No matter how brilliant your idea, or how detailed your planning, execution is what matters. By managing yourself effectively you can make sure you achieve all your aims and tick off all your tasks.
According to Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, “many modern knowledge workers now spend most of their brain power battling distraction and interruption, whether because of the incessant pinging of devices, noisy open-plan offices or the difficulty of deciding what deserves your attention the most.
All too often we spend our days on low-value, small, reactive tasks that feel good to achieve because they are not especially demanding and we can tick them off relatively quickly. However they usually come at the expense of bigger, more highly rewarding tasks that are more cognitively demanding.
Newport’s answer is to develop the ability to focus without distraction on these cognitively demanding tasks. It’s all about shutting yourself off from distractions and interruptions, and giving yourself completely to a difficult, high-value task for a significant period of time.
If you find it difficult to schedule enough time in your calendar for deep work, you can try Pomodoros– short, focused bursts of 25 minutes separated by a 5-minute break.
From multi-tasking to single-tasking
Think about how you manage your tasks. If you’re ever tempted to do two or more at a time, research shows that multitasking isn’t worth the hassle.
The act of flitting from one task to another in your head means that you are not devoting your best, clear-thinking self to each item. As a result, each task you are doing simultaneously can end up taking longer than it should.
Even when we try to multitask, we don’t actually do more than one activity at once. All we do is quickly switch between tasks.
According to cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Bond Chapman:
“The brain is not wired to perform two tasks at once. Your brain bottlenecks when trying to perform more than one mental task at a time, particularly those that require mental effort.”
Modern work tends to consist of frequent switching between tasks. And all this switching makes our brains very tired. This means bad news for the quality of our work: it affects our memory, reasoning, self-control and decision-making.
So, forget multitasking and embrace single-tasking. Each task you have, give it your full attention. Either until it is done, or for a long enough period to make significant progress.
Interruptions & distractions
When people are interrupted, it typically takes over 23 minutes for them to return to their work. Added to that, most people will then work on two intervening tasks before going back to their original project.
So – you can imagine how damaging interruptions are to productivity. It’s well worth trying to limit interruptions from colleagues, as well as digital notifications such as email or smartphone alerts.
That 23 minute statistic also helps us think about how long to focus on one project at a time. Research indicates it’s best to spend 25 minutes to two hours working on something before switching to another task (see Pomodoros and Deep Work above).
Put an out-of-office on your email explaining that you won’t be checking your messages for the next few hours, and that if it’s an emergency you can be reached on your mobile. It’s rare that people will need a reply to their email that quickly – meaning you’re now free to work uninterrupted for several hours without feeling the need to check email.
Procrastination, roughly translated, means “put off until tomorrow”. The things we put off are usually boring or difficult tasks. We do more pleasurable or easy-win tasks first because they bring more instant satisfaction.
But there’s even greater satisfaction to be had – getting something really worthwhile done. So, here are some tips for putting procrastination in its place.
- Set up timed reminders, like a named alarm on your phone. Label it “remember not to procrastinate”, so when it goes off you’ll be jolted back on course.
- If you respond well to deadlines, create more of them. Tell your boss you’ll deliver that report early, or publicly announce your goal deadline.
- If you find yourself frequently checking social media sites, use blocking software to temporarily stop you from accessing those sites.
- Recognise that procrastination is inevitable, so use it as a reward. Focus for a set period of time, then allow yourself a short procrastination break.
Building breaks into any long task is vital for its success. Taking a break rejuvenates the mind and body, enabling you to spot mistakes and make better judgements. Even when you can’t get out for a long lunch or a bracing walk, you can: stand up and stretch, fuel yourself with healthy food and drink, chat to a friend or colleague, or get a non-work chore done, like posting a letter or doing your online shop. It might not sound much but any of the above will help you recharge.
Try for a 15-minute break every few hours. Studies have found that people who do this end up being more productive. Just one more thing: the key to making these breaks effective is to allow for mind-wandering. This means taking a walk, or looking out of the window – not at your screen. Try it – you may be surprised at how refreshed you feel afterwards.
Eating well is one of most important ways we can choose to impact our day positively. The motivation you will get from these simple actions and from recognising the results, for instance not slumping into a snooze in the afternoon meeting and coming up with an ingenious idea instead, are well worth a little planning.
When you know what your day has in store, you can add impact to it by selecting brain food, or carb-packed energy snacks where they are needed. Some key ingredients:
- Whole grains release energy in a steady manner
- Oily fish contain fatty acids to keep your brain working well, and the protein can help you feel alert
- Antioxidants in fruit like blueberries and tomatoes help repair cell damage
- Nuts are rich in oils good for the brain and prevent degenerative brain disease
- Pasta will load you up with energy.
The brain uses 20 percent of our energy resources. So remember to eat for your brain as well as for your waistline.
It’s easy to see why sleep is so important, when you consider what can happen as a result of a lack of sleep. You have trouble concentrating, become more forgetful, feel more irritable, and you make bad decisions. That’s not all: people who sleep less than six hours per night are 35 percent more likely to gain weight, have an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, and a higher overall risk of death.
According to Charles Czeisler, Harvard Medical School’s professor of sleep medicine:
“We now know that 24 hours without sleep, or a week of sleeping four or five hours a night, induces an impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .1 percent. That’s enough to stop you driving in most countries.”
Getting between seven and eight hours of sleep each night can change all this. Be sure to make it a priority!
Exercise is a great way to increase mental alertness. Research has shown that it helps people concentrate and handle their workload. It also boosts mood and motivation and ability to handle stress.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain, and releases dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin, which are neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) that transmit signals between your brain’s neurons.
All this gives a boost to your available mental energy. Research suggests that the majority of benefits to mental energy come from just 20 minutes of moderate exercise.
So head out for a quick walk on your lunch break, climb a few flights of stairs, or go over and talk to that person at the other side of the office instead of sending an email.