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A Productive Life is a Happy Life.
“I’m so busy right now, I’ve got -like- a thousand emails to respond to.”
Said with a proud smirk: “I put in a 100-hour week last week. Just lived off coffee, pizza slices & shining a bright white light into my retinas every 5 minutes. Probably gonna be the same this week.”
If that is you, you are a moron. If that’s a colleague, please tell them that they are a moron.
Below I will explain why those sort of actions are moronic by concisely defining what productivity is, why it is important & offering 5 actionable steps to move towards a more productive — and therefore happier - future.
What is productivity?
We talk about it, techniques to achieve it, the importance of it, but very rarely do we actually stop, think and assess what it is.
Many people see efficiency as the goal.
Completely a task as quickly as possible, organising their emails as fast as they can. A team, however, with the best email responder or best spreadsheet organiser in the world will not bring you success.
The aim when trying to be more productive is to be more effective.
Ask yourself the following:
How is everything you do contributing towards your goal?
Is this the best use of your time to help you achieve that goal?
As an individual? As a team?
In order to actually become more productive, we need to:
a) Think deeply about what we should be doing to achieve our goals. Explore all of your options. Assess every action you do.
b) Act. Too many people know what they should be doing, but don’t act to change their habits, change path, cut their losses on a task they have already started and invested time into.
Why is it important?
The argument many put forward — and the one you will likely have heard most often — is that productivity is important for your company.
The company, particularly a start-up, needs to move fast. If it doesn’t move fast, then it will miss its targets and fail to raise investment. If you’re not moving fast, then better funded, faster competition will quickly take over your market.
The average American worker (who, by the way, are more productive than their British counterparts), achieves only 90 minutes of productive work a day.
90 minutes out of 8+ you spend at the office!
No wonder companies stress the importance of productivity upon you.
However, the main reason that productivity is important is for personal happiness.
The more productive you are, the happier you are.
This is because of a concept called flow, coined by positive psychologist Csikszentmihalyi.
View the 18-minute Ted talk on the subject.
Essentially, flow is a state of heightened focus and immersion in activities such as art, play and work.
Whenever you are concentrating with zero distraction and feeling positivity or enjoyment from that task, then you are in flow.
Csikszentmihalyi sees flow as our happiest state. This is supported by his life-time’s work studying 8,000 subject, from, in his words, ‘Himalayan monks to Navajo shepherds’.
Personally, I get flow from things like designing, playing football, playing guitar or doing a presentation. I do not however, get flow from apathetically watching TV* or scrolling through Facebook.
Generally, flow can be found in more things than you probably realise. Cooking, reading, some types of work, even having sex.
Therefore the more flow you can achieve in life, the happier you will be.
This sounds pretty easy right?
The big problem is that for most people, they are unable to achieve flow during the main activity they perform in their life: work.
Internal distractions come in many forms:
Your own racing, confused thoughts
A desire to check Facebook, Instagram, etc.
The thought of just making a coffee and chatting to whoever else is in the kitchen
External distractions also prevent you achieving flow:
That meeting in 10 minutes
That friendly interruption: ‘Hi John, quick question: where did you put the sugar?’
The noise and general busy-ness of an office
Emails and Slack pinging off every 2 minutes
The list is endless.
But, there is hope. Tone down all of the distractions and you will find flow.
This doesn’t mean spending your day in silence or calling a witch-hunt on anyone that taps you on the shoulder whilst you’re working.
What it does mean is that fun should be separated from satisfaction.
Your coffee breaks and socialising are key for a healthy life, but schedule them outside of the times you are actually working.
Think of it like this: when are you actually present in those situations?
You’re chatting, but you’re thinking about the work you need to do. Or you’re not immersed in your work, so you’re thinking about having a coffee and a chat. You’re not enjoying either task as a result.
Without presence there is no flow.
5 Actionable Steps to Achieve Flow
Here are 5 habits that I use on a daily basis to achieve flow.
Remember that these work for me personally, so try them and see what works for you. Also remember that a habit takes 60 days to form, so stick with it!
I have divided them into two groups:
a) Deep-thinking: Techniques I use to determine what tasks I should be doing and to revisit my goals.
b) Action: Techniques I use to achieve my goals.
1) Daily meditation:
First thing in the morning I will have a quick cold shower and spend 10 minutes meditating.
I use the 10-minute sessions on the app Headspace to relax, clear my thoughts and start the day with a lot of energy and purpose.
N.B. For those thinking meditation is only for ‘spiritual’ people, they are wrong. Quote on pill/medication
2) Daily journal:
As soon as I sit down to start my work day (usually after meditation), I will write a 5-minute journal post (see example below). This is made up of the following:
a) The One Thing: What one thing can I achieve today that will contribute towards my goal in life? I will then complete that task first to make sure the distractions of life mean its left uncompleted.
b) Lesson learnt: Write down something that I learnt that day (or the day before), be it a personal lesson, an extract from a book or a quote.
c) Diary: Just free-flow writing on anything and everything. This can be on what I did the day before, my thoughts on my own thoughts, writing about something that made me happy/sad, ideas for an article, expanding upon my ‘Lesson Learnt’ section.
I cannot reiterate this enough. Do all the thinking and ‘knowing’ you want, but just put it into action. Never say I would like to try meditation. Just try it.
3 simple steps:
1) Work in 90-minute blocks
The human body works in cycles of 90-minutes, so realise your limitations as a human and learn how to best use your biology.
No-one can work for 8 straight hours and generally become less productive and less motivated.
I break up my day into 4x 90-minute blocks. Each block is a period where I work with zero distractions: no phone, no notifications, no internet (if possible) and in a space where I know no-one will interrupt me.
I will then aim to achieve one task within each block, sometimes 2–3. It really depends on the type of work you do. As a designer, I usually work in big chunks. If you have 10+ things to do, then it’s still applicable. Break down your tasks and work through that list within the 90 minutes.
The most important task will always go first.
2) A Strict To-Do List
Linked to the above, I will use Trello to breakdown each day of the week. the 4x 90-minute blocks form the core. I will then add every other task I need to do that day to the list, even things like gym, lunch or calling your grandparents.
Not only does this give you better structure, but it also means you don’t need to worry about remembering anything. Humans are terrible at remembering things, where as Trello won’t forget a thing.
I find this also clears my head considerably, as you have fewer things floating around in there.
I will try and fight the desire to keep adding to my list. If I finish all of my to-do list early then great, go and reward yourself by doing whatever hobbies you enjoy. Don’t keep adding to the list.
3) Avoid Meetings
If you have to have a meeting, make sure that whoever has called that meeting can justify it.
If it’s something you can resolve via email or
Slack, then always do that.
If you’re going to meet, set an agenda. This can be one you share or just spending 2 minutes pre-meeting jotting down the things you need to discuss.
Always set a time. People will arbitrarily choose 30-minutes or 1 hour. Squeeze it down to 15 minutes if possible or at least let the other person know that your time is limited to the pre-agreed time period.
If you like the person, then just go for a coffee at another time. Don’t talk about work. This is your social time.
If you feel rude, just say to them, ‘Look, let’s get this done ASAP and then go for a coffee to chat, as we will need a break.’
If this resonates with you and you want to make changes in your team or company, then call a (strictly time-limited, agenda-focused) meeting and agreed on an informal social contract.
Maybe agree on silence between 9:30–11:00 and 11:15–12:45?
Maybe set guidelines for why and when to have meetings?
Whatever you do, you need everyone on board.
You also need them to understand that this is not primarily for the company.
Productivity is for their well-being.