Rather than read all of these self-help books full of things you should start doing to be more productive, it's often better to look at what you should stop doing that gets in the way of productivity.
Looking at a problem backwards is called inversion and it's often a better approach.
With that in mind, Tim Ferriss, the author of The Four Hour Workweek, recently talked about this in a short podcast on productivity tricks.
Here is Tim's list of nine things you should stop doing right now.
1. Do not answer phone calls from people you don't know.
The logic behind this one is that calls from people you don't know are often disruptions. Further, these calls can sometimes surprise you and that puts you in a poor negotiating position. Just let it go to voicemail.
2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night.
Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, says “One of the most important tricks for maximizing your productivity involves matching your mental state to the task.”
In fact matching skills to the time of day is one of the most important changes you can make to improve your working habits.
You want to get out of a reactive loop. If you move creative and thinking work to the start of the day, when we're at our peak, you'll have the rest of the day to be reactive.
The window for peak performance is two and a half to four hours after waking. In Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body, Jennifer Ackerman explains:
Studies show that alertness and memory, the ability to think clearly and to learn, can vary by between 15 and 30 percent over the course of a day. Most of us are sharpest some two and a half to four hours after waking. For early risers then, concentration tends to peak between 10 A.M. and noontime, along with logical reasoning, and the ability to solve complex problems.
Email is the king of making us reactive. How many times have you gone to the office, noticed you had a free hour, opened up outlook and had that hour disappear. Email makes us reactive. There is also some psychology at play here, email offers us variable reinforcement. It's like cocaine for the brain and it makes us feel important.
Tim says checking email in the morning, “scrambles your priorities.” And checking email right before bed, a habit most of us have, impacts your ability to sleep.
3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time.
This is a personal favorite of mine.
If the desired outcome is defined clearly with a stated objective and agenda listing topics/questions to cover, no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes. Request them in advance so you “can best prepare and make good use of the time together.”
If the agenda is not clear, force people to make it clear. It's easy to call a meeting, especially in large organizations. The person who wouldn't otherwise be entrusted to spend $100 of the company's money can easily call a meeting with 10 people and spend more than the $100 in time. Making the agenda clear and specific inserts friction into the process. Not only will meetings generally be better and shorter, there will also be fewer of them.
4. Do not let people ramble.
This is one I hadn't really thought of before. Skip the small talk. If you're answering your phone say “I'm in the middle of something, but what's up?” That helps people get to the point.
Tim says “a big part of getting things done is getting to the point.”
5. Do not check email constantly.
In The Tyranny of Email, John Freeman explains:
Working at the speed of email is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train—and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every thirty seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The email inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest—there’s always something new and even more urgent erasing what we originally thought was the day’s priority. Incoming mail arrives on several different channels–via email, Facebook, Twitter, instant message–and in this era of backup we’re sure that we should keep records of our participation in all these conversations. The result is that at the end of the day we have a few hundred or even a few thousand emails still sitting in our inbox.
So why do we email all day? I think we like the attention email gives us. Email is addictive in the same way slots are — variable reinforcement. Tim calls email the “cocaine pellet dispenser.”
6. Do not over-communicate with low profit, high maintenance customers.
While Tim doesn't extend this to people, we all have people in our circles who consume a lot of our time but add very little meaning or value in return. You can minimize these (unhealthy) relationships.
7. Do not work more to fix being too busy.
This is really a matter of priorities. As in, you're not making decisions. You need to say no.
Ferriss suggests defining your “one or two most important to-dos before dinner, the day before.” Work on those the first thing the next morning.
If you don't know your real priorities, everything will seem important and urgent and that's a recipe for disaster. The sweet spot is feeling busy but not rushed.
8. Do not carry a cellphone or Crackberry 24/7
Tim calls this a “digital leash.” I agree. I hate to tell you, but odds are, you're not that important.
9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should.
Work is not all of life. Your co-workers shouldn’t be your only friends. Schedule life and defend it just as you would an important business meeting. Never tell yourself “I’ll just get it done this weekend.”
Work expands to the amount of time you give it. This is Parkinson's Law. When you give it a lot of time, it will consume that time. Give it less time and you'll be more productive.