Recently, I presented a talk for the Cozy team on how to be more productive while working less. I have read blog posts and books about the subject for more than 10 years. I decided to share with them what I learned. They enjoyed it and shared their own tips. The team then encouraged me to do this talk in front of a wider audience. A great idea, but before that, I wanted to make a blog post of it.
Before reading, you must understand that these tips should not be followed as a fixed recipe but as an inspiration.The most important thing is to understand them and adapt the parts that can be useful to you. They should be used as tools, not as a way to over pressure yourself. Once you are productive, you will be tempted to blame yourself everytime you are not efficient. Every time you have this feeling, remember that these principles are here to help you to have more free time, not to make you feel anxious.
The brain has limits.
The brain has a key role in productivity. There are many litterature about neuro-psychology. It would require many blog posts to sum up everything. So, let's simplify it and reduce these readings to two points:
- The context impacts your brain performance. For instance, stress and anxiety prevents your brain to be fully efficient (source).
- Our brain has an energy bar. The more you think the more this bar goes down. It requires rest to fill the bar again (source).
How to deal with it?
Once you are conscious of these two aspects, it's pretty easy to deal with it.
First, be sure that you are working in a good environment (e.g:clean and comfortable desk, good lighting, nice and trustful colleagues, etc.). People tend to think that when they are in a hurry or very stressed, they do more. The truth is that the opposite occurs.
Second, try to work in small time lapses (approximatively 30 minutes). You can get inspiration from the Pomodoro technique for that one. But to be honest, I don't apply it rigorously. I just take a pause every time I feel a sign of tiredness.
The direct corellation of this is that you should take break regularly. Do not hesitate to go to toilet, have a nap or go for a walk.
Idea: If you are working from home, finishing some household chores will help you to free your mind while improving your environment.
Taking Breaks means taking long pauses too. Vacations and week-ends are opportunities to do different things or simply do nothing. It will allow you to reset your brain and flush the extra load. When you're back, your brain will work at its full capacity.
The concept of brain background processing is something I learnt empirically and from discussions with friends who experienced the same thing.
Just because you are not thinking about a problem it doesn't mean that your brain is not working on it. Did you ever notice the following? If you're stuck with a problem (especially programmation ones), stop for a moment and come back to it. You will be surprised with how fast you solve the problem you were stuck with 10 minutes ago. The solution can even appear while you are doing something else.
Solving issues is like everything else, if you force yourself to a solution, it will probably not work. Stepping back and rest will help you on finding a better way.
The other big pillar of productivity is the interruption management. Most of us know that interruptions are productivity killers. Especially for intellectual tasks. Complex work requires to switch our mind in a creative state. We make a bubble where we imagine what we are going to produce. Getting in that bubble requires time. When someone interrupts you, it breaks your bubble and force you to build it again.
The simple solution would be to remove all interruptions. But when you do team work, they can't be all removed. So the right thing to do is to properly manage interruptions. The main idea is to turn them in a way that make them appears like planned tasks.
What to do?
Here is the routine I recommend:
- Remove every notifications from all your softwares and devices. It's you who schedule your update time, not softwares.
- Do not allow others to interrupt you. Having a call doesn't mean you should respond to it. Getting an instant message doesn't imply an immediate answer. Like notifications, ignore them until you are available to communicate (ex: 30 minutes of work, 5 minutes of break, 10 minutes of discussion, 30 minutes of work). To be respectful with others times, try to schedule a short meeting.
- Do not check your email or chat window too often. The better way is to do it only twice a day.
That way you will be able to deal with interruptions, questions and update by batch. Admit that you will spend one or two hours a day working on it. But make sure it happens at a time that fit well for you and that don't come in the way of your main task.
NB: Looking to your email puts you in the same state than a drug addict. The fact you never know what you will find, make the check action very exciting.
Multi tasking is a tough question. Productivity experts will tell you that it should be avoided. They are right. But when you work in the computer science field, there are many times where you have to wait some processing to end. I have to admit, I saved tons of time by doing simple tasks while waiting.
Tim Ferriss, among many things, is a productivity Guru. He wrote a lot about the subject and has very good advice. Here are 7 tips from him which matter the most to me:
- Have one or two objectives a day, not more. Write them on a paper after you wake up :
- Make sure you finished the job on time (avoid the parkinson law effect) ;
- Deal with what make you uncomfortable early (get rid of it as soon as possible) ;
- Don't read your email first in the morning ;
- Deal with your emails by batch ;
- To receive less emails and calls, send less emails and make less calls ;
- It's not because you do something well that it is important.
Before giving you my last tip, here are various simple principles. I didn't figure out a way to articulate them properly. Which is why I put them here without specific order or relation:
- Done is better than perfect ;
- Being busy doesn't mean you are productive ;
- Todo list are nice. But at some point you don't need them. They are just useful as a reminder ;
- Slice big tasks in smaller one ;
- Writing your problems or your ideas on a paper make it clearer ;
- Don't forget to lean on others, they can help you ;
- Ask for assistance ;
- It's not because you optimize a 4 hour task that this task will last less than 4 hours. It just means you won't take 6 hours to deal with it ;
- Being unproductive during several days is totally natural.
Last but not least : Collaborate
The problem with productivity tips is that they make you focus too much on yourself. But you know what? Big things happens when you work with others. Let's take an example of a music band. Every one can play his sound well. But, what makes music wonderful is when every sound share the same beat and are written to work together. When it happens you can hear harmony clearly, everything sounds more powerful: the magic happens.
What I meant is that indivdualities express themself better in a collective performance. This is why you should look for collaborative efforts. It will lead you to build greater things.
Photo credits: Jull sur Flickr