My Approach to Task/Time Management. Part 3: Productivity and Focus
In the previous two articles (1, 2), I describe my framework and tool set for time/task management. I do not do time/task management to the sake of time/task management, the end goal for me is to improve my working speed and not loose the quality, i.e., I want to do more in the same period of time keeping (or even increasing) high standards of end results.
To my point of view, there are tree main things that can help to reach this goal. I should:
- Put myself and work in the flow state;
- Keep focus for long periods of time;
- Improve my performance.
Therefore, in this part I will talk about these tree pillars and describe some hacks related to them that work for me. I should note that these recipes are personal and may not be applicable in your case. However, I describe them here, so you can try them and choose the ones that suit you well. I would be glad if you share with me your lifehacks.
Table of Contents
I guess that you can remember your feelings when you do your hobby. It seems that time passes very quickly, you fully immerse in what you are doing,you know what result you want to achieve, and you enjoy the process of getting to this result. You can spend hours in this state, and you will not feel being tired. If you can put yourself into this state for doing your work, you will benefit a lot. I have several lifehacks that reduce my time and efforts to reach this state. However, before describing describing these lifehacks I have to note that I am not always working in the flow state, and sometimes I cannot achieve it at all.
Observing my everyday activities, I have found out that for me it is much easier to concentrate and get into the flow state if in the morning I have followed my usual routine. For instance, for a long time I woke up at 7 in the morning, swam, had my breakfast, went to the office and started to work there. During the days when I followed this routine I was able to put myself into the working state very fast. On the contrary, if something had interrupted this usual sequence of activities (e.g., I had to go somewhere for a meeting) I had to put additional efforts to get into the flow state. To my point of view, this oddity can be explained by two things:
- The less decisions you take, the more energy remains;
- These morning activities are a part of your “flow state anchors”.
I have read in the literature that the less choices you make in your daily activity the more energy you would have to take decisions in your work. For instance, Steve Jobs was wearing only black turtlenecks and blue jeans. Thus, in the morning he should not think what to put on today saving processing cycles of his brain for more important situations. Similarly, if you have a usual list of activities in the morning, you do not need to think what to do next. Hence, you would have additional energy to think about your work.
I have observed that it is easier to put myself into the flow state if I start working in the same way every day. For instance, at my previous job I initiated every day with a cup of tea/coffee. I took it from the pantry and started working while it was smelling and cooling down. It seems that soon I have developed an “anchor” that work in the flow state starts with this cup of tea/coffee cooling down on my table. Interestingly, you can also have bad anchors. The first time, I have heard about the anchors from my friend Ivan during my PhD, when we were discussing my bad habit of reading news just after my arrival at the office. Therefore, you should develop good anchors, preferably, the ones that influence on multiple senses simultaneously, and also avoid bad anchors that can drive you into the state of procrastination.
Thus, my usual morning activities could be a part of “flow state anchors”. Currently, one of such “flow state anchors” that I continue developing is setting my pomodoro timer before going deep into the work. In the previous articles, I mention that my pomodoro timer is a widget on my desktop where I have preset four intervals: 15, 30, 45 and 60 minutes. In order to choose the interval, I estimate my current state and how much time it is required to complete a task. If I am tired, I use shorter intervals (usually, 30 minutes); if I am full of energy, I set the timer for 60 minutes. Similarly, if a task is very short, I choose a shorter interval. Once I am in the flow state, even if the time is up, I continue working till I complete the task. Thus, after the break I do not need to waste time to get into the task context again.
Unfortunately, sometimes all these anchors do not help, and I cannot put myself into the flow state. In this case, I try other tricks: I may change the place where I work, the music I listen to, or I change the task.
I have discovered that sometimes I am super-focused in unusual working places. For instance, once in a coffee shop in an airport I managed to complete a huge task that I was working on more than a week before just in one hour before my flight. Thus, if I have problems with concentration I change the place I work.
Usually, I listen to music while I am working. There are several benefits of doing this. First, the headphones in my ears convey a message to other co-workers that I should not be disturbed. Therefore, even if I am not listening to music I put on headphones during deep work to tell others that I am busy. Second, music helps me to ignore surrounding conversations. Even if you are deep inside the work, a conversation around can easily distract you, even if is not related to you. Therefore, I recommend buying good headphones with active noise cancelling if you work in an open space or have such issue. At work, I prefer to listen to trance music or my favorite list of tracks of various artists. However, if I cannot concentrate for a long time, I try to change the music or turn it off. My other favorite genres of music to work are white/pink noise music (natural sounds, like a rain with a thunder, noise in a cafe, singing birds, etc.) or energetic tracks of some bands (e.g., at the time of writing I listen to Rammstein). Sometimes, I even loop just one or several tracks therefore my brain does not spend “cycles” on predicting what track is next. I think there is no rule of thumb in this question, just try and find out what music increase your concentration you better.
Lastly, I may change the task. I may choose another task to work on, even if it is not of high priority. In this case, I try to choose the task that is monotonic, for instance, filling forms or repeating experiments. This type of tasks helps me to put myself into the flow state faster. Then, once I am in the flow state, I can start working on primary tasks.
If these tricks do not help it may mean that you are exhausted and need a break. Do not ignore these signs from your body, because forcing yourself to work in this situation may cause a lot of harm, e.g., may lead to a burnout. Therefore, do breaks!
Once you get into the flow state, it is very important to continue keeping focus. You have to do all your best to stay in the flow state as long as possible. I have discovered several tricks that help me in reaching this goal.
The first such thing is to work on one thing at a time. If during the period of deep work you switch between different tasks, your brain spend a lot of energy to save and restore the contexts of these tasks. I have observed that this not only makes me slower in delivering results, but I also feel more tired after such a session. It seems that our brain works in a “single thread” mode and cannot process different tasks in parallel.
The second advice is to remove all kind of notifications that may interrupt you. I disable all messengers on my computer before a session of deep work. For instance, I shut down skype completely, I do not switch it to “Do Not Disturb” mode, because I still have a desire to check what is there. Similarly, I turn off Internet on my phone, therefore, the messengers installed there will not be able to push any notification. Sometimes, when I do not expect any important calls (e.g., during a night), I also turn on silent mode on my phone and put it screen down on the table. So as my work is closely connected with finding and processing information in the Internet, I also try to make it harder for me to be distracted when I browse the Internet. For example, I sign off from social networks, thus, even though for some reason I appear their website, I need to do an extra mile to check for updates). I also recommend to configure your email client to check for updates periodically (do not use push notifications) and use quite a long interval, e.g., 30 minutes or 1 hour. Rarely our work requires answering emails right after they are received. The senders can usually wait for an hour or even more for your reply. I have read in the literature that some people check their emails only three times a day: in the morning, just before or right after a lunch, and before going home. I think that this is a quite radical approach, personally I usually check emails once an hour. Checking emails rarely has an additional benefit. Sometimes, during this time the problem may be already resolved, and you would not spend your time working on it.
My previous manager also taught me (thank you Marc!) to allocate in your e-calendar the time for deep work and mark this time as occupied. Thus, your co-workers will see that you are not available, and will not disturb you during this time. Moreover, if you start deep work session at the same time every day, this creates an additional anchor for the flow state.
The third advice is to improve your domain knowledge. I have found out that it is much easier to keep focus if you know what you want to achieve and how to do this. If I am not very good at the task topic, it is very hard for me to keep being focused. My brain tries to find any excuse to be exempted from this state. Such line of behavior can be easily explained because evolutionarily, our brains are used to keep energy rather than to spend it. So, you should do all your best to develop your will power and to improve your ability to learn new things rapidly. The more you know the easier it will be to learn something new.
Last but not least, you should sleep well and do sport. It is almost impossible for me to concentrate if I have not slept well. When this happens, I try to improve my focus using different energetics, like sugar or caffein. In the short term, this works, however, in the long term your productivity decreases if you exploit these “drugs” all the time. Apparently, a better approach, which works well for me, is to do some sport. I have noticed that aerobic activities improve my focus better than anaerobic (high-intense) exercises. The aerobic activities make me more energetic, while the anaerobic exercises drain my energy, and after them I have to relax. I do not say that you should not do anaerobic exercises, I just do not recommend them to do to improve your focus. For instance, at my previous job jogging for about 30 minutes after my office hours allowed me to concentrate and work productively for about additional two or three hours.
As I mentioned in the previous article, in order to improve your productivity you need to be able to measure and compare the measurements with the previous results. It is equally important to use the right key performance indicators (KPI). Sometimes concerning personal productivity, it is quite difficult to understand what exactly you have to measure. If you work at a plant, and your job is to produce the same parts day by day, then it is very easy to choose a KPI, which could be, e.g., the amount of parts produced a day. However, if your job is connected with intellectual activities, it is quite difficult to find the right KPI. For instance, my work is connected with finding research problems, generating ideas how to solve these problem, developing prototypes, conducting experiments, and describing results. Moreover, there are some other subsidiary activities, e.g., teaching, reviewing, etc. If you have such a variety of activities that you do quite irregularly, it is very difficult to set a KPI that embrace them all.
I experimented with different KPIs but ended with the time of deep work a day. Using this KPI, I can conclude if my day is successful or not, because this KPI counts only time that I spend on improving myself. I do not consider as “deep work” the time spent on meetings, on writing emails, and so on. On the contrary, the time spent on writing these set of posts I include, because during this time I improve my writing skills. You should be frank with yourself when you consider what tasks are included into this KPI.
Of course, this KPI does not fully reflect my performance. Indeed, sometimes I could do more during the same interval of deep work, for instance, today I may produce more chars of text than yesterday. I tried to use KPIs like this, however, for some reason they do not work for me. Still, sometimes I feel that under some circumstances I produce much more. Therefore, below I give some advices that are based solely on my internal perception of my performance.
First, I have observed that if I have a plan for a day, I use to achieve more than if I do not have one. If I have a plan, I do not need to think about what should I do next. Therefore, I try to organize my next day in the evening. It is not necessary that there are tens of task in my list. It may consist of only one task, even one task for several days. For instance, writing this post has taken me more than three days. For these days, I have one task that has been partially done during first two day and completed on the third day. However, I have read that sometimes it is easier to split long task into smaller ones because crossing a completed task from the list is a pleasure for our brain that creates a positive reinforcement to complete more and more tasks. In this case, you can always split your task into smaller ones, e.g., in my case I could have separate tasks to write each section of the post.
Second, consider the circadian rhythms. We have different performance on the same tasks during a day. For instance, I am a night owl, so the best time for deep work in my case is early evening. In the morning, I am good at developing something. After lunch I need some active monotonic work that does not consume a lot of my brain cycles, for instance, making experiments. Late in the evening, I like to concentrate on the tasks that involve exploration. For instance, if I want to try a new technology most probably I would do this late in the evening. So, when you take your next item from your task list, pick the one that you can do at the maximum performance considering your body rhythms.
Third, spend time on improving your tooling. For instance, I spent quite a lot of time during my master to learn Russian touch typing using all ten fingers. However, when I was writing my master thesis, all my time spent on this activity returned with interest. Therefore, one of the first thing I did during my PhD, was learning English touch typing. Similarly, hotkey usage also saves a lot of time. Additionally, I like to split the windows related to different projects between different virtual desktops. This allows me to switch between the projects easier.
Forth, try to spend less time on time killers. Different social networks are developed to captivate you, so that you spend there a lot of time. I would not discover America if I say that one of their main KPI is the amount of time a user spends on these platforms. Hence, they do all their best to attract and hold you there. Therefore, the best you can do is just avoid them, if this is not possible, try to limit the time you spend on these platforms.
Fifth, I have discovered that if a task is time bound, this helps me to complete it faster. According to Parkinson’s law, “the work takes all the time available for its completion”. Therefore, try to bound your tasks aggressively, and you would be able to achieve more.
In this set of articles, I have considered my approach to improve my work performance. It starts from outlining my framework for time/task management, showcases the tool set I use to achieve this goal, and concludes with the advices on how I get into the flow mode state, stay in this state longer, and how I improve my performance. However, the process of improving yourself is continuous, and I think my approach will evolve with the lapse of time. Therefore, take it as an example, experiment, discover what works for you personally, apply this in your everyday work, and share the results with the community so that we can also become better!