How to be More Productive at Work
Productivity has long been an obsession for both great men and those seeking greatness.
Benjamin Franklin famously kept a diary of his every waking hour, blocking out time for tasks meaningful and menial, like putting loose objects away. But as admirable as the minute-by-minute schedule might seem, we can only imagine what Franklin’s to-do list would have looked like if he also had to contend with distractions as potent as Instagram DMs, LinkedIn requests and paperless bills.
Yes, we’re living in inbox-dependent times. An era dominated by noise, inefficiency and, more than anything else, the bastard contagion that is information overload. But one company says we don’t need to be: Slack.
Five years after its launch, eight million daily users seem to agree – as does Amazon, which was reportedly eyeing the company with a $12bn offer.
Slack is an office chat app that promises to wean us all off time-wasting, productivity-sucking habits, and get teams back to what they do best: collaborating. And the proof seems to be in the pudding.
Cal Henderson, the company’s co-founder and chief technology officer, is still yet to email a single one of his co-workers.
Henderson and his ilk represent a new, determined wave of productivity maximalists, whose philosophies favour life balance over midnight emails and meaningful collaboration over jealously guarded projects.
The question is, what does five years without intra-office email teach you about getting things done? Plenty.
It’s a familiar phenomenon: you’re in a deep state of flow, your to-do list evaporating before your eyes, as your heart swells with pride at just how well you’re killing it today.
And then, you have to dig through your files to find an old version of a document. And then, you have to log onto a clunky third-party system that asks you to reset your password and then forces you to download an app update. Suddenly, that vibe is gone. And you’re back to square one.
“It’s the moment of remembering where something is: how was this shared with me? Do I have to go onto Google Drive? Is it in Dropbox? Attached to some email? Do I have the latest version?” says Henderson. “It’s that nightmare scenario.”
Slack’s solution is simple: building communications into channels, rather than threads. This always-on communication style – looping teams together, or those working on a particular project – cuts off the need to add emails into the mix.
Slack’s secondary solution? Plug-ins.
Popular apps from providers like Google and Dropbox work seamlessly within team channels, saving the need to pass along links. Your takeaway: little moments of distraction can snowball into extra email requests and hours of productivity lost.
According to a 2008 University of California study, once distracted, it takes the average person around 25 minutes to regain a train of thought – and momentum. “Killing that off is a noble goal in and of itself.”
Remember the last time you started a job? Remember day one? Remember that lonely, pristine inbox – the sense of being utterly, hopelessly disconnected from the office around you? It’s no way to start anything, says Henderson.
“By default, emails are one to many, or many to many. The pit that you fall into with emails is that it’s very easy to constrain communication between two people, where the communication wasn’t a secret between two people – but it’s just easier to do it that way.”
This hits at the hidden benefit of a tool like Slack. When chats are live, archived and readable by many, new starters can learn the intangibles of working at a company almost by osmosis.
Basics like how decisions are made, how projects are pulled together, and the things that would usually chew through your productive work time.
The days of siloed projects are numbered, Henderson explains. When communication moves away from the black hole of an individual’s inbox, other people – and other teams – get the chance to have an ambient awareness of what’s happening around them. And they’ll often make unexpected connections, or offer up unexpected insights.
“If there’s any philosophy that we’ve pushed, it’s more transparency by default. It increases general knowledge of what the rest of your team is working on,” he says. “It greatly aides collaboration… even if it’s not within your immediate team.”
Harden your soft skills
As industries pivot towards hot desking, telecommuting, and chat-based collaboration, emotional intelligence is likely to become even more important to teams – and to productivity.
Think of it this way: in a world marked by less and less face-to-face interaction, empathy may be the new calling card of leadership.
“All kinds of knowledge work is more and more collaborative,” says Henderson. “Whatever discipline you’re in, being able to collaborate with people – and skills like having good empathy – is increasingly important.”
Get to the point
“Email is the cockroach of the internet,” said Stewart Butterfield, Henderson’s fellow co-founder.
“It was really just the digitisation of the memo. There’s all this formality that comes with it: a subject line, a greeting, you ask how somebody’s doing, and then you have the little nugget of an actual question in there,’” says Henderson, exasperated. “There’s all this scaffolding that sits on the actual message.”
Your new mantra: cut back on information density. Because remember: it’s not just about the time lost reading expendable scaffolding – it’s also the time lost writing it.
Should you walk out of bad meetings?
Elon Musk might well be the world’s busiest genius. Beyond supposedly solving South Australia’s energy woes, he’s the CEO of both Tesla and SpaceX and founded neurotechnology company Neuralink as well as mysterious tunnelling project, The Boring Company, back in in 2016.
That’s on top of what seems to be a fairly hectic love life. So perhaps it’s little surprise he doled out some productivity advice some hailed as visionary.
“Walk out of a meeting or drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value,” he said this year. “It is not rude to leave – it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”
While you mightn’t be in a position to simply walk out on superiors – or, god forbid, clients – Musk’s musings present a good opportunity to conduct a personal audit.
“It’s really easy to fall into the trap of, ‘Well, we’ve got an hour, so we’d better talk for an hour even if we haven’t got anything to talk about,’” says Henderson.
His recommendation? Tighten the invitee list. Stickto an agenda. And designate a decision-maker to limit fruitless back-and-forth chatter. “Discipline around meetings can really help focus and productivity.”
Five (more) productivity tips
1. It will take longer than you think
A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology confirmed what others had long suspected: we’re all really bad at planning work deadlines. Start by setting an optimistic deadline. Then a deadline if everything goes wrong. Science dictates that it’ll take a little longer than that.
2. Planned breaks work better
You’re a smart person. You know that breaks are effective – that’s why you stretch your legs then recap to your deskmate your current binge-watch. But a Columbia Business School study suggests you should take it a step further: switching away from problematic tasks is more effective when the breaks are regular and predetermined.
3. Don’t wait for motivation
“Is it accurate to assume that we must ‘overcome’ fear to jump off the high dive, or increase our confidence before we ask someone our for a date?” said psychiatrist Shoma Morita. “If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.” Moral of the story? Waiting for ‘motivation’ is a loser’s game.
4. Your phone is not your friend
A recent study led by Florida State University found that students who kept a phone on their desks – even when untouched – performed significantly worse at mental tasks than those who kept them out of sight.
So, pocket your phone, keep it on silent, and you’ll gain valuable swiping time later.
5. Make the most of your mornings
The period of time right after we’re fully wake is our most productive. Unfortunately, most of us tend to use it for Instagram-scanning and Twitter-tagging. This insight pairs elegantly with those psychologists and creatives who insist that we ought to be tackling the most difficult task of the day, first.
Or, as Mark Twain put it: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Makes sense.