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Escape the cult of busy by working smarter rather than harder

Monday 12th March 2018 - Katie Byrne , Irish Independent

There was a time - and it wasn't that long ago - when the word 'productivity' was used to describe labour and output.

It was a dull and mechanical management term that rarely passed the lips of the average worker. And it was certainly nothing to brag about.

In recent years, however, what was once a collective, organisational goal has become an individual, autonomous effort.

Time is now a sought-after resource and, in the age of hurry and worry, we're all looking for ways to get more done.

The glamorisation of productivity as the new status symbol has led to an increasing array of 'productivity experts'.

They all claim to have the secret to increasing focus and overcoming procrastination, but look a little closer at these 'productivity bibles' and you'll notice that two distinct schools of thought are emerging.

The first group believes that we can 'hack' our lifestyles and 'supercharge' our performance. They sell books with 'Ninja' and 'Badass' in the title and push products that make us work better, faster and stronger. Lunch is for wimps and sleep is for the weak with this ilk.

The second group espouse the 'less is more' philosophy. They understand that productivity isn't linear, hence workaholism is often counterproductive.

The 'slow work' movement, as it is known, is gaining ground thanks to writers like Carl Honoré (In Praise of Slow) and Cal Newport (Deep Work). Closer to home, Aoife McElwain recently wrote about her own experience of getting off the treadmill of "busyness and burnout" in Slow at Work.

There are no bells, whistles or Bulletproof Coffee to this style of working, rather a more focussed and thorough approach to tasks.

Here's just some of the 'slow work' community's key advice.

Extra hours doesn't always equal extra productivity

Sometimes the issue isn't a lack of time, rather a lack of time management, says Prof Morten Hansen in Great at Work.

"Working longer hours enhances performance, but only to a point," he writes. "If you work between 30 and 50 hours per week, adding more hours on the job lifts your performance.

"But once you're working between 50 and 65 hours per week, the benefit of adding additional hours drops off. And if you're working 65 hours or more, overall performance declines as you pile on the hours."

His advice? "If you're already working 50 hours per week, resist the temptation to invest more hours at work. Instead, ask yourself: 'Can I work smarter, rather than more?'"

● Time your tasks

Parkinson's Law dictates that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". In other words, if you have eight hours to complete a document that should only take two hours, you'll more than likely take an entire work day to finish it.

Robert C. Pozen shares a no-nonsense solution for overcoming Parkinson's Law in his book, Extreme Productivity. "One way to keep a meeting to ninety minutes is simple: schedule it for ninety minutes," he writes. "If you schedule a meeting for two or three hours, that is how long it will take. If you schedule a meeting for one hour on the same subject, it will still finish on schedule."

● Narrow your focus

Truly productive people know how to distinguish between urgent and important tasks, explains Gary Keller in The One Thing. "It's recognising that not all things matter equally and finding the things that matter most," he writes. "It's a tighter way to connect what you do with what you want. It's realising that extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus."

● Know the difference between motion and action

Cleaning out the inbox and ticking off the to-do list are satisfying tasks, but that doesn't mean that they should always take precedence, explains Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better. "When we write down a series of short-term objectives, we are, in effect, allowing our brains to seize on the sense of satisfaction that each task will deliver," he writes.

"We are encouraging our need for closure and our tendency to freeze on a goal without asking if it's the right aim. The result is that we spend hours answering unimportant emails instead of writing a big, thoughtful memo."

● Don't mix work and play

If you're the type of person who updates social media in the office and reads work emails at home, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, recommends a 'shutdown ritual' at the end of each workday.

"The process should be an algorithm," he writes, "a series of steps you always conduct, one after another. When you're done, have a set phrase you say that indicates completion. To end my own ritual, I say, 'Shutdown complete'. This final step sounds cheesy," he adds, "but it provides a simple cue to your mind that it's safe to release work-related thoughts for the rest of the day."

● Put a value on relaxation

"If you keep interrupting your evening to check and respond to e-mail, or put aside a few hours after dinner to catch up on an approaching deadline, you're robbing your directed attention centers of the uninterrupted rest they need for restoration," continues Newport.

"Even if these work dashes consume only a small amount of time, they prevent you from reaching the levels of deeper relaxation in which attention restoration can occur.

"Put another way, trying to squeeze a little more work out of your evenings might reduce your effectiveness the next day enough that you end up getting less done than if you had instead respected a shutdown."

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