Tag Archives: productivity


How to manage email and not let it manage you

Unless you do your job exclusively via email, there’s no excuse for you to have that tab or app open. There I said it..

But you do have it open most of the time, right? It’s hard to ignore. Suddenly you see the Inbox (1) in bold appear and you rush to see what it is. And it’s never a game changing message. But the micro-second between seeing it and comprehending it gives us a rush, and that rush becomes addictive. Email is an important medium of communication, indisputably. However, constant interruptions (let’s say every 30 seconds to 15 minutes) do not allow our minds to focus on a task at hand. Without focus, errors are more likely. Silly slip-ups that leave you banging your head against the wall and sending out a flurry of apologies. Or, it can result in serious accidents and poor decision-making with huge consequences. This is why disciplining ourselves on how to manage email is so important.

“…a three-second distraction can double the number of mistakes people make” – Live Science

But “priorities” doesn’t just mean your job. With smartphones, laptops and tablets hanging around the home – and with many public places now supplying free wifi – it’s easier than ever for our brains to get it’s fix of email-checking. We are wasting our precious time all the time. And on what? Why do we give more attention to apps and videos than to our loved ones or to our own self improvement?


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Why do we check our inboxes so often?

Psychology Today goes into more detail here on the points they believe are why we crave checking our inboxes so much.

1. Connecting to other people

Many tasks are solitary. Sure, there are meetings, but once your task is assigned you must go to your corner and get it done. If it is a time-consuming task this means long stretches of time alone. Despite our assertions of being able to work independently, we require human communication at intervals. The email inbox provides relief, but it’s overkill. Do you give a child a single candy, or do you leave a bowl of candy within arm’s reach? It’s irresistible to all but the most focused.

2. Respite from a difficult task



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Knowledge work is becoming a larger and larger portion of white-collar jobs. And knowledge work requires more brainpower, more creativity. This can lead to the mind feeling exhausted faster than a repeated task job. So, we find relief by looking at our email, or notifications on our phones and social media. It’s the mental equivalent of taking a breather after doing 10 lengths of the swimming pool.

3. Changing it up

When you are stuck, it’s good to do something else for a while until inspiration strikes again. This is especially so with tasks that require creativity. Unfortunately, instead of changing over to another worthwhile task, we waste time on trivial email. The ideal solution would be to have two projects on the go so that you could switch between the two when roadblocks are encountered in one. I personally found that freelancing a few hours a week with another company gave me a fresh perspective on working on my startup. And having your own startup is one of the most totally immersing things around!

4. Distractions make us feel better and are therefore addictive

Even if distractions don’t end in real results, it’s good to feel busy. It’s also good to feel noticed. Psychology Today states that you get addicted to email and notifications because of the low but regular feelings of worth, as opposed to the irregular but massive (by comparison) rewards of completing a challenging or long task. Self-discipline is not easy and technology has made it even harder. Multi-tasking, interruptions and distractions arguably make us more stupid. Our mental energy is spent trying to remember where we were in a task and getting back into it, rather than reaching a deeper state of concentration and insight that comes from focusing.

Email makes you focus on…

  • trivial newsletters
  • notifications
  • invitations to webinars, hangouts
  • updates of services you subscribe to
  • requests that are not the highest priority

“More generally, email puts you in response mode, where you are doing what other people want you to do, rather than send mode, where you are deciding what you want to do and taking action.” – Anne-Marie Slaughter, Princeton

Would there really be a life-or-death scenario if you didn’t check in more than once an hour? Alright, I’ll admit that once I lost a bid on an apartment rental… but that’s as serious as it’s gotten. Being overwhelmed by info, and being used to it, all day long has mental health consequences. Erin Anderssen wrote this excellent in-depth overview of the war for our attention by technology. Not surprisingly, as we check our email and notifications for the tenth time in the day and nothing is there – anxiety and depression lurk in the background. You may not even notice it. Being contacted makes us feel important, even if the contact is automated or unimportant. Eventually, NOT being contacted has the opposite psychological effect. She quotes Linda Stone – that perhaps we need to talk about “attention management” rather than “time management”. We’ve even developed “interruption science” which studies the effects of disruptions on job performance. And the guilty party is… “NOTIFICATIONS!” notifications-hell

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It’s that bad. There’s no shame in wanting to be connected, to take a mental break, to add variety to our day. But whilst we over-engage in the trivial, real life is passing us by. Are people at music festivals who spend their time uploading photos and videos of the event really enjoying the moment with friends? Time is precious. Use it to create and add value rather than get bloated on information we’ll never need.


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How to manage email

#1: Batch your time

Cal Newport, in an article for 99U, describes how he applied the most commonly-cited solution (batching your time) to a workday. This involves breaking your time into 30 minute batches of either one long task or a bunch of short tasks. If you decide to check an email, you are required to spend a full half an hour on short tasks. It’s all or nothing. “…if you survive the annoyance, there’s also no avoiding the reality that your work will be of a much higher quality” So, the payoff is the difficulty of arranging the times when you can look at email versus better results in your larger, more important projects at the end of the day. Not a bad trade if you can stick to it. But most people can’t handle the inconvenience.

#2: Check email/notifications at a specific time, for example 5 minutes once an hour

This plan offers more flexibility and freedom than the half-hour batching BUT the temptation is to go over the time limit. So, for example, if you end up spending 20 minutes on email in this hour then you miss your 10 minute stint in the following hour. Basically, the aim is to spend no more than 10 minutes per working hour, i.e. 80/90 minutes per day on email. If you think that is still excessive (it is almost 20% of your work day) reduce it to 5 minute blocks.

#3: Do a major email blast first thing in the day, and once in the afternoon

This is the nuclear option, some would say! Check, organize and reply to all your email at 9am and at 2pm. No matter how long it takes! And under no circumstances can you check in between those times. You can orient your contacts to this new system by including it as an email signature (due to email overload, all email will be responded to at the following times…). You can arrange to have your closest collaborators call you if something extremely important comes up. If there are contacts that are ALWAYS urgent, set up a “red alert” system only for these contacts.

#4: Don’t have an email address

Hmmm. I hate to say “impossible”…


The Surprising Secret To Team Productivity Improvement

Productivity improvement in your team and company… it’s not as clear-cut as you think

If you’re like me you also think that “productivity” is doing the ‘right thing’, the ‘right way’, at ‘all times’. In this way you achieve quality for free. But how do you convince the rest of your team or company to be in that frame of mind at all times?

There are different kinds of people searching for ways to improve their productivity. First, there are the people fascinated with making every aspect of their lives more productive, from reusing toilet paper rolls to planning the grocery route down to a T.


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Then there are the people in high-pressure jobs with a million-and-one things to do in a day who avidly search for the golden nugget of productivity wisdom to make all their team efforts fall into place.


Next, you have the middle managers sweating under their collars – how are they going to show the next set of pretty upwardly-trending graphs at the monthly round-up?

Then there’s everyone else, who just want to do their job, be happy and have time for their family and friends.

So what IS the secret sauce to productivity improvement?



wait for it…



you’re gonna find this cliché but you should take it very seriously…




this extensive study posted in the New York Times even though it revealed some saddening facts:

“people are more frustrated and exasperated with their jobs than ever before.”

These negative feelings impact hugely on an economy as big as the United States, with billions of potential being lost due to a lack of productivity.

Companies traditionally incentivize “happiness” by handing out titles (“manager”), more money (the “raise”) and perks (gym membership, anyone?). But pick up any book on psychology and wellbeing, and you’ll find that money is rarely what makes people truly happy.


Apart from the power-hungry megalomaniacs in our society. Yes, we all need a basic income to survive, but the rest is quite simple. You can’t buy self-esteem, true loyalty, pride in your work – these are the golden nuggets for productivity improvement.

People need to get deep, personal value out of the job – whether it be great workplace friendships or becoming top of their class in their niche.

Working “smarter, not harder” is one of those easy-to-hate phrases that get used a lot in meetings and at conferences. The principle behind it is that “working smarter” means you have figured out an economical way to complete a time-consuming part of your job (with equal or more effectiveness). The thing is, you have to “work hard” to become like this (unless you are a natural genius). You need to learn many things in order to merge them into creative solutions to apply to your situation. And guess what? Creativity is much more likely to occur when a person is happy in their role than unhappy.

Improving productivity should be the reward for good management, not the goal

Some people are motivated by targets and competing with their colleagues. Some are motivated by being a helper to the team. Some get their satisfaction from taking on the responsibilities of leadership. A great manager will be able to recognize the particular motivation for an employee. Happiness at work is also brought about by the following factors:

  • varied tasks

  • getting positive feedback

  • being challenged enough

  • be part of a project from start to finish, not just contribute a section

  • having friends at work

  • having a workplace where you are not distracted

  • short commute/no commute

  • autonomy over tasks


Overall, what people are looking for in life are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy in that you have control over life; mastery in that you become better and better at something meaningful; purpose in that your everyday life is part of something greater than you. When people are asked “what do you do?” it is referring to their job. The job is the main vehicle for most people to achieve happiness (or not) in life.

Managers can make sure these needs are provided for. Here are a few steps that can be taken to win the hearts and minds of your employees and experience productivity improvement as your reward:

1) let your team members make decisions

2) encourage and let them be part of as much of the project as possible from end to end

3) offer training courses or allow time to attend seminars

4) have regular informal individual meetings to check in on how they are doing

5) make sure the company communicates a strong, clear purpose and an ambitious vision

6) keep barriers low between departments


I can promise you that with these tips, the graphs will trend upwards and your colleagues will have a spring in their step…


How to be productive – inspired by pancakes

In today’s fast-paced lifestyle, life can easily pass you by. Everyone needs to have a ‘how to be productive’ system that can fit into their hectic schedule. Husbands and wives have their home chore list. Students have their school assignments. Corporate employees have numerous reminders about the business reports that are due in a couple of hours. Often, an individual shares two or more different roles that need to be managed. Versatility, ease of use, and practicality are often a necessity to a productivity system. If you made productivity a full-time task, and you would still have a hard time efficiently developing a system that works for everyone. XKCD.com illustrates this perfectly.


How to be productive when you don’t have time to learn

The problem is that the more time that you devote to improving your method, the longer it takes to make up for the time lost. The harder you work, the further behind you become. It becomes extremely complicated to devote time to that when you have so many other things going on. Eventually, “find new ways to save time” becomes just another item on your “I will get to it at some point” to-do list.

That is why I have decided to make it my goal to help you.

The problem is that I can only work on thoughts and ideas that are in my given skill set. I can only make pancakes.


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I am the biggest pancake critic I know. Any breakfast restaurant that serves the delectable spheres of doughy goodness can bet my order will include a short stack at least.

The funny thing about this that until recently, I did not even know how to make pancakes. The recipe I was familiar with included a box of batter with the simple instructions “Just add water”. Why had I never learned to make scratch pancakes? The answer was one simple word, fear. There was a fear of failure and then ruining my favorite meal forever.

Tim Ferris relates to this types of fear in his TED Talk, – Smash Fear – Learn Anything. Similar to his experiences becoming a “champion tango dancer” my cooking skill improved as my ability to adapt to my personal thoughts came in. My first attempt at pancakes was straight out of the recipe book, and the result was something that tasted like it came from the box. Over time, I started experimenting with ideas that would make my pancakes a little better. Instead of 2 teaspoons of salt, I would only add few shakes. Instead of 3 tablespoons of butter, I just throw in half of a stick. Slowly but surely, my pancakes became better and better. Now other people compare restaurant pancakes to my pancakes. 

Making things better

Just like my little pancake experiment, productivity can be improved. Using my skill set and personal preferences, I was able to make pancakes that others also liked. I learned how to be productive at a task that is very important to me. Who is to say that I cannot use my skills in productivity (which are mostly technical) to improve the methods that you use in your system?

“But pancakes are just a part of a balanced breakfast.”

There may also be scrambled eggs, bacon (please have bacon), and some freshly squeezed orange juice. My improvements can only be used for the pancakes. I cannot use the same methods for the rest of the meal. There is no adding more butter to orange juice. It just will not work.

Perhaps someone else has a method that makes better bacon or better eggs. If I invite them over and we all start preparing our signature dishes, we are left with a meal that is absolutely delicious.

This is how my personal system works and relates to the same thought LifeHacker.com Writer Adam Dachis had in Knowing a Little of Everything Is Often Better Than Having One Expert Skill.

“Thinking of things without any connection, without multiple perspectives, leads to work that’s often un-relatable.”

Collaborate with others. Take ideas from those people implement them in your day-to-day. We may think differently, but most people reading this would like to achieve the same goal. That goal is a better life managed with less time wasted in developing it. I can provide some of the dishes but you may have the rest of the recipes to help make the entire meal worth eating.

One Dish from Many

One of the most delicious breakfast dishes is the breakfast skillet. It is simply a mash of many different dishes blended and proportioned together to make a completely new dish. Perhaps you have many complete methods, but you only need bits and pieces of each to make a functioning system.


I have collected bits and pieces from productivity ideas. The more “hacks” I discovered, the easier it became to think outside the box. This prevented me from isolating my thought process to one central area. I could find more and more ways to incorporate pieces of techniques into my overall system.

I believe that the more people we have providing their “hacks” to productivity, the more we will discover unexpected and exciting recipes.  This will motivate people to take control of their system and their lives. It will also have people wanting to reach for better ideas, and promote productive creativity. Paul Arden talks about ideas in It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be: 

“You just have to put yourself in a frame of mind to pick them up.”

Here are some ways that you can  pick up ideas:

  • Create a list of problems and ideas, document them in a list. As soon as they come to you, store them in a list-management or collaboration tool like Twoodo and link them to your Evernote so you can expand on them later. (See my article  about linking your Twoodo and Evernote Accounts)
  • Keep a journal of methods you try. Be sure to identify both positive and negative aspects. (You may be able to learn something from them later).
  • Use read-later tools like Pocket to store the pages and articles with relevant short phrase tags in order to find advice on needed areas.

If you don’t like the eggs, you don’t have to eat them.
The best part about this idea is that you do not have to use all of it. You only need to take what is beneficial to you. Create a “recipe book” that has the dishes, their ingredients and steps needed to prepare them. If there is an item that you don’t like, you can leave it out. Just remember like all recipes there are essential and nonessential ingredients. Pancakes without flour are not pancakes.

Are you Ready to get started?
Scour Reddit’s
Productivity Channel and Lifehacker’s “How I Work” series and find the ideas and recipes that are out there. I plan to develop a site that hosts productivity information exclusively and allows for great collaboration and idea collecting. If you are interested in helping me with this idea in any way, including contributing content, please let me know.

Additional Photo Credits: Jeffrey W.