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How to Improve Performance and Maintain Productivity at the Same Time

How to Improve Performance and Maintain Productivity at the Same Time


    Fortunately, this article isn’t going to start with an embarrassing confession that I’ve let the car’s tank run dry and found myself stranded at the side of the road… I’ve only ever done that once and I was barely out of nappies! (Honest)

    Instead, I’m going to look at the idea that cars do need filling up.

    Yeah, I know. Obvious…right?

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    The thing is, when we’re planning journeys we all too often do something which is barely more sophisticated than estimating how long the journey is on a map, and (assuming an average cruising speed of 50 MPH) dividing that by 50 to figure out how long the journey will take. Then we get surprised by the fact that it always take longer than that.

    How much longer?

    Well…generally longer than that by the length of time we needed to stop — and that is either for us (food/water/washroom break) or the car we’re driving (filling it with gas). I’m one of those impatient people who regards time spent filling up the car’s tank as wasted time — time not spent actually getting where I’m going.

    It isn’t, of course. Because if we dont fill the tank, we don’t get anywhere at all.

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    So we learn.

    We learn to add time for tasks that don’t actually do something (like get us somewhere) but which subsequently allow us to do something (like filling up the car). These are referred to as “Performance Tasks” and “Maintenance Tasks”, respectively.

    “Without the latter, the former can’t happen. Without the former, there’s no point in the latter.”

    There is, of course, a balance to be struck. Too much Performance Tasks and you end up performing less than your best because you keep having to stop performing and maintain. That’s the equivalent of entering a race, performing brilliantly so that you’re leading during the whole thing and then realising you’ve got to stop for 10 minutes to fill up with gas. On the other hand too many Maintenance Tasks and not enough performance and you don’t achieve anything at all.

    The seduction of this latter option is dangerous though, because it is all too easy to think you’re doing something because, well…you’re doing something. It’s just not something that directly leads to an outcome. You can be desperately busy without getting anywhere. Just ask almost anyone who rushes around saying, “There aren’t enough hours in the day!”

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    So what to do about it?

    This is an experiment worth trying; I’m doing it myself. Break down each project into tasks in the good old-fashioned way and then to decide task by task if it’s a Performance Task or a Maintenance Task. I colour-code blue on the ‘task wall’ if it’s a Maintenance Task and Performance Tasks are colur-coded pink. (Note: There’s no great significance to this choice of colour, it was just the first set of Post-It notes that came to hand!)

    Then, when figuring out what to do next at any point, I simply think about how my energy levels are. Why? Because my experience is that Maintenance Tasks can be done when you’re half asleep. If I’m below par, then I grab a blue task to do; otherwise I grab pink.

    Importantly, I have to decide on my energy levels before I look at the list of tasks to be done – no picking and choosing based on what sound interesting.

    The key thing is that it means I force myself to do the blue coloured tasks. Around my office, for example, we’d all rather get things done than prepare things — pink rather than blue, Performance rather than Maintenance. But your mileage may vary. It might help to spend a week or two looking at what tasks you do by preference and classify them after you’ve done them so that you get a feel for your natural instincts.

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    And then force yourself to do the opposite.

    So far the experiment is proving very useful — coloured Post-It notes and all.

    (Photo credit: Gas Full Meter via Shutterstock)

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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)

    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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