Productivity... by doing MORE of LESS

Article by Miriam Yates, Consulting Psychologist, Within Consulting

I have a quite a few diverse projects on the boil both professionally and personally, which has recently had me thinking about productivity.  To me, productivity is about getting stuff done, but recently I’ve come to realise that it’s not just about the stuff, but rather THE stuff.  That is – the meaningful, important tasks that contribute to my over-arching goals and objectives.  Don’t worry if you’ve suddenly had flashbacks to all the time you’ve wasted today on faceplant – I am literally the anti-poster-child in this space (I’m surprised I don’t have a callous on my pointer from trawling insty).  

There are different and competing thoughts around exactly what productivity is.  Some confuse productivity with ‘being busy’ (note: this is not productivity and we actually need to stop pretending it is and glorifying it), while others associate productivity with financial outcomes (more of an economics perspective). Naturally, my need for increased productivity within my workday required me to start reading a few books; I started observing my more-productive peers, and; listening to a variety of podcasts on the topic (because education with a side of procrastination - yeah!) … I was interested to answer three questions: 

  1. How can I prioritise the time in my day? 
  2. What can I do to automate myself out of things that aren’t important? 
  3. [In a nutshell] How can I get more done, in less time?

It turns out there are loads of books on the topic, from claims you can do a work day in 3 hours (say what?!) to creating the best to-do list (sadly that did get me enthused).  In fairness to myself, compiling to-do lists has never been a problem, and I actually don’t mind working beyond 3 hours per day (I genuinely love my job that much).  But I've noticed my lists comprise multiple yet discrete areas of interest and my week days have been getting a little long.  It dawned on me that perhaps I have too many interests...

Now I have some pretty productive friends.  From friends that run international aid projects, countless friends who juggle multiple jobs and being the primary care-giver, to another who is finalising his PhD while competing internationally in Ironman World Championships (yeah – that’s’ right - both at the same time).  I got thinking about these people that seem to produce quality outcomes and how they do it.  And [cue drumroll] they do more, of less.  That is, they all seem to have fewer areas of focus, with increased time, effort and energy dedicated to these specific areas.  Mattia (forever to be known as my Ironman friend) dedicates a large portion of time to physical training.  I’ve noticed he allocates time within his workday to training, and writes the PhD during the hours where he is most alert, attentive and able to focus.  And this optimisation of available energy is common.  My productive friends don’t seem to delineate personal and professional goals, but create a more holistic and integrated picture of life.  What’s more?  They’ve got a few specific areas of focus, and they simply stick to them.  

In my exploration of the content out there I stumbled on (okay, strategically listened to) Steve Dubner’s Freakonomics podcast “How to be more productive”.  More generally, if you haven’t listened to this series, do yourself and your earballs a giant favour and start streaming ASAP – I love his quirky take on otherwise straight-forward topics.  Anyway, Dubner explores the concept of productivity with a range of contributors.  One such contributor – Charles Duhigg (author of “Smarter Faster Better”) – interviewed 400-ish people and identified 8 key tools, those he deemed consistently productive seemed to use.  These are: 

  1. Motivation: why are you trying to achieve goal X?
  2. Focus: how do you ignore the distractions?
  3. Goal-setting: what’s your big-picture? How does your action today contribute to this? 
  4. Decision-making: limit the little decisions (think: automate your wardrobe/ morning routine/ diet/ etc.); and maximise time for the big decisions.  And for these, think probabilistically, which involves envisaging multiple contradictory options and pick the one most likely to occur
  5. Innovation: connect the ‘boring’ dots to create and broker new thinking
  6. Absorbing data: to learn effectively, make information harder to absorb… this avoids lots of heuristic thinking (e.g., think: stereotypes; convention; BAU) and results in deeper processing of information and greater insight
  7. Managing others: that is, managing them by empowering them to actually solve the problems they’re closest too
  8. Teams: it’s not about the talent (finally someone else who agrees) but rather how they interact (praise this thinking!) [Side note from Tamara: Ask us about our team roles tools or workshops if this interests you]

Now, I could bang on about how I’m giving this approach to productivity a crack… but who actually cares? Seriously….

What I think is more important, is how do these strategies work for you?  Can you simplify your goals?  How does it work when you stop delineating the diverse yet equally important parts of your life? What happens for you?  

A sneaky hint (because I just can’t help but share a good thing): I’ve started scheduling exercise during my working day (WHUUUT?!); automating my routine; prioritising sleep (literally the best); and managing others in ways more consistent with Duhigg’s definition.  I can safely say it’s a game-changer!   

Yours in productivity (and the 3pm slump – coz I’m not a productivity machine…. yet!), 

Miriam Yates - Senior Consultant and Psychologist, Within Consulting

Within Consulting offer a range of coaching, consulting, leadership and team workshop services.  For more information, contact Tamara Baker at tamara@withinconsulting.com.au or Miriam Yates at miriam@withinconsulting.com.au.