As an independent consultant, I am always looking for ways to improve my productivity and overcome distractions. Potential distractions abound (both external and internal), and having multiple clients and projects going at once can easily make my workday feel like it’s out of control. Therefore, I have been extra interested in reading and testing ideas from experts that assimilate the latest psychology and neuroscience findings about how the brain works, how our physiology affects our ability to focus, and ways to optimize our expenditure and renewal of energy resources. Here is a collection of five such productivity tips.
1. Chunk your week
If the type of work you do permits it, consider chunking up your weekly schedule into different categories. For example, a friend of mine only engages in networking coffee meetings with new connections on Friday mornings. Every Friday morning, she schedules these coffee talks, but never on other days. Another colleague has designated Mondays as administrative days. Her external client work rarely requires her presence on Monday, so it’s the perfect day to catch up on billing, invoicing, and other administrative tasks required to run her business smoothly. You can even simply designate “in days” and “out days” so you can cluster errands and external meetings for which you need to prepare, dress up, and commute, instead of spreading them out throughout the week (which is less efficient).
2. Chunk your day
In addition to dividing up your week into categories, you may want to consider your body’s natural ultradian rhythms when scheduling your daily work. Neuroscience has shown us that we have about a 90-minute maximum period during which we can effectively focus on any given task. After that, we lose focus and become inefficient unless we take a break. Productivity expert Tony Schwartz suggests scheduling our work in these 90-minute chunks with 20-minute breaks between them. Your return on your effort will have diminishing productivity returns otherwise—the more is less rule kicks in here. In fact, scheduling breaks during which you can rest, eat, drink, daydream, take a walk, or anything else that provides a respite from the deep focus periods that precede and follow them will allow you to rejuvenate and feel much more energized and focus once you return to your focused task.
3. Manage your inbox (so it doesn’t manage you)
A recent study showed that “employees estimate that they spend about four hours a day (half a workday) managing multiple inboxes.” We need to take two points from this stunning statistic: first, you cannot pretend that dealing with email is not work, because it is part of your daily work and can’t be wished away. The more we act as if it’s not there, the more we are surprised by it. Our plans and schedules become hijacked by the work of reading and responding to email because we did not allow room for that task. The second lesson is that email doesn’t have to take up half of our day if we compartmentalize it and address it more efficiently. Some suggest chunking it into two dedicated periods during each work day and being strict in avoiding email or inboxes during any other times. Maybe you need to look three times a day. Maybe for 10 minutes at the end of each work hour. Whatever works for you, but you have to be strategic and strict so you can get it under control.
4. Stop multitasking
You know you’ve heard this before: Multitasking doesn’t work. In fact, neuroscience confirms that the human mind cannot focus on two different things at the same time. When we are multitasking, we quickly switch our attention from one task to the other. Unfortunately, research shows that it takes on average 25 percent more time to complete each of the tasks when we switch back and forth compared to if we had focused completely on each one at a time. And studies show that self-described multitaskers actually perform much worse on cognitive and memory tasks that involved distraction than people who say they prefer to focus on single tasks. If you follow the first three suggestions above, you can likely avoid the drive to multitask in the first place.
5. Rev up your creativity at coffee shops
A recent study found that if you want to be more creative in your thinking—to stretch outside your comfort zone and get new ideas—you might be surprised to learn that you may get better results if you go to your local coffee shop instead of sitting in your quiet office. “Compared to a relatively quiet environment (50 decibels), a moderate level of ambient noise (70 dB) enhanced subjects' performance on the creativity tasks, while a high level of noise (85 dB) hurt it.” This is not for those total focus types of tasks; it’s for innovative and creative thinking. Maybe this is a kind of activity you schedule as part of your weekly chunks?
The life of a consultant is free from nagging bosses and judgmental cubicle neighbors. This is great news for our sense of independence and self-determination, but not so great for those external controls on our productivity. Therefore, we’re on our own in more ways than one, and it’s up to us to take control of our productivity and take proactive steps to hack our work schedules and environments to assure optimal results.
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