Have you ever read blog posts that introduce lots of applications like Pocket, Evernote, Buffer and Trello as the best tools that everyone should adopt to boost their productivity? You probably did and thought that’d be the ultimate app you need. And usually, things have not gone well soon after using the apps. Why? They are the best but what about skills that are necessary to use these apps. Being productive is like being good in a specific sport, say tennis. You can’t imagine playing tennis without a racquet. But just having Djokovic’s or Nadal’s racquet is not useful when you don’t have skills to play tennis, even if you know how to swing the racquet. So you need both the skills and the right tools to keep your personal and work life on track.
Similarly, being productive as an individual or a team needs several skills in addition to the right tools. Being able to use the applications technically does not help you to get the most out of your applications.
Productivity helps you to be proactive and not just react according to what happen every day. It is about organizing and control. Organizing and control your time, energy, communication, organizing your lifestyle in a way that stays healthy, both mental and physical. It’s about knowing your priorities both operational and strategic and planning based on them. It’s about eliminating distractions and staying focused. Productivity tools just make organizing as simple, visual and automated as possible, but you still need some sort of organizing skills.
Productivity does not have a finish line. You can learn these skills and continuously improve them through practice. Anders Ericsson in his book Peak, suggests deliberate practice against usual practice. He believes usual practice helps you to reach an acceptable level in a field, and then, there will be no serious improvement. Deliberate practice, on the other hand, involves developing an efficient mental representation. “Mental representation helps us deal with information: how we understand and interpret it, how we hold it in our memory, how we organize it, analyze it and make decisions with it”, Ericsson says in his book. So it helps you to organize your everyday life like a chess master that can play entire games without seeing a physical board. It also helps your brain to get wired for productivity.
Let’s check out the five essential skills that help you get the most out of your favorite productivity tools and keep yourself and your business on track.
Organize your entire life, not just work
Life has two important interdependent aspects, work and personal. They have deep impacts on each other. Neglecting or ignoring each one could reduce your work/life balance and as a result your productivity. There is no one-size-fits-all balance to strive for, and it could be meant different depending on people priorities. The good news is that Stew Friedman, Wharton professor, believes it’s possible to organize both of these aspects not just to perform well on their own but in a way that they influence each other positively. You are not a robot, and your mood affects your work quality. That’s why the most productive people manage their mood before they start their day. So having a healthy personal life helps you to control your mood, eliminate a big part of possible distractions and focus on what you do every moment. Shawn Achor describes that it turns out that happy people are more productive, and your brain performs at its best when you are in a good mood.
Find your best workflow methodology
If you think you are not as productive as you could be, changing your tools should be the last solution. The first thing you need to deliberate is your workflow methodology (also called productivity technique or system). It provides you a set of rules to use your time wisely and organize your tasks in the most efficient way. Using the right methodology and also the right tool to implement it, you’ll have a smooth workflow, visualized in one place, and always feel proactive and in control. This heavenly combination provides you a macro view of your tasks to focus on the big picture (your personal goal, business mission, or project) so that changes could not put you back in reactive mode. The most popular workflow methodologies are The Pomodoro Technique, Getting Things Done (GTD), Seinfeld, but you can combine their components and create your own personal and customized one which fits best with your needs. Kanban, Kaizen, and Agile are other methodologies that work best for both teams or individuals, with small or large projects. Try to choose the one that fits your specific personal or team needs and stick to make it a routine or even a habit. Making a routine will not be easy, but human is built to adapt.
Manage your time and energy
Productivity has three main ingredients, time, energy and attention. All productivity studies try to optimize the management of at least one of these ingredients. All should be taken into account when you schedule your tasks. The first thing you should learn more about is your cardinal rhythm. It determines when your energy level and ability to focus increase and hit their peak and when they decline and reach their lowest level. So you schedule your most important or complex tasks when you are at or near your peaks instead of cleaning your inbox or being in a meeting, and vice versa. Don’t forget to insert some chunks of recovery times in your schedule after the work chunks. Robert Pozen, the author of Extreme Productivity, suggests minimizing your routine and saving a lot of time and energy. So you can invest them on your goals. That’s why he and Mark Zuckerberg are wearing same clothes every day. After all, it’s very important to know, as Pozen says: “Your success should be measured by the results you produce, not the number of hours you log”.
Plan: Bring your goals into your schedule
It’s obvious that if you have a map and know your destination, moving forward will be easier. Plan acts as a map. You see the big picture, what you currently are and what you want to be. It helps you to embrace the changes and convert them to an accelerator instead of an obstacle. So to be productive you need to plan your life and work. The good news is that Planning is a skill and could be learned and developed. Think it’s a hard task? Yes, it is, at least initially, according to Harvard Business Review. Just like when you start a new exercise routine, but as you develop the habit of planning, it gets easier. To create a good plan that maximizes your productivity, Robert Pozen has a premise in Extreme Productivity. It’s focusing on the results instead of the time you spend at work. He suggests starting with the goals. List your goals including business or organizational aims, yearly objectives and also weekly targets (which determine your to-do tasks). Prioritize the objectives and then the associated targets respectively (and also your to-do tasks accordingly). There are several useful techniques such as Pareto Principle (The 80/20 Rule) to determine high priority tasks. Then estimate the necessary amount of time needed to be spent on each target (and tasks) and finally addressing the mismatches between the goals and targets (and tasks). He recommends you should calibrate daily activities to yearly goals every day.
Control the distractions, and focus
We are living in the age of information with mostly online and interdependent tasks. Scientists also call it the age of distraction. Daily distraction sources are everywhere and closer to us more than our shadow. They come in the forms of emails, social media, phone calls, a colleague, an organizational request or even another task. Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, believes in this formula: ” High-quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)”. Both variables are difficult to increase. Time is a finite resource, and it’s difficult to insert large blocks of time in our daily calendar especially in today’s always-on-business environment. But increasing the intensity of focus is a different story and it even helps you save more time. It’s attainable by eliminating distraction sources or at least reducing their effects as much as possible. According to Harvard Business Review, the two things killing your ability to focus are your connected devices including smartphone, tablets and digital media, and also your meetings. Try to be far away from these devices when you need to focus especially on creative tasks and also do not schedule your meetings in your peak energy time. Multitasking is another famous killer of your productivity. Task switching increases the amount of time necessary to finish your primary task because your brain need to concentrate again (almost takes 23 minutes) on the task at hand. A Stanford study shows that multitaskers pay a big mental price in a way that everything distracts them. On the other hand, focusing on a single task and completing it, save your time and energy and increase the quality of your work.
So try to find new strategies to manage your attention, time, energy, and control distractions and as a result, increase your focus intensity.