then he put something that I wanted to do, but wouldn’t really move our goals forward, give us money, or add to our professional reputation, under the no list. And he told me that he made that list for himself routinely, in order to focus his time and attention. He was someone who was rising fast through the rungs of his profession, so I knew that it was good advice, even if hard to implement.
So go on, make your no list. Put down the things that you are doing instead of the things on the list you made from point 1 (above). And resolve to only do them if you are getting through the first list at a fast clip, and for very small periods of time. So if you absolutely need to go on Twitter to see what’s going on, allocate 15-20 minutes and stick to it. And only after you have made progress on items from your yes list.
3. Important things need focus
While researching my book Anyone Can Get An A+, I came across the concept of deliberate practice, where you work in a focused state on something cognitively challenging that pushes you to improve your skills. Cal’s book discusses this concept as well - that you need to work without distractions on things that create value, things that are hard. By definition, doing something hard is well, hard, and you need to set aside time to work on them when you are not distracted, when you aren’t thinking about the myriad other things that need doing, when you don’t stop to pick up your phone every time it pings.
Research shows that each time you get distracted, it takes on average 22 minutes to get back on track. Also, when you work while distracted or trying to multi-task, you make twice as many errors. If you are working on things that really are worth your time, projects that will move your career forward, or will show your boss what you are really good at, you can’t afford to make mistakes. You can’t afford to not do your best work. And so you need to work with as much focus as you can muster. Cal Newport says that the more we get distracted, the harder it is for us to focus when we really need to. The good news is that learning to focus is a skill, and you can get better at it. How - simply put away distractions and set aside a chunk of time to work without distractions on an important project. Keep setting aside blocks of time when you work on only one important task or project, and try to block out the world while you’re working. The more often you do this, the easier it will become.
4. Work less to be more productive
In order to really be more productive, you need to give your brain a rest. Not by doing nothing, or spending hours watching mindless TV and playing video games, but by doing something that actually helps you to feel relaxed and rejuvenated. While this seems sensible advice, many of us, including yours truly, feel that it might be more productive to keep powering through the to-do list when the work is piling up. After all, does it make sense to work less when there is a lot to get done? Unfortunately, this mindset forgets that we aren’t machines, and that while we could stare at the screens and try to do work, if you’re fried mentally, you are basically taking much more time to do the work, and operating at a much poorer level of quality. When you take a break, and get adequate rest, you can come back recharged, and do in a short amount of time what would take hours when you’re tired.
Paradoxically, it is easier to just keep working, to extend our workday and decide that by working longer hours, we can get more done. But here’s the thing. Have you ever had to leave by a certain time, and just raced to get your work done? Or found yourself being incredibly productive just before you go on vacation? What’s going on there - did our work reduce or did we suddenly feel more motivated? I find that when I have a tight deadline, I am able to clearly see which aspects of the work absolutely need to get done and which are optional. I stop being a perfectionist and just do the work, and it turns out just fine. Set a cut-off point for yourself, work like crazy to get done in time, and leave. Go work out, spend time with friends and family, get some personal time. You will find that the hours you are working will just become more productive, and you will still get the same amount done, if not more.
5. Manage your energy
This last week I understood first hand what a productivity killer falling sick can be. I was battling a severe bout of flu days after suffering from indigestion and an attack of nausea, and not only was it miserable to be sick, I was stressed about how much work I wasn’t getting done. Ironically, I know that my immune system has been compromised lately because I neglected to take the time to eat healthily, skimping and eating whatever was convenient, rather than what my body really needed. I had also been getting less sleep than usual and been cutting back on my workouts. I justified all this in the name of getting more done, but then I fell sick, which wiped away all the productivity gains I had made. Not just that, I had actually planned some time off and some relaxing activities, which I ironically couldn’t do because I was ill. Your body won’t wait till you have time to take care of it. You either treat it well, or accept the consequences. And just generally, managing your energy is a good idea. Getting enough rest and exercise, actually increases the amount of energy you have to put towards your work.
Managing your mental and emotional energy is just as crucial. Within the day, manage your energy, and try to do the most mentally intensive tasks while you are at your freshest. This tends to be earlier in the day, but it also differs for people. For many years, I was at my freshest at night. Nowadays, it is usually 11am -1pm when I am at my best. Knowing when you have the most energy to dedicate towards your important tasks is important, and make sure that you protect this time. Don’t take non-urgent phone calls during this time, or do your laundry or run errands.
I hope these 5 slightly counter-intuitive tips actually help you to become more productive while at the same time maintaining your sanity.
Personal Update: My book Will The Real Albert Speer Please Stand Up? The Many Faces of Hitler's Architect is free on Amazon from today till April 5th, 2016.