manage yourself

On Personal Productivity

Below are some of my tips for personal productivity – otherwise known as “how to survive the daily onslaught of emails, meetings etc. that you will encounter in just about any white-collar job today” 😉

Some general principles that I try to stick to:

  • Minimise paper
    I tend to get lost in stacks of paper, so one of the main things I’ve done to improve my productivity has been to get rid of paper as much as possible. Of course I still use paper printouts for proofreading, sketching, short-term todo-lists and so on, but I then as quickly as possible convert to a digital format and discard the paper copy.
  • Take control of your calendar – even if you can’t control everything about it.
    I am not a morning person – never have been and probably never will be – and the only thing that consistently gets me to the office before 8.30 is jetlag 😀 A while ago I started booking “me-time” between 9 and 11 every day, because even though I am a slow starter, once I get to the office and get started, mornings are actually my most productive office hours. The main benefit is of course that I can get more work done, but actually a more surprising benefit is that I work less in the evening that I did before, because I know that I have undisturbed time the next morning to actually work on issues instead of heading straight into meetings when I walk through the door.
    Corollary 1) Many people claim that they can not/should not block time like this. To this my response is that to most people booking meetings they only need a free slot, but whether it is at 9.00 am or 2.00 pm rarely matters. I just take some initiative to show people where it is convenient for me to have meetings.
    Corollary 2) Many people also claim that they can’t control their calendar themselves. I am definitely one of them, but even if I can’t control someone more senior putting in an unexpected appointment, I can still reduce the likelihood of it interrupting my most productive hours of the day.
  • Understand procrastination: In my world, there are two types of procrastination – productive and unproductive. The productive procrastination means I am working on something meaningful – just not what is most important at the moment – whereas the unproductive procrastination means that I am not working on anything productive at all but instead watching TV or surfing online. Understanding this distinction actually made me more productive because in theory both of these are bad, but in practice I’ve found that the productive procrastination can be surprisingly productive 🙂
  • Accept that you are less important than you think: The main result of this is that you don’t have to attend nearly as many meetings as you think 🙂

Disclaimer: Personal productivity is, well, personal! I can’t claim that these tips will work for everyone and their different jobs/bosses/coworkers, but I generally get positive faces when I explain these so they can’t be completely specific to me.


Addendum: How to process emails?

Email is often presented as the scourge of modern office life. It probably is to some degree, but to be honest I like email because unlike phone calls, meetings and instant messages it is an asynchronous method of communication – meaning I can deal with it whenever it suits me 🙂

Handling email I split into two. For managing “on-going” emails, i.e. what comes in during the day, I generally stick to the “Do – Defer – Delegate – Delete” principle where you action an email when you open it the first time. I can’t stick to this 100%, but I try and it does work. For those that don’t know this then briefly: “Do” means doing whatever the email is asking. “Defer” means that you leave it to later for follow-up, “Delegate” means give it to someone else and “Delete” means get rid of it immediately. The key here is to do one of the four things the first time you open the message so you don’t have to waste time coming back to the same email over and over again.

For cleaning up a backlog of email, such as when I return from a vacation I use the following method to clean up the inbox and eliminate as much noise as possible to find the few things in the pile I really need to worry about:

  • 1) Sort inbox by sender: First step is to go through and remove anything I don’t need or can process quickly, such as newsletters (internal/external), various project status emails, automated notifications from applications etc. plus of course any borderline spam from airlines, online shops and  communities that I get. All of this is read, processed and deleted/archived immediately.
  • 2) Process calendar invitations: Next step is to process meeting invitations in sequence. This further reduces the number of messages and also ensures that when i go through the important mails afterwards my calendar is updated so I can check availability immediately.
  • 3) Sort through the remaining messages by topic and start reviewing from the back to see if the discussion has been finished. In one recent example I had a 12-mail thread between multiple people where the last message just read “thanks a lot for you help and have a nice weekend”. OK, nothing I need to do about that so I can archive all 12 mails without reading the other 11 (or I can of course just check the discussion to figure out what’s been going on, but it’s fairly certain that there are no actions for me). Anything that is still “in progress” is either dealt with immediately or left for the next step.
  • 4) Last step. By now I will have reduced the number of messages to somewhere between 10-20% of what I started with. I have removed the noise and clutter and I am left with the things that really need my attention, either because they take longer to complete or because I need to talk to other people to move on. So, I grab a cup of coffee or tea and I can start working on those 🙂

On a couple of occasions I have done the initial screening on the flight back from a two-week holiday, starting with 4-600 emails. It generally takes me 60-90 minutes to do it, but the difference between showing up Monday morning at the office to 500 unread emails and to 7-8 open issues that you know you have to deal with is incredible.