Kickstart your productivity this year

Liz Gooster
31st January 2017

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Kickstart your productivity this year

Faculty member Liz Gooster shares her tips for a productive 2017.

One of my prevailing interests is in productivity and how to boost it. The ‘new start’ that January offers often sees a peak in my fascination with this topic. Since this is time of year heralds a general concern with resolutions, goals, commitments to ‘do things differently’ and ‘get more done’, I know I’m not the only one! So this month’s blog post takes a brief look at this topic – and is, naturally, written in the course of a Power Hour or two! 'The Power Hour' is one of my favourite practical productivity tools, a dedicated time of uninterrupted focus on something I want or need to make progress on. I make sure my phone is on silent and with the screen out of sight so I can’t be distracted by incoming calls, texts or alerts. Usually I have a cup of tea or coffee, or at least a glass of water, at my side, along with everything I need for the task at hand. I set the timer on my phone – and then I sit down and get on with my project. It might be something creative, like writing or an aspect of business development, or it could be something more mundane like tackling my heaving inboxes, or something with an impending deadline that I’ve been procrastinating on, like a VAT return.

Studies have shown the difficulties for our minds of multi-tasking, or of continuous partial attention (attempting to pay attention to several things simultaneously) so the unaccustomed freedom for the brain of simply having to do one thing seems to enable it to do that one thing better, and more quickly, than would otherwise be the case. I also relish the freedom I give myself in my Power Hours to leave things unfinished at the end of the allocated time, ready for completion later. And it’s surprising how much I get done once I let go of the need to do it all.

Another effective approach, widely used to powerful effect in coaching, is to establish a clear goal. What’s your number one priority for the year ahead? Once you know that, you’ll be able to identify the key actions you need to take to achieve it. This is very much in line with my favourite quote from Stephen Covey, ‘Start with the end in mind.’ If you don’t know where you want to go, how can you work out how to get there? And, critically, how do you know when you’ve arrived? So grab a few quiet minutes, think hard about your overarching priority for the year, and importantly, write it down. Research shows that people who write down their objectives are more likely to achieve them than those who don’t, so get it down on paper.

Keeping your goal in mind can also help you focus your activities, as you’ll be able to identify more easily whether taking on particular projects, clients or tasks will take you further towards your stated goal. In the flurry of day-to-day life, referring back to your top priority can highlight those projects you might be drawn to, but which in fact are distractions from what you’re looking to achieve. Using this approach can really raise your productivity in the areas that really matter to you. Having a goal is great. Reaching it is even better. So when you do – and here again it’s useful to have a written record of your specific aim – don’t forget to celebrate it! Take time to mark your achievement and congratulate yourself on what you’ve accomplished.

The final approach in this brief post may sound counter-intuitive, which is why I’ve labelled it ‘the productivity paradox’. Last year I came across a French phrase, bobine arrière pour bondir, meaning ‘coil back in order to spring forward’. This captures beautifully the concepts I’d been reflecting on in relation to my productivity, performance and wellbeing. As an energetic, action-oriented person, my natural inclination is to ‘just get on with it’ and I am often impatient to see results. This means I am busy, and get a lot of things done. But are they always the right things, and am I doing them as well as I possibly could?

One of the things I’ve come to realise is that actually, the times when I’m most productive, when I feel an energy that is calm and generative rather than frantic, is when I have a bit of space around the edges. Not too much, or I become lethargic and unmotivated: I need the stimulation that comes from activity and from interacting with others. But a sense of spaciousness, with time to think, read, reflect and review, allows me to flourish and to perform better. When I can take a step back, I feel more creative, I make new and exciting connections between ideas and people. I feel that I’m learning and developing rather than just doing. I am able to consider and choose, respond rather than react.

Stepping back is not about giving up on achievements, or being lazy. For me it’s about recharging my energies and marshalling my thoughts. When I ‘coil back’ for a while, whether it’s a day out of the office, a brief meditation, or a power hour in a coffee shop, I feel much more equipped to spring forward again, refuelled and ready. Stepping back allows me to lift my head up, look around, observe, notice, contemplate, get input from across the borders and outside the blinkers. This brief shift of gear usually leaves me rejuvenated and ready to be more productive. This, then is the productivity paradox: to go faster, you sometimes need to slow down. None of this is new, of course: Archimedes famously had his Eureka moment while lying in his bath, not while working in his laboratory. For me, a regular reminder that I need to coil back in order to spring forward with a new sense of purpose, clarity and energy, is one of the most powerful productivity boosters.

I’d love to hear what works for you, so please do share your own top productivity tips.

Three top tips for boosting your productivity this year

  • Have regular Power Hours – switch off distractions like your phone and email alerts, decide what you want to focus on, then sit down and get started!
  • Know what you’re looking to achieve. Clarify a goal, with specific success measures. Write it down and regularly evaluate whether what you’re spending your time on will move you further towards your goal.
  • Slow down! Take some time and space, however brief, to step back and allow your creativity, focus and energy to recharge. Harness the power of the productivity paradox.

Five top reads on productivity

  • Eat that Frog by Brian Tracy – What is the most valuable use of my time right now?’. Answer this question honestly, and in relation to your most important objective, and you’ve got your frog. Now go eat it! A great book.
  • Getting Things Done by David Allen – a productivity classic. Lots of sound principles and if you like structure and systems, you’ll be in heaven!
  • Oliver Burkeman’s amusing yet highly practical Help! How to be slightly happier and get a bit more done is a wryly critical yet ultimately rather hopeful guide to productivity tips and techniques.
  • Focus: find your focus, master distraction and get the right things done by Peter Bregman – an appealingly simple method to help you start at the big picture level and identify what you really need to focus on before creating to-do lists and leaping into action.
  • How to be a Productivity Ninja by Graham Alcott – an easy-to-read guide to ‘worrying less, achieving more and loving what you do’, packed with tips on managing everything from email, meetings and to-do list.

Read more from Liz here.

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