For as long as I can remember, I have been on the hunt for productivity hacks, or anything that will help me squeeze just an ounce more productivity out of my day.
The irony is that with technology, apps and countless self-help guides available online today, getting caught up in the advice and fads can actually be counterproductive -- something I unfortunately know from experience.
One activity I have tried and utterly failed with is blocking time. This is a practice when you schedule blocks of time in your calendar for important tasks, such as responding to email, working on a project, reading, spending time with your family, etc. In some cases, people even set timers to go off at every block interval (30 or 60 minutes).
Between my attention deficit, multitasking and the distraction phone notifications, sticking to specific time blocks turned out to be a fruitless effort on my part.
And while I understand that success comes down to execution, the fact is that most of my day consists of settling emergencies, making quick decisions or speaking with an office drop-in. These are activities that will completely throw off a 30 or 60 minute chunk of time -- or even consume it altogether.
Rather than give up on the idea -- I am no quitter -- I altered my strategy to clump similar tasks together rather than confine myself to a specific block of time. In reality, I found that I -- and many who I spoke with about it -- was typically involved with two specific types of tasks: administrative and creative.
Administrative activities are the often mundane tasks that need to be completed throughout the day, such as paying bills, responding to an email, picking up the kids from after school activities, or conducting meetings.
Creative activities, on the other hand, are those activities that require a deeper level of thought and focus to complete, including tasks such as writing an article, planning for the future, or conducting thoughtful research. These are the tasks that are most difficult because they require concentration to be truly effective, which as most business leaders understand can be an all too daunting challenge daily.
Recently, I listened to a podcast episode of The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry in which Henry described this strategy -- only much more elegantly. Henry called this practice of scheduling similar tasks as "clustering," in which he also categorizes our activities into two types of tasks: concrete tasks (administrative) and conceptual tasks (creative).
More important, Henry points out that the one of the greatest benefits of clustering your tasks is avoiding the "energy drain" you get from "gearing up and gearing down" between dissimilar tasks.
If this is a practice you want to try, then here are a few tips to get started.
Write Goals. It is difficult to "hack" your productivity if you have not identified specific goals you need and want to accomplish. Write down your goals -- this makes them more permanent.
Prioritize. Do not fall into the trap of only prioritizing your "fill-in" tasks (low effort and low impact). Instead, make certain you understand how important your "major projects" goals (high effort and high impact) are in fulfilling your long term aspirations and give them the attention they deserve.
Plan. Take five minutes each day, or at the very minimum each week, to review your goals, look at your schedule and plan your activities. This does not necessarily mean you are going to stick to your plan, but without considering it, your week will get consumed in unplanned and menial activities.
Block Time. Ok, I know I said not to do this, but don't think of it as concrete blocks of time in your schedule. Instead, consider large chunks of time for your administrative and creative activities. For instance, if you know you are going to have a meeting on Thursday morning, schedule other meetings around this meeting, since you will be in the mindset. Make sure to reserve time for your major projects and activities that require creative focus.
Execute. Now that you have your plan and your schedule, it is up to you to follow it. That means, as difficult the urge is to check your email during your creative time, resist and power through your first couple of attempts. Like me, I feel confident you will start to see real value in this habit.
Of course, this is just another productivity hack among thousands. I have found it to work well personally -- far better than blocking time. Ultimately, however, productivity hacks rely on the individual using them, so it is best to try a few and see what works best for you.
What do you think? Have you tried blocking or clustering? Please share your thoughts with others in the comments below.