Who is the most productive person you know? And what makes them that way?
Mine is a colleague who has a ‘habit’ – writing habit, that is. James (not his real name) is one of those prolific writers with an enviably long list of academic publications and successful research grant applications. His secret? According to him, there is no secret. He just ‘gets on with it’. Indeed, the very word ‘productivity’ sets his teeth on edge and makes him scowl.
The most productive people we know probably have this in common: they spend more time thinking about what to do than how to be more efficient.
Here’s how you can do the same:
1. Start with your goals
What do you want to achieve? Really achieve. Not today. Not tomorrow. But in three or five years’ time. Where do you want to be?
Next, start planning your route. What do you need to do to get there? Break your goals down into projects, or cohesive, but manageable elements. Chances are your list will contain several projects.
Now, take each project and do the same thing. Break it down until you have a list of activities that, once accomplished, will enable you to say you’ve achieved that particular goal. Make sure each project’s goal is tied to your overall timescale.
Identify what you need to do to complete each project. Place these tasks into the most effective order, from start to finish, so that you can make the best use of your time. These tasks form the basis of your weekly/daily to-do lists.
2. Put things in perspective
Productivity is about doing things efficiently. For researchers, that means focusing on tasks that will move you closer to achieving your goals. Irrelevance, distraction, unimportance, these are the enemies of productivity. They drain your resources and leave your to-do list in the same or worse state than when you made it, so you wind up drifting ever further from your goals.
How can you regain or maximize focus?
If you haven’t reviewed your goals in a while, do this first. Priorities change. Be honest with yourself about how realistic your goals are. Decide where you really want to focus and start there.
Run your daily/weekly to-do lists through the Stephen Covey’s (1989) time management matrix. (I like to think of it as a ‘shape sorter’ for adults.) The important but non-urgent tasks are where you need to focus to make real progress and move closer to your goals. You don’t have to tackle them all at once. Just pick one. Once you’ve achieved that, move on to another. If you really can’t decide which one to choose, close your eyes and stick a pin in the list. Wherever it lands, go with it. Focus requires a commitment to one thing at a time.
Try to increase the amount of time you spend focused on any one activity. According to Daniel Goleman (2013), the ability to focus attention differentiates high performers from everyone else, particularly in distraction-filled environments. Practice can increase your attention span, so by training yourself to focus for longer, you may be able to increase your productivity.
With free software, such as Tomighty, you can even tap into your body’s natural energy cycle by setting a timer and working on one thing for 90 minutes.
For more inspiration, take a look at Chris Bailey’s (2016) chronicle of the year-long experiments he did on himself to learn more about how to get the most out of his attention span and energy, including discovering his ‘biological prime time’. I’m not suggesting you go to the same lengths as Chris, but you don’t have to because he shares some fascinating insights, including the rule of three and even tips to distract yourself from distraction.
It is a harsh truth, but to become more efficient, at some point you just have to get on and do the things that matter. No excuses. How you choose to spend your 24 hours a day is, for the most part, exactly that. Your choice. There may be times when the only way to achieve your goals is to get up earlier, stay up later, turn off the TV, phone, internet and say ‘no’ to whatever is going to stop you getting the job done.
That feeling of satisfaction you get from accomplishing something important – getting that paper written, submitting that grant application, finishing that course – is not only hard to beat, it motivates you to do more, so you can have that fabulous feeling of achievement again and again.
So, what are you waiting for?
Take that first step right now.
References and resources
Bailey, Chris (2016) The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More by Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy, Crown Business/Penguin Random House.
Covey, Stephen R (1989) The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, London.
Goleman, Daniel (2013) Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, HarperCollins, New York.