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Fundamental Theory of Productivity: Less is More

Fundamental Theory of Productivity: Less is More

The art and science of productivity improves your results and your life. One of the basic theories of productivity can be summed up as “less is more.” Let’s explore the various ways you can grow your productivity through less. After all, we cannot increase the hours in the day but we can increase our focus and our creativity.

1. When you write down fewer priorities, you’ll achieve more

One of my favorite insights from Tim Ferriss’s book The 4-Hour Workweek is about the impact of setting fewer priorities. As Ferriss writes:

“Don’t ever arrive at the office or in front of your computer without a clear list of priorities… I don’t recommend using Outlook or computerized to-do lists, because it is possible to add an infinite number of items… There should never be more than two mission-critical items to complete each day. Never.”

I have found this recommendation valuable and absolutely worth implementing. Besides, writing a to-do list with one hundred items due on a single day will simply discourage you.

2. When you limit yourself to 7-10 annual goals, you will be more likely to achieve your goals

Entrepreneur and author Micheal Hyatt advocates setting approximately seven to ten annual goals that cover your entire life (career, health, intellectual, financial and so forth). Setting challenging goals is a vital to living a life you are proud of, rather than simply checking off tasks. In my experience, 7-10 goals is the “Goldilocks zone” for major annual goals.

3. When you avoid work emails at home, you will be happier and more productive

A study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that professionals often become angry when they receive emails and text messages from their company after usual working hours. When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. After all, there is often little you can do to solve a work problem in the evening when you are away from your files and ability to seek input from others. If you keep answering work email and obsessing over problems, you will find it more difficult to relax and rest.

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4. When you insist on meetings with written agendas, you will waste less time.

Following a written agenda is a key habit for effective meetings. Even better, insisting that all meetings have agendas will reduce the number of meetings you attend. You may face a difficult adjustment at first. You will gain back hours of productive time each month. If you receive resistance to a written agenda, simply tell the person “Before attending meetings, I always seek to prepare so that I can make the most of the time.”

5. When you avoid email and social media first thing in the morning, you will be more productive

As Henry Ward Beecher said, “The first hour is the rudder of the day.” It matters how you start the day. Many successful people follow a defined morning routine and take the time to exercise or read a book. Starting the day with email puts you into a reactive frame of mind. That approach means you are neglecting your goals and priorities.

6. When you limit work hours, your focus will improve

In the public accounting industry, there is a “busy season” at the start of the year as thousands of professionals work on audits. The deadline pressure of the season means a great deal of stress. Unfortunately, some people in the sector become neglect the rest of their lives. Even worse, when you assume you will be in the office for twelve hours, you think nothing of wasting an hour or two in the morning.

7. When you take naps, you will manage your stress levels

Carving out twenty to thirty minutes during a busy work day is one way to improve your productivity. Vincent Walsh, professor of human brain research at University College London, commented that naps improve creativity. Simply continuing to grind away on a tough work problem is not always the right strategy. Of course, not every company has an enlightened policy on afternoon naps so use your judgement.

8. When you take all of your vacation days, you will be happier and more productive.

Did you know that New Zealand law requires staff have 30 vacation days per year? That high commitment to vacation is doing nothing to hurt New Zealand’s economy according to a recent OECD findings reported in USA Today. Taking time away from the office allows you to expand your interests, build new experiences and get much needed rest.

Stuck for ideas for how to use your vacation? Get some new ideas from the following resources

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35 Most Exotic Destinations For Your Next Vacation

8 Reasons Why Taking A Vacation Makes You Better At Work

9. When you reduce email notifications, you will focus more

Notifications – beeps, buzzing devices and sounds – were once a fun idea. However, the time has come to reduce notifications to improve your productivity. If your work or focus is broken to check email every few minutes, it will take you time to refocus on your work. That’s why you should take the time to disable notifications (e.g. disable email notifications on the iPhone and Android phones) or reduce the frequency (e.g. check email every hour instead of every 5 minutes).

10. When you block your calendar, you will receive fewer distractions

In many large organizations, it is a common practice to have a shared calendar. This type of system makes it easy to schedule meetings because the meeting organizer can find a time when everyone needed for the meeting is free. Unfortunately, some people start to view their daily office calendar in a reactive way: a place to store meeting requests. Instead, make sure you block (i.e. schedule “a meeting with yourself”) at least 2 hours per day to permit you to focus on your high priority activities.

For example, the Manager Tools podcast recommends avoiding meetings on Monday mornings.

11. When you reduce television consumption, you have more time to apply yourself to satisfying activities.

According to research firm Nielsen, the average American watches over 3 hours of television per day.  What if you reduced your intake by one hour? That would give you time to apply yourself to other activities. For example, you could finally start learning how to code, attend a night class one day a week or simply get to bed earlier. This idea is especially valuable if you tend to watch television (or video) for hours on end, regardless of the program.

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12. When you cut back on watching the news, you will be happier and less anxious.

Psychology Today magazine recently reported that viewing TV news and current affairs programs can make people more anxious. Over the past 20 years, there has been an increase in sensational negative news coverage. According to the research: “Not only are negatively balanced news broadcasts likely to make you sadder and more anxious, they are also likely to exacerbate your own personal worries and anxieties.”

13. When you avoid making major decisions when tired, you will make fewer mistakes.

Your energy level impacts your ability to make good decisions. For example, it is often difficult to keep your temper under control after a stressful day at the office. In fact, economists have reported that you are more likely to make impulse purchases (e.g. junk food) when you are tired.

Armed with this information, you can decide to “sleep on it” whenever you are prompted to make a significant decision late in the day.

14. When you go to bed earlier, you will be better rested and effective

If you are used to going through your days feeling tired and worn out, simply going to bed an hour earlier will improve your productivity. Getting more rest will improve your ability to stay focused and help you make better decisions, including on the road. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that over 200,000 American car crashes are caused by sleepy drivers.

15. When you eliminate clutter in your workspace, you will waste less time

Clutter is a common problem for many of us. When your workspace is filled with clutter – old magazines, receipts for expense claims, piles of old Post-It notes – your productivity suffers. Specifically, you will spend time multiple times per day looking for important materials. According to the Daily Mail, searching for lost items takes up at least 10 minutes per day (that’s equivalent to spending over $1100 per year looking for items if your annual salary is $70,000).

16. When you reduce unproductive commuting time, you can achieve more

Commuting to and from the office takes up a great deal of time that could be put to productive use. The average American spends 50 minutes per day commuting, an activity that many consider tiresome or frustrating. Fortunately, you can transform commuting time into education time! If you drive a car to work, listen to podcasts or buy a subscription to Audible (a service that has 100,000 audio books). In addition, you can also look into commuting by train or subway, you can read, study or even get a head start on your work.

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17. When you streamline your morning routine, you will become a morning master

Your approach to your morning makes a significant impact on your productivity. If you are disorganized and sleep in, a mad scramble to make out the door in time will be your daily reality. Instead, you can follow the morning ritual of successful people who get up early so they can read, exercise and take care of other important activities.

To streamline your morning, look for recurring tasks that you can optimize. For example, consider placing your keys and cell phone in the exact same place each night so you can easily locate them as you depart. During the winter, place all your cold weather clothes (hat, gloves, boots etc) so you they can dry out and be ready for another day.

18. When you set a timer on your work, your foucs will improve

In most professional work environments, individuals have a high degree of autonomy in how they organize their days. Generally, this freedom is a blessing. It is also easy to fall into bad habits – reading articles on the Web, watching silly videos or simply day dreaming. Instead, set a timer for 25 minutes to improve productivity. Once you master the routine of working according to a schedule, you can gradually increase the duration of your focus periods.

19. When you reduce the icons on your computer desktop, you will be more productive

Your computer desktop is not an effective filing system. For the best results, I recommend a maximum of one column of icons for your most frequently used applications. I suggest including your main productivity applications (e.g. Microsoft Word and Excel) and web browsers (e.g. Firefox and Chrome). The rest of your desktop will then be free and clear.

Once you have your computer desktop tidy, look for an inspiring wallpaper image that will put you in a good mood. Explore these seven websites for wallpaper images to get your imagination started.

20. When you moderate your alcohol consumption, your health will improve

On cruise ships and other vacation destinations, complimentary beer, wine and other drinks are served to guests. While enjoyable, downing too much alcohol hurts your productivity. Heavy drinking causes health problems which takes time away from other pursuits. Not sure if your drinking habits are excessive? Make an appointment with your doctor to ask his or her advice.

Featured photo credit: Pocket Watch Classic/Tentes via pixabay.com

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Bruce Harpham

Bruce Harpham is a Project Management Professional and Founder and CEO of Project Management Hacks.

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Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boost Productivity 10X More with Focus

Forget Learning How to Multitask: Boost Productivity 10X More with Focus

There’s a dark side to the conveniences of the Digital Age. With smartphones that function like handheld computers, it has become increasingly difficult to leave our work behind. Sometimes it seems like we’re expected to be accessible 24/7.

How often are you ever focused on just one thing? Most of us try to meet these demands by multi-tasking.

Many of us have bought into the myth that we can achieve more through multi-tasking. In this article, I’ll show you how you can accomplish more work in less time. Spoiler alert: multi-tasking is not the answer.

Why is multitasking a myth?

The term “multi-tasking” was originally used to describe how microprocessors in computers work. Machines multitask, but people cannot.

Despite our inability to simultaneously perform two tasks at once, many people believe they are excellent multi-taskers.

You can probably imagine plenty of times when you do several things at once. Maybe you talk on the phone while you’re cooking or respond to emails during your commute.

Consider the amount of attention that each of these tasks requires. Chances are, at least one of the two tasks in question is simple enough to be carried out on autopilot.

We’re okay at simultaneously performing simple tasks, but what if you were trying to perform two complex tasks? Can you really work on your presentation and watch a movie at the same time? It can be fun to try to watch TV while you work, but you may be unintentionally making your work more difficult and time-consuming.

Your brain on multi-tasking

Your brain wasn’t designed to multi-tasking. To compensate, it will switch from task to task. Your focus turns to whatever task seems more urgent. The other task falls into the background until you realize you’ve been neglecting it.

When you’re bouncing back and forth like this, an area of the brain known as Broadmann’s Area 10 activates. Located in your fronto-polar prefrontal cortex at the very front of the brain, this area controls your ability to shift focus. People who think they are excellent multitaskers are really just putting Broadmann’s Area 10 to work.

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But I can juggle multiple tasks!

You are capable of taking in information with your eyes while doing other things efficiently. Scientifically speaking, making use of your vision is the only thing you can truly do while doing something else.

For everything else, you’re serial tasking. This constant refocusing can be exhausting, and it prevents us from giving our work the deep attention it deserves.

Think about how much longer it takes to do something when you have to keep reminding yourself to focus.

Why multitasking is failing you

Multitasking does more bad than good to your productivity, here’re 4 reasons why you should stop multitasking:

Multitasking wastes your time.

You lose time when you interrupt yourself. People lose an average of 2.1 hours per day getting themselves back on track when they switch between tasks.

In fact, some studies suggest that doing multiple things at once decreases your productivity by as much as 40%. That’s a significant loss in efficiency. You wouldn’t want your surgeon to be 40% less productive while you’re on the operating table, would you?

It makes you dumber.

A distracted brain performs a full 10 IQ points lower than a focused brain. You’ll also be more forgetful, slower at completing tasks, and more likely to make mistakes.

You’ll have to work harder to fix your mistakes. If you miss an important detail, you could risk injury or fail to complete the task properly.

This is an emotional response.

There’s so much data suggesting that multitasking is ineffective but people insist that they can multitask.

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Feeling productive fulfills an emotional need. We want to feel like we’re accomplishing something. Why accomplish just one item on the to-do list when you can check off two or three?

It’ll wear you out.

When you’re jumping from task to task, it can feel invigorating for a little while. Over time, this needs to fill every second with more and more work leads to burn out.

We’re simply not built to multitask, so when we try, the effect can be exhausting. This destroys your productivity and your motivation.

How to stop multitasking and work productively

Flitting back and forth between tasks feels second-nature after a while. This is in part because Broadmann’s Area 10 becomes better at serial tasking through time.

In addition to changing how the brain works, this serial tasking behavior can quickly turn into a habit.

Just like any bad habit, you’ll need to recognize that you need to make a change first. Luckily, there are a few simple things you can do to adjust to a lifestyle of productive mono-tasking:

1. Consciously change gears

Instead of trying to work on two distinct tasks at once, consider setting up a system to remind you when to change focus. This technique worked for Jerry Linenger, an American astronaut onboard the space station, Mir.

As an astronaut, he had many things to take care of every day. He set alarms for himself on a few watches. When a particular watch sounded, he knew it was time to switch tasks. This enabled him to be 100% in tune with what he was doing at any given moment.

This strategy is effective because the alarm served as his reminder for what was to come next. Linenger’s intuition about setting reminders falls in line with research conducted by Paul Burgess of University College, London on multitasking.

2. Manage multiple tasks without multitasking

Raj Dash of Performancing.com has an effective strategy for balancing multiple projects without multitasking. He suggests taking 15 minutes to acquaint yourself with a new project before moving on to other work. Revisit the project later and do about thirty minutes on research and brainstorming.

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Allow a few days to pass before knocking out the project in question. While you were actively work on other projects, your brain continues to problem solve-in the background.

This method works because it gives us the opportunity to work on several projects without allowing them to compete for your attention.

3. Set aside distractions

Your smartphone, your inbox and the open tabs on your computer are all open invitations for distraction. Give yourself time each day when you silence your notifications, close your inbox and remove unnecessary tabs from your desktop.

If you want to focus, you can’t give anything else an opportunity to invade your mental space.

Emails can be particularly invasive because they often have an unnecessary sense of urgency associated with them. Some work cultures stress the importance of prompt responses to these messages, but we can’t treat every situation like an emergency.

Designate certain times in your day for checking and responding to emails to avoid compulsive checking.

4. Take care of yourself

We often blame electronics for pulling us from our work, but sometimes our physical body forces us into a state of serial tasking. If you’re hungry while you’re trying to work, your attention will flip between your hunger and your work until you take care of your physical needs.

Try to take all your bio-breaks before you sit down for an uninterrupted stint of work.

In addition, you’ll also want to be sure you’re attending to your health in a broader sense. Getting enough exercise, practicing mindfulness and incorporating regular breaks into your day will keep you from being tempted by distractions.

5. Take a break

People are more likely to head to YouTube or check their social media when they need a break. Instead of trying to work and watch a mindless video at the same time, give yourself times when you’re allowed to enjoy your distracting activity of choice.

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Limit how much time you’ll spend on this break so that your guilt-free distraction time doesn’t turn into hours of wasted time.

6. Make technology your ally

Scientists are beginning to discover the detrimental effects of chronic serial tasking on our brains. Some companies are developing programs to curb this desire to multitask.

Apps like Forest turn staying focused into a game. Extensions like RescueTime help you track your online habits so that you can be more aware of how you spend your time.

The key to productivity: Focus

Multitasking is not the key to productivity. It’s far better to schedule time to focus on each task than it is to try to do everything at once.

Make use of the methods outlined above and prepare to be more effective and less exhausted in the process.

If you want to learn more about how to focus, don’t miss my other article:

How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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