By putting energy into the power of habit, deep work, productivity tools, and daily scheduling, you will see immediate and lasting productivity gains.
We’re getting busier, but are we getting more done? Endless cycles of email followed by meetings and telephone calls consume whole days and even weeks. The cycle costs us the ability to feel we are moving forward productively. It causes us stress. So, why are some people able to be more productive than their peers and to consistently make their days more valuable to them and their companies? What are the circumstances that produce really productive periods of work? First, make the decision not only to do more, but to do more good. Implementing a few simple ideas can transform our overall productivity.
Three books have been the catalyst I needed to greatly improve the productivity in my daily, weekly, and monthly routines: Do More Better by Tim Challies, Deep Work by Cal Newport, and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The changes I’ve made have resulted in enduring and significant shifts in my professional and personal life. By harnessing the power of habit, deep work, productivity tools, and daily scheduling, I’ve learned to direct my talents to maximum effect. I saw immediate results and turned them into lifelong productivity gains.
- The power of habit. Forming new habits and breaking old ones takes energy, yet the power of habit is a critical tool for consistently performing at a high level. As Duhigg explains, a habit loop consists of a cue, routine, and reward. One habit I knew I wanted to break was time wasted on thoughtless social media surfing. I noticed that any time I had a short wait time, I’d open my social media. One consistent theme was during my ferry-boat commute. The routine was to spend the 25-minute boat ride surfing social media. I’d pull up social media as soon as I sat down – sitting was my cue. The reward was the endorphin high gained from pointless surfing and clicking. What was ultimately successful for me was to change the routine. The cue was the same, but instead of pulling out my phone, I grabbed a book. Persistence was necessary but within a week or two I successfully replaced what I considered a bad habit with a good one. The reward? I now read an additional six to eight books per year. So, break the loop to interrupt bad habits, and create new loops for habits you want to add.
- Deep work. Newport describes deep work, as an “ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” The nature of our work in the AEC industry requires us to perform cognitively demanding tasks for our clients. It’s important to note that these sessions of deep work can’t be created in 10-minute chunks. Newport argues that 90 minutes is a good session length for really digging in to a task. I agree and find that if I go past 90 minutes, I reach fatigue quickly. If I go for much less than 90 minutes, I don’t hit peak flow. To create high-productivity, deep-work time, set aside at least one period in a day – and no more than two – for your most demanding tasks. Remove distractions. You’ll be astonished at what you can do.
- Productivity tools. Productivity tools help us organize our tasks and get consistent results. Challies writes that there should be “a home for everything” and “like goes with like.” Start by distinguishing between information, tasks, and events. Use a specific tool for each and don’t mingle them. There are many tools out there – choose your favorite. I use Todoist for tasks, Outlook calendar for events, and both OneDrive and Evernote for information. It’s very tempting and may seem efficient to use a calendar for both events and tasks, but don’t do it. The day I separated events and tasks from each other, my calendar was no longer full of nagging reminders of all the things I didn’t get done. My task management improved instantly by using a dedicated tool better suited to the purpose.
- Daily routines. Plan your day. Yeah, I know, you’re already thinking about why this won’t work. I too was skeptical at first. Why plan at all when I knew that the minute I walked in the door, I’d be thrown off? Consequently, my old habit was to show up to the office with a few critical tasks I knew I needed to tackle and meetings I needed to attend. Beyond that, I took the day as it came.
I have discovered a far more effective strategy is to break up a day in half-hour chunks, and plan them out on paper. Fill those time slots, and include at least one longer period for a deep-work session. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll be able to stay on task. And if you don’t, that’s OK. There will always be a percentage of your day that gets rescheduled. Adjust as needed. Cross things out and reassign as you go, perfection is not the goal. The value of the plan is in forcing yourself to reconcile the time you have available and prioritize what must come first. You will see a shift in your daily productivity.
We spend most of our life doing. How we go about the activities of our daily lives can contribute or take away our feelings of contentment. By putting energy into the power of habit, deep work, productivity tools, and daily scheduling, not only will you see immediate productivity gains, but you’ll turn them into lifelong gains.
Ted Ryan is an associate principal at PCS Structural Solutions, which provides structural engineering services to clients across markets. Ted can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.