Productivity power tools

Harness the power of cognitive science to enhance your productivity. Change your workday in these three ways.

By Amy Smith, PhD, Consultants for Education, Manitou Springs, Colo. August 27, 2014

For engineers, time literally is money. Therefore, managing productivity—making the best use of time—needs to be explicit and disciplined. Otherwise deadlines are not met, quality is not adequate, budgets are busted, and careers are imperiled.

Individual productivity is a challenge in today’s hyper-connected workplace. At work, we get interrupted, on average, every 3 minutes. After a major interruption, it can take up to 25 minutes to get back on track with the task we were doing. This is significant because the No. 1 productivity killer, research shows, is interruptions.

These statistics are motivation for increasing your individual productivity, which can be accomplished with three changes in how you work.

1. Structure your day

Several university studies show we peak in our workflow and focus just before 11 a.m. In fact, our mental acuity is the sharpest at the start of the morning. Until 3 p.m., we are able to effectively pour our energy into heavy, complex work tasks. After 3 p.m., our productivity decreases significantly. In essence, we should structure our most thought-requiring project time between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day.

Research also shows that busy work, like filing or sorting e-mail, while seemingly mindless, actually makes us feel productive because it’s easy and we can complete lots of it quickly. The best time for busy work is after 3 p.m. when our brains have slowed down for the day.

Rather than begin our day getting sucked into e-mail, research indicates that the most productive way to start your day is by planning and prioritizing. Those leaders and managers who are the most productive and the least stressed about their work start their day building daily to-do lists, deciding how much time each task is going to take, and buffering a bit for interruptions and challenges. Start with your heavy tasks first. Research shows that when we tackle the hard stuff with our sharpest minds, it can take up to 50% less time and we feel accomplished and less stressed.

2. Build routines

Our brains are wired to recognize and execute behaviors in patterns. For example, consider shopping at a familiar big-box store. You likely traverse roughly the same route each time you visit, ignoring some aisles and moving through others with precision. The simplification of complex tasks occurs, so our brains lump similar items together over time.

There are three ways to take advantage of this brain-based productivity opportunity: First, group all your phone calls together and make them one after another during a scheduled block of time in your day (after 3 p.m. is a great time because everyone’s productivity is waning). Also, batch your e-mail responses and do them in one sitting in your day.

And, third, for those times when you can’t seem to focus, build a 5-minute to-do list of two or three simple tasks (updating project management files, mentoring or getting mentored, checking websites for project opportunities, etc.) and perform those tasks. The mere grouping of quick busy work will refocus your thinking patterns and get you back on track more quickly than the average 25 minutes noted above. This isn’t billable time, but it makes billable time more productive.

3. Communicate efficiently

A Fortune 500 company recently focused on revising its internal communications. Managers noticed an increase in complaints around the amount of time spent in e-mail. Employees were multitasking in meetings, bringing cell phones to comb through e-mails during the meetings.

The solution? The company revised internal communications based on two variables: importance and complexity. Urgent messages, complex issues, and quick questions merited a phone call or in-person conversation. Think about how much time it takes to open an e-mail message, read it, click respond, and write a response—just for a quick question—not to mention waiting for a response. And for complex issues, too much typing and too many bullets leaves room for scanning and overly simplified responses. This company built working norms around when to use the office phone versus cell phone versus e-mail. In the end, e-mail messages were reserved for all things that could wait. The result: the number of e-mail messages decreased by more than 50%.

Powering your productivity with new tools will take time and practice. You can’t change a lot of things at once, so try applying one or two of the items above for a week or two, and then try a few more. There are other tools companies can adopt that increase group and corporate productivity even more. I’ll cover those in a future column. 

Amy Smith, PhD, is the president of Consultants for Education. She has more than 20 years of experience in organizational leadership, adult teaching and training, and cognitive research. Her consulting focuses on development of corporate training and mentoring programs.