According to Forbes Magazine, the average worker receives about 200 emails a week. In the last five years we have embraced a bewildering variety of messaging apps and social media platforms. To stay on top of our lives, we’re obliged to read official communications, go through bills and bank statements, and work our way through piles of dreary virtual paperwork. We’re bombarded with data on hourly basis, from rolling news channels, online newsfeeds, automatic notifications and many other sources. The more ambitious and curious of us also have personal reading lists, with hundreds of unread books crammed onto our Kindle or I-pad. The volume of information we have to process is unparalleled in human history and our brain often struggles to deal with it, slipping into a “zombie” mode…
“Information overload” is a widely recognised contemporary social phenomenon, which was identified as far back as the 1960’s in books such as The Medium is the Massage by Marshall McLuhan and graphic designer Quentin Fiore. The speed of information acquisition increases rapidly in conjunction with technological development. According to Daniel Levitin, McGill University psychology professor and author of the best-seller The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload,
“we produced more information in the last decade than in all of human history before that”.
We have to run at least twice as hard to ‘stay in the race’, and juggle the conflicting demands of being well-informed, productive and time-efficient. The mental effort that this entails often results in damage to our private life and personal wellbeing, effectively turning us into automatons.
I’m regularly asked how I’m able to run a few start-up companies, manage an on-lime magazine (OpenMindPortal), train twice a day, serve my private clients, read around 80 books a year, travel and keep my personal life on point. The following are a few of my thoughts on the subject:
- The personal experience I gained whilst working for and with giant multinational companies such as Moscow Stock Exchange, Jaguar & Land Rover, GSK and so on was extremely useful. The stress and pace of life necessitated leading an organised, disciplined life;
- I have been helped in this by dozens of books written by productivity gurus (you can find few of them in reference list below);
- Ideas that I picked up during my MBA at Imperial College helped too;
- Articles from popular magazines (Harvard Business review, Forbes, etc.) and blogs that I read at least few times a week aid in keeping my perception of productivity fresh.
This is the first article in a series devoted to productivity. I would like to open the series by offering ten useful tips that will help you to deal with information noise, and keep you focused, proactive and creative, able to overcome procrastination, and to get more done in less time.
The second article will be devoted to mind decluttering techniques. The third will be about the seven types of brain activity humans have, and how we can improve all of them. The fourth will suggest a range of useful tools to apply when dealing with emails and other message forms effectively and rationally. The fifth one will shed light on how to lead effective meetings, avoid wasting precious time on human drama and effectively achieve your goals. Finally, in the sixth article, I will share how to maintain a positive attitude and transmit good vibes to other people.
David Allen, the famous productivity coach, recommends regularly “clearing the mind”. I could not agree more. When your mind is in order, your life, relationships, business and lifestyle will be in order too. But we are only human, and all of us to some extent are prone to involuntary compulsive thoughts that can turn life into a nightmare.
However, there are plenty of methods which can help to cleanse the mind. I, for instance, always carry a little notebook in which I can jot down various thoughts. These can be creative ideas, plans, little tasks I have to accomplish or just annoying emotions I want to get rid of. David Allen also recommends putting thoughts on paper in order to keep the mind fresh and pure: “Writing thoughts down gets them out of your head, clearing your brain of things that are interfering with being able to focus on what you want to focus on”. Such simple strategies can help to eliminate negativity at its initial point, giving you the peace of mind to concentrate on what you want to keep done.
Read: Simple techniques to declutter your mind.
- Classify, prioritize and break down
Once thoughts are down on paper – sort them out. My technique is to initially split them into two main categories: emotions and actions. Once classified, thoughts that have preoccupied you all day do not look quite so scary and overwhelming any more.
I want to focus on actions, which in turn can be split into sub-categories. Allen suggests splitting them into the following: DO, DELEGATE, DEFER, and DROP. I usually do not use “defer”, as all postponed actions bear little relation to the present moment, and could be easily dropped, delegated or done immediately.
Sometimes some of the actions on your list can seem quite daunting. For instance, ‘write a dissertation’ or ‘lose 10 lbs’. It may even sound scary, but don’t stress! What you have to do is to split them into smaller steps and to schedule all of them.
By sticking to your plan 80% of the time, and executing tasks from the ‘do’ category every day, you can be extremely productive without being overloaded with worries, and plagued by negative feelings.
The human brain is designed to do only one conscious thing at a time. Multitasking not only burns a tremendous amount of energy, but also negatively impacts on performance, and leads to mistakes. And it is only the tip of the iceberg. Stress bubbles under the surface, a consequence of emotional burn, cortisol spikes and even subsequent muscle catabolism and fat gain. Moreover, multitasking saves no time at all. It has been scientifically established that switching between two activities takes the same, or even more, time than it does to carry them out sequentially. If you have two equally urgent and important tasks, do one first and then the other one.
Keep in mind that any exercise in multitasking is in fact a cluster of small decisions you have to take. According to Daniel Livitin, decision making ‘spends’ oxygenated glucose, the essential fuel you need to retain your focus, and to keep doing things. Constant prolonged jumping between tasks will cause physical and mental exhaustion, anxiety and disorientation. On the other hand,
“once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose. This allows us to get more done and finish up with more energy,” writes Levitin.
As a qualified nutritionist I would add that avoiding multitasking is very beneficial for keeping fit. Doing one thing at a time in a calm, focused mode decreases the need to top your glucose levels up by consuming sugar and simple carbs, and as a result reduces the risks of gaining fat associated with sedentary office work.
At the beginning of the day we are fresh and full of energy. Every decision we take and every movement we make uses fuel from the same tank. However, we have a limited supply. According to Livitin,
“important decisions should be made at the beginning of the day, when gumption and glucose is highest”.
“If you eat a frog first thing in the morning, the rest of the day goes better”!
Clearly not a statement to be taken literally, but his point about making crucial decisions in the morning is relevant.
Schedule 1-3 hours at the beginning of each day to accomplish 1 to 3 of your most important tasks. Turn notifications on your phone off and focus on your ‘first things’ fully and consciously. I always do cardio at morning. However, my body needs some time from my first glass of water with a shot of espresso until I’m ready to go out for a run. I use this time for planning editorials or writing. I love these productive 1-1.5 hours, as I can usually do 30% of my daily ‘must do’ activities. Then I can refresh my mind and dive into the details of a new article or a project while jogging two to three laps of the park. You can create your own way to ‘eat the frog in the morning.
There are various distractions around us, and they are always ready to capture our attention. It could be scrolling through social media (very often meaningless), idle banter or gossip, checking messages and emails, tidying up the workplace and other forms of banal procrastination.
“We need to be really clear about the most important things. As a rule of thumb, you can remember three ideas relatively well,” says David Rock.
Exactly for that reason, it is useful to limit your goals for the year, for the week, for the day to a maximum of three. With a larger number it becomes almost impossible to control their execution. Eliminating meaningless objectives, ego driven goals (to get one more trophy just for sake of it), and empty conversations, can enable you to focus on your real aims.
- Group together tasks and do simple things quickly
Doing similar quick tasks at once is another way to lightening your ‘do’ list. Do not confuse this with multitasking. For example, paying a few bills, making a few phone calls or answering a bunch of emails in one, defined, time-slot is a great solution to keep on track. Allocate 15-30 minutes (no more) to execute similar, simple and quick tasks, eliminating them from the list and thus being able to switch your attention to more exciting things.
Be conscious when doing on-line tasks. It is always very tempting to start surfing the Net. Reserve a special time for that activity too – allocating 30 minutes after your evening workout in the gym or after lunch, when your brain activity is at its lowest. Alternatively you could split your reading time before bed into two parts: 30 minutes for browsing your favourite on-line sources, and devoting the other 30 minutes to a book from your reading list. When you set a specific time to do certain things it is far easier to avoid distractions and to stay fully focused.
Coaching people, I very often hear the same story: “I have no time for dates” or “I have no time for the gym/ another degree/ reading books/ grocery shopping/ eating healthily”. However, all of those ‘little things’ determine our quality of life. 14 years ago I made conscious decision to stop watching TV. It was one of the only types of affordable entertainment in the small town where I was born. I made an invaulable gift to myself, splitting the few free hours I had into training and reading.
When I moved to Moscow and started my career in PR and marketing I reconsidered my life habits again. I decided to stop being judgmental and reduced amount of unnecessary meetings and phone calls that I spend before with my female friends discussing gossips and mutual acquaintances. I’ve got few more hours and I start learning English and read English books.
Now I spend two hours doing fitness each day, and a further two hours reading and learning new things. And these are just four of the 24 hours available to me! The value of the time you are putting to more productive use when applying similar techniques is incalculable in life.
A short while ago I stopped competing in fitness shows that were taking up a significant amount of my time (stage rehearsals, posing practice, bikini making). I realized that gaining one more award did not improve my life. I’ve always been very much a people person, and helping others has always made my life more fulfilled. Now I spend two to three hours a day doing research and writing articles for OpenMindPortal and other media, to help people along their life journey.
The time you can save by refraining from obsessing about other people, associating with damaging or negative individuals and their accompanying worries, and ego-driven behaviour, could well be enough to free up hours and hours in which to do really valuable things. Start planning your wellbeing and self-development. Just consciously check what makes you happy and how you spend your time, and act accordingly.
Eight hours of quality sleep each night should be a rule of thumb. It has been proven that the human brain cannot be efficiently active and retain its focus for more than 1 to 2 hours in a row. We have to rest during the day as well.
“People who take a 15-minute break every couple of hours are much more efficient in the long run,” believes Levitin.
It is not only generally refreshing: Short relaxation activates some parts of the brain responsible for feelings of happiness. Apart from that, little breaks help us to keep our consciousness and energy levels high. “So taking a break, taking a nap, taking a walk around the block, listening to music — these activities, although most bosses would think that they’re a waste of time, in fact, they’re a big adjunct to productivity and creativity.” Levitin also claims that a “15-minute nap can increase your effective IQ by 10 points”.
The human brain works in two main modes: “one is when you’re directing your thoughts, and the other is when the thoughts take over and run themselves,” says Levitin. I call them proactive and insightful modes. The first one allows us to get things done.
In the insightful mode, according to Levitin, “one thought melds into another and they’re not particularly related.” Such a mode is a neural reset process that replenishes some of the glucose, and is also beneficial for boosting creativity. “The thoughts meander from one to another, creating links between things we might not have seen as linked before, and from that may come the solutions to problems,” writes Levitin.
So take regular breaks. I like doing fitness, meditate or simply do something completely different (graphic design is one of my favourite things to relax my mind during those periods), while my brain switches to a more insightful mode.
We always tend to underestimate simple tasks. Very often in my past I allocated fewer hours for a task than it really takes. I learnt through experience that being realistic about the length of time that tasks will take is beneficial, and to allocate extra time accordingly.
- Don’t overestimate importance
This is the final, but also a crucial, point. Very often we become fully immersed in achieving our goals, and can easily lose a sense of reality. If everything goes right – that’s fine. In a worst-case scenario we could endure some unnecessary sacrifices, or experience physical and mental exhaustion. When something goes wrong, stress level increases rapidly, turning us into over-reactive zombies. However, in the majority of cases this is not calamitous, and nothing will really happen if we put everything and everyone aside for a moment, and take a reflective step back. Conscious control, required rest, mental flexibility and the ability to adjust, reconsider or even surrender some goals are also key to personal success.
Daniel Kahneman. Thinking fast and slow. 2004
Daniel Livitin. Organized mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. 2012
David Allen. Getting things done. The art of stress free productivity. 2001
David Allen. Making It All Work: Winning at the game of work and the business of life, 2008
David Allen. Ready for anything. 2003
David Rock. Your brain at work. 2009
Echart Tolle. The new Earth. 2013
Echart Tolle. The power of now.1997
Ivy-Marie Blackburn. Cognitive therapy in actioin. 1996
Ray Kurxweil. How to create a mind.2015