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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Soapbox:  Unproductive productivity

Robert Kelsey looks at the enemies of productivity – and how to slay them

Procrastination and interruptions are the two biggest enemies of productivity. Why? Because we view the solutions to both as something beyond our responsibility. Procrastination is an internal issue, unlike external interruptions. Yet dig deep into what generates procrastination and we hear a somewhat classic abdication of responsibility.

1) I’m (fill in nationality) – it’s part of our culture. 

2) My boss is exploiting me – so I’m fighting back by refusing to work.

3) I have (fill in name of condition) – I’ve been diagnosed.

All reasons not to act, and all baloney. 

The real reason we procrastinate is fear that if we try, we’ll fail. That’s it. Our self-esteem can be that toxic internal critic, telling us that it’s better not to try than to try and fail.

Procrastination extends beyond the couch or duvet. Not striving to get to the next level in your career, nor putting yourself up for promotion is procrastination. 

How to get ahead

So what’s the answer? First, acknowledge that your fears will not just disappear, so take them into account and act anyway. This should undermine the catastrophic, all-or-nothing thinking procrastinators indulge in. Doing nothing is failure. 

Start with the motivation. What do you truly want? Think about your goals 10 years’ hence. With a 10-year goal visualised, then work backwards. Where do we need to be in five years to make the 10-year goal a reality? Next, where do we need to be in two years to make the five-year milestone? Then a year, six months, three months, one month, one week and tomorrow. What can we do now to prepare for tomorrow’s milestone?

Of course, most setbacks will come via other people, which means we can label them interruptions: the other barrier to strong productivity. 

Stephen Covey (author of Seven habits of highly effective people) created perhaps the most obvious way of determining what constitutes an interruption by dividing activities into four activity quadrants: those that are either urgent or not urgent, and important or not important. He contended that we spend the vast majority of our time undertaking urgent activities – both that are important and those deemed unimportant. It’s the activities in the urgent and unimportant quadrant that can be labelled as interruptions. Identifying these is the easy bit – but what about dealing with them? Well, interruptions are either by phone, email, visitors, colleagues or meetings, and you need a strategy for dealing with each. For example:

On the phone. 

Let it ring to voicemail occasionally, and don’t let unscheduled calls hijack your agenda. Pick up messages at scheduled points, perhaps just before lunch after a productive morning. Your voicemail message should encourage detailed explanations of needs, allowing for a prepared response.

Via email. Control your email viewing. Make sure your day is well under way before glancing at your emails. Never reply to an emotional or angry email immediately.

With angry emails, wait for your phone-zone period and pick up the phone. Only indulge in email upon completing your key tasks for the day. 

Visitors. The ‘unproductive you’ may have encouraged people to drop by your desk or chat by the coffee machine. You now have a plan to execute that needs your undivided attention. You need to communicate this, so why not try to recruit them to the cause by giving them a role?

In meetings. Being a ‘meeting hostage’ is probably the biggest waste of anybody’s day. Rather than feel offended when not included in a meeting, do the opposite. Try and get out of the meeting, perhaps by delegating or by sending information to the meeting originator beforehand. 

From the boss or a colleague. No matter your place in the chain of command, the issue is the same: problems versus solution. If a ‘bottleneck boss’ is the issue – provide them with a solution and ask them to agree – giving them problems will hinder your progress. If a colleague hands you a problem – ask them politely to provide you with a solution instead. Progress is assured.

Robert Kelsey is the author of Get Things Done: What Stops Smart People Achieving More and How You Can Change, published by Capstone

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