In Part 1 of “The Decline of Personal Productivity and How to Fix It”, I described how personal productivity has been declining in many peoples’ lives, with a negative impact on productivity and personal well being. Part 2 of this article provides a number of practical suggestions on how you can deal with the problem and change your habits.
Strategies To Increase Productivity By Working Less, Taking Breaks, Controlling Disruptions and Developing a Personal Control System
- Shorten your to do list. Many of us unconsciously keep adding things to do in our lives, without deleting any. So make an extensive list of the things that don’t really matter in your life (that is essentially just busyness), and delete them, so you can make more room for the things that really matter in your life;
- Change your have to do list to a love to do list. Prioritize all the things you do and make sure you commit corresponding time and energy to them rather than less important things. Spend time on the things related to your most important values;
- Rest in a do nothing state. There is plentiful research evidence to show that doing nothing in a restful state (where there is nothing to accomplish) strengthens your state of being, rather than doing, and can enhance your energy levels and creativity;
- Learn how to say no and guard against energy vampires. Workplace culture often requires that you sacrifice time for others, whether that means acting as a mentor or maintaining an open-door policy. The benefit to others’ productivity often comes at a cost to your own. Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, recommends extreme selectivity as a check on your desire to always be accommodating. McKeown likes to ask people to imagine they have no to-do list, no inbox, no schedule of appointments. While it’s nice to be able to help people and be the “go to” person at work, if you’re efficient, and get your to do list done, people will notice and readily ask you for help. Learning how to say no to requests is critical for maintaining your physical and mental health;
- Eliminate or seriously reduce multitasking. The research evidence is pretty clear on multitasking—it reduces productivity and cognitive functioning. Replace it with what has been termed “single tasking”—doing one thing at a time with complete focus. Learning how to mediate can help immensely;
- Learn how to live in in present. This is an essential part of mindfulness. When we occupy our minds with thoughts and emotions by rehashing the past, hoping to change it, or constantly thinking about the future, particularly what could go wrong, we increase stress levels (including cortisol in our bodies) and become less productive. Focusing on the present moment and what you can do only then is the answer;
- Measure progress daily and stop measuring your worth by what you accomplish. In her book The Progress Principle, Teresa Amabile emphasizes progress (moving forward with one’s work) over productivity (getting things done well and efficiently, irrespective of their importance). A sense of making meaningful progress, she found, has much greater positive impact on engagement and motivation. Her latest research suggests that the simple act of looking back on progress also positively affects your sense of accomplishment and how competent and effective you feel at work. Francesca Gino, also an HBS professor, asked some employees at an Indian company to spend 15 minutes at the end of each day writing about what had gone well. The group that took time to reflect had a performance level 23 percent higher than that of employees who spent those last 15 minutes simply working. If reviewing incomplete to-do lists brings us down, it appears compiling have-done lists bestows a sense of satisfaction and enhances performance;
- Manage your energy, not your time. This concept is taken from Tony Schwarz’s book, The Power of Full Engagement, where he argues that ensuring your energy levels (physical, mental and emotional) are more important than trying to manage time to fill in all you want to do in life;
- Stop writing down, visualizing and telling everyone about your goals. This may sound counterintuitive, because we’ve become brainwashed with the conventional wisdom of goal setting. Yet there was no research to show that writing down goals translates into success. And visualizing your goals being accomplished is more hype promoted by self-help gurus than motivational;
- Schedule breaks in your daily work (17 minutes), ideally every 52 minutes or even less. Use a timer as a reminder;
- Schedule everything in your calendar rather than creating to do lists. Scheduling has the added impetus for you to confront what you have to do, rather than burying it on some hidden to do list. This includes scheduling your free time.A study was conducted at National Pingtung University of Science and Technology in Taiwan found a positive relationship between free time management and quality of life;
- Plan your day in reverse. Start with your desired ending time (eg: 5 pm), and then calendarize all you want or have to do in reverse order including free time. This also gives you a greater sense of control over your work life as opposed to reacting to time demands as they appear;
- Take regular vacations or sabbaticals. A 2010 survey indicated that the average American accrues 18 vacation days and uses only 16. More than forty percent of American workers who received paid time off did not take all of their allotted time last year, despite the obvious personal benefits, according to “An Assessment of Paid Time Off in the U.S.” commissioned by the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group, and completed by Oxford Economics.The average French worker takes more than twice the vacation time. To some, this statistic encapsulates the difference between American and European workers. Americans believe they are productive and Europeans are lazy. In fact, it’s the opposite. Europeans understand that breaks improve workplace efficiency. Americans mistakenly believe that more hours will always increase output, while ignoring the clear evidence: The secret to being an effective worker is not working too hard. Not taking vacation time is a bad idea, as it harms productivity and the economy. Those are key findings of a new study (link is external)released earlier this month. One of the most watched Ted Talks by Stefan Sagmeister, who takes a sabbatical every seven years and describes the incredible benefits.Make the beginning of your day the most productive. Tim Ferris author of The 4 Hour Work Week recommends not checking email for the first hour or two of the day. Dan Ariely, co-founder of Timeful, a time management app, and the New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, says you have 2-2.5 hours of peak productivity every day. You may actually be 30% more effective at that time. He argues most people are productive in the first two hours of the morning.
- Control your email habits. Some organizations, particularly in Europe, have taken action to restrict internal emails for employees to address their negative effects on productivity. Other studies how shown how attending to emails throughout the working day occupies up to 30% of the entire working day, but does not actually result in productive work. A study by the French business watchdog company ORSE found that reading useless email messages damaged concentration, as it took more than five minute to refocus on the task at hand. A study by the University of California, Irvine, which was co-written with United States Army researchers, found that people who do not look at e-mail on a regular basis at work are less stressed and more productive. A study (link is external) done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women, and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis.
- Become a master in regulating your emotions. Research shows how you start the day has an enormous effect on productivity and you procrastinate more when you’re in a bad mood. Researchers found that employees’ moods when they clocked in tended to affect how they felt the rest of the day. Early mood was linked to their perceptions of customers and to how they reacted to customers’ moods;
- Develop a personal system that simplifies things, is routinized and reduces decision fatigue. Roy Baumeister, author of the New York Times bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, (link is external) argues every decision you make depletes your self-control. Having too many choices or decisions to make depletes willpower and afterward your self-control is impaired. Personal organization guru David Allen, author of best seller, Getting Things Done, (link is external) has great suggestions on a personal system;
- Engage in mindfulness practices. Mindfulness has been shown in research (link is external) to help people be calmer, more grounded, handle stress better, improve emotional regulation and cognitive functioning.
We need to redefine productivity. Unfortunately, it has become synonymous with busyness. We are seduced by the cultural norm of measuring productivity as the goal of “getting all the work done.” So we invent the checklists or to do lists, and excessively focus on what hasn’t been done.
What if productivity was defined not be describing what we get done but by doing things we want or love to do. Or by defining it by doing things well, instead of fast. What if we decide to take control over our lives and value time off, vacations and doing nothing as strategies for improving our productivity. Wouldn’t that create a different kind of life?