Podcast 081: Low energy productivity

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This is Podcast 81 and it’s about how you can be productive even if you’re sick, or tired or just feeling those low energy winter blues. In podcast 70 I talked about categorizing your tasks by context the way David Allen suggests. That’s what this is. You need a category of stuff to do when you’re not up for doing any of the hard stuff.

If you’re really sick, you should rest. Be unproductive while you get better, then get back into the swing of things, instead of working at quarter speed for a week and feeling like crap. This is for when you’re in that in-between stage, not sick enough to stay in bed but definitely not 100%. It’s for when you really want to get something done but you’re just staring into space.

This is the ideal time to do things that are boring or tedious but are worth doing because of the time and effort they save later on. Some of these tasks are known as administrivia, a word that I was surprised to learn was first used in 1937! Being bored by paperwork is not a new phenomenon.

Some examples of administrivia are reports you can get away with just skimming to get the content of them, nothing that requires deep reading. Expense reports or any kind of form or report that requires you to gather information you have and compile it, just filling in the little blanks and sending it off. Nice and mindless.

Do some filing. Get that pile off your desk and into the file drawer. Note: this works best if you have a good filing system, meaning one that isn’t overstuffed and that you can find things quickly in. Don’t just shove something into a folder and stick it in a drawer somewhere however tempting that may be.

Bonus activity: if you file regular publications that get updated monthly or yearly, make sure you recycle the old one when you put the new one in.

How about some scanning? That’s one of the most mindless tasks. You can do it while watching videos on Youtube. Again, it works best with a good filing system. Having a disc full of files with names like Scan121517_02 is the same thing as having a drawer full of folders labeled miscellaneous. You don’t have to give each one a proper name, but you do have to put it into a folder named receipts, expenses or something meaningful like that.

Gather up all your to do lists and scraps of paper with important notes written on them. Make one fresh, current list. You don’t have to do anything on the list. Just make sure it’s complete and accurate and all in one spot. It’s always a good idea to rewrite your lists. Refer back to Podcast 28 for more tips about how to make effective to do lists.

If you don’t have energy or focus for that task, you can simply do the collecting part. Collect all the loose paper that needs attention at some point. Divide it up into categories like to do list and file. There are other way to do this. You can label them according to the project they belong to. You can have a collection of items you need more information about in order to take action; ask someone a question, look something up, etc. Things to read is usually a big category. Try the idea I mentioned above first. A lot that comes into your life is just not critical information. It’s information that you can skim over and get the gist of and then let go of.

Remember that there will always be more information in the world than you can digest or even know about. Also remember that regular publications have to fill up pages every month or week or day. If nothing important happens on a given day, they’re not going to make the paper shorter, right?

Here’s another task to try, one that you’ll really benefit from later on. Weed out all those unwanted photos on your phone, the ones that are out of focus or your finger is in the way or they just didn’t turn out right or they’re near duplicates or triplicates. Out they go. At least do that part.

If you’re up for more, make sure your photos are uploaded into the cloud or onto your computer. I’ve heard many stories of people who lose their phones and also lose years worth of photos. So sad! Backing up is one of the annoying tasks and it can be confusing too, unfortunately. But you’ll be grateful for it later. Plus, you’ll have room to take new photos.

If you really want to do it right, go another step and organize those photos. Big categories are better than no categories. Start with ones like travel, family and friends. Or get more specific; like Hawaii 2016. If your photos are precious to you, make them easy to find so you can enjoy them and share them.

What you can do right now: Make a list of tasks that seem suitable to you for doing when you’re sick or tired. It’s good to have a list written out instead of in your head. When you’re not feeling well, you’re probably not thinking clearly so you won’t remember these things. Having a list to go to will help you avoid staring into space and wondering how you could spend your time better.

The killer app for productivity

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One of my clients sent me a list of focus and productivity apps. Some of them sound pretty intriguing. 

Forest gets you to focus on your project for 30 minutes. At the beginning of your work time, you plant a tree. As you continue working, it grows. If you stop, all the leaves fall off and it dies. You’ve selfishly killed off an innocent digital tree!

There are apps that force you to do nothing for two minutes, prevent your access to distracting websites, rewire your brain with subliminal messages and more. I will try out and review some of these in future issues.

The reason I’m bringing them up here is that my wise client commented that no matter how helpful the app, you always are stuck with you. 

There’s no magic bullet. 

Where does that leave you? It’s the old tried-and-true of identifying what you want to change, making sure you choose something do-able, setting up your environment to support that change, and working at it every day. 

Step two is important. Select a change that’s small yet effective, and one that you believe that you can achieve. Setting a goal that’s too high is a big reason that people fail. 

Is there an app for that? I’m sure there is. But don’t get so lost in the search for the killer app that you neglect what you’re trying to do. 

8 productivity traps to avoid

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What is productivity, really? It’s not just clearing off your desk or ploughing through your email inbox. Stop, take a breath and make sure you’re getting the important stuff done.

Obviously, productivity involves producing. Producing widgets, events, reports, sales. The more producing you do, the more money you have and the greater success your company has. Right?

It’s not that simple. It doesn’t matter how many widgets you produce if no one buys them. It doesn’t matter how many reports you produce if they’re irrelevant. So, productivity must be tied to a worthwhile goal.

This is a simple concept, but one that is easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of the day. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking you’re productive when you answer emails and phone calls and get paper off your desk.

They clamor for your attention. The trick is to handle them or keep them at bay while you spend time on the things that actually are important, that are quietly waiting for you to get to them.

So, here are the eight productivity traps you need to avoid:

  • The “I can do it all” Trap.
    Newsflash: you can’t do it all, and you’ll never be able to do enough. There will always be more you could have done. This is the perfectionism trap.

    Solution: decide when enough is enough. What is the ROI on your time for a particular project?

    If you’re talking about getting a contract that will be half your profits for the year, spend a lot of time on it. If you’re talking about figuring out how to save $40 a month on supplies, spend an hour or less on that.

  • Picking a system and then not using it consistently.
    Stick with certain ways of doing things. Keep your to do list in the same spot and create items for it with similar language all the time.

    This allows your mind to concentrate on the content rather than being distracted by the form. Let the form be the holder for the content; something to bring it to you efficiently and invisibly.

    Each form has its own good qualities, so you just need to pick one. What if phone book entries were all written differently? Some with the first name first, some the last name, some the address first, some the phone number first? Can you see how much harder it would be to look through a book like that and find what you need?

  • The “But we’ve always done it that way” Trap.
    Take time to look at what you’ve been taking for granted and see if its efficiency or productivity can be improved. This can be anything from regular meetings to how your desk is set up to how you get to work in the morning.

    Anytime you hear yourself saying “we always (fill in the blank),” question that statement. Do you “always” for a good reason? A good reason two years ago may not be applicable anymore. Is it necessary?

    Could it be done faster or piggybacked onto another task? Sometimes just thinking carefully of the steps involved in a particular project can spur a brainstorm to improve it.

  • The “I don’t know what to do next” Trap.
    Be your own boss, and your own employee. When you’re the boss, you formulate and set goals and figure out ways to get there. When you’re the employee, you get down to work on those tasks.

    By separating these functions, you don’t second guess yourself as much. Your boss has already decided, for example, that a new brochure needs to be created and it should have certain elements and be ready in 3 weeks. As the employee, you start writing the new copy; you don’t waste time worrying about whether the old copy really needs changing, or if 3 weeks is a realistic deadline.

    If new information comes up while the project is in progress, the plan may change. But, again, trust that the decisions you make as the “boss” are the best you can make with the information available, and then let your “employee” act on them.

  • The “I just can’t focus on what I have to do” Trap.
    Most of us thrive on novelty. We crave variety. The latest thing almost always can get our attention.

    So you need to figure out some tricks to make your existing project seem new again. Tackle it from a different angle. Ask a colleague for advice and see it from his or her point of view.

    Break it down into components and then work a little on each one so you don’t get burned out on any one element. Pack up your materials and do some work elsewhere; a conference room, your kitchen, a café.

  • The “I need more information first” Trap.
    This is a variation of #1. You must control your options. People generally confuse having lots of options and choices with getting the best possible result. Fewer choices might mean that the best one was left out.

    But, lots of choice can induce paralysis. There’s an infinite number of questions to ask and conditions to satisfy to determine which choice is the best. And as long as you’re stuck on that task, you aren’t getting to the doing of the project.

    Have some simple criteria to judge options, gather them quickly and move forward. What really matters is getting the house built, not making sure you had the world’s best hammer to do it with.

  • The “Everything seems equally important” Trap.
    There’s no way you’ll get everything done. If you ever did, you can be sure more things would crowd in the door behind them.

    You must set up criteria for what the important things to do are. In addition, identify things that don’t meet that criteria and consciously decide not to do them. Be clear about what you’re not

    Why? Because if you don’t, those items will remain on a phantom to do list, forever undone and forever bugging you. Even though you’re not doing them, they suck energy away from the important things.

  • The “Everything seems equally important” Trap, part 2.
    If you can’t get everything done, and you don’t set your own criteria for what’s important, that means that someone else is setting it. Your boss, your mother, whoever.

    Think of this not as having to give things up, but regaining power over how you spend your time.

The payoff is having clarity about what you are doing, which makes you more productive and efficient. The way to avoid these traps can be as simple as maintaining a regularly reviewed to do list and remember to ask yourself, “why am I doing this?”


Getting things done, in a nutshell

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I came across a great, succinct description of David Allen’s Getting Things Done process on the ToDoist blog. Here it is:

  1. Capture – collect what has your attention. From little to big, personal to professional, record every single to-do, project or task that’s on your plate. Use a to-do list app like Todoist or even a simple pen and notebook, but get everything recorded as it pops into your head.

  2. Clarify – process what it means. Make the decision: are these items actionable? If not, remove it from your list. If it’s actionable, decide what action you need to take next. Delegate if you can. If it’s a big project, like Marketing Plan for 2014, break it down into a hierarchical order with subprojects and subtasks.

  3. Organize – put it where it belongs. Place actionable items in determined lists, like people to call, emails to send, or papers to write. Adding priorities to these tasks is ideal.

  4. Reflect – review frequently. “This is where the clarifying step pays off, because you should be able to pick something you have the time and the energy to do right away,” says Alan Henry of LifeHacker. Consistently revise your lists to decide what to do next. Schedule a weekly overview to see where you can streamline and update your lists.

  5. Engage – simply do. “Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence,” says David Allen.

I’m a big fan of the Getting Things Done system. All the steps are important. Capture and clarify have to go together. It’s great to have all your to do’s and ideas scribbled on Post-Its, but if you don’t figure out what to actually DO with each one, they’re useless.

After you figure that out, it’s usually clear where to put each item, the organizing step. When you haven’t taken time to clarify, your pile of captured ideas remains an undifferentiated and intimidating mess.

Reflect is a big step. It’s partly figuring out when you’ll do each task and also figuring out how each one fits in with your bigger picture. That is, all the other tasks, and all the other life stuff you have going on. You also consider what Allen calls context; what do you have time, energy, resources and the right environment for? For example, you can have a conversation while driving, but not compile your Post Its.

Finally, just do. Trust your system and know that the task you’ve chosen is the best thing to do right now.

This blog post also describes the Pomodoro method (using a mechanical timer for work periods and breaks) and the Seinfeld method (doing something each day on a particular project and not breaking that chain of actions). Check those out too!

The seductive organizing system

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Sometimes just making a to-do list makes you feel so productive that you give yourself a break from doing anything on the list. I’m a big fan of to do lists and I encourage people to acknowledge their progress in order to stay on track.

But that’s not always fruitful.

Sometimes looking at the progress we’ve make seduces us into believing we’re done. We look at all the tasks crossed off the to-do list and feel good about ourselves. That’s not a problem usually, but in this case it is because we then let ourselves off the hook, even in pursuing a goal we’ve already identified that we want.

This kind of thinking shows up when people get excited about a new organizing system or a new app. Well, new anything, really. Something bright and shiny.

But there’s a difference when this new organizing system requires putting together and setting up. We get lost in the details of what part goes where and what the sequence is and how it all fits together.

Once it is put together, there’s the further seduction of tweaking. It’s sort of like poking the fire. There’s always more prodding and shifting you can do to a fire to get it perfect.

Then there’s more. And it’s so satisfying! Tweaking a fire is harmless though. The fire is just there for you to enjoy.

When you get stuck in tweaking mode for a productivity app, well, you can see the irony. You aren’t actually using the app. You’re not getting to the productivity part of it.

So, be wary when you get excited about a brand new thingamajig that’s going to streamline your work and skyrocket your efficiency. Read the reviews. Read the good and the bad ones!

Pay attention to what the people who like it are using it for. Maybe it’s great for Task A, but makes little difference for Task B, which is your task. In that case, who cares how great it is? It’s not going to help you enough to be worthwhile.

Be mindful of how much time you need to take away from other tasks to get this puppy up and running. What’s going to languish in the meantime? Is that worth it?

If you are looking at a substitute for something (or various things) you currently do, you need a transition plan. How will things not fall through the cracks? Sometimes people take on a new system just partially.

It’s great, but they still do one part of their work the old way, because it’s familiar and they can do it quickly and easily. Is that going to impair the system as a whole, having this one outlier being done the old way?

New and shiny isn’t necessarily better. Caveat emptor.

Almost free productivity coaching!

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I’m going to write about the different perks you can get when you support my business on Patreon. First up is the Level 3 perk.

My members-only Twitter chat is probably the most valuable perk I’m offering. Group chats are great because you can get your personal questions answered and you can benefit from reading the advice I give to others. It often happens that someone asks a question that you forgot to ask, or that you were having trouble putting into few enough words to squeeze into Twitter :).

On top of that, you’ll see that others have the same issues you do and you can help each other. Still one more benefit: you don’t have to take notes because you can save a transcript of each chat.

Get in on this perk early! Why? The fewer people on the chat, the more time YOU get! This is personalized coaching, guys! Even if only one person shows up for the chat, I’ll be there and you’ll get my undivided attention. So, click that button and become a patron. Here’s the link.

I would be thrilled with your support at any level. Come on over and see what else I’ve got.

Workplace productivity

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Productivity, and increasing it, is a perennially popular topic and it won’t go away anytime soon. New technology changes the issues a bit, as do new work habits, such as telecommuting. But as an issue to be dealt with, it remains.

This fun infographic has some interesting statistics. Two thirds of office workers complain that chatty coworkers disrupt their work! That’s a lot. It’s probably not a new problem. I would bet that if Bob Cratchit had had coworkers, they would have distracted him from his abysmal work.

I’m intrigued that 75% of respondents have gotten more productive with age. To me, that indicates good work habits rather than usage of the latest and greatest productivity app. The don’t believe working longer will help and I’m happy to see that.

An article about this survey said that office workers view their millennial coworkers as the least productive. Ouch! Millennials do have a reputation for chattiness and group activities. Could that be it?

This infographic is from the Fellowes company and promotes using shredders freely. I am on board with that!

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.