8 Secrets to Maximizing Productivity

Photo by Namita Azad
Photo by Namita Azad
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The Challenge: We have to much to do with too little time!
The Science: Working more hours, distractions, interruptions and technology (email) results in a decline in productivity.
The Solution: Here are 8 steps to regaining control of your productivity.

The most common complaint I hear from clients, colleagues and friends is “I don’t have enough time,” or “I can’t seem to get everything done.” They are often amazed by the people who seem to be super-productive without becoming workaholics.

In North America and Britain, the number of hours people work have steadily risen in the past 20 years, with one in six employees working more than 60 hours a week, a DIT research report found. Full-time employees in Britain work the longest hours in Europe and a British Medical Association report found 77% of consultants work more than 50 hours a week and 46% more than 60 hours.

My experience in the last two decades is that overwork has become the norm, particularly in large firms. In a society where job dedication is praised, workaholism is an invisible addiction. Work is at the core of much of modern life.

However, the phenomena can’t be blamed entirely on employers and bosses. Laura Vanderkam, author of What Most Successful People Do on the Weekend, contends many workers lack the self-discipline to set proper boundaries between work and their personal lives. Many report a feeling of being needed or important.

Economists have argued for some time that working longer hours would negatively affect productivity. John Hicks, a British economist who looked at this issue in the 1930s, concluded that productivity declined as working hours increased. And John Pencavel of Stanford University showed in his research that reduced working hours can actually be good for productivity. The study found that productivity declined markedly after more than 50 hours a week and that the absence of a rest day (such as Sunday) damaged productivity.

But what habits set the most productive employees apart? Draugiem Group, a social networking company using a time-tracking productivity app called DeskTime, conducted an experiment to find that out. Its Research showed the employees with the highest productivity didn’t work longer hours than anyone else. In fact, they didn’t even work full eight-hour days.

John Robinson, a leading researcher on time use, says the biggest problem we have today is not “not having enough time,” it’s that our lives are so fragmented, over-stimulated and interrupted.”

Research has shown that for every interruption it takes an average of 25 minutes to fully regain your cognitive focus. Dr. Gloria Mark, associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, found average information workers are interrupted every three minutes – nearly 20 times an hour, while the average manager is interrupted every eight minutes. In an eight-hour day most of us are interrupted 50 to 60 times, for on average five minutes — that works out to more than four hours out of eight, or 50% of the workday.

The evidence is pretty clear, too, that multi-tasking is not efficient and takes a severe toll on productivity.  Stanford University research found this practice is less productive than doing one thing at a time. The researchers also found people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one task to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.

Research conducted at the University of London found participants who multi-tasked during cognitive tasks experienced a drop in IQ score similar to what they would see if participants had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.

How to Fix the Problem

Here’s a short list of strategies to increase productivity by working less, taking breaks, controlling disruptions and developing a personal control system:

  • Rest in a do nothing state. There is plenty of evidence to show doing nothing in a restful state (where there is nothing to accomplish) can enhance your energy levels and creativity;
  • Learn how to say no. Workplace culture often requires that you sacrifice time for others, whether that means acting as a mentor or maintaining an open-door policy. The benefit to others’ productivity often comes at a cost to your own;
  • Stop measuring your worth by what you accomplish. Teresa Amabile, author of The Progress Principle, in her book emphasizes progress (moving forward with one’s work) over productivity (getting things done well and efficiently, irrespective of their importance). Her latest research suggests that the simple act of looking back on progress positively affects your sense of accomplishment and how competent and effective you feel at work;
  • Schedule breaks in your daily work
  • Ideally, you should take a 17 minute break every 52 minutes or less. Use a timer as a reminder;
  • Use your calendar rather than creating to do lists. Scheduling has the added impetus for you to confront what you have to do, rather than burying it on some hidden to do list. This includes your free time;
  • Take regular vacations or sabbaticals. Not taking vacation time is a bad idea, as it harms productivity and the economy;
  • Make the beginning of your day the most productive. Tim Ferris author of The 7 Hour Work-Week suggests not checking email for the first hour or two. Dan Ariely, co-founder of Timeful, a time management app, and psychology professor at Duke University, and author of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, says you have two to two and half hours of peak productivity every day. You may actually be 30% more effective at that time;
  • Control email habits. Studies show that attending to emails throughout the working day occupies as much as 30% of the entire work day, but does not actually result in productive work. A study by the University of California, Irvine, which was co-written with United States Army researchers, found that people who do not look at e-mail on a regular basis at work are less stressed and more productive.

It’s clear, we need to redefine productivity. We have been seduced by the cultural norm of measuring productivity as the goal of “getting all the work done.” So we invent to-do lists and excessively focus on what hasn’t been done. What if productivity was defined not by what we get done but by doing things we want to do; or by doing things well, instead of fast. What if we decide to take control of our lives and value time off, vacations and doing nothing as strategies for improving our productivity. Wouldn’t that create a different kind of life?

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Ray Williams
Ray Williams is Owner and President of Ray Williams Associates, a company based in Vancouver, Canada, providing leadership and executive coaching and professional speaking services internationally. Ray has been a CEO, senior HR Executive, Management Consultant and Executive Coach for the past 30 years. His clients include those in the Fortune 500, Best Managed Companies in Canada, entrepreneurs and professionals. He has written books on leadership, personal growth and organizational change, and written for, or been interviewed by such media as NBC News, The Huffington Post, USA Today, The National Post, Entrepreneur, Forbes, The Financial Post, Psychology Today, and other international professional publications. He has served as the Vice-Chair of the Vancouver Board of Trade and President of the International Coach Federation, Vancouver.
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