In Empire Records, Liv Tyler’s character is this seemingly perfect human who is a straight A student, cool, works in a record store, and gets a lot of things done. When her friend comes to pick her up for their shift at the store she’s got fresh-baked cupcakes and her friend marvels at her productivity: her answer is that there are 24 useable hours in a day. (Sure, later on we find out she’s been on amphetamines but we all know someone like this who isn’t. Or probably isn’t.)
Increased productivity is an economic expectation (and/or desire) for a given population but it’s also an expectation we put on ourselves, and our kids, coworkers, volunteers, etc. The “always busy” culture celebrates the hyper-productive person who, when you ask them how their day was, will inevitably reply “busy”.
In my career (which sounds really great as a tag for a series of only vaguely tethered job choices) I have developed a set of practices to live in that world and get a lot of things done. While it’s true that there’s no such thing as multitasking you can learn to recover from switched contexts faster, when to shove the ball into someone else’s court, and how to pursue the answers you need (to unblock your course of action) doggedly.
Getting Someone to Respond
Most offices work in an email-enriched environment (maybe too enriched) for primary communication. Some have Slack or Teams as an augment or replacement. Then there’s meetings and conference calls. Within these, there’s usually the need to either disseminate information and the need to acquire information. Getting someone to respond is the need to acquire information: either to get them to acknowledge a given topic or to provide a missing piece of data so you can go about your day. Example: I need to know if there already exists a security protocol/practice on a system I’m thinking about using. I’ve read the provided documentation* and still don’t have an answer. At this point I reach out to the name responsible for the documentation (or the name responsible for the product, or indeed anyone I can find related to it) and send an email or Slack@. When the inevitable non-response occurs (email is good for that), I set a meeting.
Because people hate meetings. It’s a massive disruption, they’re stuck on the phone or in a conference room when they could be doing something else, and it means they’ll have to (gasp) talk to you in real time. The reason why texting has taken off and voicemail is dead is because, for the most part, people don’t actually want to interact with you unless they have some social basis for it. By creating a meeting and pushing the point it gives them one of three options:
- To unblock you by responding to the meeting request/your original email and giving you the data you need or some other poor sop to go after.
- To actually meet with you, in which case you get not only the answers you’re after but you can pelt them with more questions.
- To ignore your meeting request.
For that last: it does happen, but rarely. When it does, and *if you’re truly blocked*, you request a meeting with their lead. At some point up the chain, meeting requests and emails can’t afford to be ignored. This is a somewhat nuclear option, so use sparingly. You can also branch out and forward the meeting/email to others in the same group/product.
Carving out Time
This may seem silly, but actually carving out time on your calendar (“booking yourself”, as it were) will make sure you have the unblocked time you need to get whatever-it-is done, and that you don’t accidentally overlap incompatible things. I can clear out my email while dinner is in the oven, and I can go for a run on the treadmill while listening to a podcast, but I can’t clear out email while listening to a podcast (because the brain gets confused). Some folks use this to actually make sure they remember to eat (e.g., “lunch” as a 30-minute block) and some folks do this so they can catch up on training or get focus time to diagram something out. Bottom line: book your time, because if you don’t someone else will.
Also, this includes personal stuff: I have calendar time carved out for housecleaning, for laundry, for grocery shopping, for trimming the kitten’s nails, for blood donation, etc. It keeps me straight. Sure, I could try to keep it all in my head, and I used to try to do that. In 10th grade I double booked a friends’ house sleepover (super-rare for me to get to do those back then) and a babysitting job. I was devastated because I had to do the job (you do what you say you’re going to do. Period.) Keeping it written down reduces unpleasant double bookings.
Finally: carve out time to do nothing.
That’s right. Do nothing. Give yourself a night a week if you can afford it. Block it off so it can’t be consumed by other things (unless you really want it to).
Prioritize your Backlog
In the Hyper-productive Expectation World, you will always have more to do that can be done. Always. There’s not enough caffeine, amphetamines, or hours to accommodate everything. You can either ruthlessly trim things (which is very effective but requires a strong will to say “No” sometimes) or you can prioritize things (which means you still have them on your list, they’re just much farther down). Look at the Volume of Stuff, and figure out which are most important to least. Some things will be of related importance (you can’t do A until you do B, but A is really important, so get B done now) and some will be compatible or a two-birds-one-stone situation (I can walk at an incline on the treadmill and read that latest set of whitepapers). I recommend having prioritized lists for Work and Non-Work (and if you have other commitments — PTA, Scouts, Church, Nonprofit, Clubs, etc.– prioritize within those).
Use Technology To Help You
Use your calendar and reminders. Use a list/task tracking app. Use OneNote. Use the alarm on your phone. Use sticky notes. Use whatever works for you to remind you if/when you need to do stuff and what it is. For example, we have a running One Note grocery list broken out by the stores we use (because Trader Joes doesn’t have all the things and Costco doesn’t either). We update it through the week. I have an Outlook task-tracking list of the things that are most important for a given week. My friends use a Trello board to organize household responsibilities and projects. Another friend uses their inbox to prioritize.
The thing to determine here is what set of technologies work *for you*, because some folks like to leverage their mobile for keeping their brains straight and some people prefer tactile things like sticky notes and highlighters. There’s no one *right* way, just the way that works for you. You may have to try a few things before you hit on the right combination.
Eat Your Frogs First
In any prioritized list of things to do, there’s the thing you don’t really want to do but have to do. Maybe it’s the cat-pan change out. Maybe it’s reorganizing under the bathroom sink. Maybe it’s collecting all of the papers for your tax return. Maybe it’s going line by line through an excel spreadsheet until you find that the issue with line 943 is in fact that the value that should be a decimal was in fact a text and it broke your import. You know, that thing.
Do that thing first if faced with it and another 3 things of the same priority. You’ll get it out of the way, the other things will feel (and be) easier, and you’ll feel all kinds of virtuous.
Wash your hands when you’re done, though.