It's Labor Day in the U.S. as I write this post. To my own amazement, I've spent most of the past month truly relaxing — reading lots of books, playing tennis, running, hanging out with my family and eating food I mostly shouldn't — scones and donuts for breakfast, BLTs and burgers for lunch. I enjoyed every minute of it.
Now it's time to return to work. I feel lucky to have a job, and especially one I love, but the fall ahead is intense, daunting, and demanding, as I suspect it is for you. I'm anxious about the economy. I'm wondering when the next shoe is going to drop. I'm concerned about how my company will hold up if things do get worse.
Add to all that the digital demands of the world we now inhabit. Armed with ever more ways to connect with each other, and to stay current in every moment, we often aren't sure where to put our focus. We find it harder to give all of our attention to anything — or anyone — for very long.
The consequence is that we're undertaking more and more tasks every day, but they often add up to less and less real value.
Just think about how many emails you now receive and respond to each day? There are 1307 sitting in my inbox right now. I suspect that two dozen at most genuinely merit my attention. But how to focus on those, and invest minimal time on the rest?
What, in short, does it take to be productive and efficient in a world of infinitely rising demand, and endless potential distractions? By productive, I mean generating goods and services with lasting value. By efficient, I mean doing so with the least amount of unnecessary expenditure of time and energy.
Here are six behaviors that we regularly teach to our clients (for more, please click here):
- Make sufficient sleep a top priority. Schedule your bedtime, and start winding down at least 45 minutes earlier. Ninety-eight percent of all human beings need at least 7-8 hours a night to feel fully rested. Only a fraction of us get that much regularly, in part because we buy into the myth that sacrificing an hour or two of sleep a night give us an hour more of productivity. In reality, even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a dramatic toll on our cognitive capacity, our ability to think creatively, our emotional resilience, the quality of our work, and even the speed at which we do it.
- Create one to-do list that includes everything you want or need to do, on and off the job — and I mean everything, including any unresolved issues that merit further reflection. That's the essence of David Allen's simple but profound work (see Getting Things Done). Writing everything down helps get it off your mind, leaving you free to fully focus on what's most important at any given moment.
- Do the most important thing first when you get to work each morning, when you're likely to be have the highest energy and the fewest distractions. Decide the night before what activity most deserves your attention. Then focus on it single-mindedly for no more than 90 minutes. Productivity isn't about how many tasks you complete or the number of hours you work. It's about the enduring value you create.
- Live like a sprinter, not a marathoner. When you work continuously, you're actually progressively depleting your energy reservoir as the day wears on. By making intermittent renewal and refueling important, you're regularly replenishing your reservoir, so you're not only able to fully engage at intervals along the way, but also to maintain high energy much further into the day.
- Monitor your mood. When demand begins to exceed your capacity, one of the most common signs is an increase in negative emotions. The more we move into "fight or flight," the more reactive and impulsive we become, and the less reflective and responsive. The first question to ask yourself is "Why am I feeling this way, and what can I do to make myself feel better?" It may be that you're hungry, tired, overwhelmed, or feeling threatened in some way. Awareness is the first step. You can't change what you don't notice.
- Schedule specific times for activities in your life that you deem important but not urgent. With so much coming at you all the time, it's easy to focus all day on whatever feels most pressing in the moment. What you sacrifice is the opportunity to take on work such as writing, strategizing, thinking creatively, or cultivating relationships, which may require more time and energy, but often yield greater long-term rewards.