One of the most misleading but commonly held beliefs is being “busy” means that you’re being productive and accomplishing a lot. The problem is that the busy work for most people isn’t focused on the things that need to be done. It’s just that, busy work.
People get into a mindset that these things have to be done and there is no other way. Therefore, they get consumed by the same tasks over and over and because they are endless, the day is over and it’s time to check-out. The next day begins a new cycle of non-productivity.
Busy but non-productive tasks include:
- Checking emails
- Making/returning phone calls
- Holding meetings
- Reading the news & blogs
- Reading/updating social media
Wait a second.You’re telling me that I can’t check my email? I can’t make phone calls? How will I stay informed without the news? If we don’t hold meetings, we’ll never be on the same page. Social media is the future. I have to stay current or I’ll get left behind.
If you’re still with me, then let me explain what I mean by labeling these tasks as non-productive. You’re probably having some of the responses above, so hang in there.
These tasks are non-productive because they are endless and time consuming. They don’t accomplish anything and are administrative by nature. The problem isn’t in the task itself, but the amount of time dedicated to it.
Let’s take email as an example. If you’re like me, you can probably get through 200+ emails in less than 15 minutes, if you have to. You’ve done it before. You have your pre-defined rules of how you’ll respond and you make quick decisions when you first get in in the morning or after a long vacation.
Delete. Delete. Archive. Spam folder. Save. Reply. Forward. Delete. Delete. Unsubscribe. Save. Archive. Delete.
You get the point.
So why is it that it takes hours, multiple hours, every day to check half that number of emails? I believe it’s because you’re accepting email as an interruption and stopping something productive to respond. You’re focused on accomplishing something, just about to have a breakthrough, and *ding* (or pop-up). It’s from your boss, colleague, or Grandma. You stop what you’re doing and respond.
Although it just takes you a minute or two, you’ve just broken concentration and focus. You’ve stopped in the middle of what you were doing and diverted your attention. It now takes you more time to get re-focused and back to where you were. You finally get there and *ding*. I think you see where I’m going.
Although email is the example, it applies to all of the non-productive tasks on the list above.
So what do you do? You have to stay connected with people in order to do your job. This is true. But you can control it and schedule times where it’s appropriate.
Solution: Remove the interruptions and you will be more productive.
I just finished the 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss, a masterful book on automating your work so that you can “join the new rich” and “design a great life style”. This is on my recommended reading list. In the book Timothy Ferriss outlines some great rules to follow. I’ve evolved them slightly but have to give him full credit as this book has taken my view of productivity to an entirely new level.
Follow these Rules:
- Only check emails a few times per day. That’s right. Close outlook, log off the internet, or turn off the cell phone. Do whatever you have to and stop the “You’ve got mail!” messages. It’s not helping. Tim Ferriss suggests that you only check your email twice. Once at 10AM (that’s right, not right away in the morning) and once at 4pm. He goes as far as to outsource this process entirely, but you can read the book to learn more about that in his book.
- Minimize your time on the phone. Schedule this one too and limit to a few times per day. Have a voice-mail message that clearly states when you will return phone calls. Be consistent and put off returning calls unless urgent. Have an emergency phone where people can reach you. Be brief and to the point if they call this number. If you only have one primary line, let the calls to go voice-mail and then return them later. The point is not to interrupt what you’re doing. Finish it before going on to your next important thing.
- Keep meetings brief or stay out of them completely. The 4-Hour Workweek suggests that you ask for a meeting agenda before every meeting and decline if you find it irrelevant. Good advice. In my opinion, in order to be more productive you need to separate your “work time”. If you’re in meetings, you’re likely not accomplishing many of your other tasks. Especially if it isn’t your meeting. Keep them to a minimum and certainly don’t make them an hour. If you can accomplish it in 30 minutes, schedule it for that time and make it a “hard-stop”. Extended meetings mess up the rest of your schedule. Another great tip by HBR is to keep everyone standing. No sitting.
- Stop “keeping yourself updated” with news and blogs. Although it’s extremely important to stay up-to-date on the constantly and quickly evolving new economy, don’t get consumed by trying to keep up with it. Your blogs and newspapers aren’t going anywhere and if you don’t read about the latest tip first thing in the morning, you’ll be okay. Limit yourself this guilty pleasure. Don’t spend more that 10 minutes at a time consuming new information. Schedule it and use it as a reward for accomplishing your most important task of the day.
- Stay off social media. I’m a huge advocate for social media. I know it’s here to stay and essential for building relationships with customers and building a business. However, updating your Facebook status and retweeting all of your followers is NOT productive. If you could spend 1 hour creating something of value or accomplishing something that hasn’t been done at your company before or managing your Twitter account, I’m hoping this article encourages you to choose the former. Like the previous bullet, schedule this and use it as a “reward”. Social media does not count as a most important task of the day. Choose something else.
To summarize, keep yourself focused on what you need and should accomplish. Stop being consumed by the end-less tasks that make you appear busy. If you’re constantly checking email, reading online, or updating social media then chances are you’re going home tired. You’re always going to be busy if you follow this pattern. Break it today and take control of your productivity.