Years ago, I used to hate coming to work. I felt consistently tired, sleepy and unproductive. I was continuously distracted by emails or other people. I did a lot of research and tried lots of things. Some worked, and some didn’t, however I did find myself progressively doing more work in less time. This ultimately let me enjoy my work more, and produce better quality work as a result. Over the years I’ve taken the bits that really worked and either expanded on them or reduced them which have resulted in the list below. They may not work for you, but I hope you give them a go; they really do work for me…
Real productivity comes from not just working more hours but from creative solutions that shorten schedules. Think about how you can remove barriers that distract you, decrease your efficiency or make work dull. Flag these impediments to your team at your stand-up and try to remove them as soon as possible.
Make a commitment
Write down somewhere (electronic or paper) what you’re intending on doing for the day. Include meetings in this list and estimate each one in hours. Make sure you give yourself ample time for lunch. At your daily stand-up, commit to your team all the things that you intend to finish for the day.
Review your commitment
At your stand-up, talk about what you committed to yesterday and what you’ve achieved. If you missed your commitment, explain to the team why. Someone may be able to help you out.
Iterate your day into 25 minute time-boxes
An adult attention span peaks at about 20 minutes for full concentration. The general idea is to split your day up and review your progress every 30 minutes. Get yourself a timer capable of counting down from 25 minutes and work solidly on 1 item for the entire period. No distractions. The extra 5 minutes is the most important thing, it’s necessary to readjust your concentration. So go get a glass of water, use the bathroom or talk to a colleague about something important – it doesn’t really matter, as long as you get away from the task at hand to something unrelated for a couple of minutes. You’ll feel refreshed for the next time-box. This might seem counter-intuitive at first but it really does work.
After each time-box readjust your priorities and start a new time-box. If it makes sense to continue what you’re doing, do it. If the priority now is to work on something else or you feel like you need a change, then do that instead. Try your best to complete tasks within your time-box where possible.
In my experience, meetings should be broken up into time-boxes. Use your timer to break up the meetings into 55 minute sessions with a 5 minute comfort break in-between. Don’t wait for people to return in the 5 minutes, set expectations that you’re going to continue regardless of whether they’re back or not. Make sure people don’t go check their emails or use their computers. It’s a comfort break! People will feel refreshed and more focused. Something to eat in meetings really helps too. I still remember the moment when I first started providing biscuits and fruit in meetings. People were noticeably more awake, especially on Monday mornings. Try it – it works!
Deal with Email
Try to deal with email immediately. Emails can be put into several categories. When an email comes in make a call:
- If it will take you less than 60 seconds to deal with – do it.
- If it takes longer than 60 seconds to deal with and can wait until the end of your time-box, wait until then to deal with it. I tend to find most things can wait until the end of your time-box to do.
If it can’t wait until the end of the time-box, you can drop the time-box. Terminate the time-box and start a new one, dealing with the urgent issue.
If you are getting too many emails to deal with in this way, dedicate a time-box to deal with emails and close your email application for the other time-boxes. This will allow you to concentrate on your work without being distracted.
Organise your email
Once you have dealt with an email, either move it to an archive sub-folder if you need to keep the contents or delete it entirely. The goal is to have only items in your inbox that you need to action. This requires an initial amount of discipline but I found it extremely effective – I effectively have a natural email to-do list that’s self-emergent.
Try to avoid using outlook rules if possible, I found that automatically moving email to a subfolder usually results me missing the email. I personally prefer to read the email then use an outlook quickstep to move it to the correct archive folder.
Work at a sustainable pace
If you work 7.5 hours a day you should get through 15 time-boxes in a day. It’s better to be refreshed and do your work well, rather than worry and be tired all the time. If there is more work to do in the day than you have time to do, you may need to improve your processes or negotiate less work. There are obviously times where extra work is necessary, but working at a sustainable pace leaves scope for short bursts when you really need it.
Increase your focus – Cross-brain activities
Early in the morning, have you ever felt like your brain hasn’t quite engaged yet? One technique I used to teach for engaging the brain and focusing the mind is ‘Cross-brain activities’. The idea is that you pick an activity that engages both hands where your focus crosses your body . For me, this is juggling. The ball moving from one side to the other engages both left and right of your brain and kicks your brain into gear. If you can’t juggle (or can’t be bothered to learn), bending down and touching your right foot with your left hand and vice-versa 5-10 times works quite well too. The results are staggering, especially first thing in the morning. It’s ideal for exams or solving complex logic problems, even if it does look a little silly.
Open a window
It may seem obvious, but fresh air (weather permitting) energizes a room. Hot, stuffy rooms encourage tiredness and are counter-productive.
If you rush around in the mornings getting ready, try getting up 10 minutes earlier. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but rushing around less in the mornings reduces stress and allows you to focus your mind before you start work. After work, try to leave work behind. It can be good to reflect to a partner at the end of the day how your day went, but try to avoid checking emails and doing work at home if possible. If you must work at home in the evenings, try to stop thinking about work at least 2 hours before you go to sleep to let your mind wind-down. You’ll sleep better and be alert the next day.
Make sure you have a sensible breakfast. Cereal or toast works well as it’s full of long-lasting energy that will last until lunch. Avoid cereal bars if possible. For lunch try and have something high in protein (chicken and nuts for example) and complex carbohydrate (bread, rice, pasta). Chicken pasta is really good. The complex carbohydrate gives you energy and the protein helps muscle recovery, making you feel more alert and less drained. Try to leave the building for lunch if possible to have a visual break from work and get some fresh air.
Keep drinking water
Dehydration is a common cause of tiredness, headaches and being generally unproductive. Try to drink hydrating liquids such as water rather that diuretic such as tea or coffee. The caffeine in coffee might seem like a good idea in the short term, but your body will get used to it and you’ll soon find yourself ‘needing’ a coffee in the morning to wake up. Try cross-brain activities (listed earlier in this article) instead for a sustainable wake-up activity.
If you notice someone do great work, tell them! It feels good to be appreciated for the great work you’ve done, and your colleagues will appreciate that you’ve noticed. You don’t need to force your good work down people’s throats. If you do good work, they will find out themselves. If something goes really wrong, ask for help and deal with it as a team. Make a note to bring it up at your team retrospective so you and your team can learn from mistakes and fix any process issues.
Take a step back and look at how good you actually are
Lastly, it’s very easy to forget all the great work you’ve done. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of just talking about the bad stuff. Try to focus on all the great things you’ve achieved. Look at all the amazing software you’ve made and be proud of yourself and your team.
I appreciate these techniques and advice won’t work for everybody. The nature of continuous improvement suggests that this list will change over time, and I’m sure you will have your own spin on things I’ve suggested. I do hope that you’ve got something out of it and comments are always welcome.