The post-pandemic remote work landscape is changing so much about how we work. How can we help our teams leverage best practices in productivity in order to be most effective with our time?
Greater productivity leads to a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment in our work, among our teams, and for our companies and organizations. To create a greater sense of overall well being, we can actually work with our biological rhythms rather than pushing ourselves beyond our capacity and activating stress hormones. With planning, we can boost our ability to focus and create a clearer understanding of what is expected of us in a given day.
Dr. Sahar Yousef conducts important neuroscience research from her UC Berkeley lab on the biological components of productivity. Her work focuses on how we can leverage what we know about our body and brain to maintain a focused schedule that supports our natural rhythms, rather than continually pushing ourselves beyond sustainable levels of activity. This can increase our happiness and encourage us to use our work hours more efficiently. We’ve found that following some of her research-based advice is a win for our team, our company, and our own wellbeing. The following ideas are drawn from Dr. Yousef’s webinars, blogs, and videos.
Set three goals each day
Getting clear on what you need to focus on at any given time helps ease worry that your team or your company doesn’t know how hard you are working, what you are working on or if you are producing enough. This is called “imposter syndrome” and has become prevalent in our pandemic work environments. This also helps prevent “burnout” — or the experience where you are working constantly, feeling overworked and overwhelmed.
Set “MIT”s: the three “Most Important Things” at the beginning of each work day which you plan to get done that day. You will feel more productive and clear on what you need to accomplish by the end of your day. At that point, you check off your list (she recommends writing this down on paper and marking them off when finished) and know that you’ve finished your top 3 priorities for the day. If you aren’t able to finish your MITs for the day because something else comes up, you can rewrite your list to accommodate your new focus for the day. Preliminary studies of this practice show promising results for stemming burnout and imposter syndrome.
Shorten your meetings
Schedule your meetings for 30 minutes when possible. People are most cognitively engaged during the first 30 minutes of your meetings; after 30 minutes our attention drops considerably. If it’s possible to turn off the video camera to reduce the neurological burden of seeing yourself participate in the meeting, even better! Dr. Yousef has noted that video meetings tend to be more burdensome than in-person meetings. Your brain has to work harder to recognize and understand social cues because you’re not actually making eye contact with your colleagues. The cues you would experience in a room with your teammates are missing in video calls. In general when using video meetings, keeping them fewer and/or shorter can keep teams focused on clear communication and clarifying action items.
Use your chronotype to your advantage
Are you a morning person or a night owl? This can help determine your most productive times of focus in a day. Your “chronotype” is an internal rhythm which indicates the peak performance times and dips of energy levels in the day. If you are a morning person, your ability to focus most consistently and easily will be earlier in the day, decreasing as the day progresses. If you are a night owl, it’s probably best not to schedule big presentations or challenging tasks first thing in the morning as your energy starts low and increases throughout the day.
Biphasic types, which are the majority of people, are between these two poles. If you’re biphasic, you are not a morning person per se but feel okay in the morning. You tend to have midmorning and midafternoon peaks with a dip in between. Your peaks are the best times to give presentations, perform analyses, and complete more demanding tasks. Your dips are much better times to do tasks with a lighter cognitive load, such as scheduling, emailing and administrative work.
Focus sprints: Intensive, high value work for short periods of time
The problem with multitasking is that it’s a myth. When notifications are going off for messaging, emails, texts and so on, you are not able to give your whole focus to any one task. Shifting from one task to another always comes with a cognitive cost. You mentally move from doing one thing to another which requires you to refocus again on the first task when you come back to it, remember where you left off and pick it back up again. Pivoting often between tasks does not produce the most focused thinking for any one of your tasks. While your work may require this type of shifting focus, it is helpful to understand that it takes additional effort to go from one item to the next.
Focus sprints are meant to remove distractions and leverage short bursts of work time open when you are energetically best suited to them, according to your energy levels during the day. These sprints empower our teammates to set aside time to do their best work, at the best time of the day for them. The steps are straightforward: clarify what you intend to accomplish in the sprint and write it down, let your team know that you will be unavailable for an hour, turn off notifications, put your phone in another room, and set a timer for 50 minutes. Work hard and straight through for 50 minutes, aware of the time ticking, which is motivating based on the research. Take a break to finish the hour and come back fresh to your work and your team. Dr. Yousef’s suggestion is to start with 3 focus sprints per week.
Email batching during lower energy times of day
As part of leveraging your chronotype and therefore maximizing your productivity, you can go through batches of emails rather than attending to each one as soon as it comes in (assuming you have a position that allows you to do that). Batching emails encourages you to go through groups of emails, ideally in a non-peak performance time of your day. This way, you save your more productive time for tasks that are the more cognitively challenging, deep-dive sort of work.
To recap: make daily goals that you can achieve. Set aside time in your day when you feel fresh and clear-headed to work on more challenging tasks. Use the natural dips in your energy levels to do administrative tasks such as emails. Take breaks to refresh your brain. Keep your meetings short and without video when possible. Good luck!