Why focus for productivity?

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Did you know that sticking to your task makes you happier? When you let your mind wander, even to a pleasant memory, studies show you’ll be unhappy.

I remember reading about this in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s terrific book Flow. In it, he writes about being in the flow, where you are totally engaged with your task, whatever it is. Being in the flow feels great. You’re completely present and time is suspended.

It seemed less intuitive to me that when your mind wanders, you’re less happy, but that’s what a 2010 Harvard study found.

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.” *

What does that mean for productivity? I say it means that staying focused on your present task will make you happy! That’s a pretty compelling reason to work on focus and say no to multi-tasking.

It’s also a good reason to limit your work time to the length of time you can successfully stay focused. You’ll be on task, and happier, working in half hour stretches and taking breaks than grinding away for hours.

Most of that grinding time will be spent either thinking of something else or trying to stop your mind from wandering.

See if you notice this in your life. Track your own happiness when you’re involved in doing something, versus idly wondering about something else.

* http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/

Real world productivity

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Sometimes I come across a description of what productive people are like and I think, that’s not me. It’s probably not even most people.

If productivity seems effortless, it’s because you’re not seeing what’s behind the scenes. Here’s what you’re missing.

How do productive people get things done?

  1. The tasks are on their to do lists.
    They didn’t come out of a vacuum or from thin air. They’re based on current projects and prioritizing
  2. They commit time to doing things.
    This time is reserved on their calendars and they honor it. They aren’t using “free time” or spontaneously deciding to knock off a few hours of work.
  3. They structure accountability.
    People who can work with only internal accountability are rare. You are probably not one of them, but it doesn’t matter because you can create your own accountability, and you should.

Basically, productive people use tools and strategies to help them. They don’t wait until they’re in the mood to get things done.

It’s all in your mind

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social-1206612_640Even if you keep your desk nice and organized and you process your incoming paper promptly, you may still have clutter lurking where you can’t see it.

That kind of clutter is harder to attack than the physical clutter that’s right in front of you, getting in the way. You have to find it first.

It’s the clutter that’s in your head.

How do you know if you have mental clutter?

You wake up in the middle of the night remembering something important you forgot to do.

You find it hard to focus on one project at a time long enough to get effective work done.

Your desk is full of reminders to do tasks, all of which pester you for your attention all day.

You find yourself in a cold sweat not being able to remember if the big meeting is today or next week.

The problem is that the strategies you’re using to manage your time and tasks only work when you’ve got very little going on. And we know that’s not you.

If you have just a few things to attend to each day, you generally won’t forget to do them.

If you’ve only got one project, you work on it.

If you have a handful of tasks, you can easily prioritize them and get them done.

If there’s only one meeting coming up, you’ll remember what day it is.

Life might have been like that early in your career. Everyone’s life used to be simpler, if only because we’d lived fewer years and had accumulated fewer experiences and obligations (and less stuff).

Now you’re busy, and that’s not going to settle down anytime soon, at least, not in terms of how the world works. What can change, and what must change, is the way you handle it.

Use the tools

It’s simple. You have to write things down. Whether you do it digitally or with a pen, you need to get information out of your head and onto your to do list and calendar.

Use your to do list to record every task you need to accomplish. Be as complete as you can.

Make another list of all the projects you’re working on. These are not the same thing as to do’s. Projects are bigger and contain multiple to do’s.

Pick up each reminder you’re keeping around and briefly define the task it represents. Put that task on your to do list. File or toss the paper.

Add all your meetings, appointments and events to your calendar. It’s better to add them as potential events (code them as such) than to omit them if they’re not confirmed and then forget to add them. Refer to your calendar often during the day and remember to look at the days and weeks ahead, not just today.

Capturing information in locations you can find it again is key. Relying on memory is for amateurs.

There are other benefits to getting information out of your head. Writing about a project forces you to be specific and detailed. A project may seem clear in your head, but once you go to describe it, you see elements you’ve overlooked, inconsistencies and vagueness.

Those are obstacles that you won’t overcome until you express the ideas in writing. Explaining a project to a colleague can bring this clarity as well.

Another great tool? A coach. A good coach can accelerate your progress in getting mentally decluttered and regaining control of your time and your productivity.

Home office clutter management

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home office in the living roomIf you’re not lucky enough to have a separate room for your home office, you’ll make do on the dining table, or setting up a desk in a corner of the living room.

This poses a special challenge because any clutter you leave on your desk is also now in the common living area for all to see. If you live with others this can be, well, a problem.

A former client of mine had her desk in what would’ve been the kitchen dining nook. She needed lots of stuff out and around her when she worked, but her partner was less than thrilled to come home and make dinner in a cluttered office.

Like many creative types, my client balked at being orderly and cleaning up.

It went against her desire for inspiration and freedom and felt confining. Yet she wanted to keep harmony in the household so was open to looking at it a new way.

I came up with the idea of expanding and contracting. When she started her work day, she expanded. Stacks of paper came out and the extra leaf of her desk went up to allow her to spread out. Everything she might need was at hand for her to be productive.

At the end of her workday, she contracted the home office.

The leaf went down, making the desktop smaller. Piles went back into drawers and cabinets. The keyboard tray slid back under the desk. The taboret rolled under the desk. The home office disappeared.

The image of contraction was an effective metaphor. It didn’t have to do with tidying. It felt like an organic response to her shift in focus from work to personal time. The work area contracted so that the kitchen could expand and she and her partner could enjoy preparing food together.

If you avoid cleaning up, can you think of a metaphor that would inspire you?

In the photo above, the shelves are open and could look cluttered if anything was on them. A simple solution would be to install bamboo roll up shades. That was, all the shelves could be opened at once for easy home office productivity, instead of having a set of doors on each one. And the rolled down shade would create a streamlined look after hours.

Fighting a Hidden Distraction at Work

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Assembly line Many a blog post has been written about turning off your phone and closing your email program and browser so you can get some work done. Tips about deflecting office visitors and avoiding meetings can combat those in-person distractions. But there's another subtle way that you get off track, and that's by doing other people's work.

The thing is, it's usually easier to solve someone else's problems than your own. When you give advice to a friend, you have no difficulty thinking up ideas to get her out of her predicament. And we all appreciate the more objective point of view of our friends in addressing our own challenges. 

If you do this at work, though, you're usually short changing your own projects. Every time you get sucked into an office crisis or even just volunteer to look up information to respond to a casual request, you're doing a task that someone else should be doing.

I'm not saying you should become a hermit and never offer to help. Just be mindful about whether you are also honoring your own commitments. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Schedule work appointments with yourself and keep them. Putting them on a shared calendar is helpful to let others know you're busy
  • Create an email auto-responder that you can easily activate for the times that you need to be distraction-free. Let correspondents know when you'll be back on line
  • Have office hours. Put a sign on your door that says you're open from 1-4 pm
  • Don't respond to casual requests that are sent to a group. Let someone else respond
  • If necessary, set an hourly timer so you can check in with yourself and make sure you're on track
Cream puff assembly line from misocrazy's photostream

Tips for Taming Distractions at Work

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I often hear from people that they come in to the office early in the morning or on weekends just to get some work done in peace. They don’t particularly like doing it, but they do like the quiet and the lack of interruptions from phone, email and coworkers.

Lifehacker yesterday ran a post about “guerilla tactics” people use to get some distraction-free time at work. This was a favorite:

“A couple colleagues of mine and I schedule fake meetings so we can sit
and get an hours work done. If it’s just the three of us, it’s quiet
and easy because we know why we’re there.”

Over at 43Folders, there were several good ideas for managing emails and meetings, such as “filter any email that contains the string “to unsubscribe.”
Although many of these certainly will be valuable (sign-ups, Google
lists), that string means there’s a good chance they’re also bulk messages
that are being generated automatically. And some folks want to only see
those sorts of emails, again, once or twice a day — and only when they
have extra time”

Email in this category is being referred to these days as bacn. It’s not as bad as spam but it significantly clogs inboxes.

Be Productive in Your Own Time

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Do you live your life by the clock so you can squeeze everything in? Do you anxiously consult your watchBoat_2
while working toward a deadline? Most of us have to live by a schedule part of the time, whether it’s work, school or events. But when you don’t, try leaving the watch on the bureau and forgetting about its constant ticking.

Susan Sabo proposes having a "watch out" day or evening on her Productivity Blog. Remember what it’s like to do something because you’re prompted from within. This is a way to tune into your internal clock. Without the pressure of time, you may find that you’re more productive. Ideas may come more easily.

You might also find yourself lollygagging and daydreaming and feeling unproductive. However, your creativity and thus, your productivity, also needs that kind of time, or timelessness, to really shine.

Dawn in Norway photographed by Maikun.

Managing Time in Your Home Office

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Here’s an interview that one of my coaches, Ann Ronan, did with me about the special problems people who work at home face.

I talk about:

  • How to avoid working all the time (!)
  • How to control distractions like friends calling because you’re not “at work”
  • Why your home office isn’t working for you
  • How to be your own boss

You can listen right here, or download it for later.

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The Four Poxes Upon Productivity

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I'm starting a new four-part series that will include the Packrat Factor, Procrastinators R Us, Prioritizizing and Paperphobia. Each post will discuss a different obstacle to being productive. Keeping too much stuff, not doing stuff, not knowing which stuff to do first and not knowing where stuff is are all common problems.

Trees The Packrat Factor
This just in: Stuff is not the problem, you are. When you keep doing something that you know doesn’t work for you, well, the problem is all yours to solve. Stuff isn’t going to go away. In fact, there’s more right now than there was a minute ago. Ain’t it grand?

Instead of trying to figure out why you collect stuff, which leads straight to the land of rationalizing and excuses, let’s pause and consider the effect of all this stuff.

A confession: I had to stop writing this article to clear off my desk because I couldn’t focus on it. Now all I see is my coffee cup, my pencil jar, my notebook and the view from my window. Better!

If you can think clearly and act decisively while surrounded by stuff, you don’t have a problem. If you can’t do those things, the good news is, you don’t have ADD, you just have too much stuff. Everyone thinks they have ADD. What they really have is an unwillingness to detach from stimulation.

Show appreciation.

Become an admirer rather than an owner. The world is full of wonderful things that you don’t currently own. Make that world larger by merely appreciating things you see and not buying them. If you need visual stimulation, go window shopping or indulge in glossy magazines (for best results, find a bookstore where you can sit and read the mags. Do not buy them and take them home).

What about stuff from the past?
Distinguish between things you’ve kept just because you’ve had them forever from ones that have strong feelings attached to them. Memorabilia isn’t just old stuff, it’s personal old stuff that you’re attached to. If you’re not really attached to Great grandma’s tea cozy, get over feeling that you have to keep it.

Re-evaluate every year or so. Over time, things can lose their appeal and relevance. Decluttering is a constant process and it’s also an iterative one. Things that made the cut this year might not in three years.

What about stuff that’s valuable or was expensive?
So, you’ve made some mistakes, bought some things you regretted later. Or you just don’t feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth out of them yet, even though in your heart of hearts you would never miss them if they were gone. If you keep these things just because they’re “valuable,” you are letting things be in charge of your life. You’re letting their importance dictate what to do with them. Turn it around and be ruthless in judging their value to you, right now. 

Pass it on.

If that thing really is important, why is it in a moldy box somewhere in your garage? Again, be clear about its current value to you. Then set that thing free to find a new owner who will truly appreciate it. There, doesn’t that feel better?

Let the chi flow.

Just as a room crowded with furniture and stuff prevents people from circulating in it freely, a packratted home prevents energy from flowing. This may seem woo woo to you, but you can feel that it’s true whenever you go into a stranger’s cluttered home. Moving energy around is one reason we go out into nature to refresh ourselves. Nature is well designed, purposeful and balanced. It’s not cluttered up with inessentials. It evokes feelings of harmony and serenity. Your home can be that way too.

I need a lot of stuff that inspires my art.

Have faith in your creativity. What you need is already here for you. If you’re a visual artist craving stimulation, get out and find it. Go to shops with wonderful wares, visit museums, walk in nature. Inspiration is everywhere. Also, “inspiration” is the breath you’re taking right now. Even though you have a trove of treasures, don’t you find that some of them inspired you at first, but when you didn’t use them, their glow faded? Whatever you’re creating now needs the fresh energy of today and what you find here.

Trees from jumpinjimmyjava's photostream

Tricks to Motivate You

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Magician I answered a question on Linked In today about whether it’s possible to become more disciplined. My answer wasn’t really about discipline though, because that word turns me off. It makes me think of following rules, being punished if I don’t, rigidity and fear. Ick.

So my answer was about motivation instead. And tricks. Fun ways to get yourself to do stuff.


If the end result of your work is something you really, really want, it’s not hard to get motivated. If you don’t want the result, why bother? Whatever project you’re putting off, trace it back and find out what the original motivation was and whether it’s still valid.


If it’s valid and you still don’t want to do it, pay someone else to do it! Or, try some of these tricks.
  • Work on your project for just two minutes. Use a timer. If you get inspired, keep going. If not, you got two minutes worth done, more than you had before.
  • Imagine the day is over and you’re looking back over what you got done. What will make you feel like you got something really worthwhile accomplished? Then, do that thing.
  • Make a “Not To Do” list. Put anything that you’re not getting around to and that can go undone without the planet exploding. Keep the list somewhere safe. This tells your brain that it can forget about those things and relieves you of that mental clutter.

What tricks do you use to get yourself going and stay on task?


Rabbit out of a Hat from laneesque’s photostream.