Is there a secret to productivity?
A holy grail you can sip from to suddenly harness all your energy and complete all your tasks?
Short answer: no.
Long answer: no.
But don’t worry. There are some steps you can take to boost your output and achieve more. You could call these a set of rules, but they’re a little more flexible and malleable than that. You could say, they’re not so much rules as guidelines:
- Get started early
- Organize your tasks
- Build processes to guide your work
Taking these steps will increase your output and expand your mind.
Why you don’t get anything done after 2pm
This is a problem. You don’t need to be an expert to recognize that a sleep deprived workforce are not going to be as productive as a well rested one. It kind of explains itself.
However, if you were an expert, you might point to our circadian rhythms to help explain one of the ways by which sleeping patterns impact on our productivity and effectiveness throughout the day.
These rhythms are basically the flow of cognitive performance mapped out against the number of hours you’ve been awake. Your cognitive performance has two peaks normally: one in the morning and one at night. Once this last peak wears off you can slip off to bedtime.
However, these two peaks are different. The first one in the morning is a sharp acceleration from the resting period of sleep. The cognitive performance score rockets upwards and then gradually declines as the day goes on – resulting normally in a particularly low lull in the mid to late afternoon period where you’re performing poorly against the daily average.
The second peak for cognitive performance is in the evening where there is a slight uptick after the afternoon lull, but it doesn’t last for long. It trails off again much more quickly than the spike earliest in the day.
What this tells us as searchers for productive working patterns, is that we need to focus on matching our own working periods with the periods of time our body is most alert and active.
This means we need to burst into work mode nice and early and ride that wave as long as we can. For me, that might mean getting my more complex tasks out of the way in the morning; sometimes this is writing articles, other times it is doing research – it depends on the topic.
One of the key take aways then, is we need to prioritize and plan our tasks so that we can get more done earlier in the day to increase our net output.
Organize your tasks with task management techniques
My approach to this challenge, and one I share with my colleagues, is to approach my tasks at the beginning of each day.
This is the primary task for the day. Before emails or whatever other directions you’re being pulled in. Sit down and figure out what you have to do.
We use Trello for task management. This approach uses cards which you can drag and drop around a kanban board. I prefer this approach to task management as it makes for a very visual and interactive way of understanding what you have to do.
This initial moment at the beginning of the day where I go through my tasks and essentially create a todo list means that I know what I need to do that day and what I don’t need to do.
I’ll then order that list in terms of priority – taking into consideration that I need to get my most complex and fundamental tasks done earliest in the day. Once I have this priority listed, I can being my tasks in that order.
However, to get my tasks done in the optimum amount of time with the greatest level of quality, I also need a process.
Build processes to guide your work
A process should be thought of as a living thing.
Our mentality is to always build a process for any task we have to do more than twice.
It’s that simple.
When you come to do a task – particularly a complex one – it is vitally important you know how to do it and know how to do it in the best possible way. The key to this is to write down how you undertake your tasks. This is the first step and it’s not hard to do. Writing down what you do and in what order you do it is called documenting your process. Once it exists on paper, you can move forward and begin to improve that process.
Working from a documented process means that you always know what you’re going to do next. This stops your workflow being interrupted – which is one of the biggest productivity killers – and it helps you keep your focus as you don’t need to worry about what’s coming next.
Process improve the way you work.
Once you have your process documented and you’ve been following the process, you can consider starting to improve it. This could start with simple steps like thinking of extra tasks you could include in the process to make it more thorough. Or, you could go much more in depth and start timing yourself to see how long it takes to complete a process. Then you can make changes and amendments and time yourself again, working out which is the more efficient approach.
There are many ways you can use processes to improve your workflows and the workflows of others around you. Putting a business process management strategy in place could vastly increase your output and that of your team.
There is no holy grail
As we said at the beginning of this article, there is no one step secret to enhancing your productivity and changing everything.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t steps you can take to improve.
If you understand how your body works, you can try to factor those opportunities and limitations into your workflows. Through a mixture of task management and effective process construction you can prioritize the work you need to do so that it gets done to the highest quality every time.
Productivity is down to hard work, but working harder is not necessarily working smarter. Working smarter will help you work harder.
Now get up early, start your day with a bang, and let’s get stuff done!