This post is part of a series on time strategy, from our friends at ProductPlan. Read Part 1 here about getting more done without working harder.
Your notebook is full of lists and doodles. Your Trello boards are loaded. You have your armor polished and you’re ready to go, so why are you still struggling to check anything off your to-do list?
Even when you have a strategy in place to become a productivity powerhouse, executing on it feels like a whole new battle.
Once you have the plan it place, it should seem simple — plug, play, and repeat. Unfortunately, actually powering through your task and project list isn’t an easy feat, especially when you’re lacking focus and time.
Strategies For More Productive Focus Time
According to a study by RescueTime, 40% of knowledge workers never get 30 minutes straight of focused time in a workday. In addition, they found that over the course of a day the average person only finds about one hour and twenty minutes a day of focused time total. 🙀
This means you need to be incredibly efficient with the limited time that you do have. Strategic thinking and careful prioritization are only starting points. So how can you make sure that the focused time you do have truly counts? How can you think small?
Here’s a few tips for maximizing your productivity when your time is limited.
Stop Multitasking...Kind of
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you suck at multitasking.
It’s nothing personal — we are all terrible at parallel processing. And don’t let your brain trick you into thinking you’re the exception. Study upon study has confirmed that humans are awful at multitasking.
So if you want to get the most out of your limited focus time, spend it working on one thing at a time. But in light of recent research, there may be some benefits to reframing how you perceive your singular task.
Over the course of a day the average person only finds about one hour and twenty minutes a day of focused time total.
The research looked at the implications of our perception of multitasking on performance and suggested, “While doing more at the same time might hurt performance, doing the same activity but perceiving it as more, improves it.”
Let’s take a task like transcribing a video, for example. Instead of viewing this as one single task, you may have improved performance if you view it as an example of your excellent multitasking skills: both listening AND typing. Research shows that just the mere perception that you are juggling a bunch of balls at once will actually help you with your performance. So go ahead, pat yourself on the back for a job well done!
Certain tasks have strategic importance, but frequently manage to pass under the radar or get pushed off the schedule in favor of other projects. Often this happens with tasks that are repetitive, don’t have specific deadlines, or which don’t have a clear owner.
Productivity experts suggest it may make sense to outsource these tasks whenever possible. But sometimes, perhaps that’s not necessary. One thing that makes repetitive tasks more enjoyable, while also helping promote accountability, is making them a team effort. Furthermore, countless studies show teamwork is more effective than individual contributions.
At ProductPlan, we have various weekly “power hours” set on the calendar. During our power hours, the marketing team gets together to roll their sleeves up for an hour of focused, uninterrupted work. Our power hours represent dedicated time slots for focusing on tactical projects we’ve deemed important, such as SEO work or answering questions on Quora. They promote a level of accountability and consistency around tasks we may otherwise let slide. They also bring our team together to focus on just one thing at a time.
Build A Fortress Against Distractions
While there’s no arguing about the important role team communication applications like Slack or email play in our day to day, they are also responsible for a lot of alerts that disrupt our workflows.
A 2007 study sought to determine to what degree the act of responding to a message during a period of focused time impacted performance. On average, it took participants between 10 and 16 minutes to resume work after responding to a message. Part of that time, the researchers observed, was spent trying to remember what the previous task was and then finding the window of the previous application. But, the majority of the time lag was between finding the application again and resuming the work.
They suggest this lag is most likely because it can be tricky to get back into the right mindset after a distraction.
“We speculate that time and effort with resumption may involve reacquiring memories about the task and, more generally, refocusing cognitive resources that may have been usurped during the diversion phase. The results indicate that the diversion, starting off with a seemingly innocuous alert, can result in substantial lag in the resumption of primary tasks.”
And this study was only regarding distractions due to messaging apps. Now consider the other interruptions to your workflow you may encounter. The phenomenon of becoming distracted and then wasting more time than you realize trying to get back to the elusive “zone” is called context switching, and it is one of the most common killers of productivity.
This is why it’s critical for you to protect your precious focus time. Do what you need to in order to control potential distractions in your work space. Noisy office? Meet noise cancelling headphones. Chatty co-workers? Meet the “Do Not Disturb” sign. Do whatever you need to block out productivity-killing distractions.
Here are a few proven tactics for battling common distractions in modern offices.
Put blocks of Maker vs. Manager time on your calendar. And make sure it’s on your calendar. The last thing you want is to be invited to a meeting in the middle of the timeframe you’ve selected for focused work. If there’s a certain time or day in the week when you tend to be at your most productive, block that time out.
Communicate with your team ahead of any scheduled focus time. Allow them an opportunity to communicate with you before you enter your fortress against distractions. This way, not only are they aware that you’re about to “go into the matrix” as I call it, but also they’re less likely to interrupt you during your quiet time.
Preparation is key. Have everything you may need handy BEFORE your scheduled focus time begins: refill your water bottle, top off your coffee etc. If you tend to get hungry at a certain time, have snacks ready. You don’t want anything to come between you and your productivity.
Defeat distractions with the 10 minute rule. If I’m stuck or feeling a temptation to check my phone or Slack during my focus time, I generally make a pact with myself that after 10 minutes if I still want to cave in to those distractions, I can. More often than not, I spend those 10 minutes being extremely productive and end up forgetting I wanted to check my phone in the first place. But sometimes I end up caving in to distraction. And you probably will too. Be kind to yourself when you do. The time is there for you to use as you need to.
Know when to walk away. Give yourself grace and accept that it’s difficult to be at your highest level of productivity all the time. If you’ve gotten to a stopping point or you simply aren’t being productive anymore, don’t feel like you can’t step away. In fact, some studies have shown that engaging in a completely different task is a way to jumpstart your brain into a fresh idea or concept.
Saying No To Being Busy
The counterintuitive secret to accomplishing more is consciously choosing to do less.
A final important thing to remember on your journey to a more balanced life is that it is completely ok to say no to projects or commitments every now and then. Often this is easier said than done (I only recently learned the power of no through my cave diving career), but I can tell you from experience – it’s one of the most useful skills you can learn.
For some people, it’s scary to say no to a boss or executive at work. But, another benefit of a well thought out, outcome-based strategy is that it gives you support for your decision. Strategic thinking and an objective prioritization framework gives you not only the ability to see what types of projects truly move the needle, but also the foundational evidence you may need to back your decisions up.
When you say “no” to things with little strategic value, you’ll free up more of your (valuable) focus time to excel at the things that truly have potential to make an impact.
Reaching The Top Of Your To-Do List Mountain
You’ve come this far — you have a strategy in place and the motivation to get down to business and cruise through your mountain high level. Once you get to the top, take a deep breath of relief and enjoy that extra time you created for yourself to sit back and enjoy the view.
Oh, and don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for all that you’ve accomplished so far. Your path to terrific time-management is well on its way!