The secret to increasing productivity isn’t necessarily doing more.
In fact, if we do more and keep doing more, we might find that we are less productive and more stressed.
So, how do we increase productivity without feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and in a fight or flight response?
I’ve been helping teams and individuals with this for years, as well as, experimenting with my own personal productivity formulas.
Here are my non-negotiables each week that support me in being productive, creative and calm.
Uninterrupted Time (Deep Work)
The idea of deep and shallow work was developed by Cal Newport, who suggested that deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task (2016). Newport defines the term deep work as ‘Activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.’ On the other hand, shallow work is work we do that doesn’t require high concentration levels, such as answering emails and responding to messages. Shallow work is performed in a state of distraction, often with many minor focuses or tasks happening simultaneously. Deep work, is where the focus is directed at one area of work without distraction.
Deep work is a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. However, most of us spend the majority of our time in shallow work. In an ever-increasingly connected world, it can be challenging to be able to find time to concentrate without interruptions or distractions. Most remote teams have lost the ability to go deep, spending their days instead in a frantic blur of email and notifications, not even realizing there’s a better way.
Bring awareness to how much time you’re currently spending on deep work every week. Ask yourself the question, where would deep work benefit you in your goals and priorities? For me, I block out several chunks of deep work every week- to create content, review and plan for my business, and work on client projects. Without deep work, I’d be scattered, unfocused, and overwhelmed. If you want to start but don’t know where to begin, start with 1 hour of deep work a week. Create a running list of ‘deep work’ tasks that makes it easy to get into the ‘flow’ when your deep work time begins.
Workload and Priority Management
If you’re not managing your tasks, priorities and projects in a centralized place, chances are you’re feeling overwhelmed. Feelings of overwhelm can lead to heightened stress, procrastination and even overworking habits that eventually can lead to burnout. Centralizing your workload is key. I use ClickUp, but there are tons of great tools out there that can support you. Start with your own tasks and projects and then consider team-based projects. Here are some groupings of tasks that can be assigned a start date, due date, and time allocation block (how much time will it take you to complete):
Daily tasks- are there recurring tasks you do every day?
Weekly tasks- are there recurring tasks you do each week?
Monthly tasks- are there recurring tasks you do each month?
Ad-hoc tasks- what has been assigned to you throughout the work week. Add everything in here and then prioritize based on the due date and level of urgency. (Spoiler: If you don’t know what the due date and level of urgency are- find out!)
Ideas list- I always have ideas, but sometimes too many ideas can leave me feeling distracted. Instead, I create a list of ideas that I add to every time I have a new concept. I review this once a week to determine what, if any, ideas I’d like to implement and by when. They are then moved to ad-hoc tasks.
In fast-paced environments, work and priorities are always changing. In this environment, we want to ensure that changes and pivots don’t impact our productivity. Taking 5 minutes at the end of each day to reflect on the following can help:
-What came up today that I need to add to my task board?
-What did I accomplish today?
-What do I want to accomplish tomorrow?
-What supported my well-being and productivity today?
-What didn’t and what needs to change tomorrow?
Finally, taking time at the end of the week to plan for the week ahead helps me relax into the weekend knowing that I have everything covered and planned. I usually take a deep work chunk of 30 minutes to do this for me and my team.
One habit that greatly impacts all workers across the board is taking breaks. In his research, economics professor John Pencavel found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week (Sehgal & Chopra, 2019). After 55 hours, productivity drops so much that putting in any more hours would be pointless. And, those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in the 55 hours. This statistic is usually a game-changer for the overworked employees I meet. It leads to epiphany moments and ‘ah-ha’ moments as to why their tried and tested strategies of trying to ‘work more hours don’t always work.
A 2011 study suggests that prolonged attention to a single task can hinder performance (Atsunori & Lleras 2010). Deactivating and reactivating your goals allows you to stay focused. The research found that, when faced with long tasks, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Not only does taking breaks refresh the mind and ease stress and exhaustion arising from working for long stretches, additional research indicates that taking regular breaks can increase creativity, innovation and ideas (Andrews, 2016). In summary, brief mental breaks increase productivity and performance.
My favourite type of breaks that I take depending on how much time I have and what I feel I need at the moment.
- Screen time breaks (5-15 minutes)
- Deep breathing/meditation breaks (5-10 minutes)
- Naps (15-60 minutes)
- Dog walking breaks (30-60 minutes)
- Lunch and fueling breaks (30-60 minutes)
Let me know below, how are you increasing productivity for yourself WITHOUT doing more?
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