It happened again — 3:00 pm crept up on you and you still haven’t finished that budgeting project that you promised your supervisor would be done before tomorrow. The day has flown by... like a Canadian goose heading south for winter.
There are plenty of reasons why you weren’t able to complete the project in time. Constant emails, endless phone notifications, and ad-hoc meeting requests from your team are the usual culprits of pulling your attention in different directions and away from your most important work. You’re not alone in this attention war — the average smartphone user spends 2 hours and 15 minutes per day using apps. That’s equivalent to one month per year!
By putting your phone and email to do-not-disturb for a few hours per day, you could access the coveted “zone.” But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it?
Rather than bemoaning a lack of time, there are ways you can coach yourself to accomplish more in less time. Sociologist and productivity expert, Dr. Christine Carter, shares how you can convert busyness into productive and creative energy in her book, The Sweet Spot: How To Accomplish More By Doing Less.
Dr. Carter flips the assumption that more work equals more productivity on its head. We chatted with her to learn exactly what the sweet spot is and how to reach our highest productivity potential with ease.
The Route To The Sweet Spot
Trello: To kick it off, what’s the “sweet spot”? What are some ways you train your brain to get in the zone despite the constant demands on your time?
Christine: The “sweet spot” is the overlap between one’s greatest strength and greatest ease. Think of it like playing tennis. The sweet spot is the the point of optimum power that the player hits on the racket. The ball launches powerfully and easily to the other side of the court. When the ball is hit out of the sweet spot, there is a feeling of strain and resistance. The ball may get to the other side of the net, but it takes more effort and strength.
For me, the sweet spot feels like relaxed, focused attention. I’m totally present in my work and my brain is working at its highest potential. But the sweet spot is really hard to achieve, especially if you are a perfectionist like me. I was innately prone to put the most effort into every task, even shallow work.
My brain is pretty well trained now so I can allow myself to do deep, focused work without feeling the stress to finish shallow work, such as responding to emails. I’m at the point of hitting my sweet spot everyday because I intentionally set myself up to experience relaxed, focused attention.
You explain in your book that “busyness” is seen as a badge of honor as well as the price of admission to success. Yet, the tactics to cope with busyness, such as multitasking, backfire and throw us out of our groove. How can a person stop the hamster wheel of busyness?
Christine: There is a paradox. As soon as we are overwhelmed with our “busyness,” we lose our ability to manage time, but this is the exact moment we need to manage our time and priorities the most.
You can stop the hamster wheel of busyness with a really effective to-do list. The brain can only relax when it knows exactly when it will do something. So if something is worrying you, but you know when you are going to address it in the future, your brain unconsciously releases it and prevents it from interfering with your deep work. Sometimes it’s as simple as telling your brain when you will do something and following through with that commitment.
You can be the most organized person, but you will never complete your action items or reach the sweet spot if you’re interrupted. When you’re completing your tasks, you need to tackle them one at a time. You can’t tackle one then check your email before moving to the next task.
To get into the zone, build yourself a fortress against distraction. Close email for a significant part of the day and get noise cancelling headphones. Most people who follow these strategy can accomplish 2-3 times more work per day.
Obligations and to-do lists often pile up because it’s too difficult to say “no.” What’s a better way to prioritize?
Christine: Saying “no” is a really important skill. Think of it as a foreign language. Everyone can learn it, but it takes dedication and practice to become fluent. If you want to be truly productive, you have to speak the language of no.
Information, obligations, and work come at us fast and furiously. If you’re not good at saying no and bite off more than you can chew, you will eventually feel overwhelmed and will underperform.
I use a couple of tricks to say no. I imagine someone that I know who is very important, such as my friend, Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Big Short. I’ve watched how clearly he is able to say no when something isn’t aligned with his priorities.
I get many requests via email, so when I feel overwhelmed to respond, I imagine that someone like Michael probably doesn’t even respond to these inquiries. If something is not aligned with my priorities, then I don’t have to feel guilty about saying no or not responding, either.
That’s one of the most important parts of speaking the language of no – determining your priorities. I recommend identifying 5 priorities, then saying no to everything else that doesn’t align with them.
"Saying “no” is a really important skill. Think of it as a foreign language. Everyone can learn it, but it takes dedication and practice to become fluent. If you want to be truly productive, you have to speak the language of no."
How does a digital detox help with finding the sweet spot? Do you have a technology-free routine that’s improved your productivity and creativity?
Christine: During the work day, it’s easy to welcome interruptions. If you need to produce high-quality work, turn off all of your notifications and warn people that you are focused on getting work done. You can even set up office hours or blocks of time showing when you can meet with team members or attend meetings.
If you know you’ll be interrupted by coworkers or phone calls, allot 2 hours to complete your action items if it normally takes you one hour. That way, you won’t be frustrated by the interruptions. But never allow interruptions when you are accessing your sweet spot.
There are countless benefits to detoxing from technology every night. Most importantly, you sleep better. Sleep helps improve happiness, performance, and creativity. You also find more time to do things you claim you never have the time to do because you’re so busy. Instead of scrolling through social media before bed, I spend time with my family, read, paint, clean the house, or listen to podcasts.
Overall, I’m nurturing the relationships that matter to me. Later in life, you won’t wish you spent more time on Facebook in the evenings. Instead you’ll wish you invested more quality time with your friends and family.
But technology isn’t inherently bad. It’s the racket in the metaphor. When it’s used strategically, it can help us achieve our sweet spot.
How do you use Trello? How do you think people could use it to develop daily micro-habits that help increase productivity with putting in less work and energy?
I use Trello in many different ways. I use it plan my daily to-do lists and to organize my thoughts for my books. At home, I use a Trello board with my family for food shopping and weekly meal planning.
We all have a good handle on how long a task will take us to complete. I group similar tasks into “Think Work” and “Action Items” and set time aside in my calendar to complete them. I encourage my clients to do the same and manage their workload by putting these lists and tasks as cards in Trello.
Each list is a timeframe for grouped tasks. For example, there is a 5-10 minutes list with quick action items, a 20-30 minute list for pieces of a project, and a 1 hour list for the think work.
Then there is a master to-do list. At the start of each day, I encourage my clients to pick which tasks they can complete in the day from the master to-do list, group them in the lists based on time they have available. For example, if they have an hour to do action items, then they can pick 7 items to complete and put them into the 5-10 minute list. If they don’t complete the tasks, it’s not a big deal. They can just move the cards backs to the master to-do list for the next day.
By carving out time for different types of tasks and work, you train your brain to activate the most powerful parts so you can achieve your sweet spot and accomplish more with the greater ease.
Train your brain to reach that coveted sweet spot by copying her sample Trello board here.
Learn more from Dr. Christine Carter about the sweet spot and how to live a life free from busyness here.
Tell us: How do you get into the groove? What are some ways you prioritize, minimize interruptions, and ultimately have productive days?