6 Low-Tech Ways to Increase Productivity

Last Updated Jun 3, 2011 4:36 PM EDT

The single gating factor to your businesses and careers is time; it is the one thing money can't buy. Sure, you can spend a fortune on apps that promise to make you smarter, more efficient and profitable. You can buy a stack of hardware too. But the secret of productivity really lies in how you manage your mind.

1) Work a 40-hour week.

Lots of companies like to think that productivity is just a matter of working longer hours. That's how Electronic Arts used to manage its software development; it's also what led to their class action suit. Since 1888, when Ernst Abbe conducted the first productivity study at Zeiss Laboratory, the findings haven't changed: people are most productive when they work for around 40 hours a week. Yes, you can push that a little when you're in crunch mode, up against a deadline. But after 40 hours, be careful.

2) Don't put in overtime.

Of course, you can work more than 40 hours a week; lots of people do. The problem is that, after those 40 hours, you are more prone to error. So how do you use the extra hours? Clearing up the mess you made. It feels productive - because you're working so hard. But if you hadn't made those mistakes in the first place, you wouldn't need to stay late.

3) Stop multitasking.
We all like to think we can multitask; women, in particular, have been sold the idea that it is our unique selling point. The brain science says otherwise. We can all (men and women) task-switch and we can do so pretty fast. But between each switch is a blind spot - and a waste of time and effort. It may feel productive but it's a waste of energy and destroys concentration. Some scientists compare multitasking with being over the alcohol limit: you think you're in control, but really you're not. Want to get something done well? Mono-task.

4) Get a good night's sleep.
Long days with short nights of restless sleep add up. Studying the Texas City refinery accident, the Chemical Standards Safety Board studied one worked who'd worked twelve hour shifts for 37 consecutive days ane estimated that, with 5.5 hours of sleep per night, he was carrying a 'sleep debt' of about a month and a half. That didn't just mean he felt lousy. 'It is common for a person experiencing fatigue to be more rigid in thinking, have greater difficulty responding to changing circumstances and take longer to reason correctly.' Cognitive tunnel vision is a typical consequence of fatigue. But most of the executives I know work every day and go to bed too tired to sleep well.

5) Take a break.
Want to solve a really hard problem? Step away from it. We have all had the experience of having a great idea on the drive home or in the shower. This isn't a fluke. The more you work a problem, the more narrow the range of options you see. You get, quite literally, stuck inside a neural network too small to offer you a solution. Go for a walk - even just down the hall. Better still: leave the building and go talk to someone who doesn't work in your industry. The most creative solutions are oblique.

6) Mix it up.
Groups of people make better decisions than individuals. That's the message of James Surowicki's wonderful book, The Wisdom of Crowds. But - and it's a big, overlooked 'but' - that only works where the teams are comprised of people who are different from each other. What you need is a wide range of experience, different kinds of education, thinking styles and cultural orientation. That way everyone can surface different solutions from which the best can be made or evolved. Some people think this is about political correctness; it isn't. It's about productivity.

So forget the apps and the hardware. Spend time on yourself and you'll be amazed what you can produce.

Want to learn more? Watch this:


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  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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