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How to Work Efficiently: 2 Powerful Techniques for Productive Work

How to Work Efficiently: 2 Powerful Techniques for Productive Work
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There’s a lot of research on the subject of productivity, but in my experience, most of it is bogus. 

So how to work efficiently?

Being productive really boils down to two key things:

  1. Prioritization
  2. Finding your flow

Each of these are distinct skills, yet they inevitably impact each other since honing your ability to prioritize improves your capacity for finding and staying in flow. So to maximize your efficiency, you have to work consciously to develop both.

Here’s what you need to do that.

1. Use the Eisenhower Matrix to Prioritize Better

The Eisenhower Matrix is a tool to help you prioritize tasks in terms of urgency and importance. As co-founder of Dairy Free Games, I found it immensely valuable; there always seemed to be a thousand fires burning, but using this tool helped me decide which ones to put out myself, and when.

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    Here’s how the matrix breaks down:

    • Urgent and Important: Tasks that you yourself have to do right now, or conversations and decisions that you must quarterback quickly.
    • Not Urgent and Important: Projects requiring of planning and strategy, but that can be delayed for a bit. You’ll still need to set a deadline for these and carve out time on your calendar to work specifically on them, but you might not need to tackle them today.
    • Urgent and Not Important: Tasks which must be completed, but which you should delegate to someone else. Think: files, documents, or processes that need updating—jobs that need to get done fast, but that don’t require you or your best engineer.
    • Not Important and Not Urgent: Ideas which are best eliminated from your to-do list altogether. Or, at the least, tasks that should be postponed until all other important items have been checked off. These might be “nice-to-haves”––they’re not urgent or mission critical.

    The most crucial piece here is deciding which action items must be completed by you, and which could be delegated. For many, you have the sense that everything that’s urgent is also important, and everything that’s important MUST be completed by you. But over time––through utilizing this matrix––you come to realize that urgent and important are in fact different qualifiers.

    The most effective leaders are those who can differentiate between the two and plan their days around the tasks which they really must complete themselves.

    2. Get into a State of Flow

    Flow, meanwhile is something you have to consciously, personally optimize for.

    Flow is a concept first defined by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975. It is characterized, among other things, by complete psychological immersion in the activity or project at hand. It’s what most creatives––whether they be artists, engineers, writers, or designers––strive for when they sit down to get to work. Or, at least, it’s what they emerge out of after they’ve made something great.

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    If you’re a creator of some kind, you’ve likely experienced it, whether you were conscious of it or not. It feels, in a way, like a hyper-effective autopilot where words or algorithms seem to leap directly from your brain through your fingers and onto a page, and you’re only barely in control of the process.

    But here’s the thing:

    Forcing yourself into a mental state where it’s possible to get into flow is challenging––in fact, it’s something you need to actively and consciously optimize for.

    Luckily, there are steps you can take to increase the likelihood of getting into a state of flow.

      Here are some ways to do that:

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      Set aside time to “go deep.”

      Flow requires intense, uninterrupted focus. That itself requires an investment on your part to minimize distractions––especially from tasks that are not important but potentially urgent (category 3 of that Eisenhower Matrix).

      Set a clear objective.

      It’s impossible to get into flow without having one specific goal to focus intently on––otherwise, you’ll find yourself inherently distracted. You can’t get into flow by trying to work on three things at once.

      At best, your focus will remain at a kind of surface level for all three.

      Autonomy in how to handle the task.

      Integral to flow is freedom of choice. This is important when delegating important tasks to teammates, as well.

      If the project is something that the person will need to enter into flow to complete, you’ll need to make sure they themselves are invested in it and actively choosing how to complete it.

      The task should not be over-challenging or over-simplistic.

      As I mentioned, it’s difficult to get into flow when the project at hand bores you or, on the other hand, confuses you. It needs to be challenging enough to be interesting––there’s a sweet spot. This is particularly important to remember, again, when delegating.  

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      Access to feedback.

      The faster you can get feedback, whether that’s from your management, co-workers, or customers, the better. In fact, immediate feedback is the reasons that video games are so immersive and flow-inducing.

      In a game, almost every action you take has clear positive or negative feedback.

      The Bottom Line

      Prioritization and flow are inextricably intertwined.

      The easiest way to be pulled out of flow, after all, is being bombarded by tasks that aren’t important. That includes emails that seem to demand quick responses, Slack messages from teammates, creeping pressure from action items you didn’t correctly define as “Urgent,” “Not Urgent,” and so on.

      You must, in optimizing for flow, protect yourself from these kinds of risks.

      But, again, that skill comes from practice and from prioritizing effectively––setting aside time for focused, deep work, for example, or delegating potentially distracting yet important items to other team members.

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      That’s why, ultimately, you need to develop and nurture both of these skills in tandem—both for the benefit of your team and for yourself.

      More Tips for Productivity at Work

      Featured photo credit: Alvaro Reyes via unsplash.com

      More by this author

      Dennis Zdonov

      Entrepreneur, opportunist, applying game design to all walks of life

      How to Work Efficiently: 2 Powerful Techniques for Productive Work

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      Last Updated on July 21, 2021

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

      The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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      No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

      Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

      Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

      A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

      Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

      In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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      From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

      A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

      For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

      This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

      The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

      That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

      Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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      The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

      Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

      But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

      The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

      The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

      A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

      For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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      But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

      If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

      For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

      These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

      For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

      How to Make a Reminder Works for You

      Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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      Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

      Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

      My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

      Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

      I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

      More on Building Habits

      Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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      Reference

      [1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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