Five ways to get more done at work + move the needle for your cause
My name is Julia, and I have a confession to make. I am a recovering, chronic multi-tasker.
In the past, if you’d asked me in a job interview what my biggest strength was, I would have proudly said multi-tasking. But, while that sounds like an important skill in a busy, world-changing for-purpose organisation, research proves it’s actually a huge hindrance to your productivity.
Most workers are trying to juggle 5 tasks at one time. In the process you lose up to 80% of your productive time each day. This is a serious issue!
Dive into this further to research “context switching” and “attention residue” provides proof that your brain simply can’t do two complex tasks at once – you’re simply not wired that way. Research shows when you bounce from one activity to the other you lose time as your brain reorients to the new task (what Sophie Leroy has termed “attention residue”). Multi-tasking takes its toll on your work, productivity levels and, most importantly for the for-purpose sector, your impact.
This year I have been trying very hard to change my no good, very bad addiction to multi-tasking. Instead of running at full steam to get ALL the things done at once, I’ve been trying to focus on working smarter, assessing the most important things I need to do, eliminating distractions and delegating out tasks where I don’t add value.
I’m pretty passionate about this topic.
Over the past year I have been testing out a free short online course idea with a few people in the sector to document and capture processes inside their organisations (that don’t require long, boring standard operating procedure documents). I want to help you to train and delegate to others on your team with ease, freeing up your time to focus on growing your organisation and creating massive impact for your cause. If this is something of interest to you, let me know here and you’ll be the first to know more when I release more information.
For now, here are five highlights of my learnings over the years that have helped me to overcome my multi-tasking habits, greatly boosting my productivity.
If you want to make more change and get things done, I highly recommend reading Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work”. He talks about deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”. It is about spending uninterrupted time on a single-task. Read more in our book review here.
Sounds easy on paper, right? It turns out this is very hard to do.
Most of your days are spent doing shallow work – think paperwork or responding to the emails which swallow up your day. This is often easy work, performed while distracted and doesn’t require too much brain power.
Cal’s warning (backed by research) shows that if you spend enough time in a state of shallowness you actually permanently reduce your capability to perform deep work.
To help fix your addiction to shallow work:
- Carve out and schedule in at least 30 to 60 minutes of deep work in your workday.
- Focus on an important, but not urgent task – usually it is one that has been shuffled down a to-do list in favour of more urgent needs.
- Repeat every workday. The habit of doing this every day is powerful. It becomes easier and requires less effort to maintain. If you do this every workday for a year, it’s like adding an extra six weeks (or more) of solid focus to your year. With this kind of focus, what kind of inroads will you be able to make into things that matter to you, and your organisation?
Deep work is a real superpower in today’s world. One the for-purpose sector must embrace to move the needle, faster.
#2 – Don’t use a to-do list!
It’s controversial, but I’m going to say that a massive to-do list is not helping your productivity (or your cause). If everything you have to do gets thrown onto one list and you busily work through it systematically, you are not working efficiently.
A to-do list makes everything seem equal when they are not. Ticking off 100 tasks might make you feel productive, but it is a poor substitute for crossing off just ONE meaningful task.
A to-do list gets you working, yes, but it keeps you trapped in a busy cycle of shallow work.
I love this quote from Tim Ferriss: “Being busy is a form of laziness — lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”
If you find that the things that fall off your to-do list include tasks like strategy development, visioning and bigger picture thinking, professional development and learning, system development, and even sales or fundraising – because it’s not screaming at you to be done like the other urgent tasks – a to-do list might not be working for you.
To remedy this, I suggest:
- At the start of each day pause long enough to think about the ONE most important thing you need to do, that by doing so everything else will either be easier or will become unnecessary. A great focusing question from the book The ONE thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results.
- Once you identify this ONE thing, do it first.
- Once you’ve done this, you can start to bite off the rest of your to-do list, knowing you’ve already achieved the most important thing for the day.
# 3 – Delete distractions
Email pop ups, text messages, slack chats, a question over your desk from a colleague, a quick update on the latest news, an unexpected phone call. How many distractions do you face in a day?
Research estimates workers are interrupted every 11 minutes and that we spend a third of the day recovering from these distractions. Over your career what does this add up to?
Interruptions are normal and I am not saying delete them all, but there are definitely some you can easily delete from your day.
One of the biggest changes I have made to my day is to stop being reactive to my email. Instead, I block times of the day to catch up on emails and admin (usually before I leave the office for the day or in the afternoon when my brain is a bit fuzzier and the coffee is wearing off).
If you want to delete some distractions, I suggest:
- Focusing on removing just one distraction today and grow this over time. The easy ones to start with might be turning off your email pop up notification on your desktop, or notifications on your phone, it might be sliding into airplane mode at certain times of the day, or creating a signal on your desk which says not to interrupt you.
- Remove one more distraction next week and the next...
#4 – Delegate to accelerate
While it might seem easier to say “it only takes me 5 minutes, I’ll just do it myself” this kind of approach to work costs you (and your cause).
It definitely takes time to put in place good systems and pass over your knowledge but know that when you do this you are making an investment in the long-term, and making your future easier.
Over the past few years I have delegated a load of things off my plate, mainly the basic admin ones. I have adopted the mantra of “how can I teach this once and NEVER have to teach it again”.
I now have a massive file of Standard Operating Procedures from how to reconcile Do Good Jobs Xero accounts, to dealing with common customer enquiries. Today, most of the recurring activities that once took up all my day, are now off my plate – and I am not taking them back!
Having systems in place frees you to grow your organisation – and its impact – with ease, so invest in this process now.
How to delegate with ease:
- If you manage a team of people, or even if you are a team of one and plan to grow your organisation, start taking a full inventory of what you do in your organisation (a time audit over the course of a week is helpful too)
- Start making notes of what tasks you could delete, automate and delegate – and decide what needs to be documented.
- If you’re not sure where to even begin to document your systems, I am going to be putting my learnings around making simple, easy and quick standard operating procedures into an online masterclass soon. If this is something that is of interest to you, let me know here and you’ll be the first to know more when I release more information.
Plus, having good systems also greatly segues into helping with #5….
# 5 – Take a break, because the rest IS the work
Just like a phone, we all need to recharge our batteries, preferably well before there is only 1% left.
At the start of this year (before COVID hit) I took a 10 day break. I came back refreshed, having had time to reflect on what I want in my work (and life) and think outside the never-ending workload and urgent to-do list.
I am a HUGE believer that taking breaks helps your mind to relax, gives you space to develop perspective on your life and look at things differently.
Your brain hasn’t gone on vacation, it is still working in the background to process information and find answers. Giving it a rest gives it space to be more productive, efficient and creative.
It can feel like there is never a right time to take a break from work but in the long run, taking a break is the most productive thing you can do. And when you take a break, it also forces you to make sure your systems (#4) are documented and in place so that your organisation can continue without you. So, when will you plan your next break?
How to make your rest the work:
- Book in a date on your calendar for some RnR (even if it’s only a day!)
- Make sure to put systems in place (see #4) so your team and organisation can run without you
- Communicate clearly so you don’t get distracted by work during your break
- During the break think about your life and work – what you like and what you want to change. You don’t need to force it, what needs to shift usually just comes up…
- If you do end up getting drawn back into work, take note of what this was for and identify how you can make sure it doesn’t happen again during your next break.
- Schedule in your next holiday!
Do you have some other productivity life hacks that you would like to share? Let me know in the comments, I’m always keen for new ideas to help in my recovery from my multi-tasking addiction!