Everyone is different. We know that. We have different ways of thinking, we have different circumstances, different constraints, different bodies and different brains.
So why do we so often try to shoehorn our productivity strategies into a narrowly defined box?
We try to perfectly implement GTD, or Franklin Covey, and then we’re surprised when we’re still disorganized and overwhelmed. We’re frustrated with ourselves that we couldn’t just follow instructions.
But what we’re forgetting is that it is MUCH easier to build strategies and habits around who we are already, around our core natural tendencies, than it is to force who we are into an already existing system.
There are several spectrums, traits and tendencies that can impact how we work. So, let’s talk about how to use who you are ALREADY to maximize your time management and productivity efforts.
Chronotype is just a fancy word for body clock. Your chronotype describes WHEN your body and brain are awake, asleep, energetic and lethargic. The most common dichotomy you hear is a morning person (often referred to as a lark) vs. a night person (often referred to as an owl). But, it can get a bit more granular than that. Just because you are a morning person, that doesn’t mean that you have the same high and low energy times as another morning person. Each of our body clocks is unique.
There is also a lot of advice out there suggesting that it’s possible to change your chronotype. But attempting to “become a morning person” is a strategy that rarely ever works in the long term, and causes an awful lot of internal strife.
So, we can’t really change our body clocks, but what we can do instead is be mindful of our body clocks to try to maximize how we spend our time based on what our natural body clock is telling us. We want to work WITH our body clock instead of against it.
Here are a couple of tactics you can use to start adjusting your work to your own body clock:
- Manage Your Energy Levels: We all have points in the day when our minds are clearer and more focused. And there are times when we feel, well, just a bit brain-dead. Learn when those times are for you. (When do you get your best work done? When do you yawn?) As much as possible, try to structure your day and work so that you are able to match your tasks to your energy levels.
- Experiment with your work hours: Right now, during COVID, we’re in a particularly interesting moment when it comes to work hours. We’re learning that “traditional office hours” don’t necessarily work with other life obligations (like remote schooling your kids!), and we’re getting used to being more flexible around hours. Use this to your advantage. Try out a different schedule and see what works.
- Get enough sleep!: Sleep is really important. And unfortunately, it’s our bodies that decide when it’s best to do it. Studies show that there’s almost nothing better you can do for your productivity, creativity and physical health and mental health, than get enough sleep. How much is enough? 7-9 hours for most adults. Aim for an 8 hour “sleep opportunity” (i.e. 8 hours in bed, with the lights off).
And if you are lagging, figure out what you need to do to get back in the focus zone. Take a walk, take a nap, have a healthy snack. And if you can't, then work on your more brainless, rote, tasks when your energy levels are low (filing, expenses, email or whatever the drudgery in your work is).
Working WITH your body instead of against it, can be a huge productivity booster.
The 4 Tendencies
I’m a big fan of the work of Gretchen Rubin in general, and of her “4 Tendencies” personality framework, in specific. The 4 Tendencies is a personality framework that looks at how we handle and react to expectations, both internal and external. It’s a framework that helps to explain why we do, or don’t do, things. And doing things the right things is what productivity is all about.
Here’s simple breakdown of the 4 Tendencies along with a few ways to use your tendency to be more productive at work:
Obliger: An obliger is someone who finds it easy to meet external expectations, but hard to meet internal ones. It’s the person who is able to keep to an exercise plan if they have a trainer, or are meeting a friend at the gym, but is likely to throw in the towel (pun intended) if left to their own devices. This is the person who gives of themselves often and easily, but who finds it difficult to take care of themselves.
- Join (or create!) a group of like-minded professionals and meet regularly. Set goals for yourselves during each meeting and hold each other accountable.
- Find an accountability partner. Send them a list of what you want to do each day or each week, and then follow up with them about what you actually did.
- Don’t say yes to every job or every request. Choose carefully to ensure that you’ll be working on projects that you’ll find interesting or meaningful, rather than committed to finishing something you didn’t really want to be doing in the first place.
- Ensure you clearly scope your work so that scope creep doesn’t ensue and wreak havoc on your timelines (and sanity).
- Set boundaries and don’t overextend yourself. You have the tendency to say yes to others, to want to help others. Before you say yes, first look at what’s on your plate and decide if it’s feasible.
Upholder: An upholder is someone who finds it easy to meet both internal and external expectations. If they say yes, to themselves or otherwise, they’ll do it. This person doesn’t have any problems sticking to their exercise plan.
- Set clear goals for yourself and choose to focus on projects or tasks that are in service of those goals. Once complete, set new goals, rinse and repeat. Setting goals and aligning your tasks with them will ensure that you aren’t overwhelmed with ALL the stuff you want to get done.
- Be choosy when agreeing to projects. Remember, if it’s not a “heck, yes!” it’s a no.
- Like an obliger, you can sometimes easily overextend yourself. Set boundaries and, before you say yes, look at what’s on your plate and decide if it’s feasible.
Questioner: A questioner is someone who can meet either internal or external expectations, but they have to agree with the rationale. There has to be a good reason for them to do what they are doing, regardless of where the expectation originates. If they feel out of shape and overweight, or are trying to improve their health due to a medical condition, they’ll find it easy to stick to an exercise plan. But if they are in good health already, they might not.
- Learn how to ask “Why?” in a non-threatening way. You’re a questioner; you need answers in order to move forward. Learn how to get the info you need without making the other people feel threatened or accused. Instead of simply asking “Why?”, ask instead “I want to be thorough and make sure we are considering all of the options. Can you help me understand why we are doing X instead of Y?”.
- Play “devil’s advocate” and help others to see the rationale (and convince yourself it’s worth doing at the same time).
- Make sure you have a solid rationale for why you are doing the things you are doing. Take the time to think through it and make sure your goals and projects are aligned.
- Make pro/con lists your best friend. If you're not sure how to proceed, draw up a list and make a decision.
Rebel: A rebel is someone who eschews expectations altogether. It doesn’t matter where the expectation comes from, it feels like a constraint on their life. This person is going to head to the gym when they feel like it, but not when they don’t.
- Remember that you chose this. This is your job, and you made the choice. Nothing was foisted upon you. You’re free to make a different choice.
- Remember that this pays the bills. You may not like the constraints, but you’ve got to get the job done in order to have the resources to do everything else you want to do. Your job might be a means to an end, and that’s OK. The better you do at it, the likelier it is that your resources, and freedom, will increase over time.
- Batch your meetings into just a couple of days a week so that you have more freedom on the other days.
- Pick just a couple of “absolutely must-dos” each day and then have a wide selection of other “top tier” tasks or projects to choose from each day.
- Reevaluate your goals frequently to make sure you’re not getting stuck.
- Reprioritize throughout the day; allow for pivots.
Your learning style is simply the way that your brain best processes info. And knowing your learning style, and using that knowledge, is a great way to boost your productivity.
There are 3 basic learning styles: visual, auditory and tactile/kinetic (and you might have some tendencies from each, but skew towards one).
You probably remember learning about your learning style at some point in school, and it was likely related to how you should study. But the way we process info is important at work also, and in other parts of our adult lives.
If you are able to tailor your work-style to your learning style, then you will be able to process information more efficiently, leading to greater productivity.
And it’s going to be easier to get into that flow state we all desire, when we are processing info via the method our brains like best. Like a lot of aspects of productivity, the easier and more convenient we can make it on ourselves, the more productive we can be. We want to remove the barriers.
So, what does this mean in practice?:
If you are a visual learner:
- Print out documents/presentations and take them to meetings with you so you can follow along easily and write notes. (it’s wasteful, I know, but you can recycle.)
- Do video chats instead of voice calls.
- Work in a quiet space, with a door if possible.
- Remove visual clutter from your environment (keep your digital and physical desktops clear).
- Brainstorm on paper.
If you are an auditory learner:
- Close your eyes when you are on the phone so you can listen to the words.
- Repeat something you need to remember out loud.
- Listen to music, or white noise, while you work.
- Talk to yourself .
- Brainstorm out loud, with others.
If you are a tactile/kinetic learner:
- Pace, or go for a walk, while talking your calls.
- Doodle or write notes while listening to others talk.
- Use a fidget tool or spinner to stay focused while others are talking/presenting.
- Take breaks to stretch or move frequently.
- Ensure your environment is comfortable and ergonomically correct for your body.
- Brainstorm while moving your body/doing an unrelated activity.
Before technology was ubiquitous, before we had laptops, and smartphones, most people worked at work, and when they were at home, they really didn’t work much. But that’s gotten much harder over time (and near impossible during COVID)..
Now, the reality is that we can work from pretty much wherever we are, as long as we’ve got an internet connection. And because we CAN, we do. There is an expectation, sometimes real, sometimes perceived, that because we can always be connected, that we should always be connected. That because we can send out an email, someone should be responding to that email.
The reality is that some people thrive in an environment where they are always connected to work. They don’t think of work and life as separate, but they think of work as part of life and vice versa. They are comfortable answering work emails on the weekend, and they are comfortable taking a personal call during work hours. We call these people integrators. Integrators have fully integrated work into their lives, and they don’t really see the dividing line.
On the other side of things, we have people who really like to separate their work-life from the rest of their life. (And who might be having a REALLY hard time with boundaries during COVID.) When they’re at work, they’re working, fully focused. When they’re at home, they’re at home, not thinking about work. We call these people segmentors. Segmenters don’t want to think about work AT ALL when they aren’t at work. But when they are at work, they are working hard. They aren’t taking personal calls in the middle of a workday, but they aren’t answering work emails at the dinner table either. Another way to think of segmenters is as compartmentalizers.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. Approximately 70% of people identify as integrators. But only about half of those WANT to be integrators. They feel they would be happier as segmenters, but they don’t know how to make it work. They feel intense pressure to always be on call, to be connected, etc.
Most of us are integrators not because that’s our natural tendency, but because we’ve let technology and the (possibly perceived) expectations of others dictate how we’re running our lives. Most segmentors are pretty happy as they are (or, at least, they were before COVID broke the boundaries wide open).
The really important thing to consider, no matter how you identify, is “do you want to be that way?”
Knowing how you identify, and whether that’s what you want, will help you maximize your productivity.
If you are a segmenter, you know that you will be more productive when you schedule all your non-work tasks outside of work hours. It means that, during COVID, you need to intentionally set both time and space boundaries around your work at home. It probably stresses you out to take a call from your doctor, or a friend, while you are working. If that’s you, you can simply decide that you aren’t going to take those calls during work. You’ll take them on your lunch hour, in the evening, or after work. And because you’ve made this decision for yourself, you’ll be able to stop the guilt about not answering right away.
If you are an integrator who would rather be a segmenter, there’s hope! I know it seems like the decks are stacked against you, but you can, and should, start to set some boundaries around your work. Setting these boundaries will help you be more productive both at work and at home (even if they are physically in the same space). Let your colleagues know that in an attempt to be more focused and productive, you’re rearranging your schedule a bit. You will plan to NOT answer email after your stopping time for the day, but if there is an emergency, of course you’ll pick up the phone. You can put in place boundaries around your vacations and can even start with baby steps by choosing vacations where you won’t have access to cell or internet service. You’ll probably find it easier to say you won’t be checking email if you actually CAN’T check email. (And, since camping is basically the only find of vacation anyone can take right now, you’re in luck!)
And if you are an integrator who is happy being an integrator, that’s great. (In fact, you might be living your best work-life right now!) But be mindful of context switching. Even though you are comfortable integrating your work-life with the rest of your life, make sure to batch-process similar items so that you can decrease the mental toll that context switching takes. If you’ve got a bunch of personal tasks that need to be done during business hours, no problem, but just schedule them together.
Knowing the difference between an integrator and a segmenter (and which you are) can help you schedule your work in a way that is consistent with your values, AND lets you get more done at the times that work best for you.
Extrovert vs. Introvert
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of extroverts and introverts, and you likely know which one you are. But, have you ever thought about how where you are on the introversion/extroversion scale can affect your productivity?
At a base level, extroverts gain energy and recharge by being around other people, and introverts recharge by being alone. Extroverts tend to prefer groups and crowds while introverts tend to prefer 1:1 conversations and a bit of privacy at work. And then, of course, there are the ambiverts, who fall somewhere in the middle and can be adaptable in most situations.
A huge part of productivity is about energy management and where we fall on the introversion/extroversion spectrum helps us to define where we are deriving our energy, and what drains our energy.
Practically speaking, knowing how to gain and lose energy can help you to figure out how to best plan your day for optimal energy and optimal productivity.
If you’re an extrovert, in order to keep your energy up, you need to talk to people during the day. If you typically find your energy lagging in the late afternoon, knowing that you are an extrovert allows you to try to schedule (Zoom) meetings or calls, where you’ll be interacting with others and recharging, in the afternoon. If you are an extrovert, you also likely want to make sure that you are interacting with people every day. Working from home during COVID has probably been REALLY hard for you because all that isolated work time may cause your energy to drag, and your productivity to go down with it. You may not be able to be in physical space with others right now, but start thinking about how you can get in virtual space with people. Are you open to having an all-day Zoom buddy? Can you pick up the phone when you need to hash something out instead of starting an email thread?
If you’re an introvert, in order to keep your energy up, you need solo time. You can use this knowledge to make sure that you are scheduling large blocks of heads down work during your day. You also are probably a great candidate to be regularly working from home; so you might be thriving during COVID. If you are an introvert, I bet you’ve had the following thought: “my most productive days are the ones where no one speaks to me”. Now of course, not speaking to anyone ever isn’t really reasonable, but you can arrange your days so that you are breaking up your meetings with blocks of alone time. You can try to schedule 1:1s instead of large group meetings where it makes sense. And you can make sure to avoid back-to-back meeting or call days, since you know those leave you totally drained. If you’re feeling the effects of Zoom fatigue, reevaluate your meeting schedule.
And if you are an ambivert, then your productivity really isn’t as greatly affected by your interactions with others. For you, a good balance probably makes sense and you should pay attention to your current energy levels, or energy patterns, and do a little experimenting. If you are feeling low during the day, does it help to engage with others? Or does it help to be working solo? You may need to track this for a week or so, and do some personal A/B testing to figure out what works best for you.
Wrapping it up!
From the above, I think you can see that you’ve actually got a lot of levers to pull. Take a deeper look inside yourself and try to refrain from judgement. Instead, think about how you can use who you are RIGHT NOW to boost your own productivity.