Executives are measured by getting the right things done. Leaders are measured by their whole team getting the right things done - together.

The economy is teetering and volatile. It is almost impossible to know which way the pendulum will swing. One thing that is for sure is that this quarter and potentially the next are going to be difficult for business - with the exception of a lucky few (we're looking at you hand-sanitizer and toilet paper manufacturers!). Like with all volatility, there are opportunities to be had for the savvy and hardworking. For others, we are stepping into a period where we need to move from a peace-time mentality to a war-time mentality. That means fighting hard and grinding out the work that needs to be done. This is all at a time when we are working in isolation, re-making our routines (or just not having them) and finding ourselves in demotivating environments.

So how do you step up in a time like this and get done what needs to be done? The good news is there are lots of tools we can use to boost our productivity and that of our team's. One of the things we help our executives excel at, through their work with The (em) Collective, is becoming masters of productivity.  We thought we would share some tools to help others in this time of need. At The (em) Collective our education works from the inside out: Intra-personal (with ourselves) —> Inter-personal (between people) —> Organizational (system analysis and cultivation). We will post a series of posts following these stages to help you keep yourself and your team productive. To start, this post focuses on the Intra-personal.

Here are 5 tips to make sure you are maintaining and maximizing your own productivity:

Managing yourself.

First and foremost we are not able to help, manage or lead others if we are in extremis ourselves. Like when flying, it is important for us to put our own mask on before helping others with theirs. In a time like this, with so many unknowns, and working from home, our own mask may have come a bit loose. Or have completely come off. Put it back on by making sure you are physically and emotionally healthy.

Maintain, or start new, routines and habits to make sure you are getting regular exercise, regular meditations and regular connection to others (virtually).

Make sure you are giving yourself at least an 8 hour sleep opportunity every night and you are eating well and limiting caffeine and alcohol to protect your sleep quality. Try to create a new regular exercise routine and mindfulness practice, exercising your body and your mind. It is also crucial that, when you aren't getting the incidental connection with others you would otherwise get, you are giving yourself time to connect with others. Find moments to connect with people virtually, over email and other messaging services. We recommend using FaceTime or Zoom, because our brain responds differently to seeing people than just hearing their voice.

Don't be afraid to get professional support to help you maintain this balance if you are struggling to do it solo. We can't stress how important this is for the your own performance and that of your team. It can feel selfish to be focused on yourself during a time of such extreme stress for your team, but you will not be able to bring your full abilities to bear for people if you yourself are stressed and operating from your lizard brain.

Routines and Habits.

Routines and habits are our most effective tool to form and change behavior. Habits are formed by repeating certain behavior to a trigger to get a certain reward.  The more we do them, the easier it will be for us to continue to do them, as the behavior moves from our System 2 (concentrated focus) to our System 1 (automatic behavior).

This has two parts to it: the first is identifying and short-circuiting routines and habits that get in the way of our productivity. Some habits that can persist for us while we are supposed to be productive from home are watching streaming instead of working, scrolling social media or news outlets (especially at the moment), doing your washing, taking lots of breaks for tea and snacks, sleeping longer in the morning, not exercising and not socializing. For these habits, identify what tiggers are making you want to do the behavior. Maybe it is sitting in a certain place in the house, maybe it is boredom, maybe it is loneliness or the anxiety triggered by the uncertainty of the corona virus. The easiest way to change a habit is to avoid the trigger, because the behavior that occurs after the trigger for an engrained habit is, by definition, automatic and not conscious. For streaming or scrolling the news, you might be noticing that you keep scrolling the news when you look at your phone on your desk next to you. To break that habit, try putting your phone in a different room while you are working, and let yourself engage with your phone in breaks between work sprints. (see Focus and Attention retention below).

Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash

The second part is creating new routines and habits. It is estimated that it takes about 60 days to form a new habit, but don't be discouraged by that. Each time you do the trigger —> behavior —> reward loop it will get easier. So take time to think about what are the habits you want to create for yourself that will support your productivity while you are working from home, having to navigate times of uncertainty or increased distraction. Maybe it is that you want more effectively switch into work mode. To do this identify a trigger (a certain spot in the house, making yourself a coffee in a certain cup, turning on a certain kind of music), then the behavior (sitting down and starting to work on your first work task of the day) and the reward (staying productive for the first task). Be disciplined to repeat this trigger —> behavior loop for a few days in a row and see how much easier each day gets.

Focus and Attention Retention

It is a common line that time is our most precious resource, but actually it is our focused attention. As anyone who is procrastinating right now will tell you, if they could choose between an hour of time and an hour of focused work on an important task, they would choose the latter.

So how do we hone your focus and attention, to make sure it is being applied to the right things. Focus and attention is what Daniel Kahneman refers to as System 2 thinking, that effortful and engaged processing of information. You may also know it as a flow state. The experience of being totally absorbed in the work you are doing. The trouble is that our brains know it is an important and scare resource, and are very protective of it. If given the opportunity to use System 1 (quick, low effort, amygdala-centered, thinking) our brain will switch the task into System 1 or just opt for a different, more Systems 1 favorable task. Luckily, there are a few tools we can use to be more strategic with the use of our attention and focus.

First and foremost is to make sure you have the full amount of attention and focus you can get. You do this by following the suggestions in Managing Yourself, by maintaining good sleep, exercise, mindfulness and connection.

Second is to stop any attention leaks that are happening because of distractions - see Distraction hacking below.

Every time we let ourselves descend into a scrolling-hole on our phone (which is purpose built to harvest our attention) we are using some of our precious focused attention.

Third is to apply your attention and focus to tasks that will maintain it. This means making sure that the tasks you are doing are not boring to you or anxiety inducing. If they are, it will be an uphill battle for you to focus your attention on them. If a task is boring to you, consider if you are the right person to do it. If not, delegate effectively. Some tasks just need to get done by you, so you can make these more attention grabbing by creating incentives for completion, increasing the difficulty of them or making a game for yourself out of them. This is not sustainable, so if the task will be repeating, consider why you are choosing to do it and for what benefit.  If you find that you don't want to choose to continue to do it for the benefit you are getting, consider removing it from your list by delegating it or deleting it.

Distraction Hacking

When we are working remotely we will be spending most of our day in front of the first and second most effectively engineered distraction machines (your phone and your computer). If you want to increase your productivity, you will need to fight back against these distractions. You are in control of your attention and focus (although it may not feel like that sometimes) and are the one to decide what it is applied to, instead of have it taken from you through notifications, visual clutter and other features that are designed to engage your attention away from you.

The most effective tool our body has to engage our attention is our emotions. Our body and brain are hard-wired to use emotions to direct attention to potential threats and opportunities. At a time like this when our notifications continually alert us to a developing threats, and our inboxes are being inundated by updates and check-ins, it can be very hard to focus on the work at hand. Every time we see a notification or an inbox item with an engaging headline, we get a little hit of dopamine and/or cortisol, and it can make us feel excited and/or scared. That random reward can be deliciously addicting, and it will virtually ensure that we want to come back for more. Fight back against these by turning off your notifications and alerts and checking the various apps and email on your timeline, not when they demand your attention. Batch checking email, messages and slack so that you can stay responsive to your team at an important time, but don't have your attention demanded from you. This will allow you to stay in flow state while working and will work to reduce the likelihood that you spend your entire day in a state of threat-response.

One tool to minimize distraction is to use the Pomodoro method or other time-bound task scheduling method, and close all windows used for the task at the end of each task. Your work method would look like: open tools needed —> work hard with focus on a task, without distractions for 45 minutes —> close all tools at the end of the session —> check phone/email/news to confirm the world is still functioning.

Goal Setting

Goals are one of our most effective ways of creating motivation for ourselves, and aligning work for our team, provided that the goal is properly crafted. There is a volume of research on how best to inspire and maintain motivation using goals, all slightly different in what they suggest about the feature of the goal. Some overarching and consistent features of goals are

  1. that they are specific - a third party could tell if your task was finished;
  2. they are aspirational but perceived as achievable - you feel like it will be a stretch for you to achieve, but you feel like you have the self-confidence and autonomy, if you apply effort, to reach the goal; and
  3. that they are relevant - you can see the benefit to you of achieving the goal.

Remember, the mere presence of a goal will likely increase your performance.

At The (em) Collective we see time and time again the benefits that CEOs, Executives and Leaders get from increasing their own productivity and focused work on the right things. We run 1:1 bootcamps to help you become a master in these skills. Reach out now if you would like to learn more.

Title image - by My Life Journal on Unsplash

Posted on:

Thursday, March 19, 2020


Time Management