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Are You Productive or Just Busy?

Profit-seeking concept with businessman running on a treadmill for a bag of money hanging on a fishing tackle

In our fast-paced world we’re all busy, to the point where we spend time we swear we don’t have to complain about how busy we are. At the same time, “busy-ness” feels good because it seems like we’re getting stuff done. The question is, are we getting done what we need to get done day in and day out?

Research suggests not.

A study conducted by Rescue Time, a maker of a personal time tracking app, found that only 26% of survey respondents felt they often leave the office having accomplished the tasks they set out to do that day. I came across this data in an article, entitled 5 Mental Mistakes that Can Kill Your Productivity, that supports a point I constantly emphasize – the importance of staying focused on winning.

As the title implies, the article discusses five ways of thinking that hinder our productivity. The one that stood out for me was “underestimating the costs of small time/energy leaks.” In other words – distractions and interruptions. For the sake of brevity we’ll call them “D&Is”.

D&Is often only take a few minutes. Someone pops into your office for a quick question. An email lands in your inbox that seems urgent but doesn’t take long to answer; listening to a voice mail you were expecting. However, even short D&Is do two things that automatically diminish productivity. They interrupt your focus, and they add up over time.  At the end of the day, add up all the D&Is and you will be amazed at how much time they sucked out of your day. Worse, it takes a lot longer than you think to get back on track after a D&I.

The article recommends creating systems to reduce your daily D&Is. These can include streamlining and simplifying tasks, batching, automating, delegating, and using checklists to plug small time/energy leaks. In addition to these, I recommend developing anti-D&I habits.

Habits That Build Focus and Productivity

Anti-D&I habits are specific behaviors that help you stay focused on doing what needs to get done. What needs to get done are the activities, tasks and decisions that move your organization/your team closer to crossing the finish line (reaching the destination).

First, get clear on what winning is for you and your team/company. Be very specific about what winning means and what it will look like when you get there. Then track progress toward the goal at least once per week. It helps to have interim goals along the way. They make a huge goal seem more attainable, and they give you reasons to celebrate along the way, which builds employee engagement.

To stay focused on winning, start every day by spending 5 to 15 minutes pondering this question: Of what I do today, what will contribute the most to moving me/my team/the company closer to our destination? Write down the key activities, and use this “to do” list to organize your day so you make progress on the most important things every day.

Carve out time to concentrate and focus. Mark off at least one hour on your calendar every day in which you don’t allow D&Is. Consider it an important meeting (with yourself) in which you work on your highest-value tasks. Clear your desk of everything except the task you are working on. Visual clutter isn’t as bad as D&Is, but it does have an impact on focus.

Here’s the hardest part of this process: put your phone completely away. I mean literally out of sight. This may sound unnecessary, but studies show that cognitive capacity is significantly reduced when your smartphone is within reach — even when it’s turned off. If turning off your phone seems too painful for you, at least turn off the ring tone so you can’t hear it to start. Build up your ability to hide it away during designated times.  Remember, we’re talking about zero D&Is during this time.

Instead of responding to every mail as it lands in your inbox, set aside time to read and answer them in batches. I recommend saving them up until the afternoon. Your brain gets tired as the day wears on, and decision degradation starts to set in. Using your brain power early in the day will help you get the most important tasks done well. Save the email responses for later.

Finally, use visuals that prompt you to think about what you need to think about. Keep the target of what you will achieve in front of you all the time. The brain responds to images up to 65,000 times faster than text. Visuals save time and keep you focused.

The next time you feel the urge to look at that text that just came through, or answer an email that isn’t urgent, ask yourself: Is this really the best use of my time right now? What could I do instead that would have more of an impact on moving the organization forward?

We can’t eliminate D&Is, but we can learn to manage them by addressing them at more appropriate times. You’ll know you’re succeeding when people start asking, “How do you get so much done every day??!!”

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