Life gets in the way

Sunrise

We all had great plans for 2020. We all had things we wanted to accomplish. We wrote them down and got started. Then the pandemic got in the way. A lot of our plans had to be shelved. We had to deal with the fear of a disease that no one had a cure for. We had to adjust to new ways of working. We also had to adjust our priorities. We reviewed what was most important in our lives and came to appreciate the security having a roof over your head, food to eat, healthcare and the ability to continue working from home provided.

It doesn’t always require a pandemic to disrupt our goals. However, the coronavirus pandemic provides a very good example of how activities outside our control can affect our ability to achieve our goals. At some point this year, you probably had to shelve old plans and make new ones. Even without a life changing event such as a pandemic, there will always be constraints to some of your goals. Being aware of them can help you set more meaningful goals in your life.

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Nobody works well under pressure

Working under pressure is last minute time management

We have all met someone who proudly declared they work well under pressure. The sort of people who boldly put it on their CV and expect to be rewarded for it. They are most likely the sort of people who annoy colleagues to no end by submitting work five minutes to the deadline and expect to be given a round of applause for it. You may have convinced yourself being able to work under pressure is a skill. Perhaps you also believe you possess that skill. Let me burst your bubble. It is not.

A man in a suit struggling to meet a deadline
You under pressure keeping people waiting

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What do you do with your downtime?

A clockface

Do you have some downtime this week? I’m sure if you thought more careful about how you spend your days, you could probably find 30 minutes on most days when you are not really doing anything. Do you have any unfinished tasks on your to-do list from last week? It could be an annoying task you have been putting off for a few days such as dropping off your laundry or rearranging the books on your shelf. What if you chipped away at those catch up tasks for 30 minutes each day during your downtime?

A person sleepy in front of a laptop
A lot of downtime is spent on idle browsing

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Are you spending too much time at the office?

A work schedule

The classic hustler story is of a young entrepreneur possessed of zeal who goes days without sleep working on a project that after many years yields them great profit. During that time, all other concerns such as family responsibilities, food and healthcare miraculously vanish. How else could you explain someone working for a month without sleep?

A man typing at a laptop in an office
Late night at work aren’t always a good thing

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Not all hours are created equal

Clock gears

If you ask most people, what hours they would consider their peak periods of alertness, they would say early morning hours. After a good night’s rest, they are fully rested and have the energy to dive into almost any task with greater enthusiasm. It also helps that at those hours, there are often fewer distractions. People are yet to have their first arguments for the day and as a result are often in a happier place.

Unfortunately, the early morning hours are the time that a lot of people waste on trivial tasks. Many people wake up at dawn, reach for their phones and start checking social media. Unless you are managing the social media profile of a company for a living or work in customer care, that is probably not the most productive use of your time. How much more could you get done if you learnt to harness an hour or two each morning?

Hourglass against a backdrop of dawn
What did you do this morning?

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You are not a machine

A man in bed fast asleep

A popular misconception about productivity is that productive people get more done because they work 20 hours a day. I don’t know about you but I don’t know anybody that can function on that little sleep everyday. Richard Branson, the Founder of Virgin airways is famous for being up with the sun. He likes to get an early start. At first glance, this looks like he only gets a few hours of sleep each day. However, he is also consistent about going to bed every night at 11pm. He leaves the curtains open so he can feel the rays of the sun striking his face. That’s when he knows it’s time to wake up. This means on average, Richard Branson gets six to seven hours of sleep per day. No one can call him unproductive.

"Sleep is for the weak"
This is a myth

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Put your phone in a drawer (and learn to leave it there)

A magnifying glass focusing on a passage

How many hours could you go without peeking at your phone? So many people experience anxiety if they had to stay away from their internet enabled devices for a long time. Whatsapp notifications that run in the thousands and ever refreshing social media profiles have made it very difficult for some people to stay focused. Every notification is a distraction and even when they turn off data, the fear of missing out ensures at least some of their brain power stays thinking about what they could be missing. This is good for social media companies but bad for productivity. The ability to get focused and stay focused is becoming a rare skill just at the time when being able to stay focused can provide you with a huge advantage at work.

An arrow stuck in a bullseye
Focus is a moving target

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Be productive, not busy

A gravestone. The words "Let Go of The Busyness" are etched into it

Nigerians are a very busy people. If you go to a Government Office and need something signed, the person holding the stamp is bound to tell you to wait a few hours because they are busy. Never mind, they don’t seem to be doing anything. We are in a hurry to beat traffic lights and complain when KAROTA stops us and demand that we pay a fine. We should be forgiven. We are busy people who just happen to be in a hurry and the light should have stayed green just a few seconds longer. We try to cut queues because we are busy. Should I go on?

A busy man on social media
Doing what?

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Start being intentional about how you spend your working hours

A man on a chair planning his calendar

Last week, I wrote about the pomodoro technique where you use a timer to focus on only one task for 25 minutes. The pomodoro technique is useful for getting past the mental block that keeps you getting started on an important task. It is possible to take this principle one step further. How do you normally plan your day? Do you block enough time for important tasks? Or do you spend your day putting out fires?

Everyone has 24 hours in a day. Some people who we call “productive” seem to have a way of getting more out of their 24 hours than the rest of the people who we label “unproductive (or lazy).” Most tasks can be broadly grouped into 2:

  1. The high value important tasks that add the most value to your goals. These are often the tasks that are not fun but necessary. They are also the tasks that most people delay getting started.
  2. The low value unimportant tasks that don’t always add value to your life but can be fun. An average person might spend a lot of their time doing these second group of tasks at the expense of the first.

A calendar with the word "Agenda" stamped in red across it
Which tasks take the bulk of your time: Important or trivial?

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Mornings are the worst time for watching funny videos

A rooster and a singing alarm clock

How did we let the early risers set working hours for all of us?

– Joke

That’s a joke I read a few weeks ago. We all have 24 hours a day but let’s face it those hours aren’t created equal. Research has shown that about 60% to 80% of us are at our most productive during the early morning hours before noon. Only about 1 in 5 people work better at night. This is because our bodies have an internal clock mechanism that regulates our cycles of wakefulness and sleep. This mechanism is called a circadian rhythm and it dictates the best time for you to focus, work on creative tasks and when to take a break. It’s also responsible for the jetlag you may experience if you travel quickly across time zones as your body struggles to recalibrate its internal clock.

A dancing alarm clock
Internal clocks can get messed up

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