Who are the most productive people on the planet? We all know the answer to this one: working parents. (Frankly, I think the real answer is ‘working moms,’ but I’m trying to be open-minded.)
Yet I’m constantly seeing productivity tips from people who might run companies or marathons, but don’t seem to have that much insight into how the real world works. Pulling an all-nighter is not a productivity tip, because if you’ve got young kids, there’s no time to ever make up that sleep. Eating a breakfast of powerfoods is only going to get you so far. And the idea of essentially allowing interruptions, if you can accomplish the intruding task in less than two minutes, is insane.
This is what works for us.
Technology is your friend. The one who sleeps with your husband while you’re on a business trip.
I understand that most of our lives would fall apart if our calendars suddenly stopped syncing with those of our spouses. That an iPad can make a long car ride with kids suddenly bearable. That laptops with seven hours of battery life are indeed life-giving.
However. If Evite asks you to allow it to import an invitation onto your iPhone, you’re a fool to accept. Ditto if you show up at an Amtrak station without a paper copy of your ticket. There is at least a 30 percent chance that Evite will be an hour off by the time it gets to your phone, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to be in your home time zone when you accept. And I once missed an Amtrak train to Boston because the kiosk couldn’t read the code on my phone. The line to talk to a person was a mile long; the conductor would not let me on the train, and I fell out of love with the Acela, right then and there. When it comes to technology, you need a Plan B.
Multitasking is evil. You need to focus.
No one is good at multitasking. Women are allegedly better at it than men, but the research is undisputable: we all stink at it. The only way to get anything done well is to focus on it relentlessly. Doing things half-assedly just creates more work down the road.
If you’re working on a project, and are suddenly asked to do a second thing, it is not time to multitask. That second thing is called an interruption. It is not to be accommodated. It must be stopped. That second task is going to suck out whatever mojo you’ve worked up, divert that energy into its own trivial priorities, and leave you dazed and confused when you get back to the actual work at hand.
There is a theory that says if you’re hard at work, and you’re interrupted, you should just knock off the offending task if it will take less than two minutes. Wrong, wrong, wrong! It is not whether the task takes two minutes or 20 that is important. It is the fact that it is going to interrupt your flow and make it harder for you to concentrate later.
So. Keep a piece of scrap paper handy at all times. When another task pops into your head, write it down on the scrap paper. Do this quickly, with the minimum amount of detail necessary to keep you from forgetting about it. That’ll keep it from buzzing around in your head, causing distraction. Then get back to your real work.
Match the work to the time available
Now, if you’ve been keeping that list, your to-do list is probably longer by 11 am than it was when you waltzed over to your desk in the morning, because of all those interruptions that have gone unattended.
No problem. Inevitably, during the day, you will have small blocks of time that are a little hard to use productively. If you’ve got ten minutes before you have to catch a train, it’s not really worth trying to tackle that big Excel spreadsheet. But chances are, there is some little item on your list that will take almost exactly 10 minutes. Or there are a handful of two-minute items. Do them.
Just as it’s ridiculous to squander a precious hour of free time on email and other teensy tasks, it’s silly to try to start a big project when you only have a few minutes for it. Use your list to fit your work to the time available.
Biorhythms, know thyself
This one is a little harder. There are certain times of day when we’re all less likely to be hugely efficient. There are others when we’re rocking it. You need to plan your work accordingly.
At 8:00 in the morning and again at 10, I can get just about anything done. (I usually need to eat around 9). That’s when I try to knock out first drafts. Because first drafts are painful, and there’s no use trying to write one when my brain refuses to engage.
On the other hand, for me, personally, 3:30 is just not happening. I’m generally drowsy and unfocused. That means, if I’m working from home, that 3:30 is the perfect time to schedule a conference call -- if it’s one on which I won’t have to take many notes.
This is not so I can take the call from bed, although maybe that’s an option. It’s because while I would love to say I get in a nice walk or run every day, I don’t. If I schedule a call at 3:30, instead of sitting at my desk, I can use that time to sweep, do laundry, pull weeds, pick up the kids’ toys, or just pace around the house, hopefully while eating an apple. Anything that will get me moving and prevent me from going for the chocolate or caffeine works. By the time the call is over, I’ll be feeling more awake and ready to go than I was when it started.
If I’m working at the office, this doesn’t work. I’m stuck at my desk; by the time the 3:30 call is over, I’m ready to fall asleep at my laptop. Frankly, I probably just have to walk around the block, and try not to eat chocolate-covered grahams while I’m doing so.
Throw some money at the problem
Sometimes buying what you need is really the best answer. On a recent cross-country flight I upgraded my coach seat -- which these days are sized for elves -- to get the extra leg room necessary to work comfortably. I more than made up the cost of the upgrade by billing several work hours. It would have been impossible to be that productive without room to comfortably maneuver between my notes and my laptop.
Same thing goes for household chores. A cleaning service, if you can afford it, will do wonders for any working parent. Why vacuum or clean bathrooms when you could be hanging out with the kids or going to a movie with your spouse?
Your mileage may vary. The point remains: Tackle the hard stuff when you know you’re at your best. Find a way to get something done during the sleepy times. And if you really need a break, take one.
-- Kimberly Weisul and Emily Brower Auchard
October 31, 2014
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If you liked this story, you might also like:
30 Things To Do on a Boring Conference Call
Multitasking Mania and the Art of Telecommuting
Is Multi-Tasking Frying Your Brain?
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