It’s hard to be efficient.
Sometimes it feels like the world doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes you don’t make any sense. And sometimes it feels like it’s all a conspiracy.
As we’ll see shortly, these are all, in a way, true.
Dan Ariely is the king of irrational behavior. Not that he’s more irrational than you or I, but he’s studied an impressive amount of it.
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Dan is a behavioral economist at Duke University and The New York Times bestselling author of three wonderful books:
- Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
- The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic
- The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves
Most recently he’s turned his attention to the irrationality of how we use our time and has helped create a new smart-calendar app, Timeful.
What’s great is the data from Timeful is helping us learn things about what works and what doesn’t as it relates to productivity.
I gave Dan a call to hear what he had to say about how we can improve time management, how to be efficient and how to get more done.
1) The World Is Working Against You
This isn’t a conspiracy theory and a tinfoil hat isn’t required, but we are spending more of our time in environments that have their own agendas.
Billboards and TV ads want you to buy. The links on the internet encourage you to click. Notifications on your smartphone beckon you.
Our default is now a constant, aggressive chain of siren songs from our environment.
The world is not acting in our long-term benefit. Imagine you walk down the street and every store is trying to get your money right now; in your pocket you have a phone and every app wants to control your attention right now. Most of the entities in our lives really want us to make mistakes in their favor. So the world is making things very, very difficult.
If you followed every directive from your surroundings these days you’d quickly be broke, obese, and constantly distracted.
It’s like we’re surrounded by scheming thieves: thieves of our time, thieves of our attention, thieves of our productivity.
And how do pickpockets steal your stuff? Distraction.
I have a friend who’s a magician and he pickpockets people in his show. He said when he started he used to tap people to distract them. He’d tap them, they would lose their concentration and he could take their watch. He said now he realizes that merely asking people questions is enough to make them lose the ability to focus.
(Short on time? Skip to 5:35 to see how easily distracted you can be.)
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Not having a plan, goals or a system in today’s world is dangerous because the default isn’t neutral.
(For more on what the most productive people do to reduce distractions, click here.)
So what does this mean is the first big step to productivity?
2) Control Your Environment Or It Will Control You
We can’t control our environment everywhere we go, of course, but we have more control than we usually choose to exercise.
If you banish distractions and control your calendar you can make sure your environment is ripe for productivity.
One of the big lessons from social science in the last 40 years is that environment matters. If you go to a buffet and the buffet is organized in one way, you will eat one thing. If it’s organized in a different way, you’ll eat different things. We think that we make decisions on our own but the environment influences us to a great degree. Because of that we need to think about how to change our environment.
What does research show the most productive computer programmers have in common?
It’s not experience, salary, or hours spent on a project.
They had employers who created an environment free from distraction.
…top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.
Research shows distractions make us stupid.
Your surroundings should make the things you need to do easy and the things you shouldn’t do hard.
What happened when Google put M&M’s in containers instead of out in the open? People ate 3 million less of them in one month.
Here’s an experiment that Google did recently. The M&Ms in their New York office used to be in baskets. So instead they put them in bowls with lids. The lid doesn’t require a lot of effort to lift but it reduced the number of M&Ms consumed in their New York office by 3 million a month.
(For more on how the most organized people stay on track, click here.)
Okay, so you need to manage your environment. How do you manage your calendar?
3) Write Everything Down
We all know how fallible our brains can be yet we routinely trust ourselves to remember and follow through on things. Bad.
What did research from the Timeful app tell Dan?
- Most people don’t write down the things they need to do.
- When you do write things down, you’re more likely to follow through on them.
Stanford professor Jennifer Aaker points to research showing that your calendar can make you happier:
Take the things that make you happy and energized and schedule them more often.
Sound stupidly simple? Research says we don’t do it enough. Here’s Jennifer:
…there is often a gap between where people say they want to spend their time and how they actually spend their time… once you identify the activities and people with whom you want to spend more time, calendaring your time thoughtfully becomes critical. When you put something on a calendar, you’re more likely to actually do that activity – partly because you’re less likely to have to make an active decision whether you should do it – because it’s already on your calendar.
(For more on how to schedule to-do’s like a pro, click here.)
So you’ve written down everything that needs to get done. Should you just run down the list in order? Absolutely not.
4) When You Do What You Do Is Key
All hours are not created equal. What did Dan’s Timeful research show about our most productive hours?
You have a window of 2-2.5 hours of peak productivity per day, starting a couple hours after waking.
…it turns out that most people are productive in the first two hours of the morning. Not immediately after waking, but if you get up at 7 you’ll be most productive from around from 8-10:30.
Those are the hours when you should be working on your most cognitively demanding tasks. The big projects. The stuff that really moves the needle.
But what did Dan find that most people did with those hours?
Email and Facebook.
You need to guard those hours for important tasks. Designate that part of your day as “protected time.”
And Dan’s findings line up with other research. I’ve posted before that 2.5 to 4 hours after waking is when your brain is sharpest:
Studies show that alertness and memory, the ability to think clearly and to learn, can vary by between 15 and 30 percent over the course of a day. Most of us are sharpest some two and a half to four hours after waking.
The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen. Most things go bad in the evening. Diets are broken at the evening snack, not at breakfast or in the middle of the morning. Impulsive crimes are mostly committed after midnight.
In studies of geniuses, most did their best work early in the day.
(For more on the schedule very successful people follow, click here.)
So you need to shape your environment and protect your peak hours. What should you avoid doing?
5) The Four Horsemen of the Productivity Apocalypse
Dan’s research found 4 things that were the biggest time wasters:
- 1) Meetings
We all know how meetings waste time and multiply like rabbits. The solution?
Schedule your work time on your calendar. Have a presentation to work on? Block out hours for it.
If people try to put a meeting there, you can say you have a conflict. You do. Your work matters.
A calendar should be a record of anything that needs to get done—not merely of interruptions like meetings and calls.
- 2) Email
Most people simply spend too much time in their inboxes to accomplish anything of substance.
Here’s how to stop email from taking over your life.
- 3) Multitasking
Put aside the distractions and do one thing at a time. Across the board, multitasking lowers productivity.
- 4) “Structured Procrastination”
What’s structured procrastination? It’s doing little things that give us the feeling of progress instead of deep work that really makes progress.
So making to-do lists and crossing them off is an example of this. Because those things are easily measurable, they make us feel as if we’re achieving things. But real achievements take time. Progress is not always linear. Big projects aren’t always immediately rewarding. Things that are really complex don’t give us the same sense of momentary enjoyment but those are the things that give us the real sense of achievement and progress once we get to them. But I don’t think we get to them enough.
Avoid these four and you’ll see an 80/20 style jump in your productivity.
(For more on work-life balance, click here.)
So you are making progress. You’re more productive during the day. But we all get tired or bored. What’s the best thing to do then?
6) No, You Don’t Need An Email Break
You tell yourself you need an email break, and that you’ll be rejuvenated and work better afterward. Problem is, that’s just not true.
Getting your head into and out of your work takes time. Switching tasks has cognitive costs that reduce efficiency.
People think that checking email refreshes them. It doesn’t. If you want to get refreshed, close your eyes, meditate, breathe deeply, or think about some things that are important. The reality is the right way to do things is shut your email down and focus on what you’re doing.
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In fact, research shows that frequent email checks can temporarily lower your intelligence more than being stoned.
Constant emailing reduces mental ability by an average of about 10 IQ points. For men, it’s about three times the effect of smoking marijuana.
A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. It was five points for women, and fifteen points for men. This effect is similar to missing a night’s sleep. For men, it’s around three times more than the effect of smoking cannabis.
Some of you are already saying: “But I have to check email!” Yes, you do. But probably not that often.
As Cal Newport says, “Shallow work is what stops you from getting fired. Deep work is what gets you promoted.”
And email is shallowest of work. We got men on the moon without email. And email can wait while you get the important things done.
(For more on how the most successful people manage their time, click here.)
So Dan has a lot of tips for us. How do we pull all of this together and be more efficient?
Here are Dan’s tips:
- The world is not designed to help you achieve your long term goals. Passivity is not going to get you where you want to go.
- Control your environment or it will control you. Optimize your workspace for what you need to achieve.
- Write the things you need to do down on your calendar. You’re more likely to do what you write down.
- You have about 2 hours of peak productivity, usually early in the morning. Protect those hours and use them wisely.
- Meetings, email, multitasking and structured procrastination are the biggest time wasters.
- No, you don’t need an email break. Switching tasks reduces effectiveness as your brain transitions. The more you do it, the less effective you are.
You don’t need to account for every minute. You don’t need to agonize over wasted seconds. It’s just about improving.
And none of us are infallible. When I asked Dan about work-life balance, what did he say?
I struggle with it every day. You and I are doing this interview and it’s Saturday, Eric.
So nobody’s perfect. But with Dan’s tips we can all get better at managing our time.
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Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired Magazine and Time Magazine. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 190,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.