Productivity is big business. Flip through the pages of business books and magazines and you will find a dizzying array of tips and techniques for getting more done.
Productivity isn’t everything though. It’s not about quantity, but quality; about working smarter, not harder. Whatever your goal, whether it’s to get promoted, spend more time with your family or pass your exams, it’s useful to know how to apply your mind effectively to the challenges facing you.
IMPROVING YOUR PRODUCTIVITY
Productivity is not one unified discipline: techniques often work for one kind of task but not for others. At its heart, though, there is one important question: what helps your mind perform at its best? Which factors can help you get your mind into the best possible shape to think and work, and apply it effectively to your to-do list?
Everyone is different, but based on recent psychological research, and what people say works for them, here are a few principles of productivity that can help you achieve more with your time.
1. Find your motivation
However smart or knowledgeable you are, you won’t get very far unless you can apply your mind to what you’re doing. Continually reminding yourself why you need to do something takes energy – energy that could be better spent on getting things done.
What you really want is to reach a state where you don’t need to force yourself, where action feels easy. We call this state of productive energy “motivation”. To be productive, you have to find the personal connection and excitement in what you are doing, so that doing it feels easy and frictionless.
2. Learn to concentrate
Constant interruptions, too much information and the ever-present buzz of smartphones: the modern world can be pretty destructive to our concentration. With so many things competing
for our attention, the second principle of productivity is focusing your mind. When you focus your conscious mind on a task, everything else seems to fade into the background, a bit like a mental spotlight. The trouble is, you can also have your attention pulled elsewhere, drawn to something nearby, such as a movement or a sound, or remembering something you’d forgotten. According to the cognitive psychologists Maurizio Corbetta and Gordon Shulman, these two kinds of attention are separate systems in the brain. There is one pathway for concentration, another for distraction. The main purpose of this second attention system is to keep you safe: you can be absorbed in a task, but your mind is still scanning for threats. The skill of concentration, then, is not to allow your focused attention to be interrupted by these distractions, particularly when you are feeling tired, stressed or anxious. You need to strengthen the system for focus, and calm the system for watching your surroundings.
3. Manage energy, not time
The problem with time management is that no matter how good you are at concentration, you can only sustain it for a short while. Eventually, your mind will get tired and your productivity will drop. Time management fails to solve our productivity problems because not all time is equally productive. So the third principle of productivity is to manage energy, not time. What matters is not how much time you spend on a task, but how much energy you are able to give to it. In psychology, this is sometimes known as “relevance theory”. Put simply, your mind is instinctively lazy. It wants to save energy, by prioritizing things according to their relevance: the maximum return for the minimum amount of thought. Using your conscious mind is tiring. Controlled thought uses energy much faster than more mindless, automatic tasks, so when you are tired, it gets harder to be thoughtful, and you are more likely to fall back on old habits, lazy thinking and instinctive reactions. This is fine for simple tasks, but it’s no good for complex or analytic work. To maximize your productivity, then, you have to manage your mental energy, focus on what matters, take regular breaks, and make sure your mind is in a good state to work effectively. You can point your mind in the right direction,
but you won’t go far without fuel in the tank.
4. Say no
One of the biggest sources of stress is having too many tasks and too little time. This is why the fourth principle of productivity is learning to say no. Saying yes is a habit. Before you can think about a task, your mind is already off and running, imagining how you might do it, how long it would take, and so on. Your mind has already started working on it before you’ve even decided if it’s worth doing. If it’s just a time waster, you don’t want to spend energy thinking about it. Whenever you are asked to do something, first think about why you should do it. Ask why the task matters, what the point of it really is. Think about your motivations, the values and incentives that drive you, and ask what would happen if you didn’t do it. If there are no serious negative consequences to saying no, then cross it off your list. It’s difficult to break the habit of saying yes, but doing less is a part of achieving more. In many professions, the difference between the highest performing people isn’t what they do, it’s what they don’t do. In fact, the investor Warren Buffett said that, in his experience, the difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.
5. Build good habits
Not all productivity has to be thoughtful. We run most of our lives on automatic pilot. Your unconscious mind is always active, always engaged. Anything that you do regularly, your mind remembers how to do it. Practise it enough, and you can do it without thinking – freeing your conscious mind up to be even more productive. So the fifth principle of productivity is to build good habits. Your mind doesn’t care what it learns: it just repeats whatever you give it. You can turn this to your advantage by using your conscious mind to train your unconscious mind. Learning new skills takes work, but once they are automated your mind stores these new patterns so you can do them without needing to concentrate. Think about the skills and behaviours you need to practise, and work toward them. Make time in your week to practise these skills, and after long enough you will find yourself doing them naturally. Try to build your routine to focus on positive habits and avoid negative ones. Otherwise you may end up with a mind that is perfectly adapted to a life you don’t want to have.
FINDING THE BALANCE
Many of these principles are easy to explain, but hard to do. Productivity takes discipline, at least at first, and you won’t transform your level of productivity overnight. But if you put the hours into practising the principles, you will see your productivity improve, and eventually you will notice that you have become quietly brilliant at getting things done.
Getting things done isn’t an end in itself, though. The danger with our modern obsession with efficiency is that we risk doing the wrong things faster. Getting to Inbox Zero isn’t much good if it comes at the cost of your health or relationships.
Resist the temptation to define yourself by how much you do. Instead, think about what you’ve achieved. Are the things on your to-do list really going to benefit you? Being productive at the wrong things is an efficient way to waste time.
Productivity, like efficiency, is just a means to an end. It’s good to save time on tasks, but
your goal shouldn’t be to have an efficient life, speeding from birth to death as quickly as
possible. Life is meant to be unproductive. The inefficiencies tend to be the best bits.
Getting things done takes effort. It is a daily struggle to keep on top of things, stay motivated, focus your mind and get stuff done. Don’t waste it. Ask yourself what you’re willing to struggle for, and when you have it, enjoy it.
To find out more from the speakers at the Chivas Venture Accelerator Programme, read our Day 1 blog here.