Invest in productivity
The irony about maximising productivity, is that we’re often too flat-chat to do it. This is the view of Dermot Crowley, author of Smart Work and Smart Teams and director of Adapt Productivity.
“Most people say they’re too busy to stop and put strategies in place,” he says. “But if you invest in your productivity, it’ll pay you back in spades.”
For organisations, Crowley stresses the importance of building a productive culture, with embedded rules and strategies around time and task management, and leaders who exemplify good productivity practices.
For individuals, investing time in regular planning is key. “Plan each week ahead; if you spend half an hour to 45 minutes every Friday planning effectively, it will dramatically increase your focus and ability to get important stuff done.”
“If you invest in your productivity, it’ll pay you back in spades.” Dermot Crowley, Adapt Productivity
Boss your inbox
One of Crowley’s key productivity strategies is to reduce your email inbox load.
“I believe that everyone should be able to get their inbox to zero once a week,” he says. Many people, he points out, also use their inbox as a filing system and to-do list rather than a workspace, creating confusion and overwhelm as hundreds, even thousands, of emails stack up.
“Delete as you deal with emails, and move keepers to a better location, he says. “If you need to file something, pop it in a folder, and use your calendar or task list to manage things to do.”
Teams should work together to reduce their collective email load, says Crowley. “Most email noise is created by our colleagues. We CC people on everything, we have ‘reply all’ conversations that generate 20 emails when one would have sufficed.”
By establishing agreements about how and when you use email, everyone’s inbox becomes more manageable.
Clarity helps, too. “Many of us don't take the time to write clear communication, so colleagues have to read four paragraphs to discover the action item,” says Crowley. He advises succinct writing, informative subject lines, and highlighting any required actions up top.
Centralise your tasks
Task management can make or break your personal productivity, says Crowley. “People tend to use multiple tools; some tasks are in your to-do list or notepad, the piles of bills on your desk, your inbox, or post-it notes,” he says.
Bypass all the apps and workflow tools, says Crowley, and centralise everything in the Tasks function in Microsoft Outlook or Gmail.
“It’s the best task management system ever devised and you’re already using it for email and calendar so it makes sense. The most compelling reason is it helps you to manage your email actions by turning them into tasks.”
The results are in: multitasking slows you down. Studies going back to 2001 have shown that shifting between concurrent tasks can lower your productivity by as much as 40 per cent.
“Choose to monotask – do one thing at a time and do it well,” says Dr Jenny Brockis, brain health and mental performance expert and author of Smarter, Sharper Thinking. “It’s quicker, more efficient and uses less cognitive energy.”
Dermot Crowley recommends corralling time for deep focus work. “You need to not only block it out in your calendar ahead of time, but also book a meeting room or work from home or somewhere that will give you a fighting chance to concentrate.”
“Too much time collectively spent in meetings is a big issue in organisations,” says Dermot Crowley. “Many senior managers will be in meetings from nine to five and leave no space to get anything else done, working nights to catch up.”
A 90–10 percent ratio between meetings and other work, he says, is common, but not sustainable. “I’d aim for a 70-30 or a 60-40 balance, and you need to put strict boundaries in place and protect that 40 percent.”
He adds: “Every meeting should have a clear purpose and be no longer than really necessary. I’m working with a lot of teams at the moment on shortening their meetings; there is a popular shift towards half-hour or 25-minute meetings.”
Breaks are essential for peak productivity, says Jenny Brockis.
“We’re not designed for long-term focus – it consumes too much mental energy. Implementing brain breaks into our day provides the brain the breathing space required to re-energise, consolidate information we’ve been working on and prepare us to focus well on the next chunk of work.”
She adds: “Ideally a brain break lasts for 15-20 minutes and this is time out from anything cognitively demanding.” She recommends stretching, walking, chatting (but not social media).
“A brief meditation, power nap or mental intermission to listen to beautiful music all assist to slow and calm our mind, reducing stress levels and cortisol that otherwise keep the brain in a state of high alert which is cognitively exhausting.”
Our increasingly sedentary lifestyle is playing havoc with our ability to think. Boost your efficiency with frequent movement, suggests Dr Brockis.
“Prolonged sitting not only reduces the blood supply to our brain (along with the oxygen and nutrients required), adding to our mental fatigue, we don’t get the same amount of release of BDNF, the growth factor required to keep brains and neurons healthy.”
Findings from the world’s largest sleep study (involving 40,000 people) published in late 2018 found that seven to eight hours of good quality uninterrupted sleep every night fosters peak cognitive function – thinking, planning, decision-making and communicating.
“You can even improve cognitive performance with just one night of good sleep,” says Dr Brockis.
Take time off
Large bodies of research show that sustained long hours and overwork make us less productive, eroding our focus, increasing errors and negatively impacting our decision-making – all the symptoms of burnout.
“The amount you achieve working 65 hours or more will be the same as putting in 50 hours,” says Dr Brockis.
The solution? Learn to switch off and take time off .