There are times when knowledge work seems never-ending. And in many ways, it is; no matter how many tasks you get through in a day, a steady flow of emails, notifications and reminders is quietly waiting for you. With work apps increasingly making their way onto our personal devices, work seeps into our consciousness out-of-hours, making us ever aware of the responsibilities we have yet to tackle. But if we are engaging and thinking about our work more than ever, why do we still not feel productive enough?
In an open-ended knowledge work environment, it’s hard to track concrete markers of progress. Few of us are given firm instructions on what needs to be done each day, and find ourselves spending inordinate amounts of time on communication and coordination. In the absence of clear deliverables, we often adopt a production-line approach to our work, understanding productivity in terms of quantity of output and trying to get as much done as is humanly possible.
Without clear boundaries, our work also tends to stray into our downtime, making it hard to ever feel like we’re “done” for the day, or that we ever achieve enough. Around 82% of us continue to check email outside of work, with one in three doing so at least once every hour. This always-on approach isn’t just mentally exhausting; it creates a guilt and anxiousness around our work which can seriously endanger our long-term wellbeing and professional confidence. So what can we do about it?
Working under such conditions, it’s easy to see why many people don’t feel productive enough. But ultimately, our problem is one of perspective; we simply need to change how we think about productivity. To start with, we need to use new approaches to assess the quality and impact of our work. Here are just a few practical ideas for going about it.
In our digital, hyper-connected world, many of us equate productivity with busyness. We respond to as many emails queries as we can, jump from meeting to meeting, and reply to Slack notifications the minute they land – but none of these things actually drive our goals forwards. We need to understand what we actually work on each day, grading our tasks according to their importance. Understanding the true hierarchy of value behind all our work helps know where our greatest impact lies.
Deep work is where you produce your best work. At its simplest, it means working with unbroken attention on one complex task for a specific period of time. It creates the intense, out-of-body kind of focus that pushes your cognitive capacities to their limits, producing a powerful and enduring sense of achievement. In a workplace that is increasingly dominated by shallow work, learning how to practice and improve your deep work skills is essential for staying productive.
Ever been side-tracked by an innocuous email request? Time blocking can help. By mapping out specific blocks of time to spend on different tasks, you can make sure your efforts stay relative to the value of your different tasks. So, you might time block an hour for a brainstorming workshop, and limit Slack and email to 30 minutes at the end of the day. Not only does it set a healthy pressure for working on mammoth tasks, it also helps contain low-value work that creeps into your day. Despite our best intentions, it’s easy to get wrapped up in trivial tasks that seem urgent – but time boxing your work will allow you to give each task the attention it deserves.
Unsurprisingly, we work better in an environment that is set up to support our productive attention. In essence, that means controlling for our biggest distractions: whether physical – like noise levels, colleagues and temperature; digital – like work tools, devices and apps; or psychological – like procrastination. There’s quite a lot to think about, but start with the obvious ones: find a quiet space, block unproductive websites, mute app notifications, embrace asynchronous and let people know set times of day when you will be available to help.
Knowledge work can’t be measured according to the physical units of production-line output; tasks simply can’t be so uniformly standardized or easily replicated. So we instead need to set specific goals to gauge the impact of our efforts during any given period. These goals can be short-term in nature, as when defining what you want to achieve with each deep work session – e.g. writing a certain number of pages or chapters, or coding a certain amount of modals. But it also applies for longer-term goals, such as wanting to have written a novel or published a website by the end of the year. No matter how small the goal, as long as we’re clear what it is, we’ll know when we’ve achieved it.