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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
How did we let the early risers set working hours for all of us?
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.
Why get it done today when you can do it tomorrow? At some point in time, we have all probably felt the urge to defer a task that should be done today till tomorrow. It seems such a small thing. Until you defer that task into next week. My Literature teacher in Secondary School was fond of telling us “Procrastination is a lazy man’s excuse.” Wise words I haven’t forgotten to this day even though they are not very helpful if you’re trying to kick the habit. To help you get started on that pesky task that has been on your mind since last year, here’s a simple framework:
Set clearly defined goals
The main reason why people procrastinate is a lack of clarity. It’s hard to find the zeal to start a task if you are not sure what the end result will look like. Set a goal with a clearly defined output, one you can easily measure. Also set a deadline for your goal so it can get done on time. If you’re gonna do it on Monday, write that clearly on your To-do list. If it’s not written down it’s a wish. A clearly written goal gives your task purpose and a well-defined output. It’s easy to keep postponing getting started on a task as long as the output is still just a vague idea in your head.