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How To Boost Productivity Through Time Restrictions

I used to be the person who was ‘always busy’ yet never really focused on whether I was just running on the hamster wheel or if I could actually boost productivity. I thought that was great and meant I was doing something right. Every person I bumped into that asked “how are things” got the standard “haven’t got a minute free” or “if only I could clone myself” response.

A lot of days ended with me wondering where the time disappeared and a feeling of guilt because I had not really achieved anything significant. The guilty feeling had the knock on effect of encouraging me to throw more hours at the issue, which meant longer work days turning into work nights. More work only served to compound the issue and lead to even lower productivity and more guilty feelings.

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment. Seeming to do is not doing”

Thomas A. Edison

Assuming I am good at what I do, I should not have to work more hours than everybody else. I should actually be able do my work in less time, right?

The issue was not the number of hours in the day. The issue was priority.

Why dedicate the same amount of time working on something that generates X when that same time could be spent on something worth 10 times X? So if I had less time in the day I would be forced to make more critical decisions and prioritise more effectively.

Look at people in work when they are close to a deadline or trying to get finished to go somewhere else? They tend not to spend as much time chatting and filling in their day. They are very focused and ignore anything that is not a priority.

A list that provides clarity and helps boost productivity

My entire daily work schedule is now planned out on a Trello board. This board is broken into lists. Each list is intended as a 90 minute work sprint. Within each list all tasks are created as cards.

In his article for Fast Company, Why You Need To Unplug Every 90 Minutes, Drake Baer explains why “Your brain can only focus for 90 to 120 minutes before it needs a break”.

boost productivity through sprints

My approach to tasks is simple:

  • WRITE an estimated time allowed next to each card/task. This helps me not overfill my list with too many tasks. I also avoid that guilty feeling of not getting tasks done which were never realistic in the first place. This has the impact of making everything in the list look achievable to me.
  • GROUP similar cards/tasks together. Having a series of phone calls, client invoices or emails done in a block helps to maximise productivity and keeps me in a more focused, singular frame of mind.
  • WORK on tasks within my current list.Depending on my available time that day I will do 3-5 sprints. If a task is not completed in the allotted time, I move onto the next task and will come back to it later if time allows.
  • REST after 90 minutes. Like any sort of intense activity, you need a break. Your brain cannot run at optimum levels non stop. Taking time out from work reminds me that there is life outside and encourages the creative side of my brain to start working subconsciously.
  • SCHEDULE all unfinished tasks are moved to the ‘Upcoming’ to-do list. During the day there may well be other tasks that come in from client requests, chatting with colleagues, etc. These get put into the Upcoming list too.
  • PRIORITISE tasks from the Upcoming list before adding them to Sprint lists. The goal is not to try get everything on the list done, I want to figure out what is the highest priority. Gregory Ciotti of HelpScout said “achievement isn’t about doing everything, it’s about doing the right things. Productivity is about saying no.”

The Results

I’ve noticed a huge increase in my productivity and mental well-being.

  • Having all my tasks written down together means they are all compared against one another. This makes it is easy to see the trivial ‘filler’ work that sneaks into normal work days.
  • Feelings of achievement are more frequent. Getting through everything on my list helps me feel like I am making progress.
  • More predictability in my output. Instead of a logo design being mixed into the next 3 days of my workload with whatever else I have on my plate that week, I can now clearly see that for me to produce something worthwhile I need at least three 90 minute sprints. This makes costing and planning further work much easier.
  • Distractions are reduced. With limited time allotted to tasks I focus much more clearly on what I am working on.
  • Guilt is gone, since I work in a focused way during the day and get my tasks done I don’t feel guilt finishing work early.

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