In my post Owning Your Platform, I wrote about how, having written and worked for a number of media outlets and brands, a lot of my writing has disappeared into the ether. Fortunately, I have multiple folders with versions of some of the things that I have written. In the interests of ensuring that they aren’t totally lost, I have started sharing some of them here. This is something I wrote in 2020, having spent most of 2019 exploring the idea of productivity and using the time I work efficiently to create more time for other aspects of life. I probably went through at least 8 books and listened to countless episodes of In truth, I am over ‘hustling’ or being on the ‘grind’.
The demands on our attention seem to be increasing exponentially, with the lines between work, family and ourselves blurring. There was a time when we talked about technology as separate from us. Now it’s intricately woven into all aspects of our lives, and in some instances it is our life. But it can also be extremely distracting and get in the way of our objectives, rather than helping us achieve them.
In their book, Make Time, Jake Knapp and Jake Zeratsky highlight two forces that “compete for every minute of your time”, namely:
- The Busy Bandwagon, which is “our culture of constant busyness – the overflowing inboxes, stuffed calendars, and endless to-do lists”.
- The Infinity Pools, which are “apps and other sources of endlessly replenishing content”, like social media (Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc), video streaming services (YouTube, Netflix) and even internet browsers.
There was a time, for example, when we’d be so submerged in our work that a few hours would go by without us looking up from our task. We did what Cal Newport calls, deep work, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate”.
In his book, Deep Work, Newport explores how, because we’re living in a time of immense change, those who’ll thrive are those with:
- “The ability to quickly master hard things”, meaning that they are in a position to focus enough to learn the new skills that will be required; and
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed,” meaning they will be highly productive, producing quality work quickly and efficiently.
To be able to do so, we need to be deliberate about how we use our time and ensure that the technology doesn’t distract us. Devices, apps and platforms are tools that can make things easier or harder, depending on how we use them.
How to get things done?
The starting point is to take a holistic look at a range of factors, including how you work, the demands on your time and your responsibilities. It’s about creating a system that takes into consideration each thing that you have to do and putting it into a place where you can review and tackle it in an organised fashion.
As David Allen, author and creator of the personal productivity methodology Getting Things Done, says: “Your mind is for creating ideas, not holding them [and] if it’s on your mind, get it out of your mind. Write it down . . . Then take what’s on your mind and get things done.”
This methodology has five simple steps:
- Capture – Collect what has your attention by recording everything that you have to do in a file, notebook or in-tray. Anything that you have to get done, whether personal or professional. It could be phone calls you need to make or tasks on a project or even picking up bread on your way home.
- Clarify – Process what it means by deciding whether it is something that is actionable, a reference material that must be stored, to be thrown away or something that needs someone else’s input (waiting for).
- Organise – Put it where it belongs. For example, if it is something that you need to do on a particular day, you could put it in your calendar. Or if you use your phone to keep track of your to-do list, you could list it in your notes.
- Reflect – Review regularly by getting into the habit of reviewing your to-do list every day. Whatever collection tool you use to list the things you need to get done, create a routine for checking it regularly.
- Engage – Simply do. As you go through your lists, get the work done. Make the calls. Send the emails. Complete the tasks.
Within each of these are tools and tactics to help you make sense of it all.
How To Work
If you would prefer a different approach to Getting Things Done, Knapp and Zeratsky developed Make Time as “framework for choosing what you want to focus on, building the energy to do it, and breaking the default cycle so that you can start being more intentional about the way you live your life. Even if you don’t completely control your own schedule – and few of us do – you absolutely control your attention”. Their system focuses more on how to manage each day with the following steps:
- Highlight – Start each day by choosing a focal point with that focal point being “a single activity to prioritise and protect in your calendar”.
- Laser – Beat distraction to make time for your highlight, which includes adjusting “your technology so you can find your laser mode”. For example, close your email program and log out of your social media accounts to ensure they are not distractions.
- Energise – Use the body to recharge the brain “with exercise, food, sleep, quiet, and face-to-face time”.
- Reflect – Adjust and improve your system by building “a customised daily system tailored to your unique habits and routines, your unique brain and body, and your unique goals and priorities”.
The authors provide a variety of strategies and tactics within each of these steps, encouraging you to find ones that best work for you in building your personal system. For instance you can write it down (Highlight); groundhog it or “Do yesterday again” (Highlight); block your calendar (Highlight); clear your homescreen (Laser); put a timer on the internet (Laser); schedule email time (Lazer); trick yourself into meditating (Energise); take real breaks (Energise); or eat without screens (Energise).
At the heart of using your time more productively, in both your work and your personal life, is being what Nir Eyal calls “indistractable”. Because “distractions will always exist, managing them is our responsibility”, he writes in his book, Indistractable, which looks at the root causes of our distractions and the things that trigger them.
Being indistractable means honestly looking at the things that prompt us to check social media, or to read that email, or to spend more time than we should at the canteen, and then nipping them in the bud. Yes, our smartphones are tools of immense power that enable us to accomplish more than we used to in the past, but do you need to pick it up every two minutes? Probably not. One way of ensuring that it remains a tool and not an imposition is to turn off notifications for most apps. Or you can log out of the apps that you know you struggle with, setting specific times for social media or surfing the internet, for example.
But the reality is “technology is not the root cause of distraction”, as Eyal says, “the problem goes much deeper” – even within the work environment. If you are operating at a high level of productivity, you should be able to put measures in place that speak to your responsibilities at work without jumping on the Busyness Bandwagon.
Find your system using the relevant strategies and tactics above, and you’ll find that you’re able to make time, do the deep work and live a more fulfilled and productive life.