According to a popular quote all over Pinterest and Instagram, we all have the same amount of hours in a day as Beyoncé. Technically this is true, even though we don’t all have minions to see to our every whim and help us accomplish every task.
Despite the fact that we all have the same 1 440 minutes a day, or 525 600 minutes a year (cue Rent songs stuck in my head for the rest of the day), we don’t all spend them being equally productive. A month or so ago I was under extreme pressure at work and felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, even though I was working away furiously without breaks or distractions — or so I thought. It turns out that I was actively working against myself and hindering my own productivity.
A bit of backstory: This is my first office job. I had been working in the service industry for years, so I’m used to working under pressure and with strict deadlines, but everything I thought I knew flew out of the window when I first sat down behind a desk. Before, every new customer, question, order and emergency immediately took precedence over whatever menial task I was doing.
I found out the hard way that this isn’t true for the work I do now. Studies have shown that responding to every email, text, tweet and notification as they come in distracts you from the task at hand and makes it harder to get back into the swing of things. Even though it might sound counterproductive to not respond to every email immediately, at the end of the day you get more done if you focus fully on what you’re doing at that moment.
In his book, Deep Work, Cal Newport defines this mode of productivity as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skills, and are hard to replicate.”
I challenged myself to follow the following set of rules in order to get more done in a day.
Segment your day
I segmented my day to make sure I didn’t miss a task, and to have specific blocks of time for specific tasks. This meant breaking up my day into half-hour or hour-long chunks dedicated to specific tasks.
At first I felt a bit restricted by only allowing myself to check and respond to emails at certain times during the day, and the constant pop-ups and notifications stressed me out immensely. After a day or two, I realised that most emails could stand to wait a while before responding, and I actually got more done this way!
Assign priority to tasks
By knowing exactly how important and urgent a specific task is, you can prioritise your work and make sure that the most important work gets done first, without compromising on the less important stuff. Our office management tool recommends using an Eisenhower Decision Matrix to assign priority to your tasks, which breaks work up into four categories:
- Do Immediately
This is for important work that needs to be completed urgently; say when a high-priority client needs something done as soon as possible.
- Decide when to do it
This is for important work which isn’t urgent, like when an important client needs something done without a strict deadline.
This is for work that isn’t as important, but still urgent. This applies to cases such as a smaller client needing something done on a strict deadline.
- Do it later
This is for low importance tasks without a deadline, which obviously still needs to be done, but which shouldn’t take precedence over anything else.
By breaking my work up into these four categories, I always knew exactly what work needed to be done and could prioritise my day and week around these tasks.
Stick to the schedule
The most difficult thing for me to get used to was to make sure that I stuck to my schedule. Self-imposed deadlines always felt arbitrary to me. Since no one else knew about my own deadlines and priorities, I could just move them around as I felt necessary, right?
Sticking to the schedule ensured that I knew exactly how long I had left to spend working on something, which forced me to be as productive as possible in the time I set out for myself to do something. If you know you’ve set out just enough time to do a specific task, you won’t have time to let distractions get in your way.
Embrace the ritual
At first it felt a bit boring to have my whole day planned out, but eventually, it turned into a kind of ritual for me. I knew what needed to be done and when it would get done, so I could plan my breaks and meetings around my work, instead of the other way around. Getting into a ritual also helped to alleviate my anxiety, so if my boss asked about a specific task, I could tell him exactly where I was with the work and when I planned on having it done by.
Getting into deep work mode was challenging at first, but once I got into the swing of things, I felt more relaxed, I knew exactly what was happening with each assignment, task and client, and I could be as productive as possible without stressing myself out or feeling overworked.
I did cheat a little and gave myself a little bit of time to be distracted — if I finished a task with 15 minutes to spare, I wouldn’t always get immediately stuck in the next thing. I would take those few minutes to gather my thoughts, stay relaxed and (sometimes) just let myself get distracted by spending a few minutes checking my social media or chatting to a friend without feeling guilty about “wasting time”.
Have you ever tried deep work mode? Do you have a better solution for getting things done? Let me know in the comments — I’d love to learn!