Hacking shopping – and productivity

The best way to save money while shopping doesn’t involve scouring every coupon deal available and then using all or most of them. It doesn’t matter how efficient we are in the coupon use process. It just turns out that the best way to save money while shopping is to buy the few things that we actually need.

Productivity isn’t any different. The most powerful productivity hack we have at our disposal is the choice to be thoughtful and clear about what we decide to spend our time on. Hacking things we shouldn’t be doing isn’t helpful.

Or, as Peter Drucker masterfully put it –“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” 

Choosing what we do is a more important decision than how we do it. Effectiveness > Efficiency.

Batch processing meetings

One of the first things to do when you get some semblance of control over your schedule is batch processing meetings. The worst days are those where you have 6 meetings with 30 minute gaps between them. The attention residue alone will prevent you from getting anything done. This isn’t easy to avoid because most places tend to have 3-4 standing meetings that involve a larger group of people that can’t really be moved.

There’s a 3 step process that I’ve come to rely on to get more out of the week –
1. Assign meeting days. Depending on the larger group meetings, assign 2 (or 3) days of your week as meeting days. Every time a new meeting comes up, schedule it on these 2 days.
2. Schedule meetings yourself. As far as possible, take charge of scheduling your meetings so you can batch process them. When you schedule them, look to do them either side of your larger meetings so you do them back-to-back. Where possible, try to find ways you can do that for the other person too. If not, don’t worry – take it as your reward for doing the work. And, when in doubt, schedule them for the back end of the day so you keep your mornings free.
3. Protect your deep work days. As time passes, begin putting in blocks on your deep work days so no one schedules meetings.

If this works well, you will soon find 2-3 days in a week where you have large stretches of time available to you for deep work. And, during your meeting days, you will find smaller extended stretches to dive in. While it helps greatly to develop a mentality where you use every block of time available to you to dive into deep work – perhaps simply by putting your headphones on -, I’ve realized that it works much better when you build a schedule conducive to it.

And, as you might have guessed, the principles surrounding batch processing meetings can work just as well if applied to admin work, email, etc., etc.

One of the simplest ways to find value is to look for what is scarce. In our age of distraction, focus is scarce. And, the onus is on us to build schedules that enable us to focus and get the most out of the day. It isn’t the hours we spend work that counts, it is the work we get done in those hours.

batch process meetings

Absolute time vs. effective time

Most folks who have an interest in personal productivity have probably experimented with tracking time. This is challenging because this can cause large amounts of overhead – e.g., if you’re spending a minute every fifteen minutes noting down what you did. It can also be very distracting. After a few attempts with minimal success over the years, I think I have finally developed a system that works for me. More on this coming soon at a blog post near you (yes, this is just a teaser :-)).

A key part of the success has been learning to focus on effective time vs. absolute time. People call “effective time” by different names – focus time, flow, deep work, etc. I think of it as “effective time” as it is the time that was really spent in getting stuff that matters done. So, a few tweaks that have helped me focus on “effective time” are –

1. Not measuring time spend on email or admin. That’s not to say admin doesn’t get done. It is just that I know I will end up doing it. Admin and email also tend to be my favorite tools for procrastination. So, not measuring them means I keep focused on the things I ought to be working on.

2. Being strict about measuring “effective time.” After a 2 hour burst, for example, I record it in the form of a calendar event on my Outlook. I’ve generally erred on the side of being strict around exactly how much I put in. If I feel like I spent only 1 hr 40 mins, I generally put in an hour and a half (generally measured in 15′ intervals as it is easy to count at the end of the week).

3. Not sweating the small stuff. I’ve been measuring how I spend my time for 14 weeks now and have learnt that I shouldn’t worry about small slippages. It is completely okay to sleep an extra hour, spend an extra 15 minutes enjoying your lunch or to just stare into space. What really matters is what you do when you get to work. In fact, the less stressed you feel, the more you will probably get done. If you can squeeze in effective time when you are at your work desk, the small stuff doesn’t matter.

It comes down to understanding and then measuring the effectiveness of the time you spend working. Meetings, for example, are an example of time you might measure as “work” but it is typically low effectiveness work. So, you definitely need to think about what you really need to do to get work that matters done. Once that is done, then it is all about creating a clear list that spells it out, not worrying about absolute time you’ve spent on your desk and just maximizing the effectiveness of time you spend working.

Once again, don’t worry about time spent at the office. Worry about what you do when you are actually there.

(This is the sort of post that feels so obvious and simple once you write it. Somehow, the execution tends to never be close to obvious or simple..)