By Steve Kelman

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To improve your personal productivity, pay attention to attention management

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When I scan my Twitter feed, which I do most days at least once, I come across lots of links to articles. Like other Twitter users, sometimes I retweet them -- usually appending "Look forward to read" to the beginning of the tweet. Although it may not be apparent to those seeing the retweet, I actually have a personal reason to do so -- typically I don’t have time at the actual moment I retweet to read the link, and "look forward to read" is a signal to myself to check out the link when, maybe once a week or so, I scroll through retweets looking for stuff I really should actually read.

Recently, however, I felt impelled not to wait for my weekly retweet perusal. I had shared a link to the Harvard Business Review Twitter page with the text: More than ever, need strategies for being productive.  Where do we start? 9 tips. The reason I decided to look sooner rather than later was that my own retweet had itself been retweeted noticeably more than many I post.  People almost always retweet before actually reading a link (it is actually more complicated to do so afterwards), so the retweets were based on the appeal of the topic itself. Improving one’s productivity clearly hits a chord.

The HBR piece was written by Ron Friedman, who is hosting a Peak Work Performance Summit that can be viewed online for free this week. The nine tips in the article are based on interviews with (mostly academic) experts who write about how to be productive. As with many pieces appearing in the Harvard Business Review Twitter feed (@HarvardBiz), this one was both practical and helpful. 

Friedman argues that we need to move from time management -- how do we get more accomplished in a given amount of time -- to attention management. "Today, the magnitude of information rushing toward us from every direction has surpassed our capacity for consumption," he writes. "No matter how much time and energy you have at your disposal, you can’t be productive without mastering the art of attention management." Attention management is about focusing on what is most important. The experts Friedman cites warn against 24-7 schedules with no down or recovery time. "Instead of viewing busyness as a sign of significance, top performers interpret busyness as an indication of wasted energy." We should "recognize busyness as a lack of focus."

Part of focusing is "owning" more of your own time, "working on projects that we ourselves initiate" to the extent possible, rather than being a slave of your in-box -- something I always felt while in government was a real differentiator between less and more successful managers. One expert "recommends blocking out time to work away from email, programming your phone to only ring for select colleagues, and resisting emails first thing in the morning until you’ve achieved at least one important task." (I found the last suggestion about starting with achieving an important task rather than attending to the emails that have arrived to be particularly useful.)

Part of focusing is being willing to say no to some new projects. One of the experts suggests "having a strategy in place for saying no in advance, so that you don’t have to stop and think about how to phrase your response each time you need to turn someone down. Create an email template, or write out a script that you can use when doing it in person."

I remember, when in government, saying no to some new assignments my bosses asked me if I was interested in undertaking. I told them that if my energy got dissipated with activities not related to the central mission for which I had been hired, I would be able to accomplish less in achieving my real priorities. I remember how counterintuitive my resistance was to many people in government, whose instinct was that the more assignments you had, the greater your empire and hence the more successful you were (or at least were perceived as being).

One category of tips in Friedman's compilation involves how to manage work to increase your chances of creativity.  Here the essential idea is that plowing on with a task without interruption may actually hurt productivity. One piece of advice -- citing an expert (in this case my friend Adam Grant of Wharton) -- is to "intentionally leave important tasks incomplete."

"I used to sit down to write and not want to get up until I was done with a chapter or an argument," Grant told me. "Now I will deliberately leave sentences just hanging in the middle and get up and go do something else. What I find when I come back is that I don’t have to do a lot of work to finish the sentence, and now I also have a bunch of new ideas for where the writing should go next." 

This is related to the idea, which I believe most people engaged in creative work have experienced often, that creative breakthroughs are more likely to come in the shower or while taking a walk than when explicitly thinking about "being creative."

Because of my government management background, I particularly liked the tip that tracking performance improves performance, which is a personal-life version of my interest in using performance measures to improve government performance. Says one of the productivity experts: "If you want to eat more healthily, keep a food journal. If you want to get more exercise, use a step counter. If you want to stick to a budget, track your spending."

In my first post after the New Year, I suggested a New Year’s resolution to help others more -- not only for them, but because doing so often helps the state of mind and the health of the giver as well as the receiver. We are still in the first week of the New Year, so any blog readers looking for resolutions can consult the HBR list to see if there are ideas in it that can be translated into concrete resolutions for 2016.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 07, 2016 at 5:49 AM


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