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How Boring Music, Burner Email Addresses, and a Smartphone Timer Increased My Work Productivity

How Boring Music, Burner Email Addresses, and a Smartphone Timer Increased My Work Productivity

As a freelance consultant, I live and die by the clock.

The more focused time I can spend doing client work, the better results I can drive, the happier my clients are, and the greater my ability to feed my children.

For this reason, work productivity is very important to me. I can’t afford to waste time. When I’m in “work mode,” I need to stay in flow as much as possible. Distractions like phone calls, text notifications, and email alerts are the bane of my existence.

What makes this more challenging is that I’m a control freak with attention deficit issues. So every time my phone buzzes or a new email comes in, I feel an overwhelming pull to deal with it immediately. Texts need to be answered, emails must be responded to, and friends need to be acknowledged. Welcome to 2016!

I know how important it is to stay productive, but I still struggle with it. So I’m always on the lookout for new tips and tricks to help me manage distraction and stay in flow. The good news is that over the last couple of months I’ve picked up three new habits that have made me happier and more productive at work. Here they are, along with step-by-step instructions for how I pulled them off.

1. Remove Non-Critical Emails From Your Inbox

I unsubscribe from emails I don’t want. I want those emails out of my life completely. The real issue is email that is not critical but still necessary — or at least desirable. Here are a few examples:

  • Emails from my bank (“Your deposit has been accepted”)
  • Notifications from social media platforms (“Dave just posted a picture of you”)
  • Email newsletters (“New post about Instagram’s newsfeed changes”)
  • Online service (“Here’s your monthly invoice”)

I need to receive these emails. The problem is that when they come in, I feel a pull to read them and deal with them right away. I just don’t need to. They become a massive distraction. If you have the same problem, then I’d recommend signing up for Throttle, a service that allows you to sign up for anything online without using your email address. It gets the less important stuff out of your inbox.

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Step 1 – Sign up for Throttle. It’s free.

Throttle_— Stop_Giving_Out_Your_Email_Address

    Step 2 – Go back and “throttle” non-critical but necessary emails. This can take a little time, but you only have to do it once. Throttle has also set up a tips section with links that help you do this with common accounts like Twitter, LinkedIn, and Groupon.

    Throttle_Update Common Accounts

      Step 3 – Start “throttling” new stuff that you sign up for. If you’ve completed step 1, then you should have installed a browser extension during onboarding (I use Chrome). Whenever you sign up for a new account, service, or newsletter, just click the Throttle icon in the email field, or right-click and select “Authorize with Throttle”.

      Authorize_With_Throttle

        Voila! You’ve now removed unnecessary emails from your inbox and put them into a daily digest that you can read at your leisure for free. You’re also more safe and secure — but more on that in another post.

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        2. Use Instrumental Music to Get in Flow

        I work in an open office with no walls or cubicles. I love the open feel, but noise distraction is a big problem. I’m not alone either. According to Fast Company, noise is the number one complaint about open workspaces.

        However, wearing a pair of headphones can eliminate that noise, and listening to background music while you work has the added benefit of increasing your attention rate.

        I heard this advice enough that I finally went looking for some good “work music.” I discovered “Focus” playlists on Spotify and my life will never be the same. Here’s a short guide on how to set them up.

        Step 1 – Sign up for Spotify. Don’t worry. They have a free version.

        Spotify_Web_Player

          Step 2 – Once you’re in, select “Genres & Moods”.

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          Genres and Moods

            Step 3 – Scroll down until you see the category called “Focus.” Its icon is a Pixar-like lamp. Select it.

            Focus Playlists

              Step 4 – Pick a channel that is to your liking — just make sure it’s instrumental (you can tell that from the channel notes). My personal favorites are Peaceful Piano, Intense Studying, and Instrumental Study.

              PRO TIP: Most hardcore productivity-ists say that you will be most productive if you listen to the same instrumental song on a loop. Try it!

              3. Take Frequent 5-minute Breaks on a Clock

              As productive as you can be with the two hacks above, your body and (especially) your brain must have some time to rest. As you’d expect, there’s plenty of science to back this up.

              Even though mental breaks are important throughout the day, there will always be times that you are in flow and want to stay there.

              Here’s what I do to both add breaks to my schedule and stay productive.

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              Step 1 – Set a 2-hour timer on your phone

              2-hour Timer-01

                Step 2 – When the timer goes off, reset it, then get up and take a break. Get a drink of water, stare out the window, or walk around the block. Do anything but think about work. Give your brain 5-10 minutes of rest.

                Mental Break

                  If you’re feeling engaged and energized when the timer sounds, then cancel it and keep working.

                  The goal is to have a system that gets you moving around and taking breaks occasionally so that you can stay in a flow state as much as possible. If you’re already there, then keep at it for a while. Just don’t forget to check back in 30 minutes or so.

                  These three hacks have made my life as a freelance consultant much more productive and enjoyable. If you decide to try one of these (or have other ideas), then drop me a comment below and let me know!

                  Featured photo credit: https://www.pexels.com/ via pexels.com

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                  How Boring Music, Burner Email Addresses, and a Smartphone Timer Increased My Work Productivity

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                  The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

                  The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

                  It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

                  Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

                  “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

                  In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

                  New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

                  There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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                  So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

                  What is the productivity paradox?

                  There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

                  In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

                  He wrote in his conclusion:

                  “Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

                  Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

                  How do we measure productivity anyway?

                  And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

                  In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

                  But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

                  In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

                  But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

                  Possible causes of the productivity paradox

                  Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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                  • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
                  • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
                  • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
                  • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

                  There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

                  According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

                  Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

                  The paradox and the recession

                  The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

                  “Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

                  This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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                  According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

                  Looking forward

                  A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

                  “Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

                  Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

                  “Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

                  On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

                  Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

                  Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

                  Reference

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