The productivity advice no one gives you? Efficiency is stressful

With National Stress Awareness Day approaching, it's worth remembering the main contributor to our anxiety is the need to get more done with the time we have, writes Tariq Khan.

by Tariq Khan
Last Updated: 01 Nov 2017

Our culture of relentless productivity tells us to get it done right away and we feel increasingly guilty if we don’t. It’s because of this that productivity ‘hacks’ have grown in popularity, with an assortment of tips, apps and shortcuts designed to help you take back control. 

All have the same end goal: get more - and more, and more - done in less time.

Productivity hacks can also be interpreted as cultural reminders that the clock is ticking, your (increasingly qualifiable) output is being measured, and you are now expected to work anytime and anywhere. The hidden message is that just doing your work isn’t enough. Without optimising your efficiency, you’ll be left behind.

But is this really the case? Isn’t productivity really about getting more work done or is it about getting better work done? With that in mind, here are a few suggestions that will help you improve the quality of your output rather than obsessing about quantity or focusing excessively on time:

1. Remember: Being busy is not a badge of honour

It's easy to confuse productivity with activity. On a superficial level, being busy can be a very satisfying substitute for doing the activities that requires you to deactivate your autopilot and start thinking.

It’s become commonplace to ‘merchandise’ the work you are doing rather than the outputs from it. You reply to out-of-hours emails to show your commitment. You attend unnecessary meetings because you don’t want to look difficult or lazy.

Being busy can be seen by many as some sort of perverse badge of honour and, as a result, pushing back against this can be difficult.

Try being more strategic about how you spend your time. Be honest with yourself about what’s really important. One of the most valuable commodities you have to spend is your time and attention. Invest it wisely.

2. See eye to eye on conference calls

When the world’s largest conference calling company, InterCall, conducted research it found more than 60% of their users admitted to working on other activities whilst on mute in a conference call.

Conference calls can be awkward. Often they’re characterised by conversational gaps, bad connections, false starts and ‘no, you go’ truces. Furthermore, it’s well proven that without eye contact, you are much less likely to have the empathy required for a successful exchange. Consider replacing these calls with video conferencing.

3. If you must procrastinate, do it properly

Some of the most productive minds in history – the likes of Einstein, Nietzsche, Darwin and Dickens - all believed in the power of letting the mind wander. Schedule a couple of hours of uninterrupted thinking time each week to allow thoughts to go wherever they want to take you.

Whilst standard procrastination activities such as jumping down a YouTube wormhole can be counterproductive, a healthy amount of reflection can enable memory consolidation and allow non-linear connections to form – bringing a fresh perspective.

4. Move away from the screen

Evidence suggests that modern screens fail to sufficiently recreate the tactile feel of reading on paper. And that in turn prevents readers from navigating long texts in a satisfying and intuitive way leading to difficulties that can subtly affect reading comprehension

Compared to paper, reading on screens may also drain our cognitive resources and make it harder to remember what we have read when we are finished.

5. Get better at listening

Experts say we’re just not built to be good at listening for a whole variety of reasons. We’re genetically engineered to swap stories, which is why we interrupt. We don’t feel comfortable with emotions, so we avoid focusing on someone else’s too closely. We’d much rather talk about ourselves, so we try to rush the talker along.

All these things contribute to a lack of listening. Rather than taking in the detail of what someone is saying as they speak, how many times are you already constructing a response?

Active listening is a technique employed by counsellors. They train themselves to overcome instincts and give the talker undivided attention. You have to work at it, but the results will likely surprise you.

Sir Howard Davies, MT columnist and the first chairman of the UK’s Financial Services Authority recently declared that the UK has ‘particularly weak management’. ‘Even the French could produce the average British worker’s output in a week, and still take Friday off,’ he said.

With productivity a concern for the UK economy, it’s time we recalibrated our approach to work and thought harder about impact as opposed to activity. 

Tariq Khan is Director of Interactive at customer engagement agency TMW Unlimited.

Image credit: Robert Harker/Wikipedia

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