Every day we are faced with a flood of information that our brain has to process. Customers, staff, family, emails and social media updates all compete for our attention and create conflicting priorities. We can end up feeling stressed, wishing there were more hours in the day.
But according to Ben Elijah, author of The Productivity Habits, this cycle can be broken by identifying what’s important to us and then learning to say no to things which are irrelevant. It all comes down to creating the habits of productivity and practicing them every day.
Is this when we feel like we’re constantly doing things but none of them well? Do we feel like we have to respond immediately to new emails? Ben defines being too busy as not having the capacity to say yes to things that are urgent or relevant. Over time this impacts our health from lack of sleep and feeling stressed and leads to poor productivity. So how do we try and overcome this feeling that we are firefighting the whole time?
The problem is that our brains haven’t evolved to deal with being on call 24/7 and the constant influx of information this brings. There are several cognitive biases that mean our brain responds to the latest and loudest messages because it thinks they are the most important. Once we understand this it’s up to us to set a different expectation of the way we will respond.
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To start to prioritise what’s important, Ben’s advice is to sit in your nearest park for a couple of hours, with no phone or distractions, and write a list of everything that is in your head –what you’re worrying about, things you need to do and things that are on the horizon as well. The idea is to clear your head of everything.
The next step is to go through the list and identify which are the most important 10% - the common themes that emerge are the ones that are most important to you. The remaining 90% is taking up space but is not as important.
Write it down – get it out of your head and then you can decide what to do with it. Action or discard. Once you’ve identified what’s important to you, you can recognise and learn to say no to the things that aren’t.
Ben advises applying your tasks to this filter to plan your time more effectively and to identify what needs to happen, when and who should be involved.
There will be times when you are naturally busier than others, but if you feel that you are constantly drowning and there is no end in sight then Ben ended with some practical tips on how to free up some time:
• Don’t be afraid to say no to clients whose income doesn’t justify the amount of work involved
• Are you delegating enough? If you don’t have anyone to delegate to then investigate the software and apps that can free up your time
• Replying to emails gives you a sense of achieving a task but is actually fake work. Switch off email alerts to remove the distraction or set up an email alert to say when you will reply to emails each day. People will appreciate that a quick response does not mean it’s the best response
• The same with social media – remove the apps from your phone and replace the time you would have spent looking at them with real work. Be honest and self-critical enough to know when you’re wasting your time
• Allocate tasks to time periods over the day – there is plenty of time to schedule main tasks in. Then tick off what you’ve done at the end of the day so you can see the progress you’ve made
• Pick up the telephone – this can avoid wasting time on email ping pong and also helps maintain your business relationships.