In music, the best songs often have moments where the music disappears completely. Pauses have a purpose that allows a listener to appreciate what came before and anticipate what’s coming next. The break can look awkward when written down or described but the experience of it makes the song that much better.
Graphic designers also have a special place for white space. If every pixel of the screen is occupied by a design element, the eye is not given the opportunity to experience what is happening. “It’s too busy” is almost always shorthand for “Needs more white space.”
Pauses in our daily routines should work the same way. The “mental health day” is often code for needing some white space in our work. Leaving ourselves no time to clear out what we were doing before starting the next big thing does no one any good. It’s important to ensure we are actually ready and engaged before starting. False starts cost more time than delayed starts.
Last night my wife’s phone started dinging like crazy. A massive text conversation had broken out around 10p as she was trying to unwind and relax. She immediately jumped toward her phone because regardless of the topic she was going to be disturbed by the noise.
I was on that same text chain but avoided all of the jumping. I learned a few years back that other than for a small handful of things, it’s best to not let your phone train you to jump. My phone only makes noises for calendar reminders, phone calls, and alarms.
I used to have the classic bing for emails and texts. I discovered the stress that comes with hearing bings all over though. Even if you don’t use the out-of-the-box sounds on your phone, you will still hear similar enough noises all around you all day. Being attached to reacting anytime something came in was making my quality of life go way down.
What I learned was that you don’t actually miss things when the notifications are turned off. Most of us look at our phones at least a few times an hour so nothing actually gets missed. What actually ends up happening is that you have more consistent trains of thought. You are able to productively continue a task without the constant glances and changing screens to see who needs you now.
It seems that every day brings a new round of articles that talk about how to be productive while working from home. As a home worker for the past 5 years or so, I can attest that it took time to get used to working outside the office daily. There’s a lot that can distract your attention.
But a thought occurred to me that no one ever writes about learning to work from an office. When we get our first job in the real world and sit in our first cubicle, it’s simply assumed that we can figure it out. Someone may tell you when you are supposed to show up, when to leave, where the copier is, where the break room is, etc, etc but no one tells you the habits you need to form to successfully work in the office.
The first thing most people try to figure out how the office actually works. Does the boss come in at 8, 8:30, 9 or some other time every day? Are people leaving at 4:30, 5, 6 or can I get away whenever? Joe over on the other side of the floor is a good guy to kill an hour talking football with. Sandy goes to lunch at noon and then Dave goes at 12:45 which lets me kill 90 minutes. Does IT filter web traffic or can I watch videos at my desk?
Some of the most unproductive people I’ve ever met work from an office showing up at 8 and leaving at 5. They have the situation scoped out, know how to look productive, and show up consistently. Because they work from the office, people don’t question what they are doing day-in, day-out.
Just something to think about.
It’s easier to raise your floor than to raise your ceiling. Cutting out the least productive moments is an easier way to help yourself become more productive than building in maximum productive moments.
Why is this true? Usually, unproductive moments are caused by external factors while moments of maximum productivity are a combination of opportunity, time, and personal clarity. It’s possible to identify those external factors and minimize their ability to impact you.
If there’s a person who constantly schedules pointless meetings, stop attending. If there’s a work location that causes you to be unproductive, avoid it. If you aren’t getting the information you need, build an improved network.
Your productivity is yours to control. Don’t just seek to be more productive generally, minimize the moments where you are least productive and you’ll see amazing results.
We all know the curse of too many meetings. It’s that event that causes you to hold your head in your hands as you realize that you no longer control your own schedule. Often, it can feel as if most meetings don’t hold much value.
But there’s a fallacy in believing all meetings are bad. A well-planned meeting, grounded in action, and scheduled with intelligence can be the best way to ensure that productivity is ensured.
A question that I ask in many meetings is “what is the desired outcome of this session.” Nothing ground-breaking there but still worth asking. If this question cannot be answered at the start of the meeting then there was:
- No planning was given to what was needed (no agenda)
- No action being called for or information specifically being shared
- Likely either too many of the wrong people or not enough of the right people present because the list wasn’t planned
If you can’t give the desired outcome, you can’t have a meeting. It’s that simple.
When I travel I often fall into the trap of trying to put too much into the working agenda. I try to meet everyone, schedule things over breakfast/lunch/dinner, team build after the day is over, show up first/leave late. The whole nine yards. I invariably walk away from business trips feeling like the trip was extremely worthwhile but also feeling drained.
This is also a trap from having worked from home for years. Travelling is my opportunity to look my colleagues in the eye and have those conversations that typically happen in an office environment – those conversations that allow two people to understand each other as people and not just coworkers. I do everything I can to maximize those opportunities.
What this means is that any given two or three-day trip is tiring but still easy to recover from. Any trip that is four or five business days typically can wipe me out completely for a couple of days. It’s because I shove so much into every day that I can often end up without any time for myself to unwind and let my mind get back to a grounded state.
This is not the best course of action. In reality, I should ensure that I leave some time for myself. Personal downtime is what keeps each of us sane. Taking it away is a quick and easy way to burn out and lack of focus.
Recently, my schedule has been a bit off. I’ve been working on a variety of projects that all seem to have project teams that schedule meetings at conflicting times. This means that I regularly end up with 30 or 60 minute gaps in my calendar between meetings. These are the most unproductive times possible because it takes at least 5 to 10 minutes to unwind from the last and then the same to get back ready for the next. This leaves only 10 to 45 minutes to get something done.
Predictability in your schedule is good for ensuring you have high productivity. When you know how the rest of the day is going to go, you can focus on the tasks at hand and start to get ahead. If you find yourself constantly bouncing back and forth between new tasks, you will never get anything of value complete.
I have a hard time with long-term habits. I’ve developed a few but I fail more often than not when trying to establish new ones. It can be very difficult to do things in new ways. But striving to do better is always worthwhile.