Few people sail through their day according to their scheduled course. In fact, just 26% of us leave the office having accomplished all the tasks we set out to do. While intention and structure are essential for getting things done, even the best laid plans can still go awry. To take full charge of our productivity, we have to first take charge of ourselves – of our work environment, our focus and our ways of working. It means recognizing the ways we limit our own performance and making effective change to counter them.
Productivity = deep work
Of all the models around productivity, “deep work” has to be one of the simplest and most actionable. Simply put, it understands that we do our best work in a state of deep, uninterrupted concentration. This focus has to be sustained – you can’t carve up a day with meetings and tasks and expect to achieve any deep work.
Deep work stands in direct opposition to “shallow work”: the small, low-value tasks that keeps us busy without requiring much cognitive effort – and without really moving us forward either. Email, Slacks, admin, meetings – these shallow tasks often pepper our days, encouraging a habit of regular context switching which makes focus and presence on one task impossible.
Whenever we think of how our actions impact our productivity, it’s useful to use the deep work model – assessing whether we are creating the conditions for prolonged deep work, or fueling unproductive shallow working.
How you sabotage your productivity
1. Leaving yourself open to distraction
The digital workplace is full of distraction – from email push notifications and Slacks, to colleague tweaks to a collaborative document. Beyond this, your workplace itself can work against you, with noise, colleagues and movement all stalling your ability to focus. Aside from actually learning how to manage notifications settings across your apps and devices, create the optimal environment for deep work. That may be as simple as using Brain.fm to find productivity-boosting sound, getting Dewo to auto-trigger "Do Not Disturb" when you reach a flow state, relocating to a quieter office space, or setting up a remote working arrangement with your boss.
Obviously, we can also be very good at distracting ourselves; putting off a mountain of work to browse the web or check social media. But ultimately, procrastination is a symptom of bigger problems – whether feeling completely overwhelmed, needing to take a break or change your scene, or simply not being engaged with your work. Addressing the root cause of your procrastination can help you overcome potentially dangerous longer-term problems.
3. Shrugging off structure
Apart from being distracting, a messy workspace can actually cause anxiety which affect our cognitive behaviors and decision-making. But structure extends to mental space too, so mapping out breaks, periods for deep work and times for responding to email can help you stay on course. Time blocking is a great approach here, as it protects and carves out space for specific tasks. It’s all about being intentional with your time, with a simple, actionable structure for you to follow.
Agreeing to projects you don’t have time for or not looking ahead to the “bigger picture” work – like several rounds of iteration for client sign-off – will leave you overwhelmed, pulling your attention in all directions without actually dedicating your time to one thing in particular.Be realistic about how long tasks and new requests will take you, and ensure you factor it into a solid plan. Automatic task trackers are indispensable for this – laying out exactly how much time goes into different tasks, so you can plan ahead.
Drowning in work is poor for our mental health, and also prevents us from operating at our best. A huge backlog can make us worry about the volume of tasks still to conquer, instead of focusing fully on the task at hand. The work we produce when we’re anxious at work will often be laced with errors and uninspiring – which in turn can completely kill our passion and pride for our work.
Sounds counterintuitive, but think about it. When you’ve experienced a quieter moment at work, do you actually focus on your short to-do list? Or spend time doing unproductive things because the urgency is lessened? According to Parkinson’s Law, work expands to fit the time allotted to it – so make sure you aren’t inflating simple tasks when work is quiet. Find a happy medium - even if it’s jotting down a to-do list around what you never normally get round to. Segmenting your inbox, actually updating your Linkedin or downloading articles to Pocket is a great way to stay productive when you’re less busy.
Too many of us rush through our days without staying still for two minutes, believing we’re getting loads done. We’ll be jumping from a meeting to a call, cramming in 30 minutes of task busting or responding to emails, before heading on to another scheduled commitment. It’s a frantic, reactive form of working that usually isn’t aware of the actual value it’s producing. It’s peak shallow working – directionless, unrewarding and unproductive fire fighting.
Despite some strange taboos around having a break – whether that’s taking your full lunch hour or actually using your vacation time – no-one is above a little time off. Running on high-alert is cognitively expensive for our brains, so to maximize our mental processes we need to build in time where they aren’t focused on anything. Breaks don’t have to be huge to make a difference – just 5 or 15 minutes can be enough. That rest itself should be quality – not filled with passive digital interaction or trying to work through personal to-dos. Check out our tips on how to take more productive "deep breaks".