Whether you’re in work or at school, we all want to improve our productivity. I’ve been running Synap for 3 3 years now, and during that time I’ve also been a medical student – it’s been a lot of work, and it’s a process that’s forced me to learn a few things about time management and productivity.
Work Wise Week takes place next week (14-20 May) and QuickBooks, best known for their invoicing software tools, is looking to share productivity tips to help you save time and decrease your stress. So, in no particular order – here are my ‘Top 5 Tips’ for improving your productivity!
Manage your energy, not your time
People love to talk about ‘time management’ – but the resource we really need to manage is energy. It’s true that you only have a limited amount of time in the day to get things done, but you usually have an even more limited supply of energy – or willpower.
We’re not machines, and the amount of work we can actually get done is more than just a function of how much time we put into it. Our productivity is significantly affected by a range of variables that might broadly be defined as the ‘qualitative state’ of our mind at the time. As an example, I used to write code for hours and hours on end, often until 3 or 4am. I still do from time to time, but what I realised after a few years was that usually, at a certain point I’m mentally exhausted, and in need of a break, some sleep and some food. I’m still ‘working’, and definitely making progress, but it’s taking me far longer to achieve than it would if I called it a day, got a decent night’s sleep, and came back to it in the morning.
The difference between working for an hour when you’re mentally ready for it, versus when you’re out of energy is huge. Whilst it’s always tempting, especially if you’re working on something you enjoy, to burn the candle at both ends, the reality is that we can only sustain it for so long, and in the long term you’ll benefit from having a system in place to recognise when you’r running out of energy.
Have a Set Time to Stop Working
Obviously, for various reasons, this isn’t always doable. Sometimes you’ve got to work late, or even overnight, to hit a deadline or to fix a critical error – that’s life. But, generally speaking – imposing constraints such as a ‘stop work’ time each day can really improve the way you work. When you know you have a limit, you start working to it. One of the problems I first faced when I became self employed and working out of my apartment rather than in an office was that, I had absolutely no constraints. I could be at 3pm in the afternoon and I’d be easily distracted because I knew I could make up the ‘work’ time later – often at 11pm or later.
In a more formal working environment, this wouldn’t have happened because I had designated ‘work’ time during office hours, which works as a kind of constraint on what you can do and when.
The freedom of having no constraints is great at first, but it’s a double edged sword and one of the main reasons for failure in a self-employed or freelance kind of environment. By putting rules on yourself such as “I’m not going to reply to any emails after 7pm” or “I’m not going to use any electronics after 11pm” – you start to create rules and a more structured existence for yourself. I think this is especially important for people who are self employed because, you probably love the work you do, and it’s very hard to pull yourself away from it – in the long term, that’s a recipe for disaster in terms of your relationships and hobbies.
Don’t Let Small Things Pile Up
We all know there are two categories of work, there’s the things you really enjoy doing and are excited to work on, and there’s the other stuff you just have to do. Naturally, we all prefer working on the things we enjoy doing – often the larger projects that feel more creative and intellectually challenging. This can often come at the expense of smaller bits of work – the routine things you just have to do, but don’t offer much in the way of personal development.
I have a huge tendency to do exactly this, but I know that if I let the small things pile up, they weigh on my mind pretty heavily, to the point where it actually stops me from being able to concentrate on anything else. Try not to let that happen – have a set time each day to catch up with the daily ‘admin’ stuff, and perhaps a half day or a day each week to really get through them, so then you can focus the rest of your time on the other stuff, without feeling guilty about it.
End on a Cliffhanger
When you finish working for the day, try to finish at an interesting point, one that makes you want to come back to it. The natural tendency might be to stop working when you’re frustrated or bored with a task, but the problem with that is that it makes it more difficult to motivate yourself to come back to it the next day. If, on the other hand, you finish at a point that’s a bit of a cliffhangr, you’re going to be more excited to come back to it, and therefore more easily motivated.
Have Outside Interests
It’s so easy to get completely wrapped up in a project, and to put your relationships, hobbies or other goals to the side. There are of course times where this has to happen temporarily – to meet a deadline for example – but for the most part, you don’t want to be so consumed with work – which represents one pillar of your life – that you neglect all the others. Not only will this be catastrophic for you generally as a person, but even in a work-context, it will make you less motivated, less creative and less effective at your job.
Try to keep up with relationships and hobbies. Read a bit of a book each evening, make plans with people. All of these things will feedback into your work performance too – either creatively, by letting you test or discover new ideas, or just in terms of performance by making you better rested and less stressed over time.
I hope you found this helpful! Many of the points are obvious, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to apply and stick to. Remember that making even one small change in your life can be a very challenging task, and failing is part of the cycle – don’t be dismayed, just get ‘back on the horse’ and try again!