It has become common practice for IT professionals to work long hours in order to meet demanding deadlines. As my own workload increased, I found that 8 hours was just not enough time to complete all of my tasks and soon working overtime became the norm for me. In an effort to avoid this, and to work more efficiently, I started to reflect on my days to figure out what I could improve. In this article, I will share some of the challenges that reduced my efficiency and the methods that I applied to overcome them.
To be honest, I didn't really mind working after hours on most days, until one day when I woke up feeling like a newborn zombie who couldn't even piece comprehensible sentences together. This crippling feeling opened my eyes to the fact that I had been operating in an unsustainable way and forced me to identify what I needed to change to avoid working overtime altogether. I realised that there were a few main areas in my life that were causing my productivity to suffer, and I felt that I needed to work on these right away:
- Maintaining focus
- Communicating effectively
- Maintaining my wellbeing
- Managing my never-ending task list
Here is more on how they affected me and how I worked towards reducing their effect on my overall efficiency.
After a break in concentration, I am sure we all have those "What was I doing again?" moments. This can generally lose me about 10 to 15 minutes while I try to regain my focus. Now, imagine having to do this multiple times a day; it would be quite costly to your overall productivity!
In my opinion, getting into a headspace where your attention is focused, also known as "the zone", allows you to get more done in a short sitting. This is important as it is key to achieving ultimate success in a day. For some people, it is also this deep state that sparks creativity and innovation - which is a really exciting place to be as an IT professional.
One of the main challenges that affected my ability to maintain focus was working in an open office. In this environment, there are constant physical distractions that can affect your ability to get into the zone and stay in it - like noise and people walking around. Here are some techniques that I use to overcome this obstacle:
1. Focus music
I usually put on headphones to cancel out the noise, and then listen to calming music with binaural beats that drive concentration. Youtube has a number of great playlists, and I have also provided some that I enjoy in the resources at the end of this article.
2. Conscious willpower
No matter how small, any distraction can break my concentration. This is when I have to consciously put effort into narrowing my focus and redirecting my thoughts to the task at hand. I don't allow myself to pay attention to anything happening around me, like people chatting and laughing or nerf guns being shot.
If something makes you uncomfortable, it is going to snatch your attention and hinder your productivity. For me, it was the freezing temperatures caused by the office air-conditioning. I quickly made peace with the fact that it was out of my control. Instead, I simply decided to wear warmer clothes, and kept a microwavable bean bag on-hand to warm up my fingers when they froze.
Look at your workspace and make sure it is comfortable and conducive to your overall productivity.
4. Avoiding informal chats with colleagues
When I was in the zone, it sometimes felt like I was excluding myself from informal, fun conversations with colleagues. While I deliberately did this about 60% of the time, eventually I realised that it was a better option to include my colleagues in my quest for better productivity. We all developed a mutual respect for the zone and an unwritten philosophy of "when in the zone, you must strive to stay in the zone!"
Johan Heymans also nicely details some more ways on how you can build the habit of focus in this blog post.
Over email or in person, I realised that I used words that created doubt. This resulted in more back-and-forth emails or discussions which inevitably took more time out of my day. While it took a lot of reflection and practice, I am now able to communicate more effectively by employing the following strategy:
1. Always be concise and get to the point: I avoid lengthy paragraphs, use bullet points and skip the pleasantries wherever possible.
2. Be precise, bold and confident in what is said: This includes avoiding filler or ambiguous words like 'should', 'maybe', or 'possibly'. A simple example of this is:
Hi Susan, I trust that you are well and had a great weekend. Per our previous discussions over email and skype, the project *should* be ready for testing by Thursday *or so*.
Hi Susan, Per our previous discussions, Project ABC *will* be ready for testing *on* Thursday morning.
3. Be honest and realistic: I think that people are more forgiving if I am open and honest about what is actually happening. This means realistically discussing any issues that are holding me back without going into too much detail or causing panic. Project managers also appreciate the transparency, as it puts them in a better position to reason with clients or to negotiate for extended timelines. For instance, it is okay to ask for more time to put together a developer estimate.
Never guesstimate with stakeholders who are eager to get their hands on the work you are developing - this can cause unnecessary stress if you are wrong!
4. Review communication: If a minor setback causes mass hysteria, then I like to do a personal post-review on the way I have communicated. I look at the words that I used, my tone of voice and body language almost as if I was watching myself in that discussion. This helps me to establish what I could have done differently to achieve a more positive outcome.
Sometimes, people tend to overlook the importance of general well-being until they get tired or fall ill and their productivity is crippled. Here's what I experienced as a threat to my overall health and what I did to combat it:
1. Mental fog
Trying to regain focus with minimal clarity is not only draining, but it also increases the risk of errors which will ultimately cost more time in the long run. This is when it helps to take a break and do something that will trigger a dopamine release. Talking to a friend, going for a walk or watching funny dog videos helps me gain a renewed sense of energy. So, if your boss catches you on Reddit, tell them that you're simply refuelling to be more productive! ;)
2. Sleep Deprivation
When I don't get at least 6 hours of sleep, my cognitive abilities and behaviour are influenced negatively. It affects my mood, energy levels and my ability to think, understand and solve problems - which directly affects my ability to do my job well and complete tasks timeously.
There are so many factors which contribute to quality sleep, which is why it is extremely challenging to get right. While I am still making progress on this, it has certainly become a top priority in my life. These methods work best for me:
- Eat dinner at least 2-3 hours before bed. This ensures that my body is not busy metabolising food and delaying processes that are needed for falling asleep. Here, Dr Satchin Panda, talks more about it.
- Establish a routine. Go to bed and wake up around the same time everyday.
- Minimise exposure to blue light which is known to affect sleep. I like to read in bed with the lights dimmed.
- Sleep with an eye-mask. This helps to block out any light that might disturb me.
- Listen to podcasts in bed. I find that this helps to keep random, wandering thoughts away.
The role that a healthy, balanced diet can play in our physical and mental health is often underestimated or overlooked. Fatigue and reduced mental clarity are 2 major factors that inhibited my productivity initially, and working on my nutrition has helped me overcome these:
- Personally, I avoid refined sugar and carbohydrates altogether.
- With regular check-ups, research and experimentation, I've also found that a sustainable high-fat, low-carb diet works well for me.
Tackling the never-ending task list
Doing some research online led me to articles and videos with tips on how to improve productivity, and I noticed that a common theme was to write lists daily. While I had this in place already, I realised that I just wasn't taking it that seriously enough. Through a bit of experimentation, I settled on 3 simple steps which helped me to fit more into an 8-hour day. Before I knew it, I had a good routine, wasted less time and even achieved more than I initially set out to - which was incredibly rewarding and motivating!
1. Start with a plan
Before leaving work, or at least before going to bed, I make a list of the things I want achieve the next day. I start by focusing on high-level goals and I break them down into smaller, more manageable tasks when I revisit the list in the morning. By having this in place, I begin my day already knowing what I want to achieve and where I need to spend my time.
2. Be retrospective
A bad plan is still a plan; so, instead of avoiding planning, it is better to have a plan which I can revise and improve until it is most practical for me. A quick retrospect at the end of each day showed me that I was being too ambitious, so I started to:
- Assign rough time estimates next to each task on my list: This helps to make them more realistic; I use hours but you could use any metric that works best for you.
- Identify the areas where I spend time poorly: I do this by reviewing minor things that took up my time without really adding value to my day. For me, this consisted of things like emails, social media, informal chats, news articles, etc. Once I was aware of how these unimportant things were taking up my time, I was able to quickly break this habit in a few days by enforcing self-control. I resisted the urge to visit a site or reply to an email, because I knew it was going to break my focus.
To turn my list into an actionable plan with a clear direction, I needed to prioritise. I also had to ensure that the priorities which I set for myself were aligned with my team and company's goals, so that I could meet my deadlines. I did this by:
- Determining which tasks were of highest priority to my role: Sharing my goals with my manager by spending no more than 5 minutes with him in our daily stand-up, helps me get this right. He has an excellent understanding of the overall business operations, and is able to easily direct me to the tasks that are most important.
- Determining which tasks were of highest priority to myself: This means identifying tasks that I can complete entirely on my own. I see these tasks as quick wins that I can tick off of my list - which is why they take precedence over other tasks.
- Determining which tasks were not an instant priority: These are usually maintenance or administrative tasks that don't require my immediate attention, like logging time or booking appointments.
By actively improving my efficiency day in and day out, I am able to log off guilt-free at 5pm each day. My deadlines are always met and I even have time for other "nice to have" creative projects which always get pushed out. I value my days much more now and make a conscious effort to spend my time more wisely on things that are meaningful and add value to my life.
- Trello helped me organize my goals and create checklists for each of them.
- Reddit offers plenty of funny cat/dog memes to aid with your daily dopamine release.
- I tried out a few of these techniques from Aubrey Marcus to overcome fatigue.
- Dr Matthew Walker talks about the impact of sleep on human health and disease in this podcast.
- Dr Rhonda Patrick and Chris Kresser are my go-to resources for nutrition and health.
Music to help with focus:
- Super Intelligence: Memory Music, Improve Memory and Concentration, Binaural Beats Focus Music
- Assassin's Creed Origins (Full Soundtrack) - Sarah Schachner
- Man of Steel Soundtrack Deluxe Edition
Shalina Naicker is a Business Intelligence Developer. When she is not grappling with data, she enjoys reading, working out, and watching MMA.