Most of today’s companies still value presence over performance. The amount of time employees spend in the office matters more than what they accomplish during that time. The expectation of putting in long hours, regardless of whether or not it’s warranted, breeds a habit of filling time by creating non-critical activities, drifting into excessive socializing, or getting caught up in trivial office politics. For those of us who actually want to be productive rather than busy, being surrounded by counterproductive behavior can be frustrating.
How do you replace busyness with productivity? One powerful way is by increasing your presence-to-performance ratio.
Presence is the amount of time you’re at work. This can mean time in the office, at your desk, in a meeting, at the keyboard, or any other way you choose to define it. Performance is the amount of time that you’re actually working.
Suppose Sam is on his laptop for six hours, and his current project is to create a PowerPoint presentation. During those six hours, he checks his email for 30 minutes, spends another cumulative 30 minutes on Facebook (10 minutes here, 5 minutes there, etc.), 15 minutes chatting with colleagues, and 45 minutes cruising various websites (again, not all at once). The rest of the time, he works on PowerPoint.
His presence-to-performance ratio is 66%. Of the six hours he was at work, he spent four hours working, meaning that he was two-thirds’ engaged. That’s actually generous if we factor in concentration recovery time from task switching. If he wants to increase his productivity, he should strive for full engagement.
Keep a Time Log
The easiest way to increase your presence-to-performance ratio is to keep a detailed time log of every single activity you perform, moment-to-moment, while at work. Just keep a running list of each action and how long it took. You can either log the time by the length of the action, or by the start time.
Despite much more sophisticated time logging software out there for free, I like the simplicity of the Notepad editor in Windows. My favorite feature of this rather vanilla utility is the F5 time stamp. Whenever you start a new activity, just hit F5 to generate the time and date on the line, then complete the line with your activity description. You can even go more lo-fi and just use pen and paper.
Start your log right from the moment you’re scheduled to start working, not when you actually start working. It’s too easy to overlook 15-40 minutes of unfocused work in the morning by dismissing it as “warmup” time. It’s better to challenge yourself to see how much you can get done in the first hour, and then take a break if you still feel the need. You’ll probably find that starting the morning with a “sprint” has a positive carryover on how you attack the rest of the day.
You might suspect that jotting down every last thing you do in a work session would get too disruptive to be sustainable, let alone productive. You’re right. A week a performance metrics should shed enough light on your general work patterns. If you’re like me, the results of your first time log will make “66%” Sam look Type-A by comparison. Most people have no idea how much time they waste, just like they have no idea of how much they eat, unless they record it all and do the math.
Naturally, you’ll never become 100% productive at work. If you eat, go to the bathroom, and are minimally cordial with coworkers and clients, you’re going to sacrifice some output. Shoot for the 80-90% range.
Make a Checklist of Recoverable Time
Now that you have a record of all of your activities during the week, productive and unproductive, look for the unproductive ones and compile them into a checklist. The time spent on those activities is time you can recover for more meaningful activities. I define productivity as “meaningful activity.”
Make this checklist your “not to do” list. Either stop these activities entirely (usually the best choice), schedule them as after-work options, or consciously constrain their duration — if there are four websites you regularly visit each morning, give yourself 10 minutes to scan all of them, then go back to work.
Sharpen the Saw
Once you’ve cut out a substantial number of extraneous activities, test your increase engagement objectively by doing another week of time logging. You can either schedule one-week loggings on a regular basis — say, quarterly — or commit to one whenever you feel you’ve made significant progress. It’s great to feel like you’re getting more done, but logging everything you are and aren’t doing is the reality check that gives you serious insights into your new improvement opportunities.
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