I was listening recently to a podcast where Ezra Klein interviewed Tim Wu. Wu is an accomplished academic, author, activist – the sort of overachiever who makes you ask yourself: “how does he find the time?” He was speaking about how he managed to be so productive, and he used a term that stuck in mind: attentional hygiene. Some of the strategies Wu uses aren’t really practical in a workplace (e.g., disconnecting from the internet) but he did make me think about how we navigate a workplace with a multitude of tasks and a multitude of distractions. Personally, I am not a Master of my Attentional Hygiene domain, but I do try! Here are some suggestions to increase your personal productivity.
1. Understand, there is no such thing as multi-tasking. Good “multi-taskers” are actually just good serial mono-taskers. If you try to do more than one thing at a time, you will grow anxious and not be able to achieve anything, so let everything else go and concentrate on the one thing you’re doing now.
2. Get a good to-do list methodology going. I use the task list on Google calendar; they are easy to create, re-arrange, and tick off. Some principles to work by: first, nothing is too small to put on the list. After you’ve entered the items, prioritize them by putting the ones that take less than 2 minutes first (this will shorten the list quickly,) then following them up with the rest according to a combination of importance and urgency. If you need some work on your to-do list methodology, I would suggest reading Getting Things Done by David Allen.
3. Remember, breaks are okay. Don’t be a Nazi with yourself: good attention needs to be refreshed by rest. The Buddha once told an overly zealous follower that he was like a string on a lute: to work best, he needed to be neither too tight nor too loose. We are all like that.
4. But… you need to improve the quality of your breaks. Because the usual quality of the breaks we take is awful. Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter have been proven to have an addictive effect, so if you use them to refresh you just might find that you’re ‘refreshing’ 12 times a day. Moreover, the meal you get in social media often includes doses of political outrage that leave you with an outrage hangover. (Note, I am particularly bad at following my own advice.) Instead of social media, try a walk around the block, or maybe a quick phone check-in with a loved one.
5. Turn Off Unnecessary Notifications on Your Phone. Do you really need to know that somebody has liked your tweet?
6. The Calendar Isn’t Just for Appointments. If you need some time to work on a problem, put it on your calendar. It let’s you know (and it let’s other people know, if it’s a shared calendar) that this is time you’re dedicating to a particular task.
7. Make some space for yourself. If you are in a shared office space, it’s okay to grab your laptop and/or pad, and get yourself to somewhere private, where you can concentrate better. Sometimes, you might work best off-site; if you think it will help and have that option, grasp it.
8. Don’t be a slave to your inbox. Yes, it needs attention, but it probably doesn’t need constant attention. Turn off notifications and check in, say, two or three times a day to respond to queries.
9. Save Your Best Attention. Are you best in the morning? Late afternoon? Are you a bit sleepy just after lunch? Know your rhythms and take them into account. Don’t schedule the things that tax you most during the times when you are not at your best. Fill those times up by ticking off trivial tasks that would otherwise crowd you.
They say that we are what we eat. Mentally then, we are what we pay attention to. An effort to rationalize how we focus on things can really pay off, improving your personal productivity and peace of mind.
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