The internet age is also the age of remote working. More of us than ever now work ‘on the fly’; there’s no need for us to sit shackled to a desk between 9 and 5 every single day. Instead, we work partly in the office, partly at home, and everywhere else in between.
We take calls in the car, we answer emails over lunch, and we write reports while we watch the TV.
Nobody cares when work gets done, or how long it takes; all that matters is that it is finished by the time the deadline hits.
The line between ‘working time’ and ‘free time’ is forever being blurred. For most professionals today, the line has long since vanished.
This change in working culture has given us a lot more freedom, but it has also taken a great deal away. Since we can now effectively work from any location, day and night, our workloads have steadily expanded to fill that space.
We are under constant pressure to condense our workload – to get more done in less time – to free up some space for more income, more work, and maybe…just maybe…even some free time for ourselves!
Put simply, in today’s workplace, productivity is everything.
There are now hundreds of websites dedicated entirely to squeezing more productive output from every minute of the day. Magazines, newspapers, and blogs of all kinds produce thousands of articles on productivity every single week. Some of the best-selling books of the past 10 years have been guides on how to become a more efficient worker.
Yet very few of them ever give hard, concrete advice on how to be more productive.
There are books telling you to change your mindset, to be a different kind of person, to make changes to your diet even.
But practically none of them give you hard, concrete advice on how to streamline a process; they don’t tell you anything you can implement right now, today, to get more done in the same amount of time.
I’m going to lay out 3 things you can do to get significantly more work done in a shorter period of time.
These aren’t abstract ideas, mindset changes, or anything that you can’t see results from right away.
They are all practical methods for making the most of your time.
If you introduce these techniques to your own life, you will see a remarkable increase in what you are able to get done each day.
If you implement these techniques across an entire team, then the results will be compounded many times over.
These techniques have been chosen to be easy to roll out across an entire team, department, even a whole business. There’s nothing ephemeral for anyone to scoff at, and nothing that can’t really be seen or measured.
The Pomodoro Technique
Without a shadow of a doubt, timed working slots have made the biggest change to my working life.
This method is sometimes referred to as the Pomodoro Technique (named after the tomato counter the inventor used while at University – pomodoro is Italian for tomato). But it goes by many names – work intervals, timed ‘sprints’, and so on. Lots of people will probably use this technique without knowing it’s a technique at all.
The basic idea is that you work for set intervals, taking a five minute break in between intervals, until you have completed a set number of intervals. You then take a much longer break, and start the cycle again.
The classic set up is 25 minute working intervals, with a five minute break afterwards, repeated for five intervals.
That would equal a total working time of two and a half hours, followed by a longer break of, say, an hour and a half minimum.
Doesn’t sound like a lot of work right?
How much can you really get done in two and a half hours?
But I assure you, the Pomodoro Technique is POWERFUL. Most people I have introduced to this technique have told me that they were eventually able to get a full day’s work done in a single cycle.
A full day’s work in two and a half hours.
How is that possible?
The genius of the Pomodoro Technique has nothing to do with the times you choose to work for, or the length of the breaks you take. You could work for 15 minutes and take a two minute break, 40 minutes with a 10 minute break – it doesn’t matter.
The power of the technique comes from its execution, and what that does to your mind.
When you begin a 25 minute work interval, the idea is that you work solidly, uninterrupted, until the timer rings.
You can’t check emails.
You can’t look for a different playlist on YouTube.
You can’t go make a cup of coffee.
You just work.
Some people ask: “Can’t you just concentrate like that for the whole day anyway? Why time it at all?”
I have never met a single person who can just sit down and work solidly for an indeterminate amount of time. If you can manage that, then great – why are you reading this article?!
But for us mere mortals, our brain needs a set goal to work towards. If it is going to be completely focused, it needs to know that this period of intense focus is going to end. It needs to know that it is going to end at a concrete point in time, otherwise it can’t visualize it, and it just won’t comply.
This brings us neatly onto the second technique.
Break Goals Down
The human brain is a funny thing.
It is incredibly powerful.
It can comprehend insanely complicated concepts, it can calculate multiple things at once, and it has a memory storage that puts some computers to shame.
But one thing it cannot do is stay focused on abstract, faraway goals.
That is something left to us by our ancestors; working towards an ill-defined, hard to define goal was evidently not something they needed to do on the African Savannah.
To stay focused, motivated, and concentrated on a given task, you need to have a fixed, concrete, easily-identifiable goal in mind.
As this article explains, to be truly productive you need to break down your goals into limited, concrete chunks that have easily defined beginnings, middles, and ends.
Imagine two scenarios: in 1) you decide that you are going to write a best-selling crime novel, and in 2) you decide to write 600 words of the opening of your novel.
If you just keep your goal as “to write a bestselling crime novel”, chances are, you will never put pen to paper. Your goal is too distant, too abstract, too far away for you to really know what to do to get there.
If you sit down at a laptop to “write a bestselling novel”, your brain is going to very quickly get bored and move on to something else. That is just its nature.
However, with 2), you have something concrete to aim for.
Sit down at a laptop with the goal of “writing 600 words of the first chapter”, and chances are, you’ll end the day with 600 words on the page. They may not be perfect, but you’re on your way.
The thing is, the second goal is a part of the first goal.
It is just much more concrete.
It has an identifiable beginning, middle, and end.
It is much easier for your brain to imagine you writing 600 words than it is for it to imagine you writing a bestselling novel, and so it is much easier for it to stay motivated on that task.
Breaking down the far-off goal of “writing a bestselling novel” into multiple, discreet chunks like “write 600 words today”, “edit last 12 pages”, “write character bio”, and so on can have an unbelievable impact on your ability to actually get to your end goal.
The far-off goal entails al of the small, little goals, but until you’ve specified them, you’ll probably never start on even the smallest tasks.
Writing Things Down
This is the one that most people intuitively understand right away.
We all know a compulsive list maker. While they may not understand the psychological basis for why it is effective, these people will know full well the power of writing things down.
Our brains find it easier to codify, store, and recall pieces of information that we have presented to it in multiple different forms rather than just one.
Thinking of a goal is a very shallow form of processing.
You might think, “I need to collect references for that paper today”.
But just thinking it does very little to get it to stick in your memory.
You will go about your day and probably remember the references as you drift off to sleep.
However, if we present the information to the brain in a different way, i.e. in writing, then we give it a much better chance of recalling that information when we sit down to work. When we actually involve ourselves in ‘creating’ the information, by writing it down, then we are able to store the information even deeper in our memory.
As some studies have found, the ‘heavy-lifting’ involved in taking hand written notes compared to typing does help people encode information more effectively.
This is known as elaborative encoding. By increasing the effort expended in receiving a piece of information, and the number of different ways we experience that information, we can dramatically improve our ability to recall it later on.
This is important because how deeply we are able to store – or encode – a piece of information has a huge impact on how seriously we take it as a goal.
Putting It All Together
Implementing just one of these practices can make a massive difference to your productivity levels.
But if you manage a team of people, then the possibilities really are staggering.
Try bringing in some of these practices to your team.
They don’t need to be fixed rules.
You could try encouraging people to work in short, timed bursts. You could do this by specifying when people take their breaks – you would just have to make them lengthy enough for this to be appealing!
You could hold morning meetings where people write down their goals for the day. Get people to talk you through what they need to do; not just the end goal, but the small steps they need to take to get there.
These may sound like small changes, but the cumulative effects can be staggering.
Try them out today and see what happens!