How to Lose the Spare Tyres Killing Your Productivity
I recently wrote a well received article on why most companies run like crap - an mnemonic for consensus seeking, hyper-responsiveness, availability and process paralysis.
But individuals are complicit.
When it comes to our work, many of us are carrying around spare tyres that slow us down and sacrifice our potential in a big way, and yes, tyres is a mnemonic too.
T: Task Switching
What we call multitasking is in actuality, task switching, and after a notification has forced us to switch between tasks, it can take us about 23 minutes to get back to the task at hand, according to a study from University of California Irvine. Take this number, consider that the average executive touches their phone 2,617 times a day, checks emails 74 times a day and receives 46 smartphone notifications a day, and it’s likely that most executives never spend any time in flow at all.
Y: Saying Yes
We say yes to all sorts of nonsensical requests on our time, without giving it a second thought. Another one-hour meeting even though my workload is already excessive? Sure, no problem. While there might be something to be said about cultivating time and space for serendipity, each time you say yes to something or someone, you’re saying no to everything else, and that often includes your own priorities. As the Roman philosopher Seneca put it, “people are frugal with their money but careless with their time”, but time, unlike money, cannot be earned back once you spend it.
R: Residual Work
As the chart below shows, performers stop when great work has been delivered. Bust most people stop long after great work has been delivered, spending a disproportionate amount of time on residual work, and effectively wasting time. Think spending four hours preparing a client proposal, and another four hours tweaking and playing around with the formatting.
E: Taking the Path of Least Effort
We are biologically predisposed to taking the path of least effort in order to conserve energy. This manifests in our sitting down to our work and spending an hour checking and responding to email, browsing LinkedIn or scrolling through our Twitter feeds, instead of getting started on that high level task that actually requires us to apply some cognition.
S: Shallow Work
We tend to spend too much time on shallow work - work that is process-oriented and algorithmic, doesn’t move us considerably closer to our goals, and ultimately leaves us feeling busy all day with little to show for it. This is in contrast to deep work, where we are not only up to five times more productive, but also floods our brains with a cocktail of positive neurochemicals, including dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. Not only that, but by spending time in flow we’re more likely to do great work and deliver outcomes, all of which is both rewarding and fulfilling.
So how do we lose the spare tyres then, and unlock our potential to do our best work?
Less Task Switching
- Turn off notifications on your desktop and smartphone to limit task switching
- Commit to working on only one thing at a time for set periods of time (eg. 20 minutes up to 60 minutes with short breaks in between)
- Close browser tabs, and consider using a tool like Blocksite or the Freedom app to block certain apps from being accessible
- Eliminate or reduce anything else that might be a distraction
Learn to Say No
Reflect on whether or not requests for your time could be better spent elsewhere. Consider what your hourly rate is, and mentally monetize requests on your time in your head. Doing this helps bridge our peculiar reasoning when it comes to being careless with our time but not with our money. Not only is there an immediate cost, but the opportunity cost of creating value elsewhere, over time and accounting for compounding, cannot be understated.
Stop at the Point of Diminishing Returns
Develop a healthy relationship with the point of diminishing returns. It can be easy to work on a task long after we’ve delivered most of the value, because by that point, well...it’s easy. But by being honest with yourself, you can not only free up valuable time to invest in higher value tasks, but simply take time out to live life instead of lull yourself into a false sense of productivity and self-importance.
Commit to the Smallest Possible Unit of Work
We can beat procrastination and our tendency to take the path of least effort by committing to the smallest possible unit of important work. For example, if I find myself spending too much time on Twitter when I should be writing a 2,000 word article, I could just commit to writing 100 words. This is a lot less insurmountable for my mind to process and get started with.
And it just so happens that the amount of energy required to keep working on a task once that task is already in motion is a lot less than what’s required to get started in the first place.
This is essentially Isaac Newton’s first law of motion in play. It’s also why bestselling author, Ben Mezrich, likes to stop writing in the middle of a sentence, so when he sits down to his work the next day, he finishes the sentence and he’s already writing.
The more you get into the habit of doing this, the more it becomes your modus operandi.
Free Up Time for Deep Work
Not only does committing to the smallest unit of high value work help us do more of it, but we can free up our time for more deep work by automating and outsourcing away all of the shallow level process-oriented work that permeates our workdays. Nowadays, numerous tools are available that cost a pittance - such as Zapier and IFTTT - which can automate all manner of step-by-step tasks.
If it can’t be automated, it can likely be delegated away for US$10 an hour in many cases, leaving you free to focus on applying your cognition to more important work. If you value your time at more than $100 an hour but find yourself doing work that someone will happily do for $10, then every hour you continue to spend on said task is costing you $90.
By being more intentional about how we work, we can in some cases become orders of magnitude more productive, bringing us orders of magnitude more closer to our goals.
Download the first chapter of my forthcoming book, Time Rich: Do Your Best Work, Live Your Best Life, here.