Productivity has always been a passion of mine. I took great pride in my reputation at work for being hyper-organised. I had mindmaps, notation systems, colour-coding, electronic reminders, Trello boards, Outlook flags, post-its, moleskine journals, washi tapes … the whole shebang.
And for a long time it worked beautifully. Until it didn’t any more.
There comes a time when a saturation point is reached and all the productivity systems in the world can’t help you anymore. Because the problem is when we value our self-worth primarily by how productive we are, no achievement is ever enough. We want to fit more into our day. To juggle more balls. To get more ticked off that to-do list.
I reached a point where my own expectations of what I could cram into a day were completely unrealistic. I would spend a ridiculous amount of time researching the next revolutionary productivity system. Hoping to find the game changer that would help me achieve even more.
But the laws of physics do not change and there will always be only 24 hours in the day. To quote someone wiser than I. “We were told we could have it all. But no-one taught us that we couldn’t do it all”.
So after making some pretty life-changing decisions last year I went cold turkey on productivity. I avoided any long list-making, productivity tools or systems. And for someone who obsessively checked her Trello board, that took some doing! Now I’m resetting with fresh eyes and a whole boatload of perspective.
But how can we adopt a more sustainable and gentle approach to productivity? How can we continue to achieve our goals without burning out in the process?
Be a Time-Realist, Not a Time-Optimist
I used to be guilty of under-estimating how long each task would take and over-estimating how many I could fit into the time available. We like the satisfaction of ticking that item off our list, so we aim high. But there is nothing more demoralising that getting to the end of the day and seeing that we haven’t even achieved half of our list.
I’ve experimented with different variations. But what I find works for me now is setting an overall intention for the month (so for example, Define my business vision), and then listing no more than 3 specific goals for the week.
Each goal should be specific, measurable and easily achievable in the time given (e.g. Write 2 blog posts on X and Y). Life gets in the way when we’re busy making plans so assume that something will come up every week – give yourself plenty of buffer so that when it does happen you don’t feel thrown off-track.
Understand Your Body Rhythms
This was a concept that was introduced to me through Dan Pink’s book When. He suggested we are most effective at different types of tasks at different times of the day. So for example my best time for writing or thinking tasks is in the morning. By lunchtime however my brain is starting to resemble a jelly. So it’s a good time to complete administrative type functions like paying bills, doing accounts, checking emails.
This can be counter-intuitive as it’s tempting to dive straight into the ‘quick wins’ on our to-do list each morning. But Pink’s research showed that this could be wasting your peak energy period, leaving us struggling to complete our thinking tasks during our lowest energy period in the afternoon.
Pink also found that after a trough, most people’s energy rises again to give them a second peak. Pre kids this used to be the evening for me when I could work quite effectively for a couple of hours. Post kids it’s rare unfortunately. I’m hopeful that as they grow older it might come back.
This energy pattern isn’t the same for everyone, depending on whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, so experiment with it yourself. Over the course of a week try different types of activities at different times of the day. Note when you feel effective and when your energy levels dip.
Try to schedule activities that need a lot of mental energy like strategising, writing, meetings for when your physical energy is high. Leave the ‘quick wins’ until you have less energy in the tank.
Batch, Don’t Multi-task
There’s a familiar stereotype that women are the masters of multi-tasking. It’s something I’ve certainly trotted out in times of frustration with my other half. But lately I’m wondering if actually men aren’t on to something. Katye Ferris has spoken on the Grow with Soul podcast about ‘batching’ your workload and it’s something I’m experimenting with now.
Last week I focused on business strategy, this week is content planning and writing, next week will be taking pictures. I’m finding this helps keep me focused and doesn’t allow me to dip out of the activities that I tend to procrastinate on (like writing!).
Try batching similar activities together. Each batch can cover a week or if that’s unrealistic try per day. Do still keep in mind your body rhythms though (see above) and try to plan your daily administrative tasks for periods when your energy routinely dips.
Be Kind to Yourself
We all know life is about balance but it’s hard to allow ourselves that space when we have a to-list list as long as your arm and commitments to keep. But simple, small changes can make a difference and it is really is possible to simultaneously slow down and be more productive.
I don’t see productivity as achieving a greater quantity of things anymore. I want to achieve greater quality of things in a way that is meaningful and sustainable for me and my family. Gentle productivity is the goal.
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