Our aim in this series of articles is to firstly raise your awareness of the habits, behaviours and activities that impact the ability to get more done in a day, and secondly, more importantly to provide guidelines and a framework which will enable you to develop new habits and behaviours that will transform the way that you approach each day.
How then are we going to define productivity? One way is to think of our productivity goal for any activity could be to aim to achieve the desired output in a given time, using the minimal amount of energy and resources. Or put slightly more formally, productivity is simply the amount of output you get per unit of input. It is a way to compare the cost of something to its benefit. (Ref: Productivity501)
Productivity can take on various forms but is usually associated with a business and refers to the amount that you get out of a process per unit of input. Clearly, it’s going to be hard if not impossible to specify personal productivity in similar terms. What we can do however is to look at it in the context of our daily lives at work and at home using relative rather than absolute terms, and maybe get a little more specific in our definition. Before we do that however, we first need to understand where we are currently, and what it takes to reach our potential. We also need to examine what impacts our performance, the critical factors and barriers to becoming more productive and overall more effective.
What impacts our productivity?
Well there’s a long list but the main contenders are:
- The nature of the activity, the context in which it’s carried out. For example are we at home, in a crowded office or maybe on a train or plane?
- The amount of time we are given or have allocated for an activity or task. It’s a well known fact that an activity expands to fill the time allocated or allowed for it. If we take more time than necessary then we are not working at maximum productivity.
- Our access to tools and how effectively we use them to help achieve the task. We may have computers and Apps and set processes to help us to do the job but if we are not proficient in their use, or if they are not suitable or optimised for the task in hand then it will make us much less productive and may actually add to the workload.
- Our access to the relevant information to complete the task, and how easy it is to find that information.
- Our energy levels at a particular time of the day. Our energy fluctuates throughout the day, so knowing when you are at your peak levels can help a lot.
- Our motivation to get the job done or task completed. Is the task well defined and does it have a specific goal or desired outcome?
The amount of influence each of these has on any task clearly depends on the nature of the task. We’ll also be covering each in future articles.
So, for example, we can say that by adopting this system or these regular behaviours and rituals, and given the appropriate set of tools we can become more productive. We can get more of the important tasks done in a given period of time, complete tasks on-time, access information more effectively and generally reduce the amount of stress in our lives. This benefits not only ourselves but all of those with whom we interact at home and at work.
The importance of “Important”
It’s critical to note here the use of the word “important”. We’re not aiming to get everything done in record time, but we are aiming to get the important tasks done and done consistently. This means that we need to be aware of what the important tasks are – sounds obvious and simple but from experience of dealing with many people and organizations, most people have no real idea of what tasks are really important or if they have an idea they don’t have a system for prioritising tasks. Instead, they rely on instinct or “gut feel” which may be fine at times but is not a recipe for consistent results. In future articles we’ll go into detail on how to determine what is important and create priorities. Just following this simple strategy can yield tremendous results.
Becoming Organised (or not?)
The idea that being organised and tidy breeds success is well accepted by most people. Intuitively it makes sense that a tidy office and well organised filing system would lead to a more productive and efficient way of working. But what if a little bit of chaos and messiness, for example a messy desk, offers its own rewards? What if this messy desk enhanced our creativity, or maybe to your colleagues it appears chaotic but to you, you know where everything is and could in fact find information faster than someone with a meticulous filing system? Can you cope with a messy environment or does everything have to be in its place, or are you somewhere in between? How do you feel when your office gets a little untidy?
The link between organisation and stress
In his book The Organised Mind, cognitive psychologist Daniel J. Levitin explores the evolution of the human brain and examines how we can organise our minds and lives in the age of information overload. Levitin suggests that, “Many successful people report that they experience mental benefits from organizing or reorganising their closets or drawers when they’re stressed. And we now understand the neurological substrates: this activity allows our brains to explore new connections among the things that clutter our living spaces while simultaneously allowing the mind-wandering mode to recontextualize and re-categorize those objects’ relationships to one another and our relationship to them.” Putting it another way, the very act of organising our information and work spaces has been shown to reduce stress and make us generally more productive. Taking a couple of minutes to organise our environment may help us to sort our thoughts as well. Emphasis on the word “may”. We are all different and as we’ve mentioned above, what works for you in this area may not be appropriate for someone else,. In general in these articles we will err on the side of those who want to work in a more ordered environment, but not exclude those who want to work slightly differently.
Other people’s influence
Whilst we can choose to control our own actions we can’t predict with any certainty when someone else is going to make a call on our time or attention, nor can we usually stop them trying. What we can do however is to put in place routines and rules (which we place on ourselves) which mean that we are less likely to be interrupted when we do not wish to be, for example when we are focusing on an important project or a particularly difficult problem.
We are conditioned from young to react to and fit in with other people’s agendas and it’s tough to break out of this pattern. We tend to just check our email or pop on Facebook for a moment, or we see a call coming in and wonder what they want. Too often that’s not where it ends since email often contains something that you may feel is important and get diverted, even if in reality it’s of less importance than the task that you were doing. Same with Facebook where you get diverted to a website or video since your curiosity has been piqued. We all do it but it can be a killer when it comes to getting things done. Not only do these diversions lose time but you may also lose a train of thought – how many times has that happened to you? A good few I’d bet. And when it did, how easy was it to recapture that moment and thought?
Since most of us don’t work in isolation in that we interact with others throughout the day face to face, on the phone, email, through social media etc we need to find a way to manage or handle the interactions in a manner that has a minimal impact on our productivity without completely destroying all of our relationships or place us in danger of becoming a social outcast. Luckily there are ways to do this which we will be exploring in this series of articles.
We’ve all experienced a day which may have started so promisingly, only to end in frustration due to perhaps certain key tasks not being completed or something has been forgotten. Where did the day go? How did that happen? Unfortunately we can’t get it back. The result of this can lead to increased levels of stress putting even more pressure on yourself the next day to make up for lost time, compounding the problem. Let’s work to avoid that happening!
Although we may not always be able to put a number on it, you will certainly know when you are working and living more productively!