Don't be busy, be productive.
Being busy is making you less productive. Here’s how to win your day with more downtime.
Being quick-witted or adaptable is valued and rewarded in many industries. However, in actuality, they are professional worker sweat shops that overwork their employees. The outcome? Employees who are stressed and exhausted.
In a society where productivity and hard effort are valued, working hard is seen to be "winning." Being busy can become addictive and raise our sense of (self-)importance. When we don't do a lot of "things" at work or on the weekends, we feel guilty or ashamed. According to articles, books, and podcasts, successful people are more eager to work harder and longer than others. They rise around five in the morning to get a jump on the day, yet studies show that the more sleep we receive, the happier we are. Going hard and always being "on" is actually counterproductive to your goals. Neurotransmitters produced by pain, stress, and weariness prevent you from using your executive function.
If you flip the switch and schedule more downtime, your brain will function better and be more productive. To function at our best, we must be engaged, happy, and calm. So, to assist you in doing that, here are some of my favourites to achieve the flow.
Build in a 15% buffer
Watch your body (not your wall) clock
Hold 25-minute meetings
Simplify your systems
Mental Models of Project Managment
Time Managment Tips
Thinking Models used for Decision Making
1. Build in a 15% buffer
Capacity utilization (most commonly used in industry) calculates the difference between production and production capability. Since a company is unlikely to operate at full capacity, 85% is regarded as ideal. This offers a 15% safety net against setbacks like equipment failure or a lack of resources. You and your brain are subject to the same limitations. To use your resources and mental systems to their full potential, you must work at 85%, not 100%. Take Olympian Carl Lewis, for example. The sprinter who won nine gold medals was renowned for his mastery of the finish line. In a 100-meter sprint, he frequently finished last at the 40-meter mark but easily outran his rivals by the finish line. Lewis looked exactly the same when he won the race as he had at the beginning, whereas other runners were obviously having to push harder towards the end—clenching their fists, scrunching their faces. He didn't run at full power the entire time; he ran at 85% of it.
TIP: Include a 15% buffer in your day or week's planning. Remove one day from a seven-day week—1.2 hours—from an eight-hour day. Just begin by setting aside public holidays in advance (especially if you work for yourself). Use that time to read, unwind, or sleep. Although it may seem counterintuitive, doing so will ultimately save you mental power.
2. Watch your body (not your wall) clock
Ever notice how your tolerance (and fuse) in meetings or talks shortens and becomes more erratic as the day goes on? You become irritated by even the little things since you are exhausted and have little mental energy. Making significant decisions or attempting to have fruitful conversations when in this frame of mind is not recommended. Innovation, inspiration, and intuition are only accessible to us when our brain is in specific states of awareness, according to studies of brain waves. Thus, the more of your brain that is protected, the better. Since most of us are most productive in the morning, it makes sense that important decisions and tasks requiring concentration and attention—what we refer to as "real work"—should be completed then. Meanwhile, mundane tasks like sending emails are best completed in the late afternoon when your cognitive load is at its lowest.
TIP: Maximize your mornings by starting yours the night before. Before finishing up for the day, plan two or three tasks you want to do first. Avoid switching on your email in the morning until those tasks are done. Protect your most valuable time.
3. Hold 25-minute meetings
We need meetings. We need them at work because, when they go well, clear actions get set, decisions are made, and the whole business moves forward. The issue is that we always hold 60-minute sessions by default. That’s at least 35 minutes of wasted time waiting for latecomers, fixing tech issues, and wondering about the agenda (or lack thereof). Scheduling only 25 minutes creates clarity around doing what’s important. If we only have 25 minutes, we had better be focused on what we need to get done. This automatically forces us to think about the top two or three things to discuss in a meeting and drives action.
TIP: Change your default calendar app to 25 minutes, instead of 60. Always provide people with the purpose of a meeting. When you accept invitations, tell others you only have 25 minutes and ask them why you are expected to be there. If there’s no reason, or you’re unclear on the purpose, then save yourself some time and politely decline.
4. Simplify your systems
Our natural tendency when faced with a challenge is to "add things" (complicate) rather than "delete things" (decomplicate). To address the issue of overcrowded work schedules, we plan additional meetings, yet doing so increases the amount of red tape and decision-making. You wake up earlier or stay up later to finish when your day or week is full. But what if you just did fewer of the things you had committed to? Consider the limitations you could impose to make a "to not do list." It can entail using social media while at work, spending all of your time checking email, scheduling meetings before 10: 00 am and after 5: 00 pm or staying up late.
TIP: Remove tasks from your current to-do list that are of little value, time-consuming, or a distraction from your main objectives or KPIs. You'll be astonished at how much time all of these activities used to take up and how they'll help you finish the crucial tasks. In other words, stop pushing yourself to the limit and instead, win the day with more rest if you want to be "quick," "successful," or "adaptive."
5. Deep Work
Deep work is single tasking, limiting your context switching and distractions in your immediate working environment. Shallow work is logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted.
TIP: Quit or limit social media to predefined times and contexts. E.g., Keep your phone in a different room while you study or work Remove shallow work (emails, calls, administrative tasks), or limit it to predefined, short-time periods in each day Spend more time doing pre-defined work or planning projects you wish to complete—the more time we spend responding to incoming distractions, the less productive we are Focus on only the most important task in each working session Make deep work routines: Set aside a time each day (e.g. 5-7 am) where you will work distraction-free
6. Mental Models of Project Managment
a) Hofstadter's Law
Projects always take longer than expected, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law. You're generally bad at estimating when things will get done. The deeper point: We often have a choice of when to call a project “done.” Use this choice more often.
b) Elon’s Law
If you have a project, defy Hofstader's Law by giving yourself an absurdly tight deadline. If you don't meet it, you're still in the lead. Isn't it preferable to miss a deadline that is aggressive than one that is conservative? Musk has accomplished so much, so it's no surprise.
c) Murphy’s Law
“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” This is another reason to use Elon’s Law. When planning long-term projects, consider a margin of safety to ensure you can handle any interruptions to planned progress and still meet your deadline easily.
d) Parkinson's Law
Work expands to fill the time allotted to it. If you allocate 4 weeks, it will take 4 weeks. If you allocate 10 days, it will take 10 days. Remember: The sooner you finish, the sooner you can move on. Advice: Use artificial deadlines.
e) Gate's Law
We overestimate our capabilities over the course of a year and underrate them over the course of 10 years. Because we think in linear terms as humans, it is difficult for us to imagine the compounding effects of our activities over a decade. If one year is insufficient to achieve your ambitions, don't be discouraged.
7. Time Management Tips
a) Pomodoro Technique
Use a timer to divide your work into Pomodoro or intervals of 25 to 45 minutes each followed by brief pauses. This model taps into Parkinson’s law and causes you to try and get more done within each short time period, with a reward at the end.
b) Maker's vs Manager's Schedule
There are two types of schedules.
Manager: The work you do changes every hour.
Maker: The work you do requires long, uninterrupted units of time—e.g., programmers.
Figure out the schedule your role requires to do your best work and stick to it.
c) Speed Matters
Less activation energy is necessary to complete any given task the faster you work. Shorten the period for the job that has to be done and work more quickly to keep the activation energy low.
“If there's something you want to do a lot of and get good at—like write or fix bugs—you should try to do it faster. That doesn't mean be sloppy. But it does mean, push yourself to go faster than you think is healthy. That's because the task will come to cost less in your mind; it'll have a lower activation energy. So you'll do it more. And as you do it more (as long as you're doing it deliberately), you'll get better. Eventually you'll be both fast and good.” -James Somers
d) High-Leverage Activities
To maximize output, spend time on the activities that will influence that output the most. The more you need to do an activity or the more you are affected by it, the higher the leverage is on time spent perfecting that thing.
8. Thinking Models used for Decision Making
a) Eisenhower Matrix
Figure out how much an hour of your time is worth: Your 'aspirational hourly' rate. When deciding whether or not to do a task, ask whether it's worth more or less than your rate. If it's not worth your fee, outsource it, automate it, or get rid of it.
Use the Eisenhower Method stems from a quote attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower: “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
A basic Eisenhower matrix helps evaluate the urgency and importance of tasks and activities to aid the decision-making ability.
Place the items within each quadrant based on your preferences.
The Tasks in the quadrants are handled as follows.
Important & Urgent
These tasks or activities, such as crises, incidents, difficulties, blocks, customers on call, approvals, etc., are completed right away. However, consider lowering these activities and enhancing their operation or management.
Important & Not Urgent
These tasks need doing, however not right away, hence they can be scheduled or decided. These may have an end date or deadlines against them. The activities could be planned and prioritized based on the end dates, e.g., planning a wedding, training for a marathon, conducting a workshop, preparing a presentation, running a retrospective, plan self-development.
Not important & Urgent
These tasks could be delegated to others, may not necessarily need your expertise, they could also be reassigned, e.g., meeting notes, reports, plan socials, bookings, responding to messages & emails.
Not important & Not Urgent
These tasks could be deleted or eliminated, as they may not add any measurable value at this point in time. These activities could be said NO to, e.g., unpleasant activities, social media scrolls, gossips, overthinking.
b) Effectiveness vs. Efficiency
Effectiveness: Doing the right things—getting the result you intend.
Efficiency: Doing things right-working with minimal waste of time and effort.
To achieve more, you must be both effective & efficient, but effectiveness should come first.
c) Via Negativa (less is more)
Our default response to a problem is to acquire a new habit or purchase a fix. But more often than not, life is improved by subtraction. The meals you stay away from are more significant than the things you consume. The secret to productivity is to eliminate distractions.
d) Systems vs. Goals
To achieve more, focus on the process first—the system—that will get you to the goal. Doing something every day is a system—like writing for 1 hour. Writing a book is a goal.
“Goals determine your direction. Systems determine your progress.” - James Clear
“Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous pre success failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system.” - Scott Adams
We’ve been led to believe that our everyday problems—weight loss, productivity, saving money—require complex solutions. This is called ‘artificial complexity.’ Decomplication is the process of boiling problems down to their simplest form.
Many, perhaps perhaps most, issues have very straightforward basic answers. You can explain how to gain muscle, spend less money, be more productive, sleep better, develop a website, and just much any other common problem in one paragraph apiece.
However, we don't want to hear this. A mixture of psychological biases, willpower depletion, and smart marketing has caused us to feel that the simple things are difficult and complex and that we need enormous quantities of knowledge and talent to solve them.
Topics are made more complicated than they need to be in order to appeal to our prejudices and annoyances and to help businesses make more money. We have both created and been drawn into this world of false complexity.
But now there's excellent news. You can employ decomplication to bring any problem back to its simple resolution once you become aware of this artificially complicated reality. Weight loss, strength increase, productivity, skill enhancement, and sleep are all remarkably simple once decomplicated.
f) The Top Idea in Your Mind
The topic you think about in the shower is “The Top Idea In Your Mind.” If it's not what you want to be thinking about, it might indicate your focus isn’t where it should be: on your most important problem. If so, you may need to change something.
Using Brain as a Tool
a) Tap into your brain’s executive suite
The first step is to get familiar with your brain’s basic cognitive functions and how to harness them for productive good. The executive functions of the brain include:
It seems like the perfect formula for increasing productivity at work. These higher functions enable you to complete tasks by controlling your emotions, repressing your prejudices, transitioning between tasks, resolving challenging problems, and exercising creative thought.
When your day is loaded with repetitive chores, lengthy to-do lists, and frequent interruptions, your brain is forced into low-power mode, where its primary responsibility is to get you to the end of the day safely, making it difficult to get the most out of those functions. The crucial activities that enable you to work at the next level—collaboration, trust, and risk-taking—have no place.
There are some easy steps you can take to give your brain the environment it needs to operate more like a boss and less like a worker bee.
Sleep is prime cleaning time for your brain.
I know you’ve heard this one before, but here’s why sleep is so important to your productivity. Your sleep is prime cleaning time for your brain, where it processes the issues from that day and makes room for new information and memories. You ignore those folks who claim they can get by on 4-5 hours per night. Seven to nine hours per night is more like it. To settle your brain down more quickly, skip the alcohol before bed and stop looking at all your devices’ screens for at least an hour before you hit the hay.
Even though it only weighs 5–6 pounds, your brain consumes 25–30% of the food you consume. A nutritious meal increases glucose levels, which power the brain when we engage in unfamiliar and unnatural activities. According to Swart, "that increase in fuel builds new connections in the brain that can help it overcome pre-existing prejudices." You might be more inclined to recruit that new employee who just might make all the difference or to trust someone on a deadline. Swart advises consuming a lot of salmon, avocado, eggs, almonds, seeds, and coconut oil in your diet.
When you don’t drink enough water, brain synapses lose a bit of plasticity.
In your nervous system, signals speak to each other through synapses. When you don’t drink enough water (or drink too much alcohol), those synapses lose a bit of plasticity. To keep the connections firing at the right rate, your body needs to be well-hydrated. Aim for about 16 ounces of water for every 30 or so pounds of body weight.
It can be tough to get in physical activity at the office but moving around and getting your breath going helps more oxygen get to your brain. Even a short walk can increase growth factors in your brain and make it easier to grow new connections. Research has shown that standing burns 0.15 calories more per minute compared to sitting. Plus, you’re more likely to move around more while standing up.
For all its marvels, the brain operates better when its choices are simplified. Multitasking — to the extent that anyone can truly do it — keeps you in that “doing” mode and less in the “thinking” mode. Reduce your choices and settle on a morning routine to get your brain off to a good start. Your brain’s neurotransmitters such as serotonin take a natural dip around 3 pm, so put your most cognitively challenging work early in the day when your brain energy is at its peak.
b) Be energized, but not overstimulated
When it comes to being productive at work, you can reach back more than 100 years to some research that explains a lot about how to maximize your potential. Dr. Art Markman, psychology professor likes to refer to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which was first explained back in 1908 and looks at the relationship between how energized you are to do something and your performance.
A certain amount of stress is good, but too much turns into crippling anxiety.
It makes sense that if you’re not energized or excited about doing something, then you’re not very productive. Similarly, as a deadline closes in, you get energized to meet it and your productivity goes up. But the interesting part is that it’s possible to get too energized and hurt your performance. A certain amount of stress is good, but too much turns into crippling anxiety.
“At some point, you continue to get energized. You’ve literally got energy flowing through your motivational system and you can actually get over-aroused to the point where you’re no longer productive,” Markman says. “You slip into what you could think of as panic.”
Staying at the top of the curve where you’re energized, but not over-stimulated, requires knowing how your work best. Like me, are you a planner who gets things in order right away? Or are you a procrastinator who thrives under the pressure of a deadline? It’s important to know yourself to be able to maintain a level of effectiveness throughout a project. And it’s even more important that a manager recognizes how each person on their team approaches work so they can set the team up for success.
c) Use the power of neuroplasticity
One of the biggest topics in cognitive science over the last 20 years is the concept of neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain to change over time. Scientists used to think that your thinking was pretty malleable until age 18 or so, but more recent studies have shown that there are things you can do to keep your brain flexible throughout adulthood.
Taking on the mental challenge of learning something new every day is necessary for grasping the principles of workplace mental flexibility. It's similar to how a beginning musician joins a band. They don't worry about making an impression right away and instead start by listening more than playing while being open to new things. Adopting the same approach at work involves using your "jazz brain."
Markman, who started playing the saxophone in his 30s, asserts that "it takes time to achieve proficiency." The ability to quickly adjust to a new circumstance is made possible by competence. When anything goes wrong, that is essential because they frequently fail in unexpected ways.
d) Hone your emotional awareness
A big part of being effective at work, of course, is being a good communicator. So much of today’s work is about sharing information across email, text, writing, and speech. When you’re in the same space, you can pick up a lot of non-verbal cues that add a lot of context to the conversation. But with distributed teams who communicate heavily by text, that can be a challenge.
Swart advises you to use your emotional side for communicating rather than relying on the magic of technology. She identifies the most essential brain pathway that connects to significant ways of thinking as mastering your emotions. That doesn't include keeping your feelings to yourself while working; rather, it means being more conscious of how you're feeling and how others are responding.
“It’s about understanding the importance of what’s going on interpersonally. So often, that’s the explanation for why things go wrong,” Swart says. “If you pay attention, give eye contact, really listen, ask open-ended questions and not interrupt people and not be on your device when someone is talking to you — that can be absolutely game-changing in a team or a business.”
Combatting Procrastination Psychology
a) Perfectionist's Fear.
The subconscious fear of failure causes procrastination. You can avoid facing the potential consequences of a task if you put it off for long enough. Avoid spending too much time getting small details "exactly right," as this will postpone finishing the task.
TIP: Try visualizing the completion of your task in the positive way. Understand perfection is a myth. Put in your best effort and realize that's all you can do.
b) Dreamer's Lack of Action.
Someone who is very creative and has many great ideas, but who is unable to implement them. This occurs because there isn't any goal-setting after the idea has been developed. An aimless approach shows delays and poor decision-making.
TIP: Once you have an idea, write down a timeline of what you want to achieve and by when. Do this daily to keep yourself on track and accountable.
c) Overwhelmed Avoider.
A task might be overwhelming to do, which causes you to procrastinate. Complexity of a task causes the brain to lose motivation and avoids doing it altogether.
TIP: Break the challenge down into smaller tasks and Tackle individually termed as Decomplication and Deep Work.
d) Busy Bee Who Lacks Prioritization.
You may have too many tasks and you miss to acknowledge differing importance of each task. Time is wasted on switching from one task to other or spending too much time deciding what to do. Even while multitasking, things get mixed.
TIP: It's all about priorities. Choose important tasks over urgent ones. Make sure to question the value and purpose of each task and make a list in order of importance as explained through Eisenhower Matrix.
e) The Distraction-Prone.
Distraction is another cause for procrastination. Our brains aren't wired to focus for long periods of time, and it looks for something else.
TIP: Be mindful of your workspace and potential distractions. Work for 20-30 minutes at a time and then take a 5-minute break also called Pomodoro Technique.
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