Conversations with world leaders in innovation reveal five simple productivity hacks.
As humans, we have a habit of putting successful people up on a pedestal. We idolise them and see their abilities as superhuman. But when it comes to how they approach work, are they really doing things that differently to the rest of us?
Through dozens of interviews I have conducted for the podcast How I Work, leading innovators have revealed their unique approaches to work. Here are five strategies that we can all learn from.
1. Develop different rituals for different types of work
It’s not unusual to see Georgetown University Professor and bestselling author of ‘Deep Work’, Cal Newport, walking around campus. And when you see him walking, you’ll never catch him with headphones in because he is actually working.
“When I’m trying to solve a theoretical computer science proof, the rituals I use almost always involve various walking routes around my town,” says Newport.
But when Newport is writing for work, a book or an article, his approach is completely different.
“In my house, I had a custom library table built that was reminiscent of the tables at the university library where I used to work as an undergraduate with brass library lamps next to the dark wood bookcases. And I have a ritual for writing where I clear off that whole desk and I just have a bright light shining right down on the desk and it’s just me and my computer.”
Newport says to think about the main areas of work that you do and start to create rituals around them. The rituals might involve your physical location, background noise, and time of day which become cues.
After a few weeks of practising these rituals, you should find that getting into the flow of work becomes far easier and quicker because your brain associates these cues with certain areas of work.
2. Small hacks can lead to big changes
For WordPress and Automattic co-founder Matt Mullenweg, it’s the small behavioural hacks that can lead to the biggest payoffs.
“If what is closest to me in the bed when I wake up is the Kindle and not the phone, I’m more likely to read,” says Mullenweg. “But if the phone’s on top of the Kindle I’m more likely to look at the phone. If I can reverse that order it’s a bit better. I think it’s good to look at every aspect of your life and say, ‘Where’s something that I can make it easy to do the thing that I want to do’.”
Mullenweg’s philosophy can be adopted at the workplace to help boost wellness among employees.
Google’s former senior vice president of people operations, Laszlo Bock describes in his book ‘Work Rules’, his efforts to nudge ‘Googlers’ into making healthier food choices.
In one experiment he conducted, he placed healthy snacks at eye level in transparent containers at Google’s snacking stations, while unhealthy snacks were placed closer to the ground in opaque containers. This simple change led to a 30 percent reduction in the number of calories consumed from candy. And fat consumption dropped by 40 per cent.
3. Batch your meetings
Many productivity experts talk about batching emails. But batching meetings can have an equally big impact. Research from Ohio State University has shown that when you have a meeting coming up in the next hour or two, people get 22 per cent less work done compared to if there was no upcoming meeting.
Wharton Professor Adam Grant found this research affirmed the way he chose to structure his days.
“On a teaching day, I hold all my office hours (meetings) back to back. I learned that I needed a little buffer so that maybe five minutes between each meeting just to catch up on email or in case a meeting ran long helped, but then I’d have another day with no meetings at all where I could really focus and be productive.”
Consider creating rules around when you don’t book in meetings. In my own work, I avoid having meetings in the mornings and instead batch all meetings in the afternoon.
4. Use your clothes as a communication channel
It can be hard to find a communication channel that can cut through the clutter, but former President of Pinterest Tim Kendall discovered it in his wardrobe. For four and a half years, he wore a t-shirt that said ‘Focus’ every single day (he had about 20 in rotation).
“I got in front of the company and said, ‘I’m going to wear this until we have 200 million users.’ By the way, at the time we had 10 or 20 million, so it was a way out when I started.” Kendall ended up wearing the shirt until he left the company in January 2018,” says Kendall.
“I think that with your outfit, you can use that as a way to symbolically communicate to people.
“I remember when I was at Facebook one year, it was a seminal year, 2009. Mark Zuckerberg showed up to work on January fourth or fifth, and he was wearing a tie. As you can imagine, for Mark Zuckerberg that stands out, and he said, ‘I’m wearing this every day for the rest of the year because this is a serious year’.”
5. Read your work out loud
Whether we like it or not, we are all writers. Every day, our success at work is in part determined by how well we can communicate our thoughts through email, reports, and perhaps even articles or books.
For bestselling author Dan Pink, reading his writing out loud helps him craft better work.
“I will read out loud because to me, it’s a test of does it sound right?
“Are there words in there that are clunkers? Is it as clear and gleaming as it could possibly be? For me, reading out loud and hearing the work read out loud is a significant part of my editing process. It’s very time consuming. It’s very laborious. But that’s how I do things.”
Investing time in these simple strategies will help you achieve greater output in your work. And despite getting strange looks from fellow café dwellers (the location I choose to do the majority of my writing), I read my article out loud as I edited it in the hopes that it turned into a better piece of writing.
Dr Amantha Imber is the Founder of Inventium, and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators.
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