We live in an increasingly connected, ever smarter world. Technology has promised us to increase our productivity, but it has robbed us of concentration. Continuous notifications and distractions compete for our attention, and lead us to waste precious time.
This article explains how to regain control of our attention, return to being masters of our time, and finally be free to focus on what matters, increasing our productivity.
A new approach to productivity
What does it mean to live – and work – in the full “economy of distraction”? It means being inundated with information, tools, stimuli of all kinds. If a few years ago technology seemed to promise help to work less and better, today we have verified that it is an illusion.
Most of us find ourselves having to manage multiple jobs simultaneously, having to devote our attention to a myriad of things, without really being able to concentrate. And this happens both in the office and at home: thanks to new technologies, work never leaves us.
All this, instead of helping us to work better, has transformed us into work machines, unable to stop, convinced that slowing down means decreasing our productivity, which seems to be the ultimate goal of everything we do. But have we ever wondered what productivity is?
Come to think of it, we have a concept related to the industrial era, during which the goal was to produce more, faster. Today, on the contrary, we know that working harder does not mean increasing productivity proportionally, and we know the side effects of the fast pace: tiredness and stress grow until exhaustion.
Our automatic response is to adopt systems and tools capable of optimizing what we do, in order to have free time which we however fill up with other work, returning to the initial problem.
The goal of this method is to achieve more by working less. The program is divided into three basic steps, each of which includes three actions.
The first step is to stop
Action 1: decide what you want
If we don’t know what our goal is, how can we hope to achieve it? Traditionally, productivity is associated with efficiency and success. Technology allows us to communicate in real time, from anywhere in the world and in any situation. But instead of making us work better, it only seems to make us work more. Even more relevant, the concept of success. If we have not increased our efficiency, can we at least say that we have achieved greater success?
To know this we must have a clear idea of what it represents for us. These first two points, however, are not enough, we must consider one even more relevant: freedom. True efficiency can set us free, capable of following what is really important to us. We can define it like this:
- freedom to concentrate, or the possibility of dedicating one’s attention to the work we are doing, free from distractions and interruptions;
- freedom to be present, that is, the opportunity to fully enjoy your free time, dedicating full attention to our loved ones and our interests;
- freedom to be spontaneous, without having to plan every single moment of our life;
- freedom to do nothing. Too often we consider uninterrupted work as a virtue. We admire those who manage to work 18 hours a day. On the contrary, it has value to stop us, to let our body and our mind simply rest.
Action 2: evaluate the road
Once we know where we want to go, it’s time to figure out exactly where we are now. Only in this way will we be able to trace the way forward. We will use a tool called “The compass of freedom”, which will help us evaluate all the activities and tasks that we want based on two criteria: passion and competence.
Using these two elements, we can divide our tasks into four areas:
- the “tran tran” area. Here fall all those activities that not only do not interest us, but in which we are not particularly good. Our efficiency here is at a minimum. These are the activities that we usually try to avoid by delegating them to automated systems or to other people;
- the area of disinterest. Here are the activities in which we are competent, but which bore us. Just like in the case of tran-tran, these activities should be avoided. Being good at something does not mean having to dedicate our time to it;
- the area of distraction. Things are starting to get nice. Here we include all those activities that bring us joy, but in which we are not necessarily very skilled and which we should recognize as a waste of resources;
- the area of desire. Here we have, finally, the intersection between passion and skill. These are activities that not only bring us pleasure, but in which we are good, often more than others. When we manage to work in this area, our productivity reaches its maximum potential.
There is also a fifth zone, which we will call zone X, where we put all the activities that are not included in the others: here are the things that we are learning, or to which we are passionate about, and that will move – hopefully – in the area of desire.
Action 3: restore energy to your mind and body
Machines have constant productivity, men do not. Our levels of energy, attention, creativity and productivity vary over the same day, as well as from day to day. This is part of human nature, planning one’s working life as if it were not so, can produce catastrophic results.
The time we have available is a fixed and limited resource, our energy is not. We don’t have a constant and continuous flow of energy, so working harder isn’t the solution to a drop in productivity. What we need to do is understand how our energy changes to use it in our favor.
There are seven things that can recharge us:
1. Sleep . There are many ways to improve sleep quality, without necessarily resorting to pharmacological solutions. Each of us has our own needs, which we must absolutely not overlook. Often, giving us an afternoon nap can have miraculous effects, as many celebrities, from Kennedy to Edison, knew well;
2. Eat . The primary source of energy is food. Following a diet suited to our lifestyle, avoiding junk food, is essential for our body to be able to withstand not only daily challenges, but also the unexpected. The meal can also be a moment of relaxation and socialization. We do not sacrifice a lunch sitting at the table for a sandwich on the fly, the time we believe we are earning is only an illusion;
3. Make movement . Many think they don’t have enough energy to move, a paradox, because moving is a great way to stimulate our body to be more energetic. A run in the morning, or a break to go to the gym, are almost foolproof methods of increasing our energy levels;
4. Socialize. We are social animals, those around us have the power to increase or decrease our energy. It is important to remember that many of the best interactions take place when we socialize between tasks, perhaps having a coffee or taking a walk in the company;
5. Playing. There will always be problems to solve, documents to read, meetings to plan. The moment of the game is the one in which we dedicate ourselves to an end in itself leisure, moments without goals or deadlines, during which we let the mind and body follow their own rhythm. We try to include spaces like these in our calendar, where we dedicate ourselves to ourselves;
6. Think. Read, meditate, pray. All these activities serve to give rest to our mind, which needs it as much as the body. It is easy to overlook this aspect of life, but we must find the time to devote to our mind, to nourish it and allow it to remain young and strong;
7. Disconnect the plug. In an interconnected world, constantly surrounded by notifications, messages, phone calls, we must learn to disconnect. If we decide that evenings and weekends are moments to dedicate to ourselves and our family, then we pull the plug. We make the effort not to do even one thing that “only takes 5 minutes”. When the plug is unplugged, the job has to wait.
The second step is to cut
After understanding what is our goal and what are the steps to follow to achieve it, the time comes to eliminate all those activities that do not bring us pleasure and that keep us away from achieving our goals.
Action 1: eliminate, train your “no” muscle
The society in which we live leads us to think that “no” is a word to never say. We are taught that every project, every collaboration, every opportunity must be exploited, otherwise we risk being cut off. What we don’t realize, however, is that for every “yes” we pronounce, for every task we accept, we implicitly say “no” to something different. Preparing a meeting on the weekend means giving up a day with our children.
We learn to recognize the cost of our “yes”, to evaluate what they force us to give up. This can give us the inner strength and courage to finally say “no”. Eliminating those activities that we have framed as “tran-tran” or without interest allows us to use time and energy in productive or extra-working activities.
An excellent strategy is to create to-do lists. Just like the ubiquitous To Do List , the former contain those activities that we absolutely must not do.
For many of us, saying “no” is difficult, so here are some tips:
- you recognize that your resources are limited. We do not have infinite stocks of time and energy: we learn to distribute them on what really matters;
- determine who needs you and who doesn’t. It is important to establish who needs to interact directly with us, and who can speak to another manager or colleague instead;
- let your calendar say “no”. If you don’t have space on the calendar, rejecting new proposals becomes easier. New activities need space and time that are not already dedicated to anything else;
- adopt a strategy. Get used to saying no, develop a response strategy, so as not to be caught unprepared;
- accept that you will be misunderstood. It’s not nice to get rejected, so the people we say no to might take it the wrong way. It is inevitable, but if we are ready to allow this to happen, we will learn to better manage this reaction.
Action 2: automate, remove yourself from the equation
One thing that technology has definitely managed to do is automate some processes.
We can recognize four types of automation:
1. Automation of oneself. We can use routines and habits to increase our efficiency, helping us move from one phase of the day to the next;
2. Automation for models. If we often communicate via email, we will notice that much of what we write is repetitive. If we invest some time in the creation of models, we can reuse them to respond faster to requests;
3. Automation of processes. If we find ourselves carrying out similar tasks, a good idea is to have a list of steps to follow. We try to study what we do, to outline the various steps and to eliminate the superfluous ones, in order to optimize our time;
4. Technological automation. We are surrounded by applications that can help us give proper precedence to our communications, or that perform complex operations with simple commands. The best advice in this case is not to depend on a particular application or software, since there is always the possibility that it changes or is suspended or interrupted.
Action 3: delegate, clone yourself (or find someone else)
For all those activities that do not bring us pleasure, or in which we are not good, we learn to delegate, or to find someone who can carry out these activities as we would do them, if not better.
We often convince ourselves that delegating is a cost that we cannot afford. Initially it may also seem so, especially for the time investment that requires training a person, but soon we will begin to see the first benefits.
It is not enough to identify the activities to be delegated and to entrust the first person who happens. We will have to make a careful selection, making sure that those who replace us have the skills, passion and time to devote to them.
We will have to provide the information and tools necessary to carry out the task, and give feedback, especially during the initial phase. At this point, we will have to take a step back and leave the space to act, gradually dedicating our time to something else.
The third step is to act
Once you’ve removed everything that’s not essential, let’s move on to the last step. We put our resources to work to achieve our goals, dedicating ourselves to our true tasks, without wasting time and without stress.
Action 1: consolidate, plan your ideal week
We have all heard of multitasking , unfortunately the idea of carrying out three or four different activities at the same time is fundamentally wrong. The human mind is unable to multitask: what actually happens is that the brain focuses for very short periods of time on each activity, immediately moving on to the next. This creates several problems.
First of all, attention is not a switch that we can turn on or off. Any activity we do takes time to get started, from a few moments to several minutes. Once our concentration starts, it is appropriate to block everything that could interrupt us, to fully dedicate ourselves to what we are doing. It is necessary to evaluate the period, however short, required by the transition from one activity to another.
If we add up all these small “dead times”, it is easy to understand why at the end of the day we have to ask ourselves why we have produced so little in eight hours of work.
Action 2: designate, give each task the right priority
If we look at our list of activities to do, we often find it endless. There is always something to add, another task to perform. Without a structure, we run the risk of not being able to prioritize things. We must learn to divide our time, deciding what needs our attention now and which activities, however, can be scheduled for another moment. The key concept is to program, or to establish definitively when we will deal with a certain thing.
The first step is weekly programming. Drawing up a detailed plan of our week allows us to have a general overview of what we will deal with in the short term. To do this, a good starting point is the past week. What were the objectives achieved, the strengths? So let’s analyze everything that happened in the previous week, thinking about how we dealt with the problems and reflecting on what we could have done better. At this point, we can draw up a list of things that we will have to deal with in the coming one.
We can use four organizational techniques:
1. Eliminate activities that are not relevant ;
2. Make appointments. If you can’t deal with something right away, find a time on the calendar when you will;
3. Set priorities for each activity;
4. Postpone those activities that you want to do , but that don’t find space in the programming of this week. You will be able to set a time during the programming for the following week.
Action 3: Activate, defeat distractions and interruptions
During the day, we have a myriad of things that compete to grab our attention. An interruption is an external event that diverts our attention from what we are doing, leading to a series of negative consequences.
We can employ some techniques to limit distractions during work: limit instant communication (disable email and messaging notifications, activate voicemail) and set clear and defined limits (we activate automatic replies to inform who is looking for us who we are busy, communicating the time when we will be available again).
Another fundamental aspect of our work is the environment: not only a messy desk or office carries the risk of distractions, a disorganized computer also affects work. Let’s take the time to create an uncluttered, distraction-free space.
We all suffer from the same problem: resistance to change. We are so accustomed to the systems we use that the idea of changing habits scares us, and is therefore rejected a priori.
Changing is difficult, but the long-term benefits far outweigh the initial commitment: remember that being able to limit your working hours means finding time to devote to our passions, to our family, to our friends. It means having the freedom to focus on what really matters.