How to be more productive
A few weeks ago @BobWalsh asked on twitter how to be more productive.
I dashed off a simple reply about turning various things off. I thought I’d expand upon this topic.
Productivity isn’t just one thing. It’s many things and they all need to be aligned to allow you to be productive.
Know your topic
Seems obvious, but how many times have to tried to do something that you aren’t that good at and it’s taken forever? And the result was OK, but you know it could have been better. Would this particular task have been better delegated to someone else or even outsourced to a trusted third party?
You have limited willpower. Concentrating on a task, or many tasks requires effort. You only have so much energy available for that effort before your energy reserves are depleted and you either need to eat, rest or sleep. Choose what you spend your energy on wisely.
There is this myth that some people can multi-task and some people can’t. In particular this myth is biased in favour of women. However in neurological terms, humans are not wired to multi-task. We can appear to multi-task (just as single core CPUs did) by context switching. Context switching in humans is slow and consumes energy. If your blood sugar is low you will not be good at this. This StackExchange question discusses the penalties associated with context switching.
Every distraction is a request to context switch to attend to that distraction. And then context switch back to the previous distraction or on to a new distraction. This is why the job of receptionist in a hotel, a hospital or a veterinary surgery is not as simple as it seems. Each micro task isn’t hard. But it’s the sheer volume of them and often multiple balls in the air at the same time – this takes energy.
In terms of your working life, if you are working in tech then the chances are you have these things around you:
- Smart phone
- Text messaging
- Wired phone
- Other productivity tool
- Work colleagues
- Open plan work environment
- Office politics
- (and possibly minority/sexist micro-aggressions)
But you’re actually trying to workout how to write some software for your company to meet the company product release deadline. Or you’re trying to debug someone else’s software and you need to get your head into their software space to understand what’s happening, or it’s a code review, or you’re examining the DNA of this interesting cancer, or something equally taxing. In short what you really want to be putting your energy is this interesting task but you are constantly pulled away from it by all these other sources of distraction.
Turn off your twitter client. You don’t need to be on twitter all day, every day. You can always check in when you have a break or at the start/end of the day.
Log out of facebook. Same as twitter, but it’s even less realtime so you definitely don’t need this open in your browser all day.
Log out of LinkedIn. Same as twitter and facebook.
Turn it off. Completely off. No notification pings, no vibrates, no calls, nothing. So many apps on your phone to distract you and pull you away from work.
Seriously. I know people under 25 seem to live in their text messaging world but I have news for you. If you turn off your phone the world will keep spinning. And your friends will still be there when it comes to lunch time and you can check up on what hasn’t happening in the (gasp!) last 4 hours.
Unplug it. Turn off the ringer. Turn down the volume on the answerphone.
You don’t need your email client open all the time. Check it once per hour, or once every two hours. For an extreme take, do it like Noah Kagan. Twice a day – once at the start of the day and once at the end of the day. OK, so some conversations won’t go as fast but everything will get attended to. And you might even focus on those emails a bit more because you’ve dedicated time to them rather than trying to time slice them with everything else in the day.
Trello / Other productivity tool
There are loads of planning/scheduling tools out there. Trello has taken off in a big way. Great. I have nothing against them. But you don’t need to fixate on it all day. Close the browser page. You can check the status of something when you actually need the information, not just because something has moved and you need to know, RIGHT NOW, what that was.
Not a lot you can do about these. They need your help. You need theirs. If you can’t interact nothing will get done. But you can give strong hints as to when it’s OK to talk to you and when it’s not. Some folks put a red flag on their desk (or something equally unusual) to signify “I’m busy, don’t bother me”. Try it.
Open plan work environment
Yes, these are great. And they can be awful. Good for fostering openness and communication. Bad for controlling noise. For some tasks you may be better trying to get an office for an afternoon or take the work home.
Er, not sure how to turn this one off.
Go for a walk
I’m serious. If you can’t get your head around a problem. Go for a walk. Preferably in the countryside. I live in a small country village. An average house on a housing estate. But I’m surrounded by farmland and the largest wetland in Europe (The Ouse Washes). Lots of the engineering problems at Software Verification have been solved while walking on this farmland enjoying the scenery, letting my brain wander and then out of nowhere a solution or partial solution appears. Back to the office and usually have a working demo by the end of the day.
Alternatively, a long soak in a hot bath (optional bottle of wine) often does the same job. Don’t try this one at work!
Alternatively, learn to meditate.
If it’s not obvious the key thing is getting your mind to relax and wander. Turn off the concious problem solving part of your brain and wait.
Get Caffeine out of your life. I really enjoy Caffeine (when provided by Tea, but not by Coffee) but I’m glad I stopped consuming Caffeine. It’s a myth that it makes you better at your job. I should probably also do the same with alcohol, but I have considerably reduced my consumption of that as well.
Make a list of all the things you need to do today. Identify the order of importance and how big/small a task it is. If you have lots of short tasks that are easy to do, do them. This reduces the list size and gives you a sense of progress, which is a good emotional boost. Then tackle the important and big tasks first. Cross each task off the list as you complete them. It’s trivial stuff to do, but this is emotional recognition of progress. Surprising what such simple tricks can do to your inner sense of “getting stuff done”.
If you find that you are not comfortable with the list on any given day that’s a good indicator that the tasks on the list – you haven’t fully decided how each task will be completed. So work on understanding each task a bit better. This may mean breaking the task into subtasks, or it may mean you just need to think about the task a bit more.
The days when I feel the most distracted, the least at ease, can’t decide what to work on it’s when there is nothing on the list that interests me and I have all these distractions turned on. The solution is to remove the distractions and then work on the contents of the list.
I’m not saying twitter, facebook et al are bad. I’m saying that they need to be used with care. So turn them off when you are working and turn them on when you need to plug in.