Geetanjali Mukherjee

Monday, February 29, 2016

5 Tips To Supercharge Your Productivity

I read a lot of articles and books on productivity, and keep looking for anything that will help me to add to my existing knowledge. Today however, I wanted to take stock of the most important lessons I have learnt from various productivity books and online articles, and the things that have worked best for me, to help me make the most of the time I am working.

1.           Work While You're Working
The biggest lesson I have learned, and something most productivity gurus will tell you as well, is that multi-tasking does not work. In fact, there is no such thing as multi-tasking, not really.

When you read a text message while you're working on a report for your boss, you aren't reading your messages and working on that report. You're reading your messages. Then you're working on the report. And then you're reading your messages again. In essence, you are switching between tasks, not the same thing as doing two tasks at once. And what happens when you switch – each time you use up a ton of energy, energy that is no longer available for you to actually work on the task. Research shows that when you switch between different tasks, you actually increase the time it takes for each task by a 100%, that is, it takes you twice as long to complete the task. And you increase the rate of errors by 100% too. That's really not efficient at all, is it?

Solution: work on whatever you are working on, without distractions. Even the sound of an email or message coming in, even when you don't actually check the message, can distract you and take you out of the focused state. However, the plus point of working in a focused manner? You have more chance of being in a flow state, where you are able to concentrate better, work with more creativity, and generally enjoy your work more.

2.           Stop Using Your Head (For Keeping Lists)
This is the classic advice from David Allen, the famed productivity guru: to write down everything rather than try to keep it all in your head. Productivity advice is almost synonymous with the advice to be super-organized, have the latest planning software and to-do list apps and the whole shebang. And anyone not completely comfortable with this level of color-coded bliss, thinks they can skip the whole list craziness and use the old-fashioned method – keeping things in their head. Or writing them down wherever they happen to find a scrap of paper.

Well, I am not advocating anal levels of planning here, but at the same time, not having a system not only is a recipe for disaster, it will actually make you miles less productive. Here's why. Your brain can only keep so many things in what is called the working memory, or the part of your brain that tells you that you have a meeting at 4pm today. It might remember that, but if you tack on 4 other meetings, and a birthday gift to shop for, and needing to remember to start working on that crucial project, something will fall out of the list. Besides, trying to keep all that in your head, you won't have the brainpower to devote to the higher-level sort of planning and thinking that actually makes you good at your job, or at school, or in your extra-curricular projects.

Solution: find the simplest, easiest method that you will follow, and stick to it. After trying many different apps, I settled on using Wunderlist, where I have lists for work and home, and sub-divided by category. To start with however, I would recommend one home and one work list, as well as a someday list for work (where you can put in projects that you would like to work on in the near future, or even stuff you would like to tackle next month, that you don’t want cluttering up your current list) and a someday list for home / personal (where you can list ideas for personal projects, books you want to read, or places you want to visit alone or with family). This isn't the only option, there are dozens of methods out there. However, I suggest it is more important to start somewhere than spend days on selecting the best tool for you. The important thing is to get everything out of your head and onto a paper or digital capturing tool, so that you can devote your head space to actually completing the tasks, and not just trying to remember them.

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3.         Plan Your Work
The next step after creating an on-going list of everything you need to do, is making a list of what you need to do today. David Allen advises against making daily to-do lists, as work is organic and what was a priority when you were making the list may be pushed aside by something else. I agree, which is why my Wunderlist lists are separated by type of work and not date (although you can set deadlines with each task if needed). At the same time, I find that sitting down to work on a day with only a vague idea of getting through my to-do lists isn’t particularly effective, and I get easily derailed by other things.

Solution: The way I deal with this is to scribble a tentative to-do list on a sheet of paper at the beginning of the day, or sometimes the night before. I put down all the external obligations and meetings I have. And anything that is due today and absolutely has to get done. Then I add in what I think I can accomplish or I would like to accomplish. Invariably I don’t get to everything on the list, and I usually just plonk the list down somewhere, walk away and forget about it. Still, I notice that the very act of making the list acts as a subconscious trigger and I get more things done than the days I make a list in my head, but neglect to actually write it down.

4.      Break Down Projects Into Doable Bites
How do you eat an elephant? The answer to that old cliché as you know, is one bite at a time. This advice can apply to any project, but especially to projects that are so big or complicated that you find it difficult to even know where to start.

Aside from breaking projects into pieces, another piece of advice that I found very useful is to separate different types of tasks. For instance, writing and editing. Or doing research and then writing up that research. The reason to separate different types of tasks is that research from neuroscience has found that it takes up a lot more energy for the brain to switch to one type of task to another one, and as we read before, switching wastes energy. So following the assembly line principle, its far easier and more efficient for you to break up the project into the kinds of things you need to do, and group similar tasks or do all of one kind of task before moving on to another.

Solution: Write a list of everything you need to do for the project, and add the list to your favorite list manager. Or create a separate list for the project. Be sure to group based on types of tasks – for instance, send all the emails requesting information from department managers at one go.

5.        Don’t Work All The Time
This is strange advice on a post on working more. Except the point is that it isn’t about working more. It is about working more effectively. And it is hard to work effectively and work long hours, without replenishing your energy. Not only hard, but not recommended.

In fact, this is a mistake I made when I was in grad school. I was taking every difficult course I could, trying to make the most of the awesome opportunity presented by attending an Ivy League school. I arrived at the library almost as it opened in the morning, and stayed till evening, came home, made dinner, and started to study again, till late at night. I took breaks only to go to class, my part-time job, or grocery shopping. And school-related meetings. Eventually I would rebel against my self-imposed schedule, and have a day of just watching endless episodes of some TV show. Not the greatest way to renew my energy. Now that I'm wiser (and away from the environment of everyone's wacky schedules), I can see that there were much better ways to replenish one's energy and get motivated to get back to work.

Solution: make a list of the kinds of things you like to do that are really relaxing, and don’t involve plopping in front of the TV. Preferably some of these activities involve getting some exercise, like taking a walk on a scenic route, or playing basketball with friends, or even visiting some of your city's tourist spots. Author Laura Vanderkam recommends making a list of 100 dreams, and planning your leisure time just like you plan your work. This leads to more fun memories and more motivation to get back to work.

Hope these five tips culled from reading dozens of books help you to become far more productive this year. We are only two months into 2016 – let's really make this year count!

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