A lot of us equate productivity with time spent “working”. I hear people say, I work 10 hours a day or I work 24/7. But in reality productivity has very little to do with how much time we spend and has everything to do with what we are doing with that time. Are we working on the most important tasks, the task that will bring the greatest value to us and our organization? Are we focused on the task at hand, or are we distracted by millions of things going through our head, our personal lives, social media, etc?
I wrote a blog post about how to identify and prioritize the tasks we need to focus on, which can help with the first part of the equation. But even when we know for certain what is it that we need to focus on and prioritize, it does not mean we will actual do that. What are the ways to overcome that friction of procrastination and the stress it causes when those deadlines come crushing in.
From my own experience when I am faced with a particularly daunting task I tend to avoid it without even realizing it. Now I am not sitting there and watching Netflix or ESPN highlights, but I start “getting busy” doing other things, like answering messages, emails and completing other “more pleasant” tasks. My brain is tricking me. I feel good about being productive, yet the most important high value work isn’t getting done. I am willing to bet I am not the only one falling into this trap. One way of addressing this tendency is to break this task down into its component parts. For instance if the task is creating a roadmap for a complex program, I could break it down as follow:
- Write program vision
- Write problem statement
- Describe MVP
- Create a draft of what Milestone 1 looks like.
- Create a draft of Milestone 2
- Create a draft of Milestone 3
- Share with stakeholders asking for their feedback, buy-in, answer comments. Schedule conversations with stakeholders if required.
Now I already feel better, because I feel like I can tackle each individual item and get to the end of the list before the week is over. The second step is assigning deadline for each of the tasks and hold yourself accountable for meeting that deadline. I often take it even one step further by sharing this “plan of attack” with my manager or a teammate. This is what I am planning to do to tackle this work item and this is when I am targeting to get it done. I actually serves two purposes, one it gives your manager a teammate confidence and peace of mind that you are going to get the work done, and two is that you now have an extra sense of accountability to finish the job and prioritize it accordingly.
Another technique that I found extremely useful, I refer to as thinking in reverse. Let me explain. When the task is particularly complex, even breaking it down into parts may be difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to know how to even approach the problem, where do I even start? In that case what I often do is think about the final desired outcome. What do I want to see in the ideal world when this project is done, what value would they want to get out of it. When this final outcome becomes clear in your mind, what also becomes clearer is exactly what needs to be done to get to that specific objective. We start seeing the outlines of the roadmap and a critical path. We begin understanding the features that are must-haves, should-haves and nice-to-haves. What also becomes apparent are the potential risk and obstacles. Being armed with this new understanding makes it much less likely that we’ll be spending disproportionate amount of time on task that are not essential to getting us to our desired final outcomes.
Now that we are focused on doing the right things, there is another problem I often have to deal with. Inability to stay focused. Now I don’t know if I have ADHD, but my mind usually goes in a million different directions. When I am trying to focus on the work at hand, I start thinking about something completely different and have to force myself to context switch back on what I need to be thinking about. What I’ve discovered is that being hyper focused in the only way to really get things done in an efficient manner, context switching is not our friend. So how do we do that?
The answer for me is simple – Pomodoro Technique. It is super simple. Break your day down into 25 minute chunks. Plan the work you want to complete. Start the 25 min timer (I use the one here) Be as focused as possible on work during that time. After the timer rings, take a 5-10 min break, recharge, spend a few moments assessing what you did and what you can do better during the next work session. After completing 4 sessions, reward yourself with a longer break. During that time celebrate what you were able to accomplish, retrospect on any adjustments you can make in order to be even more productive, focused and effective. Start the cycle over again.
How I totally understand that a life of any Program Manager or a TPM is filled with meetings and interrupts, but I find it incredibly valuable to set up some non-interrupt time in the week in order to perform the tasks that require deep thinking and flow. Knowing how scarce this time is, the Pomodoro technique is truly a game-changer for me and I hope it will become for you as well.