There’s a misconception that working in an office means combing through endless emails while clutching the phone in one hand and scribbling notes in the other. There are better, more productive ways for people to spend their work day. It took me multiple degrees and several careers to realize I needed to optimize my process by working smarter, not harder.
When I joined ShopKeep, I found myself booked in back-to-back meetings from morning until night. That left little time to focus on completing tasks. My previous experiences had made me believe I was a strong multitasker, but this new venture taught me there’s truly no such thing. According to psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, “It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once. You could not compute the product of 17 x 24 while making a left turn into dense traffic, and you certainly should not try.”
To increase daily productivity, you need to learn how to focus on one task at a time. It’s pointless to try to do everything at once. Fortunately, a few key tactics can boost productivity and sharpen your overall ethic.
Make a to-do list.
When you’re working a full-time job, mornings and evenings might be the only components of the day under your control. Take advantage of this time by staying organized and pinpointing daily priorities. Clear and Evernote are two apps that allow users to create a checklist of tasks. Creating an in-app list before bed allows you to clear your head while sufficiently planning ahead. During sleep, your brain processes and prioritizes some of these tasks even though you don’t realize you are thinking about them.
Every morning, I review and edit my list before executing any of the tasks. This prevents me from prioritizing someone else’s to-do list over my own — which is exactly what happens when I start my day responding to emails. This practice also applies to meetings. Preparing an agenda ahead of time lays out goals and objectives, keeps the team on track, minimizes distractions and leads to a more productive conversation for the entire group.
Multitasking divides your attention. If you stretch yourself too thin, you’ll feel ineffective and frustrated because you’ve focused on the product over the process. The anxiety you feel when procrastinating is caused by pain in the insular cortex portion of the brain. It sends warning signals that cause stress as you worry about the end product. Think instead of one task and the process you need to accomplish that goal, and you’ll experience that anxious feeling less often. Not surprisingly, directing less mental energy to stressors ultimately helps you increase overall efficiency and achieve more.
You can start reforming your work habits by using a conditioning method known as the Pomodoro Technique, developed by entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo. The technique teaches practitioners to focus in short intervals and work with time, not against it. It’s fairly straightforward: Devote your thoughts to one activity for a 25-minute interval. Set a timer so you can glance at it periodically for motivation. Then, take a five-minute break before you start another 25-minute cycle. These short, simple sessions provide the optimal time frame to concentate on individual tasks and enforce a process-oriented approach.
Focus, focus, focus. …
Tools such as the Pomodoro Technique become null and void if you fail to block out internal and external distractions. Your culprits might be chatty coworkers, social media, emails, a quick check on the game score — the list goes on. Don’t be reactive. To fully avoid temptation, silence your phone, turn off notifications and download applications that help you manage your incoming messages. Inbox Pause lets you put emails temporarily on hold. If you’re eager to read an interesting article, drop it in the Pocket app, which stores content for later viewing.
It’s critical to reserve some time to focus, free of interruption. Whether you prefer early in the morning or late at night, find time and commit to it. Immersing yourself in your own goals empowers you to start the day with a more positive state of mind and end it with a sense of accomplishment, regardless of how events unfold in-between.
… and then break it!
It’s unrealistic to demand daylong, dedicated focus. That’s why the Pomodoro Technique and other time-management systems incorporate frequent breaks. These reprieves allow your mind to rest and shift to a diffused mode. They reward you for concentrating. When it’s time to break focus, do all the things that otherwise would have functioned as distractions. Go for a walk, meditate, have meetings with coworkers, check your email or read articles stored in the Pocket app. Such breaks are essential to building willpower and recuperating.
Recognize you don’t need to do everything at once in order to make the most of your day. In fact, you can’t. Make a clear to-do list, embrace productivity tools and devise ways to focus on individual tasks more efficiently. With a little practice, you’ll be surprised by how much you can accomplish.