Clearerthinking.org founder Spencer Greenberg has put a great deal of thought into the question of productivity, or how to accomplish the most in the time you have available. We thought we'd share some of his most useful techniques today, described in his own words. Try these tactics out to maximize your creative output and get the most out of the hours you spend working.
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I think about the question of productivity a little differently from most people. It's common to equate how productive you're being with how many hours you've worked, but this formulation is misleading. In truth, the efficiency of your work hours matters as much as the amount of time you spend on a project — e.g., one hour of work when you're feeling great may allow you to get more work done than three hours of work performed while tired and unfocused. But even efficiency is not enough if it doesn't move you towards the goals that really matter to you. For instance, you may have finished that project that you had planned for your job, but if that report doesn't help your career goals, have you really accomplished anything by creating it?
To capture how truly productive you're being, you need to take these three factors into account: hours worked, output per hour, and value of the output (based on what you value). We can even put this in a simple equation, which holds by definition:
total value of your work = hours * output per hour * value of output
Since the product of 0 with anything is 0, this equation shows us immediately that if any of these three factors is 0 (i.e., we don't put in any hours, or we don't get any output per hour, or our output has no value), then we produce 0 total value. Additionally, it shows us that a 20% increase to any one of these three factors is just as good as a 20% increase to any other factor. Therefore, for example, if you make your output 20% more aligned with what is valuable to you, that's as good as working 20% more hours, assuming the other variables are held constant. Hence, the goal should be to optimize the whole equation, not narrowly focus on one factor.
These three factors also lead to three questions for measuring and improving your productivity:
1. How many hours are you working, and how can get yourself to work more hours (if doing so is desirable)?
2. How much output is each hour of work getting you, and how can you produce more output per hour?
3. How valuable is this output you're producing (in terms of achieving the goals you truly care about), and how can you refocus what you're working on so that each bit of output is more valuable?
These questions have led me to develop the following 10 productivity-boosting techniques. They have been quite useful for me, and hopefully they'll serve you just as well.
1. Leave long blocks of free, uninterrupted time — 1 hour minimum — for doing especially difficult work.
It can take a while to build momentum while working on unusually tough, involved, or abstract tasks — which many of the most important, value-aligned tasks are. I find that it's much more productive to dedicate longer blocks of time to these sorts of tasks than it is to work on them in short periods of 30 minutes or less. It may take 30 minutes merely to remember all the details of what you're working on and get back to the point where you left off.
2. Batch work meetings close together.
For example, I'll sometimes schedule three 30-40 minute meetings in a row (with 10 minute breaks in between). This approach forces me to be efficient with the meetings, and also leaves longer blocks of interrupted free time for difficult work. If you pepper your days with meetings instead, you end up with fewer large gaps, which are critical for getting important work done. Plus, it's rare that meetings really need to be longer than 40 minutes, unless the topic is very important or complex. If you don't allow an excess of time for meetings, chances are you'll get them done faster.
3. Break work into small pieces, and set goals that relate to finishing one small piece at a time.
This technique is useful because tasks that feel too large can be anxiety-provoking, difficult to start, or confusing to approach. Additionally, it is very satisfying being able to check each subgoal off your list as you completely it, so you receive psychological rewards for accomplishing goals more frequently and in greater numbers. It's much easier to motivate yourself if you get to check one thing off your list every hour, rather than only once at the end of a day.
4. Involve other people in projects in such a way that they rely on you to get your parts done.
For me personally, this is probably the most powerful technique I've ever discovered for getting work done efficiently. When I know someone needs something by 2pm, and will be waiting if I don't get it to them on time, I find it very powerfully motivating. Not everyone finds this as useful as I do, however.
5. Be aware of when your motivation and energy levels are highest.
I find that my level of energy and my level of motivation fluctuate separately throughout the day, though they're correlated. When I have the combination of higher energy and greater motivation, I can be far more productive than when either of them are at a low ebb, so I try to really make the best use of those times. From a productivity perspective, it's important to be aware of when you are at peak mental performance, as you may be able to accomplish a much harder task much more efficiently at these times than is normally possible for you. Make sure you take advantage of those times, and don't waste them on things like lunch breaks. These fluctuations often have to do with the time of day. If you find that there's a specific time of day at which you feel sharpest, be sure to make use of it. For example, some people work best first thing in the morning — if so, that's when you should start working.
6. For challenging projects that are hard to get started on, take a few minutes to think about the project and mentally plan an angle of attack before getting to work.
It can be incredibly useful to gather your thoughts and sketch out your approach before you sit down to actually do the work, especially when a project is large, daunting, or complex. You can do this while taking a walk or during some other relaxing activity. Once I've done some mental prep, I find it a lot easier to dive into the task at hand, because I know exactly where I'm going to start and I have a sense of how I'm going to handle the complexity of the project.
7. Use multiple projects to your advantage.
When I have multiple important projects going, I use the variety of work they offer to my advantage by switching between them based on my current motivation level. If I'm more motivated to work on project B than project A, and project A doesn't have a pressing deadline, then I can switch to project B temporarily, which will give me greater productivity through increased motivation. You can use this trick even if you only have one project, by working on whichever part of the project you have the most motivation for. By doing this strategically, you can keep your overall motivation a lot higher than if you force yourself to do the parts that you feel less motivated about first.
8. Work in an environment with few distractions.
When you really need to get things done, avoid distractions in your workspace — ringing phones, chatty co-workers, or other temptations to stop working. You sap a bit of your willpower every time you resist such a temptation, and if that happens too many times, you'll likely give in eventually. Distraction during memory-intensive tasks can cause you to forget your specific context within the project, which means you have to build it back up again in your head to get started again.
9. Respond to any email that you can answer quickly as soon as you read it.
There's a temptation to flag emails for later, but if a response would take less than two minutes, you're usually better off responding immediately. If you don't, you'll end up having to read these emails a second time later, which is just a waste. Furthermore, people like getting quick responses to their messages, so it's more valuable to respond right away (and the cost of doing so in these cases is very low).
10. Be aware of the optimal period of time for you to work on each task.
For instance: when I'm writing a math paper, I start to lose focus after about an hour. (If you're wondering, I'm a mathematician by background.) That means it's great to take a 10-minute break after an hour of work to restore my focus — especially a break spent doing something mindless, which helps clear my head for the work block. Other tasks don't tax my focus as much, and I spread out my breaks to accommodate longer working periods.