So much of the time, productivity is illusory.
Back in the day, managers would measure your productivity by how long your bum was planted in your seat. In theory, a great employee was always plugging away when their boss peeked out his or her office window. But now, with so many companies operating entirely or partially remotely, it’s all about who’s online first and last; whose little green Slack light is on.
So while this flawed productivity ideology has changed with the times, it hasn’t shifted away from its problematic roots. Nowadays, there is an expectation that our employees are always readily available via Slack or chat, or that our emails will be replied to immediately.
But this isn’t the best scenario for productivity.
When your entire workday is screen-focused, odds are good you’re not getting what I like to refer to as “deep work” done. Essentially, deep work is high-level, ultra-productive work requiring intense focus. And it’s impossible to achieve when we’re being bombarded by Slack messages, emails, and other digital notifications.
How many times have you been working on a project, and right when you get into a groove, you’re thrown out of it by a ping of some sort from a co-worker, client, or boss?
I can’t count how many times this has happened to me. Before Wi-Fi on planes, how productive were you between Sydney and Singapore or New York and San Francisco?
I hate to think how many hours of productive, meaningful work I have lost after getting pulled into conversations on Slack or trying to stay on top of email as soon as they come in. Not to mention the times I’ve found myself lost down a rabbit hole of Medium articles when I’m supposed to be doing something else.
Today, so much of our work and entertainment is screen-based.
As a result, Americans spend a whopping 10 hours looking at a screen each day, according to a recent report from Nielsen. Of course, the advancements of the digital age have made our lives easier in many ways.
But we’ve reached a breaking point.
The sheer volume of time we spend online, coupled with the fact that the digital world is full of distractions, has made distraction the norm. We are always connected, always communicating. The speed and volume of it all is exploding, and it is dividing our attention further and further from whatever task is at hand.
It’s also caused us to let our time-management skills fall by the wayside.
At this point, you may be wondering how it’s even possible to manage your time when a constant stream of consciousness demands your unwavering attention.
Which leads me to my next point:
For so many businesses, growth is the name of the game.
The mantra “if you’re not growing, you must be dying” is pervasive now. So the pressure for companies to always be expanding is intense and constant. And when company leaders feel that pressure, it is going to trickle down to their teams.
And as a result, everybody is constantly working.
In the business world, entrepreneurs and startup folks talk about working late into the night with pride. They wear it like an elitist badge of honor.
But here’s the thing:
After all, even Elon Musk hit a wall.
When you can, power through your online work, then escape.
Depending on your line of work, reducing the time you spend online might feel impossible. And for some, it may truly be unavoidable. But regardless, there are always things you can do to work more efficiently, which ultimately helps you lessen the amount of time you spend in the glow of your laptop.
First, you have to be able to operate without distractions.
This is especially vital now that distractions come in so many different — mostly digital — forms. Find a strategy that works for you, whether it’s installing a notification-blocking app on your phone (there are tons), using Slack’s “do not disturb” setting more often, or simply exiting out of your email tab.
I like to use The Pomodoro Technique. I’ve experienced some of the most productive two-hour windows in my life when broken into 25-minute blocks. Plus, I don’t feel guilty when spending five minutes grabbing a coffee, because I’ve already allocated that time for a break.
I’ve also begun recording my time at work, to make me more aware of how I am spending it. Not only has it already thrown up some big surprises, it has had a big impact on helping me focus for longer, distraction-free blocks of time, and is also helping me plan my days so that my work can have the biggest impact.
Any time you don’t absolutely have to be entirely available, take that opportunity.
Company leaders: This starts with you. Create a healthy work culture that allows your employees to escape from constant notifications.
Today, worktime hours aren’t always clearly defined.
If you’re in an office, 9–5 might still be your norm. But today’s workforce is made up of more and more remote, freelance or distributed workers whose schedules don’t always marry up. And while flexible working arrangements are a net positive (some of the Karbon team work remotely), workers often feel the need to be constantly available.
Here are a few things leaders can do to avoid this:
Encourage their employees to take time off. This doesn’t have to mean forfeiting productivity if you can find ways to increase employee productivity — perhaps by limiting digital distractions.
Consider alternative work schedules. We’re moving to a four-day workweek in the summer. I’m a firm believer that 32 hours of focused work is much more valuable than many more hours of distraction-filled work.
Minimize their team’s tech clutter. We’re implementing features to Karbon that will help to achieve a calm and productive time at work, such as email and other feeds only notifying employees during certain hours, for example. A platform that focuses on output over eyeballs.
We frequently talk about how the digital age has given us new ways to work, but are ignoring the many ways it’s also made work more difficult. I encourage everyone to take a good look at their screen time and identify opportunities to be more efficient — because we’re all guilty of falling victim to digital distractions of all sorts throughout our workdays.
Ultimately, we have to find ways to work smarter, not harder.
Stuart McLeod CEO & Co-Founder, Karbon
Stuart started his first business 11 years ago and has had many successful ventures, including Paycycle, founded in 2009, which he sold to Xero in 2011. He then built the global Xero Payroll team that delivers payroll software across the US, AU, UK and NZ markets. Stuart is now paving the way for smarter tools to improve how knowledge workers collaborate with their colleagues and look after their clients.