Stop being busy

Take control of your workload before it takes control of you 

How busy are you? Were you so busy today that you forgot to eat lunch? If you’re not running around like a headless chicken, do you feel bad about it? What about those meetings about meetings about meetings? Are you getting any actual work done or are you just pushing emails around? 

The concept of productivity, and the conversation around it, has never been more relevant. Many of us are working from home, juggling family, and figuring out how to exist in a time where the line between work and our personal life is more blurred than ever. Throw in being drowned by available technology and drained by social media and that’s one hell of a cocktail. 

The changed landscape means attitudes toward the way we work are slowly shifting – Twitter has told staff they can work from home ‘forever’ if they want to, and Google is letting workers expense up to $1,000 worth of office furniture to make working from home more comfortable. 

While these moves may appear progressive, proceed with caution. If you are fully optimised to work from home, you may find it even harder to justify leaving your desk as the boundaries between work and home become even less clear. And you're in danger of being busier than ever.  

However, busy doesn't necessarily mean productive. 'As a society we place huge value on physical output and “being busy” and tend to internalise those two as fundamental aspects of our identity,' says Ruth Eve, business strategist and sustainability and mindfulness expert.  

'The risk is we place too much value on external benchmarks rather than looking inward, assessing whether we’ve behaved in line with our values, feel fulfilled and are ultimately happy. This culture surrounding productivity can also mean that any lapses in productivity can trigger shame, which is something I think was highlighted during lockdown.' 

With this in mind, here are some tips to be more productive: 

Create structure 

'Having structure in your work helps you to stay focused and get things done. It provides the mind with stability and balance,' says Faith Hill, life coach and master practitioner in neuro-linguistic programming. 

A popular way to create a structure for the day is using the Pomodoro Technique. This is a time-management method that was developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo. You set the Pomodoro timer for 25 minutes, work on your task until the timer is up, and then take a short break. Once you’ve done four Pomodoros, you take a longer break. 

Seda Babayan is a content manager at the noise-cancelling app Krisp, and regularly uses the Pomodoro Technique. 'I think it is important to have a structure in all aspects of life. The Pomodoro Technique is a great method. It helps me focus on one thing and work under time pressure. It also helps me to remember to take breaks in between the work.' 

However, the Pomodoro Technique isn’t for everyone. 

Faith Hill notes: 'Some people are more productive when they are given a short deadline to perform a task; others may flounder, meaning their productivity takes a nosedive. When you take on a task with a limited time frame, remember your skills and agility, promise yourself to give your best in the time you have, and don’t allow perfectionism to hold you back.' 

Take time out 

It’s OK to take a break. In fact, according to some experts, it’s actively encouraged. 

‘Carve out time away from being productive' says mental health and wellbeing coach Lily Silverton. 'Often the best realisations and creative flashes come from doing nothing, or close to it. So make sure you’re not trying to be perpetually productive.' 

Silverton also highlights the importance of doing things that get your blood pumping. 'Move in whatever way works for you – run, skip, dance, walk fast, do yoga. Just make sure you’re doing something a few times a week that makes you break into a sweat, even if it’s just for 10 or 15 minutes at a time,' she says. 'It’s essential for giving the brain a break from working hard to produce for you. And movement for most people is crucial to maintaining good mental health.’ 

Percolation time can also mitigate burnout. ‘We don’t talk enough about how important proper rest is for our work and for ideas to percolate,' says Tiffany Philippou, co-host of the popular Is This Working? podcast. 'In our episode about burnout, we talked about how we find ourselves mindlessly scrolling at times because we don’t always allow ourselves to have proper rest. I believe the key to productivity is to take regular and proper rest; taking naps, for example.' 

Look after your mental and physical health 

Being constantly busy can take its toll mentally and physically. Dr Geoff Bird, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, is a huge advocator of a good night’s sleep. 'It makes a huge difference to mental and physical health but also to productivity and quality of decision-making,' he says. 

Avoid stress, too. 'It has a hugely detrimental effect on productivity and health – and the combination of stress and sleep deprivation is awful,' he adds. 

However, sleeping well and avoiding stress are often easier said than done. 

For Dr Tara Swart, bestselling author, neuroscientist, leadership adviser and medical doctor, eating well is also a vital element to fold into the mix. 'To optimise our brains for productivity, we need to rest, fuel, hydrate and oxygenate our brains. Glucose as a breakdown product of a healthy balanced diet and oxygen are the resources for brain productivity,’ she says. 

Use technology wisely 

We all know the guilt associated with an inbox filled with unanswered emails. Explore, instead, platforms like Asana, Slack or Basecamp to stop your emails piling up. However, use them wisely.  

'The most productive communication platform will depend on your preferences, business model and overall goals,' advises business and productivity writer Deanna deBara. ‘If you’re collaborating on a project with a bunch of moving parts, a project management app like Trello can help you stay organised and on track. If you need real-time communication with your team to be effective, a conversation platform like Slack can be helpful.' 

However, you may find yourself deluged with digital notifications, which are time-consuming to manage. Nottingham Trent University's Dr Eiman Kanjo explores the use of technology to improve wellbeing, and is a fan of managing digital interactions. 'Digital notifications have become such a distraction it keeps us from being productive while on the go. Our brain has to multitask while fighting to focus,' she says. 

Do more with less 

There’s a lot of talk about the four-day working week or a six-hour working day, but do we really get more done if we have less time? Yes, according to Deanna deBara. 

'A longer work week doesn’t increase productivity,' she says. 'In fact, the opposite is true. A 2014 study from Stanford University found that productivity starts to dramatically decline after 50 hours per week – or in other words, the more hours you work each week, the less productive those hours become.' 

She suggests switching things up with a shorter day or a four-day work week can be highly effective. It can help keep productivity levels up at the same time as boosting morale, making for a better balance between work and personal life. 

Patrick Swift is a freelance journalist, and digital marketing and social media specialist