What is stopping us from being effective at work? Is poor time management our greatest enemy? Or is it the incursion of digital distraction into parts of our minds (and days) that should be set aside for focused thought? Perhaps it is a disastrous mixture of the two.
Searching for advice for those who want to work more productively in 2017, the Financial Times has rounded up tips and techniques for how best to attack both problems from some of the world’s most celebrated productivity mavens.
Some of their advice is wise, others eccentric and some downright puritanical. Many, even those who tackle today’s fears of information tech overload, have their roots in the goal-setting and measurement methods of Benjamin Franklin, the western world’s original self-improvement expert (see box below).
All the techniques on our list are worth considering for a more effective, less harassed, new year.
Do you have tips and techniques for dealing with digital distraction? Post them in the comments section below — we will showcase the best and most original suggestions.
Stay focused and get offline
While researching and writing this article I may well have spent several hours on Twitter. Big mistake, says Daniel Levitin, author of The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.
Speaking to the FT while working out on an elliptical trainer, Mr Levitin recommends strict rationing of social media, a separate urgent email account to filter out unnecessary communication and, above all, constant self-insulation from distractions.
“Each of us needs to set our own priorities and not allow the external world to set them for us,” he says. “It’s so easy to become interrupted by a lot of shiny new digital things, a new email, a new tweet, a new thumbs-up on Facebook. All these things serve as distractors and they are ways in which the outside world is telling you what to pay attention to.
“You are better off deciding that yourself — and one way to do that is to make a break with being online all day.”
Cal Newport, author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted Worldand an evangelist for unbroken periods of concentration on his Study Hacks blog, agrees. He suggests that even those who need social media for work, and enjoy it, should cut back.
No distractions: Cal Newport
“Delete the application from your smartphone and only access the services through your web browser,” he suggests. “One of my main concerns about social media is the lengths the major companies go to engineer their products to be addictive. This addiction can ruin your ability to concentrate deeply in the times where your career depends on it.
“This engineering, however, is most prominent in the phone applications, so if you access the services through the website, you sidestep those dangers.”
Early rising: 5am jogging versus power naps
Many time management and effectiveness best-sellers push the virtues of an early start. Laura Vanderkam, author of What The Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast, draws on numerous examples of those who are at the gym before 5am, boosting their energy and finding inner calm for the day ahead — including herself.
In the book, she writes about rearranging mornings to be up earlier, out on the running trail and “getting a jump on the day”. Ms Vanderkam told the FT this means curtailing “undirected” evenings.
“Often it would be possible to go to bed an hour early and get up an hour earlier and turn that into productive morning time,” she says. “We tend to have more energy in the morning: that makes it a good time for exercise, a good time to write that novel.
“I’m not saying you should be sleep deprived, I’m saying go to bed earlier . . . most people aren’t spending the time before they go to bed in any particularly valuable way.”
Mr Levitin agrees that sleep is important, but offers an alternative way to reset the brain: try turning it off and on again.
“For people who can take naps, there’s a rich and deep neuroscientific literature on the benefits — a 15-minute nap can be the equivalent of an extra hour’s sleep the night before.
“I take a nap every afternoon, I have a couch in my office. My naps tend to be five to 15 minutes, they are true power naps and I wake up completely refreshed.”
Setting goals (not setting yourself up to fail)
For Monique Valcour, executive coach and management academic, new year resolutions can backfire unless they focus on realistic goals.
“Decide on the one single thing you want to accomplish,” she suggests. “If you have a list with 20 items on it, you will be lucky to achieve two. So pick one, and put a timeline on it.
“We need to be realistic and gentle with ourselves, not tough — we are not in our own private army training camp. People say set stretch goals but that isn’t how motivation works.
“If you have one firm goal, then break it down into tiny sub-goals and you can then do it every day if possible — that way you can build momentum and form habits.”
Mr Levitin adds that the most daunting tasks need this step-by-step approach, too: “Sometimes we procrastinate because we don’t know where to start,” he says.
“A friend of mine had an item on her to-do list for months: figure out whether it’s time to put Aunt Sophie in a rest home. She didn’t know where to start. That’s not an actionable to-do item.
“If you break it into little parts — like, talk to Aunt Sophie; talk to Aunt Sophie’s doctor; visit homes in the area; talk to other family members — those are things you can put on your calendar.”
Time measurement for better time management
There are two ways to measure how effectively you use time. The first is to log your days to understand better how you are (mis)spending them.
Ms Vanderkam, who tracks all her half-hour blocks of time on a spreadsheet, says: “Almost everything except basic life maintenance is, in the long run, negotiable.
“Work is often less of our time than we feel it is. The point is not to be precisely tracking every minute, it is to get a good idea of where the time goes. I have had hundreds of people do this — even the busiest people can find some time that can be redeployed. A lot of people have little idea what they did between 8pm and 11pm.”
If you lose track of things or miss deadlines this can hurt you professionally
Ms Vanderkam believes this technique can prevent burnout as well as improve productivity. “When people do keep track of their time, they find there’s a lot that can be spent on downtime if they want.
The real enemy, she says, is “the default stuff like pottering round the house, watching TV — it’s not really helping us and it makes us feel like we have no time”.
Tracking progress (or lack of it)
The second time-related step is finding a way to measure your progress in making good on resolutions. Mr Newport, because of his day job as an academic, believes in scheduling and then recording the amount of time he spends in a state of immersive, intense concentration. He has recently moved to a system of setting aside thinking time weeks in advance.
“The human brain generates a certain amount of energy every day,” he says. “If you can control how this energy is aimed . . . you can get a lot more results than if you let your professional life unfold haphazardly.
“I’m careful to schedule when I’m going to think deeply, and put in a lot of preliminary thought into what I should be thinking deeply about. I am also pretty ruthless about batching the shallower (but still necessary) tasks to tackle in big, efficient groups.”
For Ms Valcour, a goal or aspiration is a problem while it remains “disembodied”. “So just get a notebook, or an app, and make a note of what you do and what the impact is,” she advises. “Then build some sort of ritual so that you invest in this project every day.”
The inescapable to-do list: gumption required
Mr Newport, for all his focus on what he calls “deep productivity”, points out that “shallow productivity” also merits attention. “This is about collecting, organising and completing on time the various obligations that arise in your professional life,” he says.
“This is important. If you lose track of things or miss deadlines this can hurt you professionally.”
Mr Levitin believes in old fashioned stationery — including a to-do list that can be easily shuffled, assessed and reprioritised (he suggests index cards).
“The neuroscience suggests it’s better to do [your to-do list] on paper because it requires deeper neural processing to write something down in longhand than to type it.
“Your phone and your computer are used for a lot of different things, that piece of paper is just your to-do list and it’s easier to keep track of things when they’re visually distinct.
“If you’ve got something on your to-do list for more than a week or two, it might be worth trying to work out why you haven’t done it yet. Sometimes it’s boring — and there the trick is do it first thing in the morning when your gumption is at its greatest.”
Motivation and self-flagellation
If by now you are losing the will to pursue any of these strategies, allow Mr Newport to remind you why you sought them in the first place. Here is his reply to the FT’s slightly rebellious question about the sadomasochistic tone of so many productivity guides:
“Many people assume the self-disciplined quest for increased productivity is a bit of a drag as compared to just taking life as it comes. But in my experience, people often find a great satisfaction in the idea that they’re making the most of their talents.
“We crave self-mastery and effectiveness more than absence of discomfort.”