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Five Surprising Steps to a More Effective To-Do List

Ah, the to-do list.

Lately, I’ve had dozens of calls from high-achievers (a Head of School, a university athletic coach, a tech industry Chief Marketing Officer) asking me for specific instructions for keeping a more effective to-do list. Ineffective task lists trigger overwhelm, and these folks were suffering. They’d look down at their list and instinctively think: There is no way I can get all this done today.

Great to-do lists, on the other hand, do several things (besides provide you with that feeling of accomplishment when you cross something off of it):

  • They allow you to focus on your highest priorities and your most important work without having to decide what, exactly, that is in any given moment.
  • They externalize information so that you don’t need to remember it, freeing up space and energy in your brain. The key here is having a list that keeps your brain from interrupting you with “reminders” that you need to, say, pick up kitty litter on the way home from work. (Note: Just writing something down on a list isn’t enough to silence the reminders that come from your unconscious mind.)
  • They promote a state of deep focus by providing cues as to where you are in your workflow.

Below are the five steps to transform a long, overwhelming list of things into a high performing task-list. A note about format: You’ll probably have to give up your pen and paper list for this one. Not forever, though–just know that you’ll move through the steps below much more quickly if you use an online tool. I’ve used and loved to-doist in the past; I’m currently using Trello because of the way that it integrates with my team’s lists. If you’d like to use Trello, you can copy one of my blank to-do list boards here. (Instructions for how are here.)

Step 1: Decide on your Top Five priorities. Not just at work, but in your life.

Time management guru Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, advises his clients (mostly high-profile business leaders) to pick their top five priorities and then spend 95 percent of their time doing only those activities, saying “no” to virtually everything else. This idea made a lasting impression on me when I first heard him talk about it because I was so convinced that there was no way that I could spend 95 percent of my time doing things that fell into my top priorities. I was too busy just making sure the trains ran on time!

But it turns out that now I do spend 95 percent of my time on my most important priorities. To give you an idea of how this worked for me, here are my top five priorities this year, in order of importance:

(1) Maintain my own health and happiness.
(2) Nurture my family, home, and closest friendships.
(3) Grow my online class offerings.
(4) Coach and teach both individuals and groups.
(5) Give back to our community.

If your to-do list is going to help you focus on your most important work, you’ll need to decide now what your most important work is, and I don’t just mean at a paying job. What brings meaning and fulfillment to your life? What, when neglected, causes your world to unravel? (Note to parents: This priority is probably your own self-care.) I created a list in Trello with each priority, and then added an extra one for the “Other 5 percent.” You could also do this on pen and paper with Peter Bregman’s worksheet, here.

Step 2: Organize your tasks under these categories.

Now that you know what your priorities are, organize your tasks by priority. If a task doesn’t fall under a Top Five Priority, put it in the “Other 5 percent” column.

An aside about parenting tasks: People often ask me where things like making doctor’s appointments for kids go, if one of their priorities is to nurture their family. Here’s my rule of thumb: If it is something that a family member (or you, if it is a self-care item) will feel nurtured by, put it under a related priority. If it’s something that no one will notice (they’ll take it for granted, and it feels like a chore) then it’s a 5 percent item. I try to delegate as much of this type of work as possible; for example, even my youngest, who is 13 years old, is learning how to arrange her own schedule and make her own appointments. Teaching kids how to do this sort of stuff takes longer than doing it myself, and the error rate is ridiculous at first, but it moves the task back into the “nurturing” priority, and then off my list forever.

Step 3: Mark tasks that require focus as “Think Work” and quick tasks as “Action Items.”

What work do you save for when you have some quiet time? Or what could you do better/faster/smarter if only people would stop interrupting you? This type of work is what I call “Think Work.” (I label it purple on my Trello list). Everything else I consider an “action item” that I don’t need a big block of time and concentration to finish.

Step 4: Schedule time on your calendar for both things.

This is a critical step, so don’t skip it: Block off time everyday to do your Think Work and move through your Action Items one at a time in quick succession. You need to tell your brain WHEN you will do these things. Here’s why: Lingering to-do items tend to be low-level stressors for humans. Have you ever woken up worrying about an unfinished project, an email you forgot to send, or a meeting you didn’t have a chance to schedule?

Researchers used to think that this low-level worrying about unfinished tasks was our unconscious mind trying to help us get things done by reminding us of what we still needed to do, and that the reminders— or distracting thoughts and worries—would persist until the task was complete.

But now research shows that simply making a plan to deal with an unfinished task makes a huge difference in our ability to focus on other things; it’s hard to focus when your unconscious mind is constantly reminding you about other stuff you need to do. It’s not so much about knowing what needs to be done as it is about deciding when to do it. When we don’t know when we plan to do the things on our task lists, our thoughts will typically wander from our current task to our undone tasks. As it turns out, our unconscious isn’t nagging us to do that undone task right away but rather to make a plan for when we will get it done.

To handle this, you can either decide when you’ll do something on your list and put that on your calendar, or decide that you’ll handle something when you are doing your Think Work or Action Items. This is all, it seems, that our brain needs to let something go. (Remember, it’s not what, it’s when.)

Step 5: Strategically organize your to-do list both weekly and daily.

On Friday afternoons I spend 15 minutes organizing for the week ahead. I mark items I need to accomplish in the coming week, and then I mark the three most important things on that list, a strategy I learned from Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project. Pay attention to your “Other 5 percent” list; you can figure on spending about 45 minutes a day on tasks that don’t cut it as a Top-Five priority.

I also spend a little time organizing my list either before I leave work (for the next day) or first thing in the morning. By a little time, I mean less than five minutes, because I would lose a lot of time on this step if I let myself. (Planning is so much easier than doing for me.) Each day, I move items marked to do this week to a list labeled “TODAY”. (This is the time for pen-and-paper folks to return to a tidy hand-written list you’ll have by your side throughout the day.) I put tasks in the order that I’d like to accomplish them, grouping Think Work, Action Items, stuff I need to do at lunch or on break, and things to do when I get home.

Ordering your tasks is important: A key precursor to getting into “The Zone” is knowing where you are in your workflow. “That constant awareness of what is next is what keeps you focused,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, told Entrepreneur magazine. “That’s where the engagement comes from.” So having a prioritized list of just the things that you’d like to accomplish today will allow you to note what you’ve just accomplished, what you hope to accomplish next, and what you’ll work on after that.

I hope this method for managing your tasks–and your time–allows you to accomplish more of what matters most to you. When we organize our tasks by what we value, we allow ourselves to start running our lives more by our heart than by our schedules, and this, writes fellow sociologist and master coach Martha Beck, “is the only method that is efficient enough to help us get everything done that we need to do.”

Let us know in the comments how it works for you!

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Tuesday Tip: Focus on One Thing at a Time

In his awesome book The Organized Mind, cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Levitin has quantified how overwhelmed by information the poor human brain is:

“In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986–the equivalent of 175 newspapers. During our leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes or 100,000 words every day.”

How do we deal with this overwhelming amount of stuff and information? We multitask.

But multi-tasking is the enemy of focus. It stresses us out and prevents us from doing our most meaningful work. The human brain did not evolve to focus on many things at once; it evolved to focus on one thing at a time. And so the brain does not ever actually multitask. It can’t run multiple apps at any one time; it can only switch rapidly between tasks. This rapid switching is a giant energy drain for your brain.

When we just focus on one task at a time, we’re actually more productive in the long run, and we’re less exhausted at the end of the day. This is because multitasking exhausts more energy and time than single-tasking does.

The first and most important step to finding flow is to build yourself a fortress against interruption, so that you can single-task instead of multitask. If you can’t concentrate, you can’t be in your sweet spot. Period.

This week, find a way to single task — to just focus on one thing, without interruption.

Join the Discussion: What do you need to do so that you are able to really focus on one thing at a time?

unitask_CMYKPhoto courtesy of Mark Hunter.

To dramatically decrease overwhelm, you need to put an end to your multi-tasking ways. Need help?

Check out my latest eCourse: The Science of Finding Flow. If you pre-order this eCourse now, you’ll get a FREE hardcover copy of my book The Sweet Spot!

Click here to learn more or to enroll in The Science of Finding Flow!
 

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The Best Way to Organize Your Email

I’ve been studying the problem of email overload and compulsive email checking for a couple of years now. The problem is massive, but totally solvable.

Fortunately, over the years I’ve devised a way to organize email that works. I’ve taught it to several clients in different industries — all report back that this method is a game-changer. Personally, I’m no longer plagued by email overload — and not because I’ve just delegated it all to an assistant, though delegation is an awesome strategy if that is available to you.

To make email a more powerful and efficient tool, I have three main strategies. First, make compulsively checking email much less gratifying. Second, make checking email on a planned, set schedule much more gratifying. Finally, and most obviously, reduce the amount of time it takes to read and respond to email.

Here’s how:

1. Set up three different email accounts. I’ve experimented with a lot of different ways to do this, and while I do like a lot of the features of Google’s Inbox, it doesn’t go far enough, so trust me on this one.

  • You need a work account, where only email directed to you goes. No bulk email subscriptions, notifications, etc. will go to this account. If you are a stay-at-home parent, you can get away with two email accounts and skip this one.
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  • You need a personal account, where your friends and family can email you. Have personal notifications from kids’ schools and invitations go here, for example, but not stuff that you want to read but will never need to respond to.
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  • Finally, and this is critical, you need a bulk account, where all of your subscriptions and newsletters go. This is the only email address you should give to a company or organization. This is also where you should send ALL your social media notifications. (This is a good account to use with Google Inbox, because it will sort this email into things you want to read, and stuff like receipts.)

You’ve now got a work inbox that contains only messages you need to read and respond to when you are working. You can check your personal email when you get home, and you can set aside time to read all the interesting stuff that comes into your bulk account when you aren’t trying to get your work done.

2. Relentlessly unsubscribe. I mean it: Any newsletter or publication that you haven’t read and found interesting in the past three months gets deep-sixed. Marie Kondo the heck out of your email inbox: If a subscription doesn’t spark joy, unsubscribe. Just do it.

For most people, this is so much harder than it sounds, because of their FOMO (fear of missing out). Businesses rely on your FOMO to get their promotions in your hot little hands. Remember that every coupon is available with a quick Google search. So is every event calendar. And even every blog post. Unsubscribe, unsubscribe, unsubscribe.

7 ways to make email a more powerful and efficient tool. #EmailOverload Click To Tweet7 easy ways to make email a more powerful and efficient tool.” username=”raisinghappines”]

3. Redesign how you schedule meetings and calls via email. This is especially true if there is a lot of back-and-forth in your email related to calendar items. Do your best to eliminate email correspondence related to “finding a time to…” I use Acuity Scheduling for to schedule calls, client meetings, media interviews, office hours, etc.

4. Schedule the time you will spend on email, and design your life up to follow-through on this. This is such an important step I wrote a whole other post about it. Read it here. DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP.

5. Get to inbox zero every single day. The first day you do this, you may have so many emails in your inbox that you need to declare email bankruptcy, or you may need to move ALL of the emails in your inbox to a folder to deal with at a later date.

This means you must block off enough time each day to get all the way to the bottom of your inbox in one way or another. If you need X hours a day to deal with your email, make sure you’ve scheduled X hours daily. Then, when you are in your scheduled time to read and respond to your email, respond to them all in one standard way or another. If a particular email is going to take more than five minutes to read and respond to, put it in a folder (“to do this week”) and add whatever it entails to your task list. That email is a different kind of work now—it’s a part of a project or something that requires more than just emailing.

6. Take your work email account off your home or personal computer and your phone. This is the truth: You can’t efficiently respond to email from your phone; you can only monitor what is coming in. And this will keep you from being present wherever you are and doing whatever else you are supposed to be doing.

You are now a strategic email checker. You will respond thoughtfully and thoroughly to your emails. This will not hurt you at work; it will improve your standing.

(Do you check your work email on your phone when you’re just waiting in line and want to “get stuff done”? That’s a whole other problem. Don’t do it. Let yourself daydream; it will make you more creative when you get back to work. At the very least, just give yourself a break, for crying out loud.)

7. Now take your personal email account and your bulk reading account off your work computer. The first time I checked my work email after doing this, I mostly felt disappointed. It was so much less stimulating. There was nothing in my inbox that I could just quickly delete, and nothing fun and stimulating (like this Pure Wow article) that you can read in 2 seconds.

This disappointment is super important, because it started to decrease my deep and persistent desire to check constantly. But another great thing happened: I got to the bottom of my inbox! I replied to everything, the same day I received it! How awesome! And satisfying! This accomplishment was so inherently rewarding that it started to reinforce my new, more strategic, email checking habit.

Good luck, everyone! If you’ve already joined me at my “How to Take Your Life Back from Email” webinar, ask me follow-up questions or tell me what steps are working for you in the comments below. But if you haven’t watched the webinar, and think you’ll need extra help with managing your email inbox, sign up for my “How to Take Your Life Back from Email” webinar and I’ll talk you through this email-management method (and answer your questions).

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You Will Never Find Work-Life Balance

All our talk and worry about “work-life balance” is such a bunch of baloney.

I don’t mean to be depressing, but you will never find “balance” between your work and your personal life. That very idea hinges on an implicit belief that there is some perfect ratio between time spent on work (and work-like activities, like checking your email) and time spent on everything else (like sleeping, or eating your lunch away from your desk, or helping your kids with their homework).

Your work and your personal life do not amount to a zero-sum game, where more of one means you’re compromising the other. In fact, the quality of your work and your productivity–your ability to create something of value and meaning for yourself and for others–is utterly dependent on the quality of your personal life.

How happy you are profoundly influences how well you do your job. Reams of research shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that what we do outside of work thoroughly influences the energy, motivation, focus, creativity, persistence, insight, and raw intellectual power we bring to a given project or task at work. The better your personal life is, the higher your potential to do great work.

The better your personal life is, the higher your potential to do great work #TheScienceOfFindingFlow Click To TweetThe better your personal life is, the higher your potential to do great work.” username=”raisinghappines”]

I can hear the war cries from Silicon Valley and Wall Street now. “But no one in tech or at a start-up or who is brokering a billion dollar deal has a life!!! And THOSE people are rich and successful!!”  you protest.

Hah. While those professions are certainly rigged so that the [mostly male] people at the top take home more money, their success is deeply subjective. Are they wealthy in the things that matter to you? Brigid Shulte reminds us to “remember that the wolves of Wall Street bragging about those long hours at the office got us into a global financial crisis, and that 95 percent of startups fail.

Our sense that the most successful and productive people –“ideal workers”– put in an insane number of hours is just wrong. But what does the real “ideal worker” ACTUALLY look like?

I’ve been pondering this question for five or six years now, and I’ve come to see that the real ideal worker has seven core qualities or skills, listed below. But before I lay them out for you, let’s remember: Those of us who cultivate these qualities are more than workers, of course.

We are the joyful people who are working toward fulfilling our potential for creativity, productivity, intelligence, and–most importantly–meaning, fulfillment, and connection in our lives. We are the people who actually enjoy the lives that we’ve worked so hard to create. We also happen to be very good at our jobs.

We can attribute our happiness and success at work to the following seven skills and abilities:

  1. We are able to do our most important work first. We work hard to decide what our priorities are. We seek to understand what work and relationships bring us meaning and fulfillment, and we schedule our time and our tasks accordingly. We understand the positive impact we are having on the world and other people, and this provides a tremendous source of energy and motivation.
  2. We command our own attention. In a world where corporations pay by the eyeball to capture our concentration and interest, we are able to build a fortress against all that interruption. We know how to handle temptations. We use our computers and tablets and smartphones strategically rather than compulsively, as tools that make us more efficient, effective, connected, and creative–not more distracted and drained.
  3. We think deeply. Business writer Eric Barker calls this “the superpower of the 21st century.” Georgetown professor Cal Newport writes in his treatise on focus, Deep Work, that “the ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
  4. We effortlessly generate creative insights. We love to find innovative solutions to real-world, unpredictable problems. We value the activities that lead to creativity in a world that thinks we are behaving like children and slackers. We have the courage to nap, play, and stare into space while everyone else skips their lunch break in order to check their email.
  5. We are authentic and emotionally courageous. We are willing to feel what we feel, and this gives us access to the wisdom of our hearts. We are tapped into the power of our intuition, which speaks to us in emotions and bodily sensations. And because we are willing to experience difficult emotions, we are gritty–we are able to persist despite difficulty toward our long-term goals. We are able to take risks, have difficult conversations, and stay true to what we know is right.
  6. We are flourishing. We understand that cynicism is a marker of fear, not intelligence, and that when we prioritize positivity in our lives–when we consciously cultivate gratitude and love, happiness and peace, awe and inspiration, optimism and faith — we broaden our perception in the moment and build resources over time. Our ability to foster positive emotions allows us to access our most high-functioning, creative, and intelligent selves. We are more engaged with our work, our friends, our families, and our communities than our less positive peers.
  7. We are connected. We understand the transcendent importance of our relationships, and so we cast the net of our real-life friends and family both wide and deep. We are less likely to experience sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, and problems with eating and sleeping than people who keep others at a distance. We are the strangers on the street who smile at you. We are the people you ask for favors, because we love to help out. We are your best friends, because we know how to build–and repair–our relationships.

The “real ideal worker” is not a mythical, unattainable ideal. There are successful people all around you who aren’t working themselves to the brink of exhaustion and burnout. We aren’t perfect, but we’re dedicated to seeking the most joy possible out of our lives, including our lives at work. We are the people who know how to find flow. Personally, I’m hoping you will join our tribe. Aren’t you ready to reset your vision for what you want for yourself?

If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to join me for my free, 20-minute webinar, 5 Ways to Get More Done in Less Time. In this webinar, I share my top five science-based productivity tips that are all designed to help you create more time in your life and schedule for the things that matter most to you. Sign up or learn more here.

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Why Working Longer Won’t Make You More Productive

I’m calling for a new conception of the “ideal worker.”

I don’t know anyone who has worked for a traditional business and hasn’t run up against our cultural notion of what journalist Brigid Schulte calls “the ideal worker”–the perfect employee who, without the distractions of children or family or, well, life, can work as many hours as the employer needs.

Ideal workers don’t have hobbies–or even interests–that interfere with work, and they have someone else (usually a wife) to stay home with sick children, schedule carpools, and find decent child care. Babies aren’t their responsibility, so parental leave when an infant is born isn’t an issue; someone else will do that. The ideal worker can jump on a plane and leave town anytime for business because someone else is doing the school pickups, making dinner, and putting the children to bed.

In terms of sheer number of hours on the job, most working parents can’t compete with these ideal workers. Still, it’s easy for us Americans to aspire to the archetype. But our fixation on the ideal worker can lead us to hone only one strength: the ability to work long hours.

Unfortunately, honing that one strength won’t get us very far. Why? The ideal worker is not necessarily ideal. Reams of research suggest that people who work long hours, to the detriment of their personal lives, are not more productive or successful than people who work shorter hours so they can have families and develop interests outside of work.

So why do we continue to believe that the longer and harder we work, the better we’ll be?

The ideal worker archetype was born more than 200 years ago during the Industrial Revolution. The rise of the factory system in the late 18th century marked the first time that a clock was used to synchronize labor. Once hours worked could be quantified financially, that created a new perception of time, one that saw the amount of time on the job as equivalent to a worker’s productivity.

This notion of work (and time) is particularly problematic today when we factor in all the fancy technology we have. You know, the stuff that lets us work ALL THE TIME. We can check our email before breakfast (and while we wait in line for our lattes), and make calls during our commute. Most of us can keep working straight through lunch while we eat–how wonderfully productive is that? And after dinner, we can log back in and KEEP WORKING when our grandparents back in the day might have been, say, conversing with a neighbor or spouse or child. Or perhaps reading a book. For pleasure.

Overwork does not make us more productive or successful. #TheScienceOfFindingFlow Click To TweetOverwork does not make us more productive or successful.” username=”raisinghappines”]

The truth is super hard for us to hear: Overwork does not make us more productive or successful. For most of the 20th century, the broad consensus (among the management gurus) was that “working more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous, and expensive–and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot,” writes Sara Robinson, a consultant at Cognitive Policy Works who specializes in trend analysis, futures research, and social change theories.

Moreover, according to Robinson, more than a HUNDRED YEARS of research shows that “every hour you work over 40 hours a week [will make] you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul.” Really! Even for knowledge workers!

Why? The human brain did not evolve to operate like a computer that gets switched on and can run indefinitely without a break. Just as a fruit tree does not bear fruit 365 days a year, human beings are only productive in cycles of work and rest.

So if we are to be our most productive, successful, and joyful selves, we must create a new cultural archetype for the ideal worker. One that is based on the biology we actually have, and the way that we actually are able to work. That is exactly what I aim to do in a series of upcoming posts.

True happiness and fulfillment are not found in the unyielding pursuit of an impossible ideal. Click To TweetTrue happiness and fulfillment are not found in the unyielding pursuit of an impossible ideal.” username=”raisinghappines”]

This idea will be threatening to the people around you who still strive to be ideal workers. But sticking with the status quo–a life of unrelenting work–will break your heart slowly, as one of my clients so aptly put it. True happiness and fulfillment, it turns out, are not found in the unyielding pursuit of an impossible ideal.

To develop our multiple talents, we must stray from the herd of our cultural archetypes. This can be terrifying and disorienting–after all, humans are deeply social animals, so our nervous system sends distress signals when we break from our group. But we will not find our groove by conforming to unrealistic ideals or outdated stereotypes. We’ll find it by allowing ourselves to be complex and divergent–our most authentic, balanced selves.

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3 Surprising Ways to Feel Less Busy

Busyness stinks.

Although people tell me all the time they like feeling busy — perhaps because it makes them feel important and significant — I’m not buying it. Would you ever choose busyness over a more relaxed form of productivity? catadvice_CMYKWhen life starts to feel hectic, here are a few ways to dial back the overwhelm.

  1. Give yourself a shot of awe. When researchers induced feelings of awe in people — by showing them video clips of people next to vast things like whales or waterfalls, it altered their perception of time such that they — those people felt like they had more time on their hands. So much time on their hands, in fact, that awe-struck people become likely to give away their time by volunteering to help someone out. They also report fewer feelings of impatience.

    Not sure where to find yourself some awe? Look no farther than YouTube. Try searching “awe” and “whales,” or just watch this oldie but goodie video clip — it makes me feel awestruck every time. If the concept of “awe” feels too abstract, try thinking about things that amaze you. What makes you feel a childlike sense of wonder? Makes you feel elevated or inspired? Now take five minutes to let one of those things work their magic on your busy brain.

  2. Create an anti-busyness ritual. Researchers believe that the brains in both humans and animals evolved to feel calmed by repetitive behavior, and that our daily rituals are a primary way to manage stress. This is especially true in unpredictable environments or situations where we feel pressured, a lack of control, or threatened in some way.

    When the pace of life seems to be taking off without you, create a ritual to help you feel more in control. What counts as a ritual? Something you do repetitively in certain situations — usually a series of behaviors done in the same order. Think of your favorite ball player’s pregame ritual.

    When I start to feel pressured for time, my own “busyness ritual” kicks in: I stretch my neck (first by looking to the left, and then to the right, and then by tipping my left ear to my left shoulder and my right ear to my right shoulder). I exhale deeply with each stretch, and then center my head, and straighten my posture. On my last exhale, I think to myself: “I have plenty of time.” The stretching and deep breathing may be what helps me feel calm, but also having and using a ritual — any ritual — can help us feel more in control and less overwhelmed.

  3. Find “flow.” Dropping into “the zone” or finding flow is the opposite of feeling busy. Time seems to stand still — if we are aware of time at all. Finding flow isn’t as elusive a state as you might think, but it does require that we stop multi-tasking, and that we build a fortress against interruption around ourselves. (I also have a “get into the flow” ritual that I use before I write).

I know, I know. You don’t have time to foster awe, or create an anti-busyness ritual, or stop multi-tasking. You’re too busy!

Listen: You don’t have time NOT to do these things. Busyness is a mark of what neuroscientists call “cognitive overload.” This state impairs our ability to think creatively, to plan, organize, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn new things easily, speak fluently, remember important social information, and control our emotions. In other words, it impairs basically everything we need to do in a given day. So if you have important work to do, please: Take five minutes to dial back your busyness.

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If you liked this post, you’ll love this short and funny documentary, HumanKinda. The premise is that busyness robs us of our humanity, making us only “kinda” human.

Photo credit: Gemma Correll commissioned by JetBlue for Humankinda.

8 Ways to Achieve More While Working Less

Really: I spend that much time doing stuff I enjoy, that isn’t on a task list anywhere. I walk through the beautiful university campus near my house–during the workday. I cook for pleasure. I lay around on my daughter’s bed reading while she does her homework.

You’re probably thinking, “I could never do that!! Because I have to [insert 500 good reasons]!” Maybe you now believe that I am lazier and more pampered than you previously imagined.

Here’s the truth: I slack off not because I’m lazy or don’t care about being productive. In fact, I’ve found that slacking off makes me more productive because I slack strategically–meaning that I take breaks at designated times, for regular intervals, in ways that sharpen my focus when I sit back down to work.

Strategic slacking has enabled me to dramatically increase both the quality of my work and the amount I get done in a given day. It increases productivity because we don’t think or work or create at the same rate throughout the day.

How fast we work doesn’t just depend on the difficulty of what we are working on; it also depends on how well our brain is functioning. Is it well-nourished? Free from stress? Rested and ready to go? To a large extent, how we answer those questions is within our control.

Here are eight ways to achieve more while working less.

(1) Designate time for “THINK WORK.” Late morning is an excellent time for most people to tackle their most difficult work, as alertness tends to be high and willpower is not yet depleted.

I do work that takes a lot of focus at a standing desk that has a small treadmill under it, on a computer that doesn’t have an email application. Walking slowly while I work has a lot of positive outcomes; one of them is that it more or less chains me to my desk. I put my phone in do-not-disturb mode and close any unnecessary applications or windows that are open on my computer. I put on my noise-canceling headphones and play my “listen while writing” playlist.

(2) Take “recess” throughout the day. One survey discovered that very productive employees tend to take 17 minutes of break time for every 52 minutes of work. Feel free to do something fun during your break, like watch a funny video or eat a piece of chocolate (research shows that these activities boost productivity by 10-12 percent). Have a snack and drink a glass of water–both things also increase focus.

On my breaks I’ll often read an interesting article, but not one that will be hard to put down after 10-15 minutes. Doing something of interest energizes people for both the current task and whatever it is that they work on next. And taking a real lunch break(away from a computer!) decreases fatigue and increases afternoon productivity. I try to eat mindfully for a few minutes, really paying attention to the texture and taste of the food in my mouth. After about five minutes, I let my mind wander (rather than trying to keep it focused on my food). Staring into space enhances creativity; boredom is often the precursor for brilliance.

(3) Change things up in the afternoon. Our self-discipline and ability to focus is like a muscle in that it fatigues over the course of a day. This makes afternoons an ideal time to catch up with colleagues or schedule meetings and appointments.

But afternoons are also a great time to brainstorm solutions to problems or do other creative work. That’s because we are often most innovative when our intellect is fatigued. So when we’re running out of steam for focused work, and we don’t have the energy to censor our thoughts too closely, it’s an opportune time to shift gears. (Think you do your most innovative work late at night? Perhaps it is because you are too tired to focus. Mind-wandering often leads to creative insight.)

(4) Don’t forget to take recess! Repeat after me: Taking breaks increases productivity.

In the afternoon, my recess is an exercise break. Usually, I take my dog, Buster, for a hike. Getting out into nature is key. (This can be a patch of grass or a few trees–it doesn’t have to be Walden Pond.) When we are sick, a view of nature can help us heal faster. When we are distracted, the sight of nature can help us regain our focus. And when we are stressed, images of a natural landscape can slow our heart rates, relax our muscles, and help us feel calm again. Moreover, natural light in the afternoon delays melatonin production, which can keep us feeling alert for longer.

As a bonus, pet a dog while you are hiking, if you have one (or see one): Petting a dog increases serotonin and dopamine levels (in humans), hormones that improve happiness and fight depression.

(5) Have a really good game plan. Here’s the key to an effective task list: Tell your brain WHEN you will complete a task. Scheduling an unfinished task can make a huge difference in our ability to focus. When we don’t know when we will do something on our list, our thoughts will typically wander from whatever it is we are doing to our undone tasks. Our unconscious isn’t nagging us to do the task at hand, but rather to make a plan to get it done. Once we have a plan, we can stop worrying about how much we have to do.

One of the lesser known precursors to getting into “flow” at work is knowing where you are in your work flow. “That constant awareness of what is next is what keeps you focused,” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, professor of psychology and management at Claremont Graduate University and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience told Entrepreneur magazine. “That’s where the engagement comes from.”

Before I leave my desk each day I clean up my task list and schedule the next day’s tasks.

(6) Eat dinner with your clan. Research suggests that this predictable time together can help protect kids from the perils of modern society (drugs and alcohol, risky sexual behavior, eating disorders). Fortunately, it is good for adults, too–it is the glue that keeps my husband and I connected and laughing together, and that connection is key to staying in the sweet spot.

(7) Establish a predictable–and technology-free–bedtime routine. You might think that bedtime routines are for toddlers, but sleep experts recommend them for adults, too, to cue our minds that we are shifting into sleep mode.

I make myself a cup of herbal tea to drink in the evening while I read. While the water brews, I take my vitamins, including Omega-3s, which lubricate the brain, reduce inflammation, and generally contribute to our health and happiness.

At 8:30 or 9:00 pm, I shut off my email, social media, and cell phone for the evening. My bedtime routine includes listening to an entertaining audiobook while I put clothes away and neaten up the house. Even though I only listen for 10 or 15 minutes, pairing cleaning up with reading motivates me to actually clean up. I also make sure everything I need for the morning is in its place.

At 9:15 pm, I make a quick pit stop in the hot tub and have a little downtime with my hubby. Our body temperature naturally dips before we go to sleep, and when we soak in a hot tub, our temperature rises–but the rapid cool-down immediately afterward signals to our body that we are headed to sleepy town. I stay in the tub for just 10-15 minutes, and get out before I break a sweat. Bonus: One study showed that taking a hot bath daily for eight weeks was more effective than an anti-depressant at fighting anxiety!

(8) Get enough sleep! I know, I know, you don’t have time to get seven or eight hours. Maybe you wish you could get more sleep, but you just can’t find a way to put sleep above your other priorities.

So what are your other priorities? Your health? Your happiness? Productivity and success at work? Raising happy and healthy children? Here’s the truth: You will not fulfill your potential in any of these realms unless you get the sleep your body, brain, and spirit need.

A mountain of research shows that sleep affects virtually every aspect of our lives, including our intelligence, our satisfaction with our relationships, our moods, our athletic performance, and our ability to learn and retain information. Even 20 minutes of sleep deprivation three days in a row can dramatically lower your IQ.

Now, it’s your turn. Go ahead: Be a slacker! Let us know in the comments your favorite (and most productive) ways to slack.

(Want more information about my daily routine? Check out Chapter 4 of The Sweet Spot for the blow-by-blow, or sign up for my free online class.)

A Quick Way to Clear Clutter

Photo by Iain Watson

It’s approaching that time of the year again: spring cleaning. Although we may know that we want to deep clean or straighten clutter this year (at some point), just the thought of actually doing it can fill us with dread. But putting off what needs to be done can make an already overwhelming task an even bigger deal. 

Two smart ways to prevent clutter clearing procrastination: 

(1) Start small, tackling just one drawer or shelf a day. 

(2) Reward yourself immediately for the small win by congratulating yourself or doing a little victory dance. When we keep rewards simple and immediate, our brain makes a little “note to self” that a behavior is worth repeating in the future. 

Take Action: Take no more than 10 minutes to tackle a messy drawer, or stow some winter gear. Thenimmediately give yourself a “yay me!” or mental high five — a little triumph over the accomplishment. Savor that good feeling while you plan your next small win. 

Join the Discussion: Share your small wins here as a way to celebrate! What did you accomplish today? Extra credit for clutter clearing that takes less than 5 minutes.

 

establish-a-tiny-habit-christine-carter

Happiness Tip: Establish a Tiny Habit

Do you have resolutions you’d like to make this week?

Maybe you’d like to read or workout more, or remember to call your mom on Mondays. My best advice is to start by picking just one ridiculously easy habit to work on. Start with what Stanford habit researcher BJ Fogg calls a “tiny habit.” The reason that I want you to think small is that deliberate habit formation is a skill. Starting with a tiny habit is like learning to dog paddle before you learn the breast stroke.

Here are some of Fogg’s suggestions for tiny habits:

“After I pour my morning coffee, I will text my mom.”

“After I start the dishwasher, I will read one sentence from a book.”

“After I walk in my front door from work, I will get out my workout clothes.”

I know, I know: tiny habits seem so tiny. By necessity, they need to be ridiculously easy, and this makes them feel trivial and unimportant. But tiny habits are about skill building, and about inching your way towards the bigger resolutions you made in the year.

Take Action: Pick something small, like taking a daily vitamin, or flossing just one tooth (that’s BJ Fogg’s suggested starter habit) — anything that takes less than 30 seconds, requires little physical effort, little money, and doesn’t require that you go against a social norm (like flossing in the public bathroom). It should take little time, but not require that you time yourself (e.g., floss my teeth for 30 seconds), because timing yourself is a hassle. This tiny habit needs to be something that you do at least once a day — no exceptions.

Join the Discussion: What’s your tiny habit going to be? List it here and I will help you format it correctly.

How to Make Your Task List More Fun

So often we parents face a long list of boring daily tasks.

This is not good for our happiness!  This week transform your task list so that you enjoy life a little bit more.

  • Want more family time? Prep meals with the kids while hearing about their day.
  • Hate scrubbing the bathtub? Download some free podcasts or a good audio novel and clean while listening.
  • Don’t want to weed the garden? Use those weeds as an excuse to create a new playlist, and then feel your mood lift as you crank some good tunes.

I look forward to folding laundry because I let myself watch entire seasons of old TV shows!

Join the discussion: What boring task can you transform this week? Share in the comments below and inspire others.