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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

More by this author

Bruce Harpham

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

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Published on January 16, 2019

How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

How to Effectively Manage a Heavy Workload at Work

We’re all busy, but sometimes we go through periods where the work piles up and it seems like it might never end.

You might have such a heavy workload that it feels too intimidating to even start.

You may have said yes to some or too many projects, and now you’re afraid you won’t be able to deliver.

That’s when you need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and start looking at what’s working and what’s not working.

Here’re 13 strategies you can use to get out from under your overwhelming workload:

1. Acknowledge You Can’t Do It All

Many of us have a tendency to think we can do more than we actually can. We take on more and more projects and responsibility and wear numerous hats.

We all have the opportunity to have and take on more work than we can reasonably expect to get done. Unfortunately, our workload is not static. Even now, while you are reading this article, I’m guessing that your inbox is filling up with fresh new tasks.

To make real, effective progress, you have to have both the courage and resourcefulness to say, “This is not working”. Acknowledge that you can’t do it all and look for better solutions.

At any given time in your life, there are likely many things that aren’t going according to plan. You have to be willing to be honest with yourself and those around you about what’s not working for you, both personally and professionally.

The more you exercise your ability to tell the truth about what’s working and what’s not working, the faster you’ll make progress.

2. Focus on Your Unique Strengths

Whether you’re an entrepreneur, a leader or working as part of a team, every individual has unique strengths they can bring to the table.

The challenge is that many people end up doing things that they’re simply not very good at.

In the pursuit of reaching your goals or delivering a project, people end up doing everything themselves or taking on things that don’t play to their unique strengths. This can result in frustration, overwhelm and overwork.

It can mean projects taking a lot longer to complete because of knowledge gaps, or simply not utilizing the unique strengths of other people you work with.

It is often not about how to complete this project more effectively but who can help deliver this project.

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So, what are your unique strengths that will ensure your workload is delivered more effectively? Here’re some questions to help you reflect:

  • Are you a great strategist?
  • Are you an effective planner?
  • Is Project Management your strength?
  • Is communication and bringing people together your strength?
  • Are you the ideas person?
  • Is Implementation your strength?

Think about how you can bring the biggest value to your work and the projects you undertake.

3. Use the Strengths of Your Team

One of the simplest ways to manage your workload effectively is to free up your time so you bring your highest level of energy, focus and strengths to each project.

Delegation or better teamwork is the solution.

Everyone has unique strengths. It’s essential to think teamwork rather than working in isolation to ensure projects can be completed effectively. Besides, every time you give away a task or project that doesn’t play to your unique strengths, you open up an opportunity to do something you’re more talented at. This will empower both yourself and those around you.

Rather than taking on all the responsibilities yourself, look at who you can work with to deliver the best results possible.

4. Take Time for Planning

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. – Abraham Lincoln

One hour of effective planning could save hours of time. Rather than just rushing in and getting started on projects, take the time to map everything in.

You can take the time to think about:

  • What’s the purpose of the project?
  • How Important is it?
  • When does it need to be delivered by?
  • What is the best result and worst result for this project?
  • What are the KPIs?
  • What does the project plan and key milestones look like?
  • Who is working on this project?
  • What is everyone’s responsibilities?
  • What tolerances can I add in?
  • What are the review stages?
  • What are the challenges we may face and the solutions for these challenges?

Having absolute clarity on the project, the project deliverables and the result you want can save a lot of time. It also gets you clear on the priorities and timelines, so you can block out the required amount of time to focus and concentrate.

5. Focus on Priorities

Not everything is a priority, although it can often feel, in the moment, that it is.

Whatever you’re working on, there is always the Most Urgent, Important or Most Valuable projects or tasks.

One tool you can use to maximize your productivity and focus on your biggest priorities is to use the Eisenhower Matrix. This strategic tool for taking action on the things that matter most is simple. You separate your actions based on four possibilities:

  1. Urgent and important (tasks you will do immediately).
  2. Important, but not urgent (tasks you will schedule to do later).
  3. Urgent, but not important (tasks you will delegate to someone else).
  4. Neither urgent nor important (tasks that you will eliminate).

James Clear has a great description on how to use the Eisenhower Matrix: How to be More Productive By Using the Eisenhower Box

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    The method I use with my coaching clients is to ask them to lay out their Top Five priorities for the day. Then to start with the most important priority first. At the end of the day, you review performance against these priorities.

    If you didn’t get everything accomplished, start the next day with your number one priority.

    If you are given additional task/projects during the day, then you will need to gauge their importance V the other priorities.

    6. Take Time Out

    To stay on top of a heavy workload, it’s important to take time out to rest and recuperate.

    If your energy levels are high and your mind and body is refreshed and alert, you are in more of a peak state to handle a heavy workload.

    Take time out of your day to go for a walk or get some exercise in. Leave early when possible and spend time with people who give you a lot of energy.

    In the background, it’s essential to get a good night’s sleep and eat healthily to sharpen the mind.

    Take a look at this article learn about The Importance of Scheduling Downtime.

    7. Maintain a Healthy Work-Life Balance

    Maintaining a healthy work-life balance can be tough. The balance we all crave is very different from one another.

    I’ve written before about 13 Work Life Balance Tips for a Happy and Productive Life. Working longer and harder doesn’t mean achieving more, especially if you have no time to spend with the people that matter most. The quality of who you are as a person, the relationships you have, the time you spend in work, deciding on what matters most is completely within your control.

    Work-life balance is about finding peace within yourself to be fully present, wherever you are, whether that be in the office or at home, right now. It’s about choosing what matters most and creating your own balanced life.

    If you feel there is not enough balance, then it may be time to make a change.

    8. Stop Multitasking

    Multi-tasking is a myth. Your brain simply can’t work effectively by doing more than one thing at a time—at least more than one thing that requires focused attention.

    So get your list of priorities (see earlier point), do the most important thing first, then move to the next item and work down your list.

    When you split your focus over a multitude of different areas, you can’t consistently deliver a high performance. You won’t be fully present on the one task or project at hand.

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    If you allocate blocked time and create firm boundaries for specific activities and commitments, you won’t feel so overwhelmed or overworked with everything you have to do.

    9. Work in Blocks of Time

    To keep your energy up to produce your best results it’s essential to take regular breaks.

    I use the 60-60-30 method myself and teach it to my coaching clients.

    Work on a project for a sustained period of 50 minutes.

    Then take a 10-minute break. This could be taking a walk, having a healthy snack or just having a conversation with someone.

    Then continue to work on the project for a further 50 minutes.

    Then take another 10-minute break.

    Then take a complete 30-minute break to unplug from the work. This could be time for a proper lunch, a quick bit of exercise, reading or having a walk.

    By simply taking some time out, your energy levels stay up, the quality of your work improves and you reduce the risk of becoming burned out.

    10. Get Rid of Distractions

    Make an estimation on how many times you are distracted during an average working day. Now take that number and multiply it by 25. According to Gloria Mark in her study on The Cost of Interrupted Work, it takes us an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task after interruption.[1]

    “Our research has shown that attention distraction can lead to higher stress, a bad mood and lower productivity.”

    Distractions don’t just take up your time during the distraction, they can derail your mental progress and focus for almost 25 minutes. So, if you are distracted 5 times per day, you could be losing almost 2 hours every day of productive work and almost 10 hours every week.

    If you have an important project to work on, find a space where you won’t be distracted, or try doing this.

    11. Commit Focused Time to Smaller Tasks

    You know sometimes, you need to simply tackle these tasks and take action on them. But there’s always something more pressing.

    Small tasks can often get in the way of your most important projects. They sit there on your daily To Do list but are often forgotten about because of more important priorities or because they hold no interest for you. But they take up mental energy. They clutter your mind.

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    Commit to spending a specific period of time completing all the small tasks you have on your To Do list. It will give you peace of mind and the space to focus more on your bigger priorities.

    12. Take a Time Audit

    Do you know exactly where your time is going each day? Are you spending too long on certain projects and tasks to the detriment of bigger opportunities?

    Spend a bit of time to analyze where you are spending your time. This insight will amaze you and give you the clarity to start adjusting where you focus your time and on what projects.

    You can start by taking a piece of paper and creating three columns:

    Column A is Priority Work. Column B is Good Work. Column C is low value work or stuff.

    Each day, write down the project or task and the time spent on each. Allocate that time to one of the columns.

    At the end of the week, record the total time spent in each column.

    If you are spending far too much time on certain types of work, look to change things so your focused time is in Column B and C.

    13. Protect Your Confidence

    It is essential to protect our confidence to ensure we don’t get overwhelmed, stressed and lose belief.

    When you have confidence as a daily resource, you are in a better position to problem solve, learn quicker, respond to anything, adjust to anything, and achieve your biggest opportunities.

    Confidence gives you the ability to transform fear into focused and relaxed thinking, communication, and action. This is key to put your mind into a productive state.

    When confidence is high, you can clearly see the possibilities at hand and create strategies to take advantage of them, or to solve the challenges you face each day.

    Final Words

    A heavy workload can be tough to deal with and can cause stress, burnout and ongoing frustration.

    The key is to tackle it head on, rather than let it go on and compound the long-term effects. Hopefully, you can take action on at least one of these tips.

    If it gets too much, and negatively affects your physical and mental health, it may be time to talk to someone. Instead of dealing with it alone and staying unhappier, resentful and getting to a point where you simply can’t cope, you have to make a change for your own sanity.

    Featured photo credit: Hannah Wei via unsplash.com

    Reference

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