How to be more productive and less frenzied

Thanks to downsizing and the wizardry of modern technology, people often find themselves doing the jobs of two, three or even four people. You don’t even have time to scratch yourself. Even at home — so much to do, so little time.

So the temptation to knock off as many birds as you can with one stone, i.e. to multi-task, is pretty big. But it’s usually a mistake, because it means you do none of the tasks very well and often, you need to do them a second or even a third time, to get them right. (And not getting them right is bad, bad, bad.) In the end, multi-tasking leads to rework that actually takes more time than if you’d concentrated on doing it right first time.

Not only that, but when you multi-task, you’re really just switching quickly from one task to another and back again. Computers can do that. People can’t. Unlike computers, human brains have to do a quick, ‘Now where was I?’ catch-up. Even when you’re not conscious of it, your brain has to make the decision to switch tasks, then switch, and then warm up to the new task. That might only take half a second, but it all adds up to wasted time when you do a lot of multi-tasking. That’s why we’re generally much better doing one task at a time and sticking with it for as long as we can.

Here’s the exception: really simple tasks you can do on automatic pilot. You can do two or three or even four routine things at a time. You can walk, chew gum (unless you’re in Singapore), hum a tune, and look for koalas and possums in the trees (when you’re in Australia) all at the same time, for instance.

But when you need your brain to pay attention, stop the multi-tasking and concentrate. You get a better job done in less time that way.

You can further boost your productivity by grouping your work into like activities. Write some emails, read some reports, then make a few phone calls. Don’t try to do all three at once and don’t hop from one to another.

The more you have on your plate, the more important it is to set priorities. And stick to them. Don’t get distracted by emails, phone calls or friendly chats. Know what the most important things to do are and keep working on them, one at a time. When you’re interrupted, and you will be, make a quick note of where you were up to so you can go straight back to that priority task with a much shorter ‘Now where was I?’ catch-up.

Being in high gear all the time reduces your productivity and increases your stress. So concentrate on one meaningful task at a time and do it right – first time. Go for quality. You’ll be more productive and less frenzied.

Working with interruptions

You might be working in an office or on a building site, studying for an exam or or even trying to finish off your expense claim so you can go home on time. For a change. And then it happens. An interruption. Annoying. And something worse: interruptions reduce your productivity by up to 1/3rd. And to add insult to injury, they increase mistakes and diminish your ability to solve problems and complete tasks.

The trouble is, of course, that life is filled with interruptions. For instance, we know that people who work primarily with information (i.e. most office workers) are interrupted every four to 11 minutes. The telephone rings, someone needs to see you or it’s time to pack up and go to a meeting – there’s always something to get in the way of what you’re trying to do.

You can prevent some interruptions, and so you should when you’re doing something that needs concentration and thought. Close your office door if you have one and put up an ‘On a deadline’ or ‘Concentrating!’ sign to encourage people to think twice before entering.

Angling your desk and chair away from walking paths lessens distractions, too, because it’s harder for people to catch your eye and stop for a chat.

At work, you can set time aside to concentrate and block it out on your calendar as ‘quiet time’, ‘planning time’ or ‘meeting with myself’ so others sharing your calendar can see not to disturb you. You can turn off your audible and visual incoming email alerts and divert your phone or switch it to voicemail; when you do that, mute your incoming messages so you aren’t tempted to listen to them. (I’ve been to that many meetings at people’s desks and they do the right thing and switch their phone to voice mail but don’t mute the messages; inevitably, the phone rings, the meeting stops and the desk owner freezes, waits for the message machine to pick up, and proceeds to listen intently to the message. Don’t do that.)

In some workplaces, it’s normal to interrupt people. But whatever you do, don’t fall prey to thinking: ‘I won’t be able to finish this, so I’ll do it later’, because that guarantees you’ll never get anything done.

Often, the most sensible thing you can do is to simply make a start. Work on big tasks in the time between interruptions. After spending several shorter blocks of time on a big task, one concerted effort generally sees that job completed and crossed off your ‘To do’ list.

Are you working hard enough? (Trick question)

Consider these two situations:

A: You’re at work.

  1. You’re slogging through your usual 10-hour day answering phone calls and emails, trolling through paperwork, rushing to meetings… Are you working hard?
  2. You’ve been in your ‘flow zone’ for two hours of total, productive concentration. You feel energised and knock off early for a walk in the fresh air. Are you working hard?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to 1, you’re kidding yourself.

B. A joiner comes to re-hang a sliding door that sticks and is difficult to move.

  1. He gives it a tap and a whack and it’s in perfect working order. Be honest: Do you feel a bit cheated when you hand him his fee?
  2. The joiner toils and grunts and seems to work quite hard for quite a while before the door is in perfect working order. Do you feel his fee is worth it when you pay him?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to both 1 and 2 in situation B, you’ve fallen for the ‘labour illusion‘.

This same illusion leads people to answer ‘Yes’ to question 1 and ‘No’ to question 2 in situation A. We tend to equate effort, be it long hours or grunts, with hard work. But generally, what really counts is results, not time spent or sweat. The ‘labour illusion.’

When you apply the ‘labour illusion’ to your own work, you kid yourself that long hours and ‘busy’ (but non-productive) work are ‘real work’ and that you’re working hard.

And whether you’re a customer or a team leader, when someone else is working on your behalf, you probably like to see them putting in some effort. Most people prefer the ‘hard-working’ joiner to the expert, experienced joiner who completes a job quickly and proficiently. Many bosses would be rather miffed at a team member knocking off early, even though their work is done or they just cracked a difficult problem or made a break-through innovation. The ‘labour illusion.’ (Maybe that’s what’s at the core of toxic work cultures where you’re not committed and working hard enough when you go home on time?)

Even when the hours you or your team members put in are easier to measure than actual results, don’t let the ‘labour illusion’ fool you. It isn’t how tired you or they are at the end of the day that counts. Results count. (Of course, we aren’t talking about people learning a new job, here. That takes time and effort and results aren’t great straight away.)

Understanding the ‘labour illusion’ helps you to concentrate on what’s important, to do your best and to work as hard as you need to, in order to get the results. It teaches you to not kid yourself that busy work and long hours earn results.



How to make the most of your time

Here are the ‘efficiency’ principles I discussed with Annette Marner on her ABC Radio show. (For more info see Time Tips.)

Keep a To Do list. Just about everyone these days probably uses an electronic task management system of some sort. Make the most of it by colour-coding different categories and scheduling follow-ups. Highlight the most important items and concentrate on them.

Keep it clear. I’m a great believer in having a clean, clear work space. I know some people like to think they work better in clutter, but I think they’re kidding themselves! Clutter makes your brain ‘antsy’ and when your brain is antsy, you can’t do your best work.

Don’t be a slave to technology. Emails, the Internet, your smartphone and all the other whizz bang communication and social networking tools are for your convenience, not to waste your time and take control of your ife.

Don’t multitask. Whatever you may think, you can’t SMS, talk on the phone, listen to music and solve a tricky problem all at the same time. Do one thing at a time and do it properly.

Discussion questions

What are your favourite techniques for making the most of your time? Have you organised your To Do list so that it’s maximally helpful to you? Do you have ‘tidy work habits’, use technology to help you manage your time, and avoid multitasking?