Why is it that productivity tips, tricks, and hacks are perennially captivating? We all seem to care about being productive, to a fault. I can imagine our hunter-farmer ancestors, dishing out wisdom to rapt audiences, sharing their best ideas for growing more potatoes per square yard of land or track down that elusive Kudu.
We haven’t really changed.
I could have created a list of 1000 ways to improve your productivity, but I figured that these seven ideas will do just fine. I’ve worked with a lot of people as an Executive Coach, including leaders at Fortune 500 companies, in their quest to massively improve effectiveness and productivity. Here are a few things that I’ve noticed working best.
In particular, the most productive people seem to stop doing things that are dragging down their productivity. Like a hot air balloon casting off anchors, productivity naturally rises when we aren’t weighed down by bad habits. It’s less about more and more about less! No surprise, they are all simple ideas (though not always easy to implement). They are also 100% free. Give any (or all) of them a shot and let me know how they work for you in the comments.
I’m listing them here in increasing priority order. I really like the last few.
1. Stop living out of your inbox
Who decided that “doing email” counted as productive work? There are very few jobs where email responsitivity is a worthwhile thing. If you are a knowledge worker hired to solve complex problems, I can guarantee that those problems are not living in your inbox. Why then, are you spending half of your time at work servicing your inbox?
It gets worse. In a highly competitive work environment, the best way to stand out is to create the quality time and mental space to work on hard problems that are crucially important to your company and career. These are important, but not urgent, problems.
Inboxes, however, are heavily biased to focus on urgent needs. If you are living in your inbox, you are fixating on urgency, at the expense of working on the vital work that will differentiate you over the long haul.
2. Stop being a lone wolf
This morning I opted to go for a run at a local trail near an amphitheater, instead of my usual solitary run around my house. It was a great run, and I wrapped it up by running stairs at the amphitheater. I intended to run the stairs a couple times. Turns out that there were dozens of other people doing the same thing. I got so caught up in the energy of everyone exercising, that I easily did twice as much running as I otherwise would!
Groupthink can be problematic; unless it isn’t! If you are in a productivity slump, find a way to connect with other people on a similar journey. Join a class, group or team at work that will inspire and motivate you through association. Get out of your home office periodically and work at a coffee shop or co-working space. Stop taking such pride in being a lone wolf.
3. Stop being so serious
Ever watch a bunch of kids during recess or on the playground? They are insanely active. At the park near my house, I watch as some parents need to peel their kids off the merry-go-round after hours of twirling.
Remember what it’s like to play an excellent board game (or video game)? Same thing. Time flies. There are no productivity issues. Engagement soars. Creativity lifts.
Why is it that our work doesn’t hold the same level of inspiration? I believe that if we stopped taking our work so seriously, and instead treat our work more like a game, we would find a greater sense of engagement and joy. What would make your job more fun and game-like?
4. Stop doing everything
Remarkably productive people don’t do everything. They do a few things well. From the outside, it might appear like they get a lot done. However, upon closer inspection, you will find that remarkably productive people are very good at saying no to things that are not crucial. They are also very good at saying yes to the few things that seem to matter the most. The later is easier to do when your plate isn’t overflowing.
When work is more focused on fewer tasks, there are massive savings regarding time and mental energy. Let’s face it, you are terrible at multi-tasking. Those who are always bouncing around between projects are paying a massive tax on their productivity. Those who focus on one thing at a time can get more of the right things done, with a higher level of quality and insight.
5. Stop sleeping in
This one will be contentious, but I cannot ignore the massive productivity boost that comes from being an early riser. I re-committed to such a routine, waking around 5AM on most days, and I tend to get more done by 9AM than I used to get done all day. What’s most intriguing, is that I’m far more creative and focused in the morning than other times of the day. While the rest of the world is asleep, I’m doing my best work. Fewer distractions might have something to do with it.
Sleep is vital, so I am not suggesting that you forgo it. The trick to waking early is when you hit the sack. Invest in blackout shades, cut the caffeine in the afternoon and get in bed by 9pm. This will make a 5–6AM wake up feel entirely natural.
6. Stop being a slave to your habits
Habit building is all the rage right now. Ironically, it’s our habits that do us in. No surprise that much of eastern meditation and mindfulness practices are designed to wake us up from our patterns. We need fewer habits, not more. We need more consciousness of what is actually going on in our lives.
Catching up on social media, checking email, that second cup of coffee, that glass of wine with dinner, eating dinner in front of the TV, not paying attention in meetings, fixating on your goals….they are all habitual. If you are not careful, you will become chained to your habits.
The most significant boosts in productivity come not from tweaking small things, but in looking holistically at how you are working and making systemic changes for the best; then, adapting your methods based on what is relevant for your situation. It’s one of the reasons why I love waking up early. It produces a cascade of changes regarding how, and when, I do my work and conduct myself throughout the rest of the day.
If you were to zoom out and examine your day (or week, month, year); how would you organize things to support your desire to do more of what matters?
7. Stop caring so much about outcomes
Pop psychologists will try to convince you that the way to succeed in life is to cultivate a sense of control over your environment. “Create massive goals and don’t stop until you achieve what you are after” they will say.
There is one massive problem with this way of thinking, there is very little (perhaps nothing!) in our external environment that is actually within our control. The only thing we can hope to exert some control over is our internal way of being. That is to say, our inner response to external stimulation. This is the yogic path, one well-trodden and shared through spiritual teaching.
I’ll save the exploration into this topic for another blog, but one curious thing I’ve noticed is that when people have less riding on the outcome of their works, they tend to do much better. Athletes, business people, knowledge workers, creatives; this idea applies to all of them. Goals are excellent (and essential!) just don’t take them too seriously.
Attachment to an outcome is stifling. When we have our ego all wrapped up in the result (outcome) of our work, we create a massive amount of pressure on expectations. Pressure is terrible for productivity. Not to mention, people (and teams) under stress are less creative and more error-prone.
Therefore, go ahead and create your vision and mission. Set a BHAG. Then, throw your expectations out the window. Put 100% of your energy into your work. You will be more resilient, have more fun, and I’m willing to bet, more productive.
You Can Be Remarkably Productive
Being remarkably productive doesn’t require fancy methods, just the desire to question your current habits and explore new ways of working. It’s as much about what you stop doing, as what you start doing. Try any (or all) of the seven ideas in this article and let me know how they work for you in the comments below.
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