Weekends. What are those again?
For an entrepreneur, the concept of a day entirely free from work is as mythical as the unicorn. And yet, even with all the time you spend focused on your business, it’s hard to actually cross items off your list once and for all: Business development tasks like revamping your website or recruiting for a new position are constantly pushed aside for fire-fighting tasks like dealing with customer service or technical issues.
Business owners far and wide are struggling with their own productivity levels. In the May 2017 Business Pulse Survey by The Alternative Board, the average business owner reports having only 1.5 hours of uninterrupted, highly productive time each day. Yet 84 percent of business owners are working more than 40 hours per week.
The good news is that productivity isn’t something you necessarily need to go out and buy. While there is a whole ecosystem of apps out there that can help you channel your energies in constructive ways, very often, the key to better productivity is building better habits. The potential for productivity is already lurking within you, you just need to build a weekly schedule that will harness its power.
Here are four ways you can bolster your own capacity to be focused and productive, via the old-fashioned virtues of common sense, self-discipline, and sticking to a plan.
1. Schedule your days according to energy levels
The large majority of entrepreneurs (81 percent) in the TAB survey said they feel most productive in the mornings. Why is that? Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor of psychology and behavioral economics argues that the first two hours of the day have immense potential for productivity. Yet what do most of us do with that time? Mindlessly trawl our email, update our social media accounts, or sit in traffic on the drive to work. Are we structuring these hours wisely?
Research into circadian rhythms shows that the hours leading up to noon and around 6 p.m. tend to be natural power hours. The afternoon hour of 3 p.m. is the lowest point of the day in terms of cognitive abilities (so no more beating yourself up for your afternoon double espresso addiction).
Spend time analyzing your energy flow (mornings may not necessarily be your power zone, it varies across human bodies) then re-look at your schedule. Are you arranging things in a smart way? Are you setting deadlines for the end of the day—so that your most intensive work will be done when your brain has left the building? Switch this around. Move your important tasks to your power spots and less intensive tasks to afternoon slumps—when the chatter of social media or sitting in meetings with caffeine will actually help perk you back up. And as you manage others, don’t assume they’re the same as you. An article in Harvard Business Review argues that “managers must see past their own biases if they want to optimize schedules in order to match the most important activities to the natural energy cycles of employees.”
2. Build solitary time into the work-week
As you focus on those power hours, consider doing that work alone. There are many benefits to monotasking or single-tasking. One study published in 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that 2.8-second-long interruptions were doubling the number of errors in participants’ assigned tasks. How interrupted is your workspace? Are you building blocks of time where you can just be with your work in absolute focus? The TAB Survey reveals that nearly a third of business owners feel most productive working from home—so if you’re the same, schedule in that time. It’s good for your mental health to have solitary time—and science suggests that a lot of the time, it’s actually best to brainstorm alone.
3. Reinvent meetings
As Thomas Sowell once said, “People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.” Meetings indeed have had a controversial reputation in business. The TAB survey shows that while business owners spend 20 percent of their time dedicated to in-person meetings, only four percent believe their meetings are 100 percent productive—there are some serious productivity issues lurking in those numbers. Improve your meetings by learning from the insights of New York Times columnist Adam Bryant who has spent years interviewing top CEOs for his column, Corner Office. Bryant brings it down to three utterly easy-to-implement rules: 1. Have an agenda, 2. Start on time and end on time, and 3. End with an action plan. Pretty simple, right? Your employees will thank you.
4. Be disciplined with technology
The final advice is related to our digitized world. Today’s business tools have the ability to supercharge productivity, but they’ve also brought the tendency to make us feel distracted and disengaged. TAB reports that one in 10 entrepreneurs feel continuously overwhelmed by their responsibilities. What’s interesting when you peer deeper into those results is how email plays a part in this. The TABs survey shows that business owners report spending most of their time on email, even though only nine percent feels it’s an important use of their time. “A third of those surveyed agreed that the best strategy for improving productivity would be scheduling finite time for responding to email.”
If you don’t have an email policy for yourself, create one. Choose a few times of day to check emails, and stick to the plan. As HBR advises: “We are most efficient when we answer email in bulk at our computers. We move faster, can access files when we need them, and link more quickly and easily to other programs like our calendars. Also, when we sit down for the express purpose of doing emails, we have our email heads on. We are more focused, more driven, wasting no time in transition from one activity to another.”
The great thing about weaving these strategies into our day is that suddenly, we’re full of energy again. We’re working according to our natural cyclical rhythms instead of against them, indulging in quiet, solitary time to come up with industry-shaking inventions and rocking our meetings by being on message and instigating clear next steps. And because these methods aren’t reliant on the latest tech update, they’re resilient and will live with us for the long-haul.