Though all of us have the same amount of time each day, it seems that some folks use that time more effectively than others. While we might like to think it’s because they don’t have as much on their plate as we do, that’s often not the case. Often they actually have more to do but they have just set themselves up to be extremely effective.
While this may take a little effort to set up, you don’t have to be superhuman to do this yourself. If you follow hacks below you should be able to get an extra hour of ‘value’ out of your work day. Whether you choose to use that hour to knock off earlier or to put it to other uses is up to you.
Before we dive into the hacks though, a few words about...
Performance vs Productivity, Effectiveness vs Efficiency
This isn’t about trying to squeeze more efficiency out of you or your team or making you more productive. That will be a likely byproduct but the true goal here is to improve your performance and effectiveness.
You’ll know if this happens simply because you’ll feel better. You’ll feel like your day simply flows better. You won’t be so irritated by interruptions. You’ll hold focus on important tasks longer. You’ll end each day with a greater feeling of satisfaction rather than frustration.If that sounds like something you want, then read on below or listen to us run through the hacks on this episode of our podcast.
Hack # 1 - Take Control Of Your Email
It’s no secret that the convenience of email has become a curse. Because it’s so easy to fire off a message we do. The only problem with that is that everyone else does too. There is a constant background chatter of email conversations going on that cry for our attention. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The first step to email sanity is to turn your notifications off, not just on your laptop but on your phone as well. Yes that may take some courage but if you’re committed to improving your performance as a manager or leader it’s essential that you do this.
Three things are likely to happen:
1 - You may experience withdrawal symptoms. Believe it or not, we’ve become so hooked on notifications that some of us have become addicted to the dopamine hit that arises from them. The anxiety that you feel when your phone or laptop is out of reach is actually the body telling you it’s looking for it’s next hit. It may be hard at the start but once you get over this the relief and improvement in your performance will be remarkable.
2 - You may feel anxious about all the fires that might be going on that you ‘should’ be putting out. As a manager or a leader, it’s not your job to put out fires. It’s the job of your team. If they, and your clients, are constantly coming to you for direction then you don’t have an email problem, you have a leadership and a delegation problem. We’ll cover that in more detail another day but just know that the more you ‘train’ people to rely on you for the minute details, the more they will do so.
3 - You will be able to focus more on the important leadership matters that improve your performance and the performance of your team. Every time you get distracted by a notification, it takes a long time to regain focus on the task at hand. Some studies say 9 minutes some say longer. In this interview Gloria Mark, sums up the ‘cause’ of this problem.
But the bad news is, when you're interrupted, you don't immediately go back to the task you were doing before you were interrupted. There are about two intervening tasks before you go back to your original task, so it takes more effort to reorient back to the original task. Also, interruptions change the physical environment. For example, someone has asked you for information and you have opened new windows on your desktop, or people have given you papers that are now arranged on your desk. So often the physical layout of your environment has changed, and it's harder to reconstruct where you were. So there's a cognitive cost to an interruption.
So even though you think responding to an email ‘will only take a moment,’ it will actually rob you of much more than that. Over the course of an hour, just 3 interruptions (from email or elsewhere) could cost you more than an hour in lost productive time. That’s poor performance.
At the end of the day, most email conversations will flow and resolve themselves without you anyway so resist the urge to monitor every volley. The second step below will ensure that you stay well enough informed without things going beyond your control.
The second step to email sanity is to set aside specific times of the day to check your emails. Batch processing improves performance in almost any environment and email is no exception. If you set aside blocks of time at say, 10.30, 1.30 and 4.30, for example, you’ll find you can power through your emails in about a third of the time it would take you otherwise (and that doesn’t include reorientation time when you keep interrupting yourself).
Note that the first time in the example isn’t at the beginning of the work day. This is deliberate and highly advised. You are better to start your day with tasks that are important to you as a leader than to let someone else’s email (and their agenda) take you off task.
And when you do batch process your emails follow the 4D rule. Do, Defer, Delegate, Delete. Every email should have one of these actions:
Do - If the email can be actioned within 3 minutes then do it now.
Defer - If it requires more than 3 minutes, create a task on your to do list and action it later based on the priorities on your to do list.
Delegate - Who else could or should be actioning this? Delegate accordingly.
Delete - If there’s no action required, archive it and move on.
Hint - Once you’ve done the processing, there shouldn’t be any emails left in your inbox. An inbox that never shrinks is demoralising and leaves you without a sense of progress so file emails to folders that make sense to your workflow. You’d never use a letterbox as a to do list so don’t let your inbox become that either.
You might even consider follow the example of Atos Origin, a French company that set a zero email policy for internal communications for their 70,000 staff. Though they didn’t hit the target, they did reduce internal emails by 60% through using other tools proven to be more effective than email. This was a contributing factor to Atos’s operating margin increasing from 6.5% to 7.5% in 2013, earnings per share increases of more than 50%, and administrative costs reductions from 13% to 10%.
PS - There is nothing especially ‘professional’ in replying to emails ‘in a timely fashion’ (aka now). The urgency that most people apply to email response times just creates a self fulfilling loop that ultimately dampens performance for all concerned.
Hack # 2 - Clear Your Desk
There is nothing like a clear desk. Some folks say they find clutter reassuring because then they know where they can find things. The trouble with this thinking is that you’re faced with constant reminders and remnants of unfinished work.
The apparent ease of being able to find what you need is offset by a low level of unease about what still remains to be done. And behind that there is likely to be a lack of trust in yourself to put a system in place to make sure that things are not forgotten.
Environment matters no matter who you are or what you think your preference might be. All it takes is 5 minutes, maybe two or three times a day to clear things away and find a rightful home or resting place for them. Use this time to mentally reset yourself and set your intention for the next batch of tasks at hand. Each time you do it you’ll have a sense of satisfaction and completion that sets you up nicely another round of action. This will improve your performance, guaranteed.
Hack # 3 - Meet On Your Feet
Meetings are notorious for being long, wasteful and unproductive. Once everyone is sitting around the table, the level of engagement drops for some while others go off in their own heads (or smartphones) to fulfill their own agenda.
A stand up meeting however has a totally different level of feel and engagement. People expect stand up meetings to end quicker. Indeed they do end quicker. People think faster on their feet. They don’t get comfortable and so don’t get distracted by other activities they might be able to do sitting down (opening their laptop for example).
We heard on another podcast recently of a manager who actually takes his leadership team on a walk for their regular weekly meeting. He reported that the meetings are lively, productive and even fun for all concerned.
Hack # 4 - Do. One. Thing.
Study after study after study after study have proven that multitasking reduces your performance. Despite the admiration we might offer to those who can seemingly juggle many things at once, the studies, and experience, shows that doing one thing at a time, and taking regular breaks, gets more done and gets it done more effectively.
This goes back to the earlier point in the email hack about time lost through switching focus and reorienting ourselves. Turn off distractions. Close computer windows that you aren’t working on right now. Close the door. Put your phone in flight mode. Do whatever it takes to allow yourself to do one thing at a time and notice how much more effective you are.
You might even like to try the pomodoro technique. Named after a tomato shaped kitchen timer, it simply involves setting the timer for 25 minutes and then staying on that task till the timer rings. Take a 5 minute break then rinse and repeat. Some pomodoro fans do 50 and 10 minute splits but any longer and your performance will diminish. And if you have a task that should take less than 25 minutes, set a timer accordingly so you don’t get sucked into a time warp where it takes much longer than it could or should have.
Bonus Micro Hacks
If you implement the 4 hacks above you will notice performance improvements for you and your team for sure.
Before we go, here’s a few micro hacks to help amp things up a little more:
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