21st century productivity: how to get with the times

Personal productivity expert Dermot Crowley believes mindsets have not evolved as fast as the technology we use

Good planning and leveraging the power of technology can help in staying organised and focused at work, in the face of competing demands on our time and other interruptions, writes Dermot Crowley

Our ability to manage our time and attention dictates the results we deliver, as well as the balance we achieve in our busy lives. But in today’s modern workplace, many are struggling to keep on top of the deluge and create any sense of balance.

Over the last decade a range of powerful and exciting electronic tools have been developed and deployed to many workers to help improve productivity. We have electronic scheduling systems, handheld devices and the ability to communicate to anyone, anywhere at any time. Yet we still struggle to stay organised and focused.

A large part of the problem is that we are using 21st century technologies but still using 20th century methodologies. Our mindsets have not evolved as fast as the technology. Until we adapt the way we work by fully utilising the technology already at our disposal, we will always struggle to stay organised, effective and balanced.

The workplace has seen significant change since the last century. Our core organising tools have moved from paper-based to electronic. Primary forms of communication have shifted from face to face and phone to email and instant messaging.

Integrated productivity
Creating an integrated productivity system can really help you to stay focused and organised in the modern workplace. Applying this system to tools like MS Outlook works best, as this is where your email and calendar probably sits, so organising all of your work in this central place makes sense. Your integrated productivity system should allow you to organise your actions, manage your inputs and achieve your outcomes.

Actions: To manage our time effectively we need to use one central tool that enables the focused and proactive management of all our commitments and priorities.

Inputs: We need to maintain control of our incoming work and communications so that we reduce distraction and have a clear focus on what really needs our attention.

Outcomes: To achieve our objectives we need to create alignment between our outcomes (what we need to achieve) and our actions (what we do on a daily basis).

The three keystone productive habits that drive this system are:

  1. Processing: checking incoming work proactively and making good priority decisions about what needs our attention.
  2. Planning: taking time out to plan rather than do. Time spent planning will not only increase the amount you get done, it will increase the quality of your choices.
  3. Prioritising: evaluating the importance and urgency of your work and deciding on what is truly the best use of your time.

Managing actions
We have so much to do and so little time. Working longer hours is not the answer – we need to organise our activities in a way that helps us to focus, work proactively and manage competing priorities flexibly. Setting up a centralised action management system in Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes is an obvious choice, as this is where a lot of your work arrives via email and is probably where you already manage your meetings and appointments. Using the same system to manage your tasks and priorities makes sense, as this gives you a complete picture of all your commitments. Here are three essential strategies for managing actions:

1. Focus your day with a plan. We need to cut through the noise and babble of the modern workplace and get focused. A daily plan creates focus and sets your intent. Each day, review your meetings, establish your discretionary time and identify your priorities for the day. Plan your work and work your plan.

2. Proactively schedule your work. Your real priorities will get actioned in a timely way when you get into the habit of scheduling what you need to do in your system. Schedule your meetings in your calendar, and schedule the start date for your tasks in your task management system. Date-activate work for the appropriate time.

3. Manage your changing priorities. Sticking to your plan is easy if nothing in your day changes, but new stuff always comes in, and we end up not getting everything done. So be prepared to manage the change. Make active decisions about what you have not completed, and reschedule incomplete work.

Managing inputs
Trying to focus on our important work when we are also being bombarded by a constant deluge of emails, phone calls, text messages, instant messages and interruptions is a daily struggle.

We need a change of mindset to manage our inputs effectively. For instance, many people use their inbox as an action management system, and let the emails pile up, awaiting their attention. Piles in your inbox, piles on your desk or piles in your head lead to a reactive work-style.

Changing to an ‘inbox zero’ mindset can radically improve your approach to email management and the impact that email has on your work style. Aim to process your emails down to zero at least once per week, and take advantage of the tools built into Outlook and Lotus Notes to manage email actions and information. And it is not just email. We need to apply this thinking to all forms of incoming work, however it arrives. Here are three essential strategies for managing inputs:

  1. Reduce the noise. We receive way too much noise into our inboxes each day – external noise in the form of marketing emails and internal noise in the form of CC’s and reply all’s. Get off newsletter lists and groups, set up rules for informational emails, and discuss email protocols with your team.
  2. Centralise all work and information. Make MS Outlook or Lotus Notes your one consolidated source of truth for all your actions and information. These systems have been designed for this purpose, which means there really is a place for everything.
  3. Simplify your filing system. We all need to keep emails to refer back to them. But the research shows that we only refer back to less than 5 per cent of the emails we keep. So why do we spend so much time organising this information in complex filing systems? Set up a simple filing system and learn to search for what you need, when you need it.

Managing outcomes
We all have a purpose – a reason for doing the work we do. Our work is usually measured against a set of goals and objectives, and the things we spend our time on directly impacts what we achieve. Yet, so often we let what is most urgent drive how we spend our days, not necessarily what is most important. To be truly effective we need to create some balance between the reactive and the proactive. Planning is the key to creating this balance.

Taking time out to plan feels hard when we are so busy; but a little time spent planning will yield big results. You will not only get more done in your week, you will ensure you are getting the right stuff done. Time is your most limited and precious resource – make sure you spend it wisely. The most successful people generally make time to plan on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Here are three essential strategies for managing outcomes:

  1. Paint your own big picture. You probably have a performance plan in place for your role. But how central is that to your day-to-day planning? Are you clear about your big picture? It is very hard to prioritise your time if you are not. Make some time to think about your key responsibilities, your objectives and your projects.
  2. Protect time in your schedule for the rocks. We often mean to work on important priorities, but if they are not yet urgent, we just keep meaning! When it comes to crunch time, it is often hard to find some space in your busy schedule. As Stephen Covey suggested in his bestseller First Things First, build the rocks into your schedule before it fills up with sand.
  3. Recognise the signs of procrastination. We all procrastinate, but we often don’t realise that we are doing it until the work becomes urgent. We procrastinate because things are complex, hard, distasteful, long or boring. Spot the procrastination, work out the reason, and then apply an appropriate strategy to get you moving.

So, as the saying goes, “What got you here will not get you where you want to go”. We need to reboot our systems and come up with a new way of working in this modern, busy, urgent, global and email-driven workplace. Leveraging the power of our technology is the starting point. Applying a system to that technology which integrates how you manage your actions, inputs and outcomes will then set you up for success.

Dermot Crowley is an expert in personal productivity, and works with senior leaders and leadership teams on their productivity, and their ability to lead productivity in their teams. www.adapttraining.com.au