How to 10x your productivity in 2016

PHOTO: The Straits Times

Who doesn't want to get more done, in less time? If we could do that, we think we'd be happier, less stressed, and have more time to do X (spend time with family, exercise, fill in your own blank).

But the truth is that we'll always be wrestling with what to spend our limited time on, no matter how much time we do or don't have.

In these two pages, I invite you to think of productivity as not just something you get out of work, but across your entire life.

Because being productive isn't about being efficient, i.e. getting stuff done, but about being effective, i.e. getting the right stuff done.

Get educated about how to manage your time

Nobody fights a war by rushing into the field without a plan. Similarly, before you get into the tactics of productivity, you need an overarching strategy that's informed by a conscious purpose.

What do you want to achieve with your time, and why? No doubt, you'll need to put in some brainpower and soul-searching up front. But doing the plan before you do the work pays off.

The classic book on time management is Stephen Covey's First Things First, which teaches you how to put the important ahead of the urgent, and how to tell the difference between the two.

Invest in systems

Your brain is a very poor task manager. The simple reason for that is that it's evolved for very short term goals, when our ancestors were lucky to live beyond their 20s on the Savannah. And when stress hits the fan, it gets flooded with adrenalin and all sorts of nice chemicals that are great for fighting off tigers but bad at submitting forms. So if you want to manage your time better?

Don't rely on you making great decisions when it's minutes before deadline, you haven't slept all night, and the baby is sick. Plan your tasks ahead, using a trusted productivity system. It doesn't really matter which productivity app you use, it matters more that you actually use one. Use a notebook and pen if you must. For more high-tech solutions, try apps like Todoist, Wunderlist, or Asana.

When it comes time to up your task management game, the Holy Grail for geeky productivity systems is David Allen's 'Getting Things Done', or GTD system.Most productivity apps made today follow his principles in some way or another (they're made by geeks, after all). After reading the book, the seriously hardcore amongst you can try Things (iOS, OS X) or OmniFocus (iOS, OS X).

Cut off the interruptions

You can actually get more done today in the same time today with one simple life-hack: Cut off all interruptions when you're doing your work.

Easier said than done, I know. Research has found that multitasking actually makes us less productive. Our brains can't multitask, what it actually does is rapidly toggle between tasks, rather than process them all simultaneously. The fancy word for this is "continuous partial attention."

When people do multiple things at once, they perform more slowly and less accurately than if they focused on a single task at a time.

Continuous interruptions are as good as "continuous partial attention." When you're interrupted, whether by a colleague dropping in at your desk, or by you checking Facebook for "just a minute", your focus is broken from the task at hand.

There's no app to help you lock your offi ce door, but there are other ways to lock out interruptions. In real life, you can go somewhere secluded to do your work (if you have the luxury).

If you can't escape your desk, try a pair of noise-cancelling ear buds that block sound out, like the Bose QuietComfort 20.To block off all online distractions, try the app Freedom.

It lets you block Internet connections for a period that you choose, so you can't even go online to watch cat videos when you're supposed to focus.

Get real with how you're spending your time

How do you actually know that all your productivity tips and tricks are working, and that you're actually spending time on what you say is important to you?

You can get real by actually tracking how you really spend your days. One way to do this is by using your smartphone's built-in Calendar app, and tracking what you do with your schedule, then reviewing it at the end of the week.

(Pro-tip: Use Google Calendar as your core Calendar app, and sync everything to that, so you can see everything synced up on any platform.)

You can also track how you're spending time on your computer with the RescueTime app, so you'll get reports on how much time you're really surfi ng Facebook versus being in your Excel sheet. The paid version lets you log what you do in real time, so you get a bigger picture of how you spend your time.

Batch your work

The complementary tactic for cutting off interruptions is to work in batches. Research has shown that separating the day into blocks of time devoted to specifi c tasks can help people become more productive.

On the desktop, you can use timers to set aside a block of time to work on something.

Try setting it anywhere from 25 to 60 minutes. Different people have different lengths of peak focus time, after which forcing yourself to continue actually results in shoddier work.

When the timer rings, give yourself a 10 to 20 minute break, then start the timer again for the next block of work.

This can work not only in your offi ce, but it can pay off in your personal life as well. Imagine when you've consciously decided that in the next one-hour block oftime, you're not going to do anything but play with your kids.

No interruptions allowed, including checking your phone. You'll probably play happier.

[[{"fid":"529622","view_mode":"original_image","type":"media","link_text":null,"attributes":{"height":202,"width":150,"border":"0","class":"media-element file-original-image"}}]]This article first appeared in the Jan, 2016 issue of HWM.  HWM, Singapore's #1 tech magazine is available in both print and digital. Subscribe at www.hardwaremag.com.

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