Note: the vast majority of this post is based on personal experience; while this worked for me, and continues to work for me, I am aware it will not work for everyone. I am also acutely aware this approach may stop working for me too!

Getting things done is hard. Getting things done without burning yourself is just as hard, if not harder. More often than not, things are left not done and we reflect on ways in which we could have been more productive with our resources: cognitive space, energy, and time.

For a long time, I had tried to become more productive by focussing on the wrong actions; what I could see rather than the root cause. If I was up late at night writing documents to share with others, I would think that we were writing too many documents, and that was the problem, rather than the underlying issue, that we needed to find a better way to communicate and record our communication. If completing the cover board for the next day was taking up a significant proportion of my time, I wouldn’t be thinking about the underlying reason for why we had so much cover.

This was where I learnt my first principle of productivity, and the one which I still use as a guiding principle today:

“We have misplaced our focus on the actions we see; when what is needed is a focus on the purposes those actions serve.” Mary Kennedy

Too often, when analysing why I wasn’t as productive as I would have liked to have been, or when I was trying to understand why actions were taking too long and sapping too many of my resources, I realised that I was focused solely on investigating what I could see, rather than what was behind what I could see; the purpose the actions serve. By analysing the purpose that actions serve, we can quickly identify why we are doing what we are doing.

Why am I up late at night writing this document? Because I couldn’t do it during the day.

Why couldn’t I do it during the day? As I was too busy.

What was I busy doing? Dealing with an administration issue.

What was the administration issue? …

By getting down to this level, I could unpick what issues were affecting my productivity. If they were persistent, this would mean a change in systems was needed to tackle this issue, which in turn would free up more time in the school day, and improve my productivity. The same process can be applied to issues regarding the effectiveness of work.

Why am I writing this document? Because I want to communicate a change in policy.

Why do I want to communicate a change in policy? Because I need everyone to know the new expectations.

Why do I want them to know the new expectations? So that everyone is on the same page, as we were not at the last policy change.

Why were we not all on the same page at the last policy change? Because we didn’t all know the line, and we didn’t discuss the policy as a group.

Why didn’t we discuss the policy as a group? Because I wrote a document and sent it out to everyone …

It was only once I had a good grasp of the process of unwinding actions and their purpose, that I understood the root cause of some of my productivity and efficiency issues.

The second principle I try and stick to is:

“Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late; the best never comes.” Robert Watson-Watt

This resonates with me as I have often struggled with the pursuit of perfection, and the impact it has had on my productivity. When creating plans, discussing ideas, implementing projects, or communicating instructions, I have spent too long looking for every potential pitfall and problem. This pursuit of perfection has impacted the amount of resources, both physical and cognitive, that I could spend on other work, preventing me from improving my overall output.

This has been a difficult one for me to tackle, but when I realised that when a project or communication is “in play” problems come to the forefront easily and through continually monitoring and evaluating the situation, these problems can be handled. There is no way that in advance all potential “in play” problems could be foreseen, so the pursuit of perfection is futile.

The third principle I stick to when trying to improve my productivity is to focus on habit forming and habit stacking.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear claims that better results don’t always come from setting goals; instead, we should focus on the system. Systems can be affected and improved through the formation of good habits. He discusses the process of building a habit as having four steps: a cue, craving, response, and reward. I used this process when setting the cover in the morning for absent staff. The cue would be I would always do this work at the same time, and the same location: before 7am, at my dining room table. My craving, or motivation, was to ensure a smooth start to the day for all staff, and to do a good job. The response was completing the task at hand, while the reward, as well as a job well done, was also that I’d go and make a cup of coffee once cover was complete.

I have used the idea of developing habits many times to improve my productivity in specific areas. The key, I have found, is to:

  • Develop clear, distinct cues e.g. a specific, time, location, emotional state, interaction with a person or preceding event.
  • Pick cues, and responses that are immediately actionable.
  • Chose the right time to act, for example, early in the morning, you have more control over your time, when it is not shared with others, such as work colleagues. Also, times when there is a clean slate, the start of a new academic year, a change of office or classroom, is a great time to start a new habit.
  • Distance yourself from previously used cues if you are trying to drop an old habit and form a new one e.g. I had an old habit of jumping onto twitter whenever I sat in my office chair that was next to my laptop where I work; I have now moved laptop to ensure I am not tempted to sit in the chair, but also to ensure that forming any work habits doesn’t involve the chair.

This links with Clear’s claims that the forming of habits, as a form of behavioural change, is based on four laws into the four laws: Make it obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.

Habit stacking also has a powerful affect; this is the act of queuing habits to act one after another. In a bid to improve the tidiness of my inbox, I used the coffee drunk after completing cover as the cue to check and clear emails. To this day, I still rarely drink coffee at work, in a bid to avoid spending the next 30 minutes staring at emails!

When trying to improve your productivity, it is important that the right actions are being looked at, alongside the purpose of them, and the right time is chosen to act, especially if the solution involves the formation of habits. Habits, by definition, should be easy to repeat and automate, and should quickly form part of your identity if you want to maximise your productivity.

Further reading:

CLEAR, J. (2018). Atomic habits: tiny changes, remarkable results: an easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones.

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