Productivity is a topic that has fascinated me throughout my whole career. I've always wondered how some people seem to get so much done whilst others struggle to get by. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, right?
I've had a rollercoaster relationship with productivity. I've had periods of being extremely productive and then periods of where I'm flicking back and forth through my email trying to work out what I should be doing. Embarrassingly it still happens from time to time today!
So what makes some people more productive than others? Well, productivity is a high-performance habit and over the last few of months, I've been researching heavily into the topic for a group coaching session. My conclusions are below in what I call the Productivity Equation.
Productivity is equal to Clarity times Energy times Courage times Influence all to the power of Necessity divided by Distraction.
When we think of productivity, the most common activities that come to mind are prioritisation, planning, scheduling and task management. Getting clear on what needs to be done, who needs to do it, and when it needs to be done. But how many of us take the time to ask ourselves whether we are actually doing the right things?
For years my definition of productivity focused on output. The more "stuff" I got done the more productive I felt. I never really questioned in depth whether I was spending my time doing the "right things" until I noticed that my goals were getting further and further away. This, like for many, coincided with progression in my career and more responsibility. The more accountable I became for bigger outcomes, the more I noticed that my productivity was decreasing and the more time I was having to spend at work to deliver on my responsibilities.
I was ok with this at the start as I genuinely believed the more you progressed in your career the harder you had to work. But when my personal life started getting really busy with marriage and kids, I couldn't spend the same amount to time at work to maintain my output. I was failing. In every area!
I'll be forever thankful for the piece of advice given to me by one of the executive team at Kainos (which is a Marshall Goldsmith quote)
"What got you to where you are today, won't get you to where you want to be tomorrow"
--Marshall Goldsmith, Author
As I reflected on this quote I realised that I had been focusing more on OUTPUT as opposed to OUTCOMES when it came to my own prioritisation, planning, scheduling and task management. I was in every meeting, replied to every email, picked up every phone call and contributed to every task. But was I really focusing on the activities that would drive the OUTCOMES that the business wanted? That I wanted? The short answer is no.
When I examined the people being successful around me, my boss at the time, his peers and a few senior customers I noticed that they only focused on a couple of key projects at a time and delegated everything else. They focused on OUTCOMES over OUTPUT.
Challenge 1: What activities should you be focused on in 2021 to drive the outcomes you want for your life and your business? How then do you delegate everything else?
Energy is a highly under-appreciated part of productivity. How many of you reading this have struggled to complete a task due to lack of concentration? I certainly have. There have been times that I've found myself flicking between the tabs in my browser just trying to work out what I should be doing next, before giving in to an easier task for my brain to process (usually email).
I had never really given much thought to energy in terms of mental performance until recently. As long as I was awake and able to function, I assumed that my performance would be fine. Sure I had days when I was tired due to lack of sleep, but even on days when I had plenty of sleep, I noticed that some tasks would take longer than others even though I had the skill and experience necessary to complete them.
As part of my transition to a Certified High-Performance Coach, energy is an area I spent a lot of time researching. The whole concept of the human body as a machine really appeals to me given my computer science background. It means you can control the outputs based on the inputs.
The research into this area is vast, but the following are my biggest takeaways for improving productivity:-
1.The more you exercise the more energy you will have
Duh. This is common sense. But common sense is not often common practice! I will strategically exercise on days that I need to be performing at my best. If I have a big meeting or a big project that I'm working on that day, I will make sure that I run a couple of hours before I do that work. I find that it gives me an abundance of energy that I can channel right into being at my absolute best for that task.
2. Your body has a natural energy rhythm throughout the day
Again this common senses but not common practice. Depending on your circadian rhythm you will have more focus for cognitive heavy tasks in the morning or the afternoon. For me its the morning, so I schedule all my cognitive heavy tasks (like writing this blog) for the morning. In the afternoon, I schedule tasks that, for me, don't require just the same amount of focus (e.g. analytical tasks, team meetings, emails etc).
3. Time spent recharging yourself will make you more productive than additional time spent struggling through a task
How many times have you struggled through a task, spent more time on it than you had scheduled, only to get to the end and be unhappy with the result? I for one, am guilty of this behaviour. Best practice is to schedule 10mins every hour to get away from your screen and recharge. What works best for me is to recognise when my performance is dropping and to stop and take a break then. Without judgement. This approach will transform your productivity.
Challenge 2: How can you schedule your day for high energy so that you can be at your most productive throughout 2021?
You will never be able to reach your true productive potential without courage. To be really productive usually requires that you have to take one of the following courageous actions:
1.You have to take ACTION;
2.You have to start saying NO to more requests;
3. You have to get COMFORTABLE being RESPONSIBLE for the failure of others;
4. You have to get COMFORTABLE with DISAPPOINTING others for the greater good;
5. You have to CHANGE your approach to productivity;
My own story centres around items 2, 3 and 4. For me, my issue was that I was allowing myself to be pulled into every meeting, every email discussion and almost every project in the business. I would spend my 8 hour day responding to the priorities of others and then in the evening would start my own work. Always the detriment of time with the family. Something needed to change.
To start, I had to test how important my presence really was at each of these meetings and in each of these email discussions. I set up an email filter that sent every email I was CC'd on to a separate folder which I would review at the end of the day. I started declining invites to meetings that I felt weren't serving the priorities I had agreed with my boss. You know what? The business didn't fail. Nobody got terribly upset. Very little got missed..... It turns out my input into those meetings and emails wasn't really important after all.
Next, I needed to get comfortable with being responsible for the failures of others. This is a true leadership skill and one that you should invest a lot of time building as it allows you to delegate more effectively. Once I started to really trust my people to deliver on my behalf, they really came into their own. They took on more responsibility. They grew. They came up with ideas that were better than mine. Did we have issues? Sure we did, but we reviewed them as a team and worked out how to avoid such issues in the future. Would we have encountered the same issues if I had been closer to the work? Almost certainly.
Lastly, if you are a people-orientated person like me, you just love to help others. But sometimes your help can hinder growth and before long you become a crutch for others. Getting comfortable with disappointing others by "not providing the answer" and allowing them to work it out themselves is another key leadership skill in my opinion. This is not easy for a people person and I found that I had to change my mindset in order to be able to adopt this approach. I now believe that if you are "too available" for your team, you are doing them a disservice. I believe it is a disservice as you are not providing your team with the opportunity to grow when you solve their problems. Initially, I had a few people who were disappointed in my new found mindset but they soon saw the longer-term benefits.
Challenge 3: What courageous actions have you been avoiding that you know will increase your productivity? What steps can you take in 2021 to build the courage to take action?
It is likely that in order to be truly productive you will need the help or buy-in of others. Ergo, the faster and more successful you are at doing this then the more productive you will be. Influence is a whole blog post in its own right. A quick search on Amazon shows that there are over 70,000 books on the topic!
This is an area that admittedly I am still trying to master, however, I do have a rough framework that will help you to increase your influence if this is an area that you struggle with. From my research thus far, influence boils down to the following things:-
1.Building rapport by acknowledging the other person
The biggest mistake you can make when trying to influence another person is to rush into the conversation talking about yourself and what you want. People love to talk about themselves. To be heard and acknowledged for their achievements. As Stephen Covey taught in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we should "Seek first to understand, then be understood". So make sure at the start of each influence conversation that you spend time building rapport by acknowledging the other person.
2. Establishing credibility and building ambition
Once you've successfully built a strong rapport with the other person(s), now is the time to pitch your idea. It is important as part of this process that you fire their ambition and demonstrate your credibility to help them achieve that ambition. Borrowing again from Covey and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "Think Win-Win" and be clear what's in it for each party.
3. Make them feel good by channelling positive emotion
Most people want to be around other people that make them feel good. So don't forget to think about how you are going to leave the other person feeling after the conversation. As a hint, you are aiming for "Energised", "Excited", "Acknowledged".
Challenge 4: Who are the three people in your wider network that you need to influence in order to increase your productivity? How can you use these influence tips to get them aligned to your vision and supporting your cause!
Necessity is the drive that gets you up out of bed when you don't want to. It's the drive that keeps you going when challenges come your way. It's the force that picks you up, dusts you of and says "go again" when you fail. It is the most powerful human drive.
I call necessity your secret weapon as it is a productivity multiplier. It can help you to really supercharge your clarity, energy, courage and influence when things are going well, or it can help you to maintain momentum when things aren't going so well.
Another phrase for necessity made famous by the author Simon Sinek is "finding your WHY". So take some time this Christmas break to answer the question below in order to get closer to finding your why, and building the necessity required to supercharge your productivity.
Challenge 5: What is your big WHY in life right now, something that is driving you, that is worth the struggle and journey, something that is bigger than you, something that you are willing to fight for (or love for) and why is it important to you?
None of what I have talked about in this article matters if you cannot build the discipline to manage daily distractions. That is easier said than done. Never before have we had such competition for our attention. Even the tools designed to increase our productivity such as email, Microsoft Teams and Slack tend to reduce our personal productivity by allowing others to distract us through "Notifications".
"Your inbox is nothing more than just a convient filing system for other peoples priorities"
--Brendon Burchard, CEO High Performance Institute
To manage distractions you need to have the discipline to put the other recommendations discussed in this article into action.
I hope this post serves you and gives you some ideas and concrete actions you can take into 2021 to reclaim your time and focus for the activities that will help you to achieve your goals. I can honestly say these are the things that have really made the difference in my own productivity and achievement of life long goals. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
* By putting these things into action I'm confident that you will at least double your productivity. I'd love to hear how you get on. Comment below.