Let’s get straight to the point and avoid a lengthy introduction about how productive I was in my primary school years or how I woke up with a brilliant idea that just had to be written down.
I like getting shit done and I want to share with you how I approach my workday and maximise my time, in the hope that some of these ideas will resonate with and help you.
I’ve previously written about time management, so feel free to check out that article, too.
So how do we get shit done?
I noticed during the first couple of weeks of the year that my days were not setup in the ideal way to get the things done I needed to do. And I have a lot of things I need and want to do.
At some point during that time I read an article which talked about focus and it made me realise that I allowed things to creep into my day that would distract me and absolutely kill my focus, so I wanted to change that.
I think it’s important to realise that there is an ‘issue’ in the first place. I also think that most of us can be more productive and I don’t mean that we need to squeeze the last possible bits of efficiency out of our days, but rather that we can use our time in a better way so that we not only get more done in the same time, but – more importantly – feel much better and more accomplished about our work, home life, etc.
Everyone has different preferences and tasks they want to tackle, so the first step is to identify what is missing and what is getting in the way of having a successful, productive day which leaves you pumped at the end of it, feeling like a rock star about all the things you have accomplished.
Yes, social media can be a huge time waster, can make us feel all sorts of insecurities and can be highly addictive.
What I noticed in the last few weeks was that Instagram was getting in the way for me. Big time. I took photos purely to post them, not because I really cared about the object in the photo. I found myself checking it far too often, not so much because of the notifications but also because I needed a distraction from other life stuff. Instagram is definitely a distraction but not an effective one, unless you want to not actually feel better. And I was actually following accounts that were inspiring and uplifting. I thought.
Two weeks into the year I had enough. I deleted the app from my phone and haven’t looked back. My account still exists but I have no interest in posting pictures of my training, my food and my travels. And there are even some really simple and practical reasons for that: My training happens when it’s dark because of winter, so the pictures are blurry and not interesting. My food gets cold by the time I have taken a nice picture and I hate eating cold food that is supposed to be warm. And life ain’t just about holidays and business trips and really, I just don’t want to.
Being without Instagram hasn’t just improved my mood but it has also removed a major time-sucker from my daily life. Hallelujah.
Gasp. Eva are you telling us you’ve quit Twitter as well???
No, certainly not. But I have found a way to fit Twitter into my daily routine rather than getting interrupted and distracted by it.
Recently, I have been working on a number of tasks and projects (including Makeover Monday the Book) that required deep focus as I was writing a few documents for which I really needed peace and quiet and uninterrupted time.
In order to get into the zone, I simply decided to move any Twitter or social media activity (it’s really just Twitter and LinkedIn for me at this point) to the late morning, allowing me a few hours to write and create.
This step alone was a massive productivity boost and I started playing little games to see how long I could keep going before checking Twitter and engaging in the discussions there. (For those who don’t know: a lot of discussions in the analytics, dataviz and Makeover Monday community happen on Twitter, so the channel is an important one for me during my work day).
On my best day (yes, I consider it my best day since starting this experiment), I didn’t arrive on Twitter until 5.45pm in the evening. And I got so much done!
Clarity of tasks
Another important aspect beside removing distractions is to have clear tasks to work on. What use is all the productivity in the world if you don’t know what you want to or should be doing?
My job is one that changes all the time. With the dual role of being Head of BI as well as Tableau Evangelist at Exasol, the time I spend working shifts between being BI-heavy and being about community projects, events, speaking engagements and data projects. And then there are additional strategic initiatives I get involved in.
Suffice to say, it never gets boring, no two days are the same and I never run out of work :-). And I love it!
It also requires me to reassess priorities on a regular basis and be flexible in my thinking and approach so that I can deliver and manage the tasks that are important at that point.
Whether it is a focus on analysis and reporting, including internal requests for information and insights, or the planning of an event with the marketing, content and logistical efforts involved, or recruiting new team members – I need to achieve clarity by asking the right questions of the right people to ensure we as a team and I as an individual deliver the right outcomes and outputs.
That certainly keeps me on my toes and in my experience it is vital to have ongoing discussions with colleagues and management to get these priorities right and to deliver things of value to an organisation, its customers, partners and other stakeholders.
Getting away from the screen
By now we have removed distractions and have asked good questions to ensure our work adds value.
I also want to suggest getting away from our computers to really get things done. Sounds a bit ironic, doesn’t it?
Most of our time as knowledge workers and especially in the analytics industry is spent sitting in front of our screen, analysing data and information, writing things, reading things, communicating with people and sending things around.
I think that we stifle creativity by ‘just sitting in front of our screens’ and while I admittedly only have a couple of weeks of empirical evidence to base my observations on, these last two weeks have without a doubt been the most satisfyingly productive of my career. So stay with me…
Different people have different learning styles, some prefer to listen, some need to experience, some need to write, while others need to see in order to absorb knowledge. I believe it is similar when it comes to creating and being creative.
Some of us go for a walk and have a bright idea, while others prefer to spend time with a group of people brainstorming different options and others, me included, need a bit of time alone in a quiet space to get their thoughts out. For you all of these might apply at different times and that’s perfectly fine.
There is this unspoken rule or assumption that we need to sit at our desks in front of our computers in order to be working and producing value, especially because of the perception others might have.
I’m not suggesting we spend our work days in cafés or on playgrounds in search of new ideas and those places are often not the right environments if we just need to write a report or have a phone call with a colleague.
We don’t even need to move that far away from our screens. Maybe just a few inches to the left or right of our keyboards is enough to find a space on your desk where you can put a piece of paper, pick up a pen and write something down. Yes, on paper, by hand.
Better yet, find a whiteboard and let your ideas flow.
That’s exactly what I did.
A couple of weeks ago, the colleagues I shared the room with moved into a different office down the hallway and I am now by myself in a four-person office. After the initial thoughts of ‘mhmm how empty and boring’ which lasted for a day, I cleaned the whiteboards – there are three of them, each larger than the floor space of the bathroom in the hotel room where I’m currently working from – and made the room a bit more my own (I even took a plant from another office, talk about sprucing it up!).
Over the past two weeks I realised what a great tool those whiteboards are for preparing my work, structuring my thoughts and visualising concepts.
To give you a better idea of the setup, here is something I drew 🙂
Not only do I have plenty of desk space, but also room on the walls to work on, which has been a huge help.
I use Whiteboard 1 to keep lists of things I need to do or remember. These are not necessarily ordered by priority, but I can always see them and during small breaks between tasks or meetings I tackle the ‘small stuff’, while other tasks get more dedicated time, for example, when I need to prepare a presentation, demo or write a document.
Whiteboard 3 is where I have kept information and ideas that needed to ‘sit for a little while’ for me to think over, so I look at them again and again, refining them before they turn into concrete tasks or outputs.
And Whiteboard 2 is my favorite space to work with and is where I draw conceptual diagrams which I need to bring into a form that can be easily communicated. Diagrams, timelines, big topics, small topics, they all come to life here.
Once I have structured my ideas with the help of a whiteboard, I then sit down at my desk and turn them into a digital format, for example an email or a PowerPoint presentation, a Tableau viz or an internal call to action.
Starting the day at the whiteboard
These days I typically start my working day at the whiteboard. I spend anywhere between 15-30 minutes getting things ‘onto the wall’ before sitting down at my computer. Some days I repeat that cycle – interrupted by frantically cleaning the board in between just because it feels so good to have a blank slate – a number of times.
What are the concrete benefits I have experienced aside from the points I noted above?
- Standing up for 15-30 minutes first thing in the morning while working is a good way to keep some energy going
- There is no Twitter/LinkedIn/Facebook at your wall to distract you
- There are no emails on the wall either
- Seeing your ideas come to life is exciting and energising
- Watching concepts unfold helps you see the bigger picture more clearly
- Writing by hand connects you more strongly with your thoughts and ideas
- You are able to stand back and look at a timeline or diagram from a different angle, helping you evaluate more easily whether your ideas are clear, easy to understand for others and whether something is missing or wrong
Having others look over your shoulder
Okay, I know that most people don’t have a room to themselves and three whiteboards to work with. And I will soon have people join me in my office, but the last couple of weeks showed me how I like to work.
I understand that for most people there might be a reluctance to express yourselves freely on a whiteboard with your colleagues watching from the sidelines. And I know it can be difficult to tell them to focus on their own work – even worse when they start commenting on what you’re doing while you’re just trying to get shit done.
If you want to try the whiteboard approach but don’t really have a good setup, I’d suggest you book a meeting room for 30 min every morning to work there or simply start with a piece of paper on your desk (keep your computer screen switched off during this exercise).
Depending on the people in your team and if you like the whiteboard approach for yourself, you could even make it a group exercise, having everyone spend the first 30 min of their day away from their desk, working quietly (or with headphones if music helps) on one of their tasks and then returning to their desks or presenting their ideas to the group. It really depends on how you guys roll, what type of work you do and what your environment is like, but I think you get the idea.
By now you’ve probably realised that I have become a huge fan of whiteboards and think they are completely underutilised. They can be used for so much more than just to draw a couple of architecture diagrams in weekly team meetings.
Bringing it all together
In order to put all the above puzzle pieces together, I thought I should share what a typical day looks like for me. I hope some of these ideas resonate with you and help you have a better day at work, get more done in your time so you can spend your leisure time doing other things you love, being with family and friends and not worrying about projects and tasks on your to-do list…
I’ll go through my routine with some added commentary on the environment I have created for myself at work and at home because it is vital to my success with this approach.
Please keep in mind that this is written by a single person without kids, working full-time. I have never had kids and if you have 3 little ones turning your days upside down, these things may not work for you. I cannot recommend what you should do because I have no idea what it’s like to be you, so please understand that this advice has its limitations ;-).
A typical day…
- starts the evening before, when I aim to be in bed by 9.30pm
- there is no TV in my bedroom, there never has been and there never will be. I’m usually tired enough to fall asleep straight away, if not then I read for 10 minutes. TVs in bedrooms should be outlawed in my opinion – they impact your sleep quality, duration and those of you coupled up, a TV probably impacts your love life as well – get rid of it.
- I don’t actually have a TV at all at home, which was also a conscious choice when I moved into my apartment. I haven’t missed it.
- I keep the room cold and often sleep with the window open, even in winter
Morning – at home
- I wake up between 5.00 to 5.30am, ideally without the help of my alarm clock and spend a few minutes laying there, stretching my arms, legs, twisting my upper body left and right and generally trying to wake up
- I do not use my phone as my alarm. An alarm clock costs a few dollars/euros/pounds and is money well spent to remove any media gadgets from the bedroom
- During the night, my phone is in flight mode in my home office, far away from where I’m sleeping. This is deliberate and I have experienced much better sleep since doing this
- After getting up there are two options:
- Either I sit down at my computer with no program open other than a writing app and I spend 60 minutes uninterrupted, writing on a chapter for our Makeover Monday book.
- Alternatively, I get myself ready for 45-60 min of training, which involves cycling indoors, going for a run or a swim.
- Every morning without fail I drink 2-3 large glasses of water (3-4 cups) and have done that for the last 10 years. Hydration is important for the body and the brain.
- I also write into a gratitude journal, focusing on the day ahead
- After writing/training and making myself presentable (including 50 squats while brushing my teeth – they take 2min and I never skip them because I never skip teeth brushing :-)), I prepare my breakfast and lunch for the day, which is typically a combination of whatever seasonal fruit I’m currently obsessed with. Right now that means squeezing 2-3 kg of blood oranges into juice to take to work, peeling and cutting a dozen golden kiwifruit and blending a bunch (4-5) bananas into a smoothie.
- On really miserable days I tend to get a lift by my colleague who lives around the corner, otherwise I ride my bike to work which takes 12 minutes (10:47 if I catch all the green lights and my backpack is light) or take the subway.
Morning – at work
- At the office I start (between 8-8.30am; 9am on swimming days) at the whiteboard (see above) and get one big task out of the way, e.g. a presentation that needs to be prepared or a strategy paper that needs to be written
- Then I open Outlook for the first time to check and respond to emails
- In general I aim to schedule my meetings for the afternoon because my days are more productive that way. Mornings are for getting stuff done by myself, afternoons are for getting stuff done with others, sharing information, asking and answering questions, etc.
- I prefer quiet over music during the mornings. If I do feel like music, then it’s instrumental because lyrics distract me
- I am one of those people who eat lunch at their desk and this is often the time when I check-in on social media, joining the Makeover Monday discussions on Twitter or connecting with people on LinkedIn
- On days when I take the bike to work I sometimes run errands at lunchtime and there is nothing quite like the cold winter air in your face as you ride to re-energise you for the rest of the day.
- I’m often back at the Whiteboard after lunch, working on the next big task and I also tend to have calls with my London-based team member during this time
- 5pm CET is when the US West Coast kicks into gear so I tend to have calls with customers and partners that are based there between 5-6.30pm before heading home
- I make a plan for the next day and check my meeting schedule. Calls with Australia tend to happen in the early morning so if one of those is happening, I need to tweak my schedule and either take it from home or head to the office earlier. Flexibility helps
- Riding my bike home helps me switch off a bit, get the blood flowing, avoid catching a cold from fellow subway commuters sneezing and coughing and generally makes me feel refreshed as I arrive home.
- I should add that riding bikes to work is such a typical thing to do in Germany and in Europe in general. We start doing it in primary school and the bicycle just becomes a mode of transport, not just a piece of equipment for fitness
- Depending on how my day started, I might have another training session in the evening or do the first one of the day if I spent my morning with book writing.
- Then it’s time for dinner, slowing down, one last round of social media and Makeover Monday stuff and writing into my journal again, reflecting on the day that just passed
- And around 9-9.30pm I head to bed, ready to do it all again the next day
Structure and Routine
As a final note, I think what helps me be successful and successfully productive (besides the whiteboard 🙂 ) is to have structure and routine. Why? Because in stressful situations or during uncertain times those routines are something I come back to. Whether it’s writing into my journal, doing my squats and training sessions or riding my bike to and from work, these things are in my control even when other stuff isn’t.
This blog got a lot lengthier than I expected but I felt it is important to share not just my ideas but also the details of what I do. I think there is no use in me telling you to ‘spend less time on social media’ without providing an example of what I did (delete the Instagram app; don’t open Twitter until lunchtime or later).
I would love to hear your thoughts and how you achieve productivity, so feel free to share your ideas in the comments below.
For me, rediscovering the whiteboard has revolutionised my work day and spending time away from my screen as well as moving social media to the afternoon have significantly improved my productivity, helping me to get more time, achieve better quality in my work and finish the day feeling incredibly satisfied with what I got done.
I hope this helps you, too.