Beware false prophets offering a quick fix to make you more productive. The simple truth? The obstacles standing between you and increased productivity are improved concentration and its arch nemesis—distraction. Here's how to improve your focus
We’ve all read those productivity articles—each one promising a shiny new work ethic, wrapped up in five easy-to-apply points. We’ve probably also all read them at our desks, procrastinating as a deadline inches ever closer. In reality, productivity is so much more than a mindset—and each one of us has a specific set of hurdles we need to tackle in order to reach our potential.
For some that's working alongside a screaming toddler, for others it's a frenetic, meeting-filled workplace or a jet-lagged sleep cycle. No two people are the same, so why should generic productivity hacks apply to us all?
We spoke to both productivity experts and Gen.T honourees to see how they block out the chaos, and grouped the advice into five key archetypes. Whether you're a Harried Parent or a Frequent Flyer, read on for tips on how to stay focused.
1. The Frequent Flyer
Anyone who travels knows that flying lie we all tell ourselves: “I’ll work on it on the plane”. And while the lack of high-speed Wi-Fi can make aeroplanes a good place to sit down and concentrate, more often than not busy airports, packed flights and red-eye schedules are the quickest ways to kill creativity.
“If you’re trying to work on something very dense, diving in while you're simultaneously waiting to hear if your flight is delayed or not, isn't the best idea,” says time management and productivity expert Claire Evans. “Instead, use that specific moment in time to work on something less intensive. Catch up on some reading. Double check that proposal. Allocate the right task to the right moment.”
While many airlines promise high-speed Wi-Fi, the reality is, well, frustrating, so look for the benefit in detachment. “When I see people on planes waiting for the Wi-Fi to slowly load each page, I wonder why they’re wasting their time,” says Gen.T honouree Steven Kim, the Indonesian-based, Korean-born, American-raised owner of Qraved (clearly a man in possession of many frequent flyer miles). “Surely there are other things you could be doing without Wi-Fi? Possibly even things that would benefit greatly from two to three hours without distraction.”
2. The Harried Parent
Always the last to pick up your child from day-care? Concerned you’re never fully present at work or at home? Having a child is transformative, and one of the biggest changes is watching your focus shift from yourself to someone else—but what does that mean for your career?
“New parents often struggle with how much smaller the window is to get things done,” says Evans. “Whereas before they had all day, now they have two hours. But it was having a child that taught me the art of knuckling down. No distractions, no diversions, no cups of coffee or reading emails or going for a run first. The clock is ticking until they wake up or the nanny goes home, so you get on with it. Having less time made me more decisive. And I think that’s true of so many parents.”
Perfectionism and parenting also aren’t natural bedfellows, so doing a job you think is 80 percent flawless is usually more than enough. “I never ever used to leave the office before dinner,” says Kim. “But since my daughter was born a few months ago, I make myself close my laptop at 6.30pm, and it’s really changed my life—in a good way. I know the deadline is coming from mid-afternoon and I work harder and faster than I ever have before, so I can get out the door in time to see her.”
3. The iPhone Obsessive
The siren call of the smartphone is well documented, particularly since it is the easiest way to distract yourself from a difficult task. “Smartphones are designed to appeal to the addictive parts of our brains,” says Evans. “So start by removing any apps from your main screen that you think distract you, and replace them with apps that increase your productivity, so they’re the first thing you see.”
Serial entrepreneur and Gen.T honouree Charlotte Chen swears by Trello—a mobile app that keeps track of everything you do. “Trello's list-like "board" system helps me keep track of my monthly objectives,” she says. “I then create "to-dos" within my objectives, listing out the necessary steps to reach my goals. I've tried many ways to keep myself in check (notepads, excel sheets, other productivity apps) and Trello is the only one that stuck. It's super easy to use, free and has a web and app interface."
Illustrator and fellow honouree Anngee Neo, meanwhile, uses Rescue Time, which operates in a similar way. “It tracks everything I've done on my computer and sorts them into categories like work, communication, news and social networking,” she says. “It also gives a breakdown on how much time I spend in programmes such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. I find it this useful because I get to monitor how much time I spend working versus doing frivolous matters. I can also set goals to hit every day for each category, which keeps me on track with my tasks.”
4. The Desk Dweller
The loud eater; the telephone bellower; the gum chewer; the ‘could have been an email’ meeting obsessive. Open offices are all the rage these days, but elbow-to-elbow contact with your colleagues can mean a death spiral of productivity for those of us who spend most of the day at our desk. One of the biggest challenges is noise. “Don’t be afraid of offending people,” says Evans. “Noise-cancelling headphones are more affordable than ever. You might have to prepare yourself for the occasional fright when employees approach you unseen, but they’re a godsend if you just need to tune out for a while."
Equally, stepping away from your desk and office chit-chat is an important way to increase productivity "I often use the app Deskjob, which encourages me to stand up or do some stretches when I've been sitting for too long, as that’s really bad for my concentration” says Shashank Dixit, Gen.T honouree and founder of cloud-based software provider Deskera.
Bestselling author Dan Heath argues that creating meaningful experiences at work makes everyone more productive. “The more boring work moments can be turned into positive experiences by doing things a bit differently,” he says. “Holding a stand-up meeting, taking a walk or inviting a customer to join a meeting about customer issues. Depending on the meeting, there are a hundred different ways you could break the script."
5. The Freelancer
It’s noon, you’re still in your pyjamas, there’s a piece of peanut butter smeared down your shirt, you’ve got two deadlines and Netflix is flirting with you from the other side of the room. While the joy of freelancing means you have no set schedule, in order to stay productive you do need some sort of routine. “You left the nine-to-five world behind because you didn’t want to get up early every morning,” says Evans. “But I tell all freelancers to make sure they’re up and working by 9am.” And given that your commute is most likely to the kitchen table, that means you can still lie in until 8.30.”
Equally important is having a shower and getting dressed. “When we put on an item of clothing, it is common for the wearer to adopt the characteristics associated with that garment,” says Karen Pine, a professor of work psychology. “A lot of clothing has symbolic meaning for us, whether it’s ‘professional work attire’ or ‘relaxing weekend wear’, so when we put it on we prime the brain to behave in ways consistent with that meaning.” In other words, no tracksuits.
And while the sofa may be more comfortable, studies have shown you work harder at a desk in a cool room in neutral colours, with no distractions or music playing. It’s also far too easy to get bogged down in small tasks when you’re at home—reordering your wardrobe never feels as important as when you’ve got a difficult deadline looming. “Eat the frog first,” advises honouree Joel Neoh, the Malaysian founder of e-commerce platform Fave. “This means always do the hardest thing first. Every day, I list out my priorities, and always move my most difficult task to the top of the list. If you don’t do that, you push it to the next day.”