Ah: productivity.  The answer to all of my ‘not enough hours in the day’ type woes.  A holy grail of sorts.  If I could just work smarter, not harder.  If I could just be more efficient with my time.

The Productivity Problem

The problem with taking this approach to solving my (or anyone else’s) productivity problem is that it doesn’t actually solve it.

You might look to see where time is going each day, and your calendar will seem to show it has been wasted.  There are your tasks, neatly lined up, and interspersed between them is….wasted space!  Now, if I could only use that time better, surely I would get more done.

If this sounds like a train of thought from your own head, great.

First, its good for all of us to know we are not alone.  Secondly, its good to know this is not a problem with you

What will be more surprising to you however is that this is not a real problem at all!

The reason we see ‘gaps’ in our day where we perceive we aren’t producing stuff is ….that’s where we think.  Its where we gather together all the thoughts & ideas that have cluttered up our conscious and subconscious minds.  Its the creative spark that gives our work life.

When we set out to create something new, trying to do this crucial thinking bit deliberately is what causes many of us problems.   This thinking time is often invisible to us when we imagine ‘the work’.  For those (like me) with a tendency to procrastinate, that bit of thinking is what makes starting everything so hard.

If you don’t have very long to ‘do’ something, and you find it hard to start, its easy to not start.  Perhaps it would be better to do it later when you have ore time.  Hmmm.  How does that work out for you?

“You Haven’t Told Me Yet How To Be More Productive!”

True.  So let’s get to that.

Since it is the start of a new year, many people reflect on their current habits.  Maybe we pick a few that we’d like to drop, or identify some new ones we’d like to adopt.

Most scientific studies in this area suggest that change is hard, and it comes with a hefty price tag in effort and preparation.  And most of us don’t do the work up front to ensure that success follows.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Sometimes you can get a ‘keystone habit’ in place.  This is a good habit that actually contributes towards helping you stick to other habits too – curious, but oh, so useful.  A regular exercise habit is an example of a ‘keystone’ habit.

So, I thought I’d write a post about some quick(ish) changes we could all easily make to our lives that would make us more productive.

1)  Time for ‘Deep Work’

Deep Work is the stuff many people never quite find the time to do.  They are forever trying to clear the decks so they have room for real work.  It never happens.  Here is my answer for dealing with the problem.

Find spaces in your calendar and fill them with ‘meetings’ of at least 90 mins as many times a week as you feel comfortable with.  I start each week with 2 x 3 hour slots and a big chunk of 11am – 5pm.

I colour code these, not just for my self, but also so that people looking in my diary can see them too.  People I work with regularly know that if they need me for something urgently, and my diary is full, they can request some of the orange time.

I do not give it out easily, or often.  If it is too easy to use that time, people naturally stop respecting it.  Protect it fiercely if you want to be productive.

This takes a while to become a workable habit.  In my experience it can take 3-6 weeks before it starts to flow naturally, and you aren’t just moving the slots to make room for emergent work.  Stick with it, it pays huge dividends.

If you want to read more on this idea of ‘deep work’ try Cal Newport’s book of the same name, which is great.

2)  Reflect Each Week

I can’t recommend this idea enough.

On a Friday afternoon, look back over what you have done.  I tend to check my calendar and my note book to do this.  It takes around 5-10 minutes to do the review of last week’s calendar.  I am always interested to see how much it changes from how it began the week!

What emergent work was there, and how could I have better seen that coming (not always possible to do, of course).

What ended up being important last week?

What got bumped?  Either completely dropped or delayed – I get lots of work that ends up being delayed.  This works well for me: as I said, I don’t expect my week to pan out as planned, instead I expect priorities to clarify over the course of the week.  Either way my time, for work I deem important, is protected.

When I check my note book (I use a sort of simplified Bullet Journal System) I am reflecting to see what I got done, obviously.

I am also looking to see what I didn’t get to – do I need to do that next week?  Or can I ditch it?This helps me keep my to-do list fresh each week.  I hate to have a huge to do list full of non-urgent stuff I have no intention of doing!  You know what I’m talking about I am sure.

3)  Have a plan

Plan each week & Plan each day

So this is the partner to the reflection exercise.   I do planning straight afterward the reflection, so the 2 kind of blend into a single activity for me.   Together they probably don’t even take 20 minutes in total to do.

As with the reflection, this is about reviewing my calendar.  This time looking at the upcoming week.  Really obvious things (you’d think!) such as:  am I double booked anywhere?  Am I on holiday, but with regular meetings scheduled that need to be moved?

This almost shouldn’t be on this list, but…..

The number of times I have been to a 1:1 for example, only to find the person is on holiday / at a conference / in training and hasn’t rescheduled or declined our meeting.  It’s a pet peeve of mine!  (Can you tell?)

It is really easy to fix this, and respect other peoples time by quickly grooming your next week’s calendar in advance.

As I do this at the same time as the calendar review, I can make sure I have a plan for doing any prep work necessary for next week’s meetings and activities.

I also use this time to plan what I will use my Deep Work time for, but more on that in a minute.

(You might recognise the ‘Prep in the morning, Reflect in the Evening’ model from other things I have written.  If you especially identify with it, try this book as an introduction to Stoicism.)

For longer term planning, look out for the goal-setting post in a couple of weeks time.

4)  Carry a notebook with you all the time

Carry a notebook with you all the times.  This is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given.  You WILL forget stuff if you don’t write it down, even if you think you won’t.  All those great ideas you have when you talk to people.  Things you read that look interesting.  All those books your colleagues recommend to you.

Or you could use something like Evernote, which works too, obviously.  The point is to capture ideas before you forget them.

5)  Create a learning* list

Remember those lovely, protected slots of time you made in the ‘Deep Work’ section at the start?  Well what are you planning to do with those times?

Whether you use them to write workshops, training courses, or prep for retrospectives is all good.  If you need to research a topic you are interested in, thats what these time spaces are to support.  Even if you use it for working a chunk off your to-do list, it is all progress.  It’s all contributing towards making you more productive.

Initially you will find you have a sort of bow wave of things to do in these first few sessions.  Sooner or later though, your new-found productivity will make enough room in your life for the really good stuff: learning

Learning is where we really grow our minds and our knowledge.  The more we know, the more opportunities we will have to be productive.

And that’s where your notebook comes in.  Remember those articles you found?  Which books sounded so good as soon as you had time?  Which podcasts did one of your team recommend?  They’re all there, waiting for you to have some solid, uninterrupted time to dedicate to them.

Or maybe you could just allow yourself to drift down a rabbit hole of TED talks.  Just not that option too often though, I’m a procrastinator, I recognise that kind of behaviour, and it is not the path to productivity my friend ;).