If you maximize efficiency, you will provide more value to yourself and others. You will meet goals faster and more consistently. You will live a fuller life, whether that means increasing your wealth, leisure time, or time with family. Fortunately, you can max out your efficiency, or “get in the zone,” by following three simple rules: establish a conducive environment, pursue intentional focus, and eliminate inevitable distractions. These key actions direct your focus to the task at hand and minimize attention to distractions.
I teach and lecture at a major university, write scholarly articles and computer programs, and take PhD. level classes. That is just my “day job.” At night, I like to spend time with my wife and our families, read, write for my blog, and participate in outdoor activities. Just like you, I have big dreams and must work efficiently to meet my goals. But I don’t have the will power to relentlessly work long, mind-numbing days. Perhaps you don’t either. If I want to meet my goals, I must work efficiently.
I haven’t always realized this—it’s actually a new insight for me. In the past, I believed the nonsense about “putting in the hours.” The standard advice goes something like this: “Write down all that you need to do and then do it!” This is most unhelpful because I can’t do that. I am too easily distracted.
I realized that to-do lists, while they have their place, are not the key to efficient production. Instead, I simply needed to annihilate the enemy of productivity: distractions. I knew that if I eliminated distractions, then I would achieve my goals and have more time to pursue other interests.
Since this insight, I’ve reduced that idea of annihilating distractions to three simple keys. If you do these things, then you’ll maximize efficiency.
First, you must establish an environment that is conducive to productivity by removing potential distractions. This means that your desk must have nothing except what you need, including your desk drawers and computer desktop. Any unnecessary item in your work area makes you less efficient. It can physically, mentally, and emotionally hamper your productivity. You have to move the book you don’t need to make room for a needed document. The unfinished spreadsheet on your computer desktop distracts your attention and you need a few seconds to re-establish your momentum. Your cluttered desk drawer makes it harder for you to find what you need and adds more stress to your morning.
Decluttering your workspace is simple. Simply take everything in, on, and around your desk, put it into a huge pile, and put back only the things required for your daily tasks. Throw away everything else or store it somewhere else. It’s that simple.
Application: My desk has a computer, lamp, and whatever I’m working on at that moment. That’s it. I also keep my computer desktop uncluttered. I have no permanent icons on my desktop. When I start working on a particular project, I create shortcut icons to the important files and add these to the desktop. When I am done, I delete them. My desk drawer contains only the supplies that I need on a normal work day (pen, highlighter, labeler, stapler, paper clips, alligator clips, and rubber bands). I keep a legal pad and “collection” basket on a shelf below the desk and out of sight. My waste basket sits beside my desk.
Remove the clutter from your workspace. This frees your mind, allowing you to be more creative and productive by eliminating many potential distractions before your work even begins.
Focus rarely appears unexpectedly. Instead, it is intentional. You can achieve focus through a willful effort, but only for a limited time. Fortunately, the “limited time” is enough.
Parkinson’s Law tells us that “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” This law is a consequence of distractions, which continuously steal value from our lives. What could have been two hours writing a blog post and two hours playing Frisbee with my wife turns into four hours of blogging. You must intentionally counteract this tendency.
Contrary to some who recommend strict deadlines for work (i.e. I’ll stop working on this project at 3 p.m.), I recommend working on projects for as long as you like, but working intensely. This gives you needed flexibility to make intuitive judgments about your time as the work moves forward but eliminates feet-dragging. Working in short intense bursts and taking frequent breaks, known as “pulsing,” allows to work efficiently while maintaining your mental energy. You must defeat Parkinson’s law not through strict deadlines but by working intensely or not at all. Commit yourself to working intensely for a manageable period of time, taking a brief break, and then starting over.
Application: I use the Pomodora technique, working 25 minutes, taking a five minute break, and then repeating. During my short break, I might get a drink of water, check my e-mail or Twitter feed, or step outside. I only have five minutes, so I don’t worry about these activities getting out of hand. These breaks are refreshing and allow me to start another 25 minute session with a renewed focus. I use the Tomate Timer for Ubuntu to manage my sessions; CherryTomato timer is available for Windows and Mac. But it doesn’t matter what software you use, just find a system that works for you.
While working, make sure that you maximize your focus by working in intense, short sessions with deliberate breaks. This leads to tremendous efficiency, gives you more time to pursue other interests, and adds value to your life and others’.
Despite your efforts to build a distraction-free workspace and work in short, focused sessions, distractions appear that you must deal with. You think of an idea for another project or someone interrupts with a bit of important information. You must collect this information for later, but in a way that does not disrupt your current efficiency. I find the collection system proposed by David Allen helpful for this.
When an important distraction appears, you must get that information off your mind quickly, but ensure you deal with it later. I quickly jot down these distractions and toss them into the collection basket that sits on a shelf under my desk. I go through my collection basket a couple of time each day, reliably, efficiently, and deliberately addressing these potentially disruptive distractions.
Application: While writing this blog post, a couple of other good ideas came to mind. I simply jotted those ideas down and tossed them into my collection basket under my desk. Since then, I’ve added them as post ideas in my Nevernote software. Because I put the ideas into a system that I trusted, I freed my mind to continue working on the current task without trying to remember it for later or taking care of it now.
Distractions are inevitable. You must build a system that allows you to quickly continue your current work session, but ensures the information is stored and used later. A simple collection basket allows you to do this.
You can and should work more efficiently. You deserve more than dragging your feet for eight hours every day. Fortunately, efficient work doesn’t require super-human willpower. It simply requires setting yourself up for success. You must take three steps to maximize your efficiency. No step is difficult, but all require deliberate action. First, you must remove potential distractions from your workspace. You need to deal with these distractions before they slow you down. Second, you must work in intense bursts. If you don’t, your work expands to fill the available space, infringing on time for family, leisure, and entrepreneurial side projects. Finally, you must plan for dealing with the unavoidable distractions that might disrupt your otherwise productive sessions. Quickly jotting down the information and tossing it into a collection basket allows you to get back on track while trusting that you’ll take the necessary actions later. Take these steps, maximize your efficiency, and create relentless value.
What do you think? Have I missed any important keys? How have you implemented these ideas? How else do you maximize efficiency?
Featured photo credit: chess via Shutterstock
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