How to work smart in a time-bound world

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High productivity is critical to success, but the struggle to beat the clock is all too real for many.


Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Thu 14 Dec 2017, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Feb 2023, 2:05 PM

From procrastination to distraction, here's how to tackle some of the key obstacles to achieving your goals

We live in a 'hyper active' world, where everyone glories in not having the time for anything - yet only a few can claim to be productive. For most people, the saga is the same: minutes segue into hours and, before you know it, the day is done - but you've accomplished so little of substance that it feels like even your to-do list is judging you.

The science of productivity has been the subject of much study over the years, and experts have formulated everything from made-for-you models to strategies and principles in a bid to help you tackle this thorn in your side. Here's looking at some of the most common factors that trip up our efficiency matrixes - and how you can break the cycle of falling short of your goals today.

Smarter vs harder

Management guru Peter Drucker knew what he was on about when he said, "Until we can manage time, we can manage nothing else." The way people manage their time and their level of productivity are inexplicably linked, says Mike Gardner aka The Time Doctor, whose own skills stem from his time in the Royal Air Force, at the age of 16, where he not only learnt to do things quickly, but also efficiently and properly - which, he notes, is the 'essence' of productivity. "Show me a highly productive person and I'll show you someone who manages their time well. Productive people concentrate on the high value tasks that get them results. They are also assertive and have a knack for ensuring that other people don't steal their time - whether in person or via technology."

Despite an abundance of resources and expert advice available on the subject, not everyone is able to apply the principles practically. Mike believes this is because there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of poor productivity. "Some people are more left-brained, logical types and work well with project plans, to-do lists, deadlines and structure. On the other hand, if people are more right-brained, creative types, those same tools will lead to a sense of overwhelm and stress."

Work smarter, not harder, is the mantra often preached. It's a credo best associated with Wilfredo Pareto, who introduced the world to the Pareto Principle. Never heard of it? Possibly. But you've almost certainly heard of the '80/20 rule', which is what the principle is better known as. "In productivity terms, this means that approximately 20 per cent of your tasks will generate approximately 80 per cent of your results," explains Mike. "Pareto named the 20 per cent the 'Vital Few' and the 80 per cent the 'Trivial Many'. So, in order to work smarter, you need to concentrate on completing the vital few before turning your attention to the trivial many. If you tackle it vice versa, you end up becoming a busy fool, doing lots of running around but not achieving anything."

Speaking of running around without achieving much, multitasking is often lauded as one of the virtues of the successful. In reality, however, researchers remain divided on its contribution to productivity. "Most people believe that multitasking saves time," Mike says. "The truth is that it is another time-waster, because each task takes longer than it would if you were doing it on its own, and you're not really giving it the attention it deserves." His advice? Avoid multitasking as much as possible, and put all your focus into dealing with one task at a time.

"The best way to identify your time wasters is to keep an honest record of how you spend your day," he offers. "Do it for a week; it's almost always a big surprise when you find out where your time goes. You can then decide what strategies you need to put in place to deal with them."

THE EXPERTS: (from left to right) Mike Gardner, Michael Lorrigan, and Tor Refsland

Train your thoughts

How many times have you heard a colleague complain bitterly about the number of interruptions that hijack his/her workday? An inability to focus usually stems from any number of distractions that crop up during the day, whether in the form of social media alerts, impromptu meetings, colleagues stopping by to chat - or even, if you're a freelancer, an injured child or burnt cooking.

For his part, Michael Lorrigan, managing director of Spearhead Training in the UAE, which offers time management courses, believes that the current obsession with mobile phones is the number one culprit for sluggish productivity. "The fact that we have a term like 'nomophobia' (no mobile phone phobia; the spiral of depression that comes from not using one's phone) is a shocking indictment of the modern workplace," he says. "People are always sneaking off to use their phones, and you can often hear conversations coming out of cubicles. It's a total obsession and needs to be treated like you would treat other addictions."

Michael isn't overreacting. Experts have been tracking flagging productivity in Western countries for a few years now and pointing to evidence of "widespread cyber-slacking, with office workers routinely sneaking lengthy peeks at their social media accounts" as the driving factor behind this "crisis of attention". A recent article in The Times warning about the phenomenon spelling doom for the UK economy notes how "hourly worker productivity has flatlined since the 2008 financial crisis, and the UK has begun to lag far behind rival economic powerhouses such as the US and Germany." Meanwhile, over the same period, smartphone production has soared, while visits to shopping websites now peak during office hours - that is, 2pm-6pm on weekdays. It's the same story in India, Australia and the United States.

One of the ways Michael has tackled the problem of distraction at his own firm is by instituting a 'quiet period' at work. "Between 9am and 11am, we have two hours of quiet time, during which no one is allowed to disturb a colleague," he explains. And the technique works! "It's the time the brain is at its sharpest and we've found that we can achieve the equivalent of five hours of work in those two hours of quiet time."

Of course, none of this is to say that we should shun or ban technology altogether - but considering studies have proven that we lose 20-25 minutes every time we respond to an email or other distraction, before trying to regain full focus of the task at hand, the use of technology is definitely something to be consciously monitored or regulated - if you're serious about getting work done.

Not now, hopefully never?

'Later' is the name of the game for the habitual procrastinator. A false perception of how much time it would realistically take one to complete an assignment means that the classic procrastinator can usually be found binge-watching videos, responding to a never-ending stream of 'urgent' emails, searching for the perfect Christmas Stollen cake recipe (because you simply must respond to the call!) or just writing new to-do lists to help deal with the old. [If you haven't yet read Tim Urban's wonderfully candid explanation for why procrastinators procrastinate on his blog, Wait But Why - add it to your list; it was published in 2013 but it has got to be the best piece of writing on the subject to date!]

But we digress. Why do procrastinators find it nearly impossible to not put things off for later? Multi award-winning blogger and SEO strategist Tor Refsland believes it's down to the lack of four things: a clear goal, a specific plan, a strong motivation, and the self-discipline to move you towards your goal. "What do I really want to achieve in life? What exactly do I need to achieve my goal? What do I need to sacrifice for it? How strong is my 'why', i.e., the reason that forces me to do whatever it takes to get me closer to my goal? In my experience," says Tor, "the reason most people are inefficient and procrastinate is because they don't know the answers to these questions."

These same people can often be found boasting to their friends and colleagues about how busy they are, like it is a good thing. Tor sets the record straight when he makes clear that it is not. "Filling your calendar and to-do list is child's play," he says. "What really makes a difference is the specific activities that make up your calendar. Will the action items on your list take you closer to your main goal? If not, you're just wasting your time."

Apart from struggling to identify what they really want - either out of a day or out of life - Tor says procrastinators are also always desperate to know how they can get 'more time' in their calendars. "The truth is no one can get "more" time in their calendars. We all have 24 hours. It's more a question of which activities you can remove from your calendar that don't bring you closer to your goal."

Productivity lessons from a chef

Any chef will tell you: high productivity is critical to the success of a restaurant - and it's a place with no room for mistakes. Executive chef of Sthan Guneet SIngh talks about how his productivity skills were honed in the fires of his kitchen.

What has being a chef taught you about being productive?

I've learnt that the thing that kills productivity in a kitchen is bad feedback. You could get bad feedback from the guests, the wait staff, your peers, and your head chef. I've also found that bad feedback often boils down to the synergy of the team, or the lack thereof. For each restaurant and professional kitchen that I have handled, I ensure that my team goes through many test-runs working together before we go public. Your wait staff should know how to relay orders quickly and efficiently, your sous should be able to assist the chefs through all orders without causing chaos in the kitchen, and your team should be able to ask things of one another without hesitation. I've learnt that your team is only as productive as your guests are happy. So, if it's falling apart behind the counter, it's definitely not going to look good on that critic's plate - and the vicious negative spiral continues.

Your tips for ensuring maximum productivity in the kitchen?

Be organised. Find a system that ensures you clean up your workstation at timely intervals. A dirty kitchen is not a professional kitchen!

Be ready to ask for what you need - only if you can't reach it, make it, or handle it yourself.

Take your team seriously. Don't underestimate how integral each cog of your team is. Respect is important to work harmoniously, as is knowing the importance and job of each individual member.

How important is rest to you as a chef, considering you work really gruelling hours? Does exhaustion get in the way of your productivity?

The thing about passion is that it rarely lets you sleep. While some burn out, others plow on because it's the inner fire that takes them forward. But the spark within isn't always enough for the entire kitchen to sustain a productive working day. We take power naps by the hour in rotation; I feel like small breaks throughout a day can work much better for rejuvenation than a six-hour sleep cycle. But, rest is definitely important!

Have your experiences in the kitchen taught you to be productive outside it too?

I have learnt the value of labels, of being ambidextrous, of the right sanitation to ensure minimum end-of-day clean-up, and of negotiation, especially when buying supplies. Translating that into real life, the negotiation techniques, for instance, help greatly when I'm planning events, like weddings, with family. Also, the fact that we time ourselves in the kitchen per function per order has helped me understand how to manage my own spare time. Lastly, I feel like my experiences in the kitchen have also taught me the patience with which I approach my family.

How to get the most out of your workday

1. Plan the week in advance. If that is too hardcore for you, you should at least plan the next day the evening before.

2. Use the 80/20 rule to always prioritise the tasks that will give you the biggest or maximum results.

3. Get used to saying no to those activities that don't bring you closer to your goal(s).

- Tor Refsland

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