The word ‘productivity’ can elicit groans and eye-rolling, as it’s been over-used and misunderstood for quite some time now. I take a pragmatic view and define it simply as doing the right thing, in the right way, at the right time.
This doesn’t imply mountains of outputs or some kind of daily super-sprint like a machine, but a focus on priorities and timeliness. Based on this definition, you cold be productive have only done one thing – as long as that thing was important to you and was done with due care and attention.
As a productivity coach, I come across the same ‘roadblocks’ my clients struggle with, over and over again. So I’d like to run through some of the most common ones and explore why they can make life needlessly difficult for us. If you recognise any of these in your own work-life, don’t feel attacked but rest assured you’re in good company – and there’s plenty you can do about it.
1. Living in your email inbox
If your job title is ‘email manager’, then it’s entirely appropriate to stay focused on your email inbox all day, every day. If, like most people I’ve met, it’s not – then it’s time to get out of your inbox and back to your work.
If you find yourself dropping what you’re doing to jump on every single new email as it arrives, then you’re actually distracting yourself from your priorities – and these interruptions have a real cost when it comes to our attention.
This approach is a lot like trying to empty a flooding bathroom – with a tea-cup – while the water is still pouring in. You can’t control the number of emails you receive, so why dedicate so much time and precious attention ‘staying on top of’ them.
Instead: Turn off your email notifications and turn to your inbox at pre-determined times.
2. Multi-tasking on important activities
If there’s one common habit I see adding to people’s anxiety and overwhelm, it’s multi-tasking. Not ‘having dinner while watching tv’ multi-tasking, but combining two or more important work tasks. Obviously, this is done in the belief that it’s efficient, but just like our email habit, it comes at a cost.
Our performance on each of the tasks we’re trying to perform will suffer. Errors will creep in, our approach will become obvious to others and we’ll get tired and frustrated.
Instead: If tasks are important to you, give them the attention they deserve. If they’re big, break them into smaller tasks. But just do one at a time and move on when you’re finished. This is actually more efficient and allows you to bring all of your attention to the task at hand.
3. Conflating tasks and projects
There are few things more overwhelming and demotivating than a task list of massive demands and no sense of where to start.
If your daily list consists of things like ‘Final report’ and ‘Client pitch’, alongside ‘Quarterly appraisals’, then there’s no doubt you’ll feel overwhelmed. Because these are not tasks, they’re projects.
Casting your eye over a list like this could well lead to procrastination and we all know there that leads.
Instead: create more projects. I find David Allen’s approach to this really useful: if an activity will take you more than three or so actions, label it a project. Not a formal ‘Gantt chart and project team’ project, but an informal collection of the tasks that it’ll take to get it done.
This allows you to slice a project up into smaller chunks, which you *can* get done in a day. This gives you a sense of accomplishment, allows you to track your progress and is much less likely to lead to procrastination.
4. Not establishing priorities
In productivity terms, priorities are an indication of where we should invest our time and attention. Without priorities, everything can seem important or we can end up doing lots of ‘busy work’: tasks that take up our time but have no real impact on our goals or meaningful workload.
And no, it’s not enough to just make everything ‘urgent’ as this is the same as having no priorities at all.
Instead: get specific. Remember that tasks can be important, urgent, both or none. The ‘Eisenhower matrix’ is a handy tool to start bringing some clarity to your workload. It facilitates focus, delegation and (if I’m honest) the dining of inconsequential tasks.
5. Keeping your tasks and ideas in your head
Our brains are amazing, but they have limitations. While you can conjur up images of your final school exams in a heartbeat, reliving the anxiety and perfectly visualising the exam hall, you can’t remember the important email you needed to send this morning. You’re overlying on your brain to keep long lists of tasks, which it’s not really that great at.
Instead: You need a clear task list, out on a page or in an app designed for that. As you get new ideas or are given new work to do, it should go into this list and be assigned some kind of relative priority.
Now, this isn’t a finite list of all the way we can distract and confuse ourselves, but it’s a good start. Get the above areas working for you and you’ll definitely notice the difference.