Getting stuff done is hard. Getting stuff done while there is a pandemic rumbling on is almost impossible. Even for work-from-home lifers who haven’t had to make an adjustment to their professional environment, it can be a struggle to summon the energy to get through a list of tasks. But perhaps change is still within our grasp. If you struggle to get through your to-do list, here are some productivity tips from experts.
This is a piece of paper divided into a four-square grid, with squares marked “Urgent”, “Not urgent”, “Important” and “Not important”. Take every task you have to do each day and place it in one of the squares. As Barnaby Lashbrooke, a productivity expert and the founder of the virtual assistant service Time Etc, puts it: “Anything urgent and important should be done by you as soon as possible. Anything important but not urgent should be scheduled in your calendar for later. Anything urgent but not important should be delegated to someone else. Anything neither urgent nor important gets cut; it’s just not worth your time or effort.”
Faye Cox, a mindset and confidence coach, suggests that you set aside three or four times each day to check your emails, to allow yourself distraction-free time to concentrate on other tasks. “Allocating certain times for email will enable you to give your full attention to the message and reply accordingly, instead of sending a quick response that hasn’t said everything you wanted it to, contains typos and isn’t in the tone that you had intended,” she says.
Cox also recommends not playing with the open flame of a Twitter feed while you have more important things to do. “This is one of the worst time-zappers out there,” she says. “Most of us use social media for our business, but it’s the biggest time-waster and you’ll kick yourself for it later when you realise that you’ve not achieved everything you needed to.”
“Cave day is an interesting idea that started in a traditional work environment and has been brought online,” says Gianluca Carnabuci, a professor of organisational behaviour at the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT) in Berlin. A cave day is made of distraction-free “sprints” that help you concentrate on important work, starting with the most difficult task and working backwards. “It is based on the notion that we have got to create structures around ourselves to be able to protect ourselves from all of the input we receive. It is a choice, but we do need structures and clear boundaries to stick to,” says Carnabuci.
If you are able to, commit only to meetings and messages that have to happen. Or, as Tariq Rauf, the founder of the digital work hub Qatalog, puts it: “Foster a culture of trust over tracking. Unnecessary meetings and real-time messaging eat up countless hours. Where possible, teams should encourage ways to collaborate asynchronously, without tracking people down for a status update or a quick response, and trust them to respond at a time that suits them.”
What is a micro-practice? It is a moment of calm in which you can briefly concentrate on something else to banish the logjam of overwhelm. Carmel Moore, the co-founder of the meditation firm The One Moment Company, explains that it can be “as simple as washing your face with cold water, or running up and down the stairs. They don’t require special equipment or complicated arrangements, nor do they take a lot of time. Who doesn’t have time to eat a banana without a phone in their hand? Or to stand up and stretch properly? Think of them as workday acupuncture: the tiniest intervention with the biggest impact.”
In terms of panic or confusion, it is always nice to be able to rely on someone who has been through it before. Domenica Di Lieto, the CEO of the digital marketing agency Emerging Communications, says: “The results from successful mentoring produce a significant motivational boost. Just solving a problem is very motivating. Weaknesses are easily identified – they are the things you don’t like doing, or the business tasks that are the biggest headache. If you identify a personal weakness, find a mentor who can help with it.”
Impostor syndrome can set in when you feel that you can’t accomplish a task, although the truth is that a lot of the time the real culprit is a badly-explained task. Joshua Zerkel, the head of global community at the team-management platform Asana, points out that this is very easily eliminated with questions. Ask the task-giver for any necessary elucidation “as soon as you receive and read a brief. Without this clarity, employees are left confused about priorities, resulting in a lack of motivation and alignment within teams.”