The Productivity Conundrum: Staying focused in the storm


Maintaining productivity at work in a world jam-packed with distractions is a challenge. If you follow these steps, you can be sure to keep cranking when surrounded by chaos.

Step 1: Stop starting and start finishing (The Cult of Done)

Mad Men‘s Don Draper, though horribly flawed, was characterized by his advertising ingenuity. No one would ever accuse him of being highly productive – he worked in fits and spurts and spent a great deal of his time day drinking, napping on the couch, or ditching work to go see matinées (among other activities). Draper was notorious for his waning attention when the real work needed to be done. In fact, Faye Miller called him out on this trait saying, “I hope she knows you only like the beginning of things.” Don was in love with the starts – much more so than any finishes.

Recently, I heard an interview with Bre Pettis, founder of Makerbot who subscribes to the “cult of done” philosophy. He established a 13-point manifesto that help keep projects moving forward. There is a lot of great stuff in this manifesto (so definitely check it out), but one big productivity takeaway jumped out: don’t start a new project until the one on which you are working is complete. This really hits the productivity nail on the head by a) encouraging completion and b) driving completion if only for the desire to get that next project teed up. So stop starting and start finishing to achieve gains on your productivity.

Step 2: Lose the distractions

Now for a bit less esoteric productivity advice, we’ll turn to some practical tips to improve your productivity:

  1. Remove distractions: For blocks of time during your work day, turn off phone alerts, tones, etc. to really focus your attention and reduce those shiny impediments to getting stuff done. In fact, turn your phone off completely to keep from being tempted by apps, social media, or simply wasting time on your mobile device when there’s actual work to be accomplished.
  2. Delay distractions: Another great trick to getting productive early in your day (which has phenomenal affects for the remainder of the day) – simply don’t check your email until 11:00. That way you hit the ground running early and really check items off your list before becoming distracted by email.
  3. Make lists: And if something can be done in 5 minutes or less, don’t even bother putting it on a list. Just do it.
  4. Exercise: Studies show again and again that maintaining some regularity in physical activity helps mental output. So make time in your day to get some exercise and your work will reap the benefits.
  5. Stop shaving the yak.

Step 3: Embrace the lulls

Forcing productivity (especially creative productivity) can be as destructive as it is frustrating. Sometimes, the juices just aren’t flowing and well… that’s ok. It certainly isn’t fun when you are on a tight deadline and you need to get some stuff done but certainly there are times when you need to crank and there just isn’t anything flowing. As a creative agency, we have tried to adopt the policy that it is often better to take a breath, go for a walkabout, or even duck out for a ride or a run to get your mojo back, then come back to the task at hand refreshed, energized, and ready to rock it. Embracing the dips in productivity and understanding them to be a natural part of the process can actually make one MORE productive in the long run.

Step 4: Delegate when possible

When executed at the right time, delegation can be a win-win for your business. In the name of efficiency, delegation can really help you save time and money and focus the whole team on those tasks which best compliment each individual player’s talents and strengths. Before beginning the delegation process, we provided a three key questions to ask yourself:

  • Is the task something that requires your own attention or level of expertise?
  • Will it take longer to explain to a new owner than just getting it done yourself?
  • Would delegating this task contribute to an eventual offloading of an entire block of responsibilities for which a teammate can claim ownership?

Over the long-term, delegating tasks to right the person on your team will allow you more time to focus on key competencies, get more done, and avoid the trap of  wearing too many hats.