Productivity is a topic close to my heart. On some days I am able to accomplish most of the tasks on my to-do list. While, on others, I struggle to be productive for even a couple of hours. Why does this happen? What hampers my productivity? What can I do to be more productive? How do I get the most out of my time? These are some questions I have struggled with over the years. In this post, I’ll list down a few things that have worked for me and that might be useful for you as well.
Before I delve deeper into the topic, let me just add a caveat that my view of productivity is not how you can work 12 to 16 hours a day. Productivity to me is more about how you can manage your time, attention and energy to get more done quickly.
Paying Attention to the Task at Hand
I find that it’s easy to lose focus on a task when there are so many things waiting to distract you — notifications on your phone, responding to Slack and WhatsApp messages, replying to emails etc. I get started on a task, and then I see a Slack notification popping up and now suddenly I find myself replying to that Slack notification. And just like that, my focus and concentration on the task at hand has now shifted. It would then take another 10 to 15 minutes for my focus and concentration levels to reach where they were before I was interrupted by that pesky Slack message. I always end up paying a very high price for context switching.
To counter all the distractions that come my way and to increase my concentration and focus, I use a slight variant of the Pomodoro Technique. I now dedicate 20–40 minute time blocks multiple times a day to the task at hand where, in each time block, I only focus on the task at hand. In these time blocks, I make a conscious effort to not get distracted by any other task including things such as responding to emails, Slack or WhatsApp messages etc. At the end of the time block, I take a break where I indulge in such miscellaneous activities. As a result of this technique, I have realized that my quality of work and the time it takes to deliver has improved considerably.
Focusing on High-Impact Tasks
I have come to a sad realization that there are days where I have spent almost the entire day on a bunch of minor tasks, replying to emails, Slack messages etc. It seemed like I was extremely busy the entire day with many different tasks. It seemed like I achieved a lot. But did I? Probably not.
Had I spent that time on more complex tasks, perhaps I would have actually had a sense of achievement. Complex tasks are difficult, unstructured and frustrating. They require considerable time, attention and focus but their impact far outweighs that of simpler tasks. It is always easy to postpone these complex tasks to another day but one shouldn’t. I am now conscious of the amount of time I spend on simpler low-impact tasks. At the start of each day, I ensure that the tasks I undertake are a healthy mix of high-impact and low-impact tasks such that I get to make the most out of each day.
Executing High-Impact Tasks When My Energy Levels Are High
In addition to focusing on high-impact tasks, I have also come to realize that the timing of the day when I choose to focus on these high-impact tasks make a considerable difference to the output. I am most alert and energetic in the mornings from 11am to 2pm and then again in the evenings from 8pm to 10pm if I exercise in the evening. Therefore, I tend to take up my most complex high-impact tasks in these peak time periods. I hate getting into meetings or attending to low-impact minor tasks in these peak time periods. If I were to do the same high-impact task at some other time of the day, say 3pm or 6pm, my pace and output would just not be the same. An added benefit of solving complex problems early in the day is that once I’m through it, generally the rest of my day seems to go spectacularly well. A related read from Paul Graham about Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule highlights something similar.
Noting Down Things Obsessively
I maintain a long list of items in my to-do. This helps me be productive because I don’t expend any mental space on remembering the things I have to do. If there is an action point for me, it has to go on my to-do otherwise I will not remember it. I am a firm believer in noting things down before I forget them. Therefore, whenever I am on the move and I need to quickly note down something that came to my mind, I tend to email myself through this Android app called Boomerang. Of course, one could use a plethora of to-do apps to achieve this.
I have also freed up a lot of mental space by putting all birthdays, anniversaries, health check-up reminders, insurance renewal reminders, investment reminders and absolutely any such recurring events I can think of in my calendar. Google sends me a reminder whenever the event is due and then the task gets done. I don’t have to bother remembering such minor items anymore. This then increases my mental capacity for other things.
One of the reasons I mentioned nothing down things obsessively is because I don’t stop at what I’ve mentioned above. If I find myself worrying about some things, I tend to write each of those worries down. Writing them down helps calm my mind as I am able to analyze the things that worry me and devise a plan of action quickly. The net result is that my mind is now more productive. I’ve also built lists for, say, things I have to pack when traveling and so on. I just run through this check-list each time I’m traveling and I don’t bother anymore about what I may have forgotten to pack. The check-list just takes care of it. And I get to be more productive!
Removing Notifications & Reducing Mobile Screen Time
If you haven’t already guessed by now, I absolutely detest notifications of all kinds. In fact, on my computer, I’ve installed a Chrome extension called Tab Modifier that helps me make website titles on browser tabs static. Previously, whenever there was a new email or Slack message, the title on the browser tab would change automatically and my attention would invariably get drawn to it. After I installed this extension, the titles on the browser tab are now static and I am not made aware of any new messages. I only check my email and Slack for new messages when I want to.
On my phone, I’ve disabled notifications from all apps other than WhatsApp. I’ve also uninstalled a bunch of apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Mail and Slack. I hate looking into the mobile phone and wish I could reduce my screen time even more. Looking at the mobile phone keeps my mind occupied and doesn’t let it wander, with the net result that I don’t get as many ideas or I don’t think out loud as I would have if I kept my mind less occupied. I’ve become highly conscious over the last month about my relationship with my mobile phone. In addition to productivity, mobile phone also affects my eyes so I’d rather spend as little time on it as I can.
Sleeping. Exercising. Eating.
If I haven’t slept well, there is absolutely nothing I can do that will make my day productive. I have bad sleep habits that I’m trying to change slowly. I don’t wake up to an alarm anymore, which is a great thing. However, I go to sleep very late. And I eat dinner quite late. None of these contribute to good sleep hygiene and are things that I’m trying to change about myself.
Whenever I exercise in the morning, I feel good about myself and it increases my attention and energy levels — the key ingredients of productivity. Exercising in the evening (if and when I do this) resets my mental and physical energy levels which then enables me to be productive in the evenings as well. Surprisingly, maintaining good posture while I am sitting also makes me feel good which then improves my productivity.
As far as food goes, I’ve stopped eating as much as I did for lunch as I realized there was a big drop in my productivity immediately after lunch. In addition, I have stopped consuming processed sugar (chocolates, ice-creams etc.) and processed foods (chips etc.). A month or so after I stopped consuming these foods, I realized that there was a stark increase in how alert and energetic I felt, that then automatically increased my productivity.
That’s it for this post! Hope some of these points make a difference to your productivity as well!