Do you often find your workday spiralling out of control? You start each day with a plan to get so much done, but soon find yourself becoming distracted, focusing on low-priority tasks and procrastinating. How can you regain control of your time?
One-size-fits-all lists on how to be more productive don’t work, so we’ll outline productivity techniques that can be adapted to your personality and working style.
Use the three basic principles of productivity to help guide you through your workday.
All workers and workdays are unique. With fewer companies and employees adhering to a traditional 9-to-5 day, the differences in our workdays are becoming more pronounced. But putting those differences aside, three overarching ideas apply to all our productivity tips:
1. Trust the small increments
You can’t expect to change years of working habits overnight. Small changes in how you work can gradually add up to big changes in productivity. Try one tip to start and keep adding more as you find the strategies that work best for you.
2. Be accountable
Whether it is weekly check-ins with a co-worker or setting your own deadlines and announcing them to others, having to answer to someone else can often force you to get the job done.
3. Forgive yourself
You are human. Accept that you are sometimes going to slip up, become distracted and have a bad day. It is more important to move on than to dwell on your mistakes.
For the multitasker
If you’re trying to do three things at once, you’re often accomplishing very little.
• A biological impossibility
Think you can get more done by juggling multiple tasks at the same time? Try calling your co-worker while typing an e-mail and checking your Facebook page. You may feel as if you’re being productive, but you’re probably not getting any of those tasks done efficiently.
We all have a limited amount of cognitive bandwidth, the number of thoughts and memories we can hold in our minds at any given time. Your brain may delude itself into thinking that it has more capacity than it really does, but it is really working extra hard to handle multiple thoughts at once when you are switching back and forth between tasks. Your ability to get things done depends on how well you can focus on one task at a time, whether it is for five minutes or an hour.
“Multitasking is not humanly possible,” said Earl K Miller, a neuroscience professor.
• More errors and less creativity
When you multitask, you tend to make more mistakes. When you toggle back and forth between tasks, the neural networks of your brain must backtrack to figure out where they left off and then reconfigure, he said. That extra activity causes you to slow down and errors become more likely.
“People are much more efficient if they monotask,” he said.
Trying to multitask also impedes creativity, he said. Truly innovative thinking arises when we allow our brain to follow a logical path of associated thoughts and ideas. This is possible when we can focus on a single mental pathway for an extended period.
The brain is like a muscle. It becomes stronger with use, Miller said. As with physical exercise, the more we strengthen our mental connections by focusing on one task to the exclusion of all others, the better we can perform.
How to monotask
Try to set up a work environment that encourages performing of one task at a time. It is probably not realistic to think that we can block off hours at a time for a single task, but even committing to monotask for five minutes can yield productivity benefits.
Here are a few small changes you can make:
• Remove temptation
Actively resist the urge to check unrelated social media while you are working on a task. Some workers may need to go as far as installing anti-distraction programmes that block access to the most addictive parts of the internet for specified periods.
Work on just one screen. Put away your cellphone and turn off your second monitor.
If you find yourself losing focus such as reading the same sentence over and over or if your mind continually wanders off topic, get up and briefly walk around, Miller said. A brief walk around your office can lift your mood, reduce hunger and help you refocus.
• Work in intervals
Set a timer for five or 10 minutes and commit to focusing on your assignment for that amount of time. Then allow yourself a minute of distraction, as long as you get back on your task for another five or 10 minutes.
When distractions take over
The tendency to become distracted is primal, so forgive yourself if you do. It arose in our earliest days as humans, when we needed to respond instantly to lions, tigers and other predators that threatened us, said Miller. Every sensory input was deeply interesting and our response to it was sometimes a matter of life or death. Our brain has not let go of this ancient survival mechanism. We still crave that informational tap on the shoulder, he added.
Fortunately, the more we work on focusing on one task at a time and ignoring distractions, the more we exercise the prefrontal cortex – the more evolved part of our brains. Then it becomes easier to focus.
For the procrastinator
Accountability, whether it is to yourself or to another person, can be crucial to your productivity.
• Be accountable
To fight procrastination, find an accountability partner. This can be a colleague or a manager, whose role is to receive regular progress reports on your project. The person you choose will have to take his or her role seriously, expressing disappointment if you have not achieved your goal and appreciation if you have.
Some inveterate procrastinators even agree on a set of rewards or punishments to go with their deadlines, depending on what motivates them the most. A reward could be a free lunch, while punishment could be an email to the department announcing that a deadline was not met.
Stay on track
To-do lists work to keep you accountable because they help you stay on the path to getting your most important work done – if you use them effectively, that is.
Before you leave work for the day, make a list of five to eight goals that you would like to accomplish the following day, said Julie Morgenstern, a time management expert. On a separate list, add any personal errands that need to be done that day. That list should contain no more than two or three items.
Be realistic about what you can accomplish in a day of work. Resist the urge to make a to-do list for the whole week, which can leave you feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
Make the items on your to-do list specific, realistic and simple. Don’t secretly pack eight or 10 tasks inside one huge item, like “Finish project”. Instead, break your project into small, separate components.
• To-do list disadvantages
Because our primal mind craves distraction, the classic to-do list can prevent interruptions from taking over your day. But human beings are also vulnerable to so-called “structured procrastination”, where in order to avoid working on a hard task, they spend time on a much easier one. Answering an email or liking a post on Facebook can be a form of structured procrastination.
Writing your to-do list can also be a form of structured procrastination. So, give yourself five minutes or less to write a to-do list each morning. Keep it focused and short, so you’re not spending more time checking off items than actually completing them.
• List keepers
Some people like to keep their lists on paper, making emphatic and satisfying checkmarks whenever they complete a task. Others prefer the computer route
To avoid confusion, pick either paper or digital for your lists because it can be hard to manage both.
This article first appeared in The New York Times.