LET'S TALK ABOUT...

How to be more productive with Grace Marshall

'Let's Talk About' is our series  of videos offering practical digital skills advice to help you grow.

Grace Marshall head coach and productivity ninja shares her advice on how to be more productive. She helps people with adopting new ways of working and thinking about their work to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction. 

Hi, my name is Grace Marshall. I'm head coach, chief encourager, and productivity ninja. Let's talk about how you can be more productive.

Most people start in business because they have something they enjoy doing, that they love doing, and that they're good at doing, and they want to make a difference in the world. The problem is, when you start off in business, CEO means chief everything officer. So as well as the core business that you're really good at doing, you're probably doing lots of other jobs as well.

We set up in business because we want some flexibility. We want some freedom and some autonomy, but quite often, what happens is that the business takes over. We end up working all hours and we end up spending a lot of time on things that have very little impact.

And the more that I looked into it, the more that I realised that actually productivity isn't just about being super organised. It's also not just about time management. It's about our relationship with our work. It's about how we think about our work. It's about our attention management, our energy management, and also how we look after ourselves as well.

If I asked you, "Hey, how's it going? How's business?" quite often, you'd say, "Yeah, busy." We tend to think of busy as a good thing. The problem is busy doesn't mean productive. They are two very different things. Busy just measures quantity, not quality. It measures how hard somebody is working, but maybe not necessarily what they're working on or what they're achieving with those things. So we need to start to measure productivity by outcomes, not by input, by what we're achieving and the impact that we're making, not by how hard we're working, how many hours we're doing, or how many emails we're sending.

So people often think about productivity as getting as much done as possible, but actually, what stops us from being productive often isn't that we're not doing enough work. It's that we're trying to do too much. So what's really important is that we need to be able to discern between what's real work that's going to move us forward, and fake work that's just going to keep you busy. And let's face it, there's enough fake work out there to keep you very busy. Real work is probably picking up the phone to that potential client and having a conversation. Fake work is editing that brochure for a fifth time, or polishing that website instead of hitting publish and getting it out there.

So we probably can't eliminate fake work entirely from your day, but what we can do is pay attention. How much of your day is spent on real work, how much of your day is spent on fake work? And then if you're not happy with the balance, you can start to address that.

Let's stop thinking about time management and start to think about attention management. Because let's face it, time without attention is completely useless, and our attention is not

constant throughout the day. So we'll have our peak attention times, the times when you're at your best, when you are super creative, super alert, time that you want to be using for your deep dive work, your creative work, your problem solving.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have our zombie moments, the times when we're physically there, but our brain is really just not great. So that's the time when you might want to take a step back and maybe do some easier work. Don't try and push yourself to get that super critical piece of work done.

So instead of trying to squeeze every single minute out of every day, it's actually better to ride the attention wave. Notice when you're at your best and reserve that time for your best work.

When we're working in business, we want to be responsive to our clients, to our colleagues, to our customers, but the problem is, if we're constantly reactive, that steals a lot of our attention. And our attention is fragile. It's like an egg. It's really easily broken and really hard to put back together again.

Research suggests that it can take on average between 15 and 23 minutes to recover your attention from just a one minute interruption. So one minute email, one minute phone call, somebody coming up to your desk saying, "Hey, have you got a minute?" So if you think about it, that means it would only take three or four badly timed interruptions to suck up a whole hour of your day.

There are times when we need to have our brain to ourselves. If you know that you've got something that requires that deep dive focus, protect your attention. Turn off your phone, work offline, let people know when you're available and also when you're not available, how best to get hold of you if it's an emergency, but also, when you'll get back to them if they send you an email. You'll be amazed at how much you can get done in even just an hour of uninterrupted time, compared to trying to do everything at once and be flitting between lots of different things throughout the day.

If you've got a giant long to-do list that just seems to keep growing, you'll find that can be really overwhelming, and it can also be demoralising as well. Because let's face it, if we're working from a giant long to-do list, we can end up either cherry-picking the quick wins or the things we enjoy doing, or end up reacting to whoever or whatever's shouting the loudest.

So we're better off working to short lists. You might have a big brain dump of lots of things you have to do, but pick maybe five things, maybe even three things. The actual act of choosing three things forces us to focus on what's going to create the biggest impact.

Let's talk about procrastination. We all do it, it's a really human thing. We put things off that we don't want to do, and it just grows and gets worse. Now, there's usually three different reasons why we might procrastinate, either it's too big or it's too boring or it's too scary. So if it's too big, how can you make it smaller? How can you maybe just make a start, take the first step and get

it going? If it's too boring, how can you make it more interesting, make it more fun? Maybe change how you do it. Maybe change your environment. If it's scary, that's the time to give yourself a pep talk. Quite often, we see nerves as a sign that maybe we're not good enough, but actually, nerves can also be a sign that we care, and that actually, this is exactly what I should be doing rather than a sign that I should back off.

So what you can do is start the day by eating a frog for breakfast. If you do the unpleasant task first, get it out of the way, now everything else will taste sweet by comparison. Saying yes is our default, isn't it? We want to say yes to new opportunities. We want to help our clients. We want to be helpful to our colleagues as well. The problem is we can't say yes to everything. And so we're going to have to start saying no at some point. And in fact, if we never say no, we're going to end up saying no by default to whatever drops off the list or whatever never makes it to the top of the list, and sometimes those are the actual things that are going to make a bigger difference.

One of my tips for saying no is to say yes on your own terms. So instead of, "No, I can't help you," or, "No, I haven't got time right now," you can say, "Yes, I'd love to help, and actually, this is the best way I can help. Yes, I'd love to talk about that. How about four o'clock, or how about next week?" Saying no is really important for the team as well, and we can only do that when we are clear about what we're saying yes to. What's the mission here? What are we trying to achieve? When we know that, then we don't end up having six people turning up to the same meeting and we don't end up creating work for each other.

When there's so much we want to get done, it can be tempting to think we have to multitask. And in fact, that's still on some job requirements, isn't it? ‘Must be able to multitask.’ The problem is multitasking is a myth. All the research suggests that when we're trying to multitask, what we're actually doing is we're rapidly refocusing. And every time we refocus, there is a switching cost to our attention, which makes the work harder, makes us slower and also makes us far more likely to make mistakes.

So instead of trying to multitask, let's focus on serial mono-tasking. Do one thing, do it to a sensible level of completion, then move on to the next thing. Another way of avoiding multitasking is to batch up similar tasks together so you reduce on the switching cost. So dealing with your emails at specific times of the day is a good way of batching up tasks.

Here's the thing, productivity and wellbeing go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other. Back in the 1980s, we used to have a lot of company leaders, a lot of country leaders who would brag about how little sleep they can get away with just so they can create more hours in the day. But actually, all the research these days shows that when we're sleep deprived, the long-term cognitive impairment is equivalent to being drunk. Because when we're sleep deprived, we don't do our best work and we don't do our best thinking. When sleep deprived, we're not as creative, we're not as good at building relationships. And all of those things are things that are crucial in business.

So next time you’re tempted to sacrifice your sleep to get a few more things done, consider it might be more productive to just stop there. The short term gain by getting those things done is not worth the long term pain.

We spend a lot of our time thinking about what work do we need to do, what we need to get done, but it's time to start thinking about how we do that work, the way that we work, not just the work that needs to get done.

Final thing I want to say is this: let's focus on progress, not perfection. You'll have good days, you'll have bad days, and what's important here is knowing what works. So put these things to the test, see what works for you, and do more of that.

'Let's Talk About' is our series  of videos offering practical digital skills advice to help you grow.

Grace Marshall head coach and productivity ninja shares her advice on how to be more productive. She helps people with adopting new ways of working and thinking about their work to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction. 

Hi, my name is Grace Marshall. I'm head coach, chief encourager, and productivity ninja. Let's talk about how you can be more productive.

Most people start in business because they have something they enjoy doing, that they love doing, and that they're good at doing, and they want to make a difference in the world. The problem is, when you start off in business, CEO means chief everything officer. So as well as the core business that you're really good at doing, you're probably doing lots of other jobs as well.

We set up in business because we want some flexibility. We want some freedom and some autonomy, but quite often, what happens is that the business takes over. We end up working all hours and we end up spending a lot of time on things that have very little impact.

And the more that I looked into it, the more that I realised that actually productivity isn't just about being super organised. It's also not just about time management. It's about our relationship with our work. It's about how we think about our work. It's about our attention management, our energy management, and also how we look after ourselves as well.

If I asked you, "Hey, how's it going? How's business?" quite often, you'd say, "Yeah, busy." We tend to think of busy as a good thing. The problem is busy doesn't mean productive. They are two very different things. Busy just measures quantity, not quality. It measures how hard somebody is working, but maybe not necessarily what they're working on or what they're achieving with those things. So we need to start to measure productivity by outcomes, not by input, by what we're achieving and the impact that we're making, not by how hard we're working, how many hours we're doing, or how many emails we're sending.

So people often think about productivity as getting as much done as possible, but actually, what stops us from being productive often isn't that we're not doing enough work. It's that we're trying to do too much. So what's really important is that we need to be able to discern between what's real work that's going to move us forward, and fake work that's just going to keep you busy. And let's face it, there's enough fake work out there to keep you very busy. Real work is probably picking up the phone to that potential client and having a conversation. Fake work is editing that brochure for a fifth time, or polishing that website instead of hitting publish and getting it out there.

So we probably can't eliminate fake work entirely from your day, but what we can do is pay attention. How much of your day is spent on real work, how much of your day is spent on fake work? And then if you're not happy with the balance, you can start to address that.

Let's stop thinking about time management and start to think about attention management. Because let's face it, time without attention is completely useless, and our attention is not

constant throughout the day. So we'll have our peak attention times, the times when you're at your best, when you are super creative, super alert, time that you want to be using for your deep dive work, your creative work, your problem solving.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have our zombie moments, the times when we're physically there, but our brain is really just not great. So that's the time when you might want to take a step back and maybe do some easier work. Don't try and push yourself to get that super critical piece of work done.

So instead of trying to squeeze every single minute out of every day, it's actually better to ride the attention wave. Notice when you're at your best and reserve that time for your best work.

When we're working in business, we want to be responsive to our clients, to our colleagues, to our customers, but the problem is, if we're constantly reactive, that steals a lot of our attention. And our attention is fragile. It's like an egg. It's really easily broken and really hard to put back together again.

Research suggests that it can take on average between 15 and 23 minutes to recover your attention from just a one minute interruption. So one minute email, one minute phone call, somebody coming up to your desk saying, "Hey, have you got a minute?" So if you think about it, that means it would only take three or four badly timed interruptions to suck up a whole hour of your day.

There are times when we need to have our brain to ourselves. If you know that you've got something that requires that deep dive focus, protect your attention. Turn off your phone, work offline, let people know when you're available and also when you're not available, how best to get hold of you if it's an emergency, but also, when you'll get back to them if they send you an email. You'll be amazed at how much you can get done in even just an hour of uninterrupted time, compared to trying to do everything at once and be flitting between lots of different things throughout the day.

If you've got a giant long to-do list that just seems to keep growing, you'll find that can be really overwhelming, and it can also be demoralising as well. Because let's face it, if we're working from a giant long to-do list, we can end up either cherry-picking the quick wins or the things we enjoy doing, or end up reacting to whoever or whatever's shouting the loudest.

So we're better off working to short lists. You might have a big brain dump of lots of things you have to do, but pick maybe five things, maybe even three things. The actual act of choosing three things forces us to focus on what's going to create the biggest impact.

Let's talk about procrastination. We all do it, it's a really human thing. We put things off that we don't want to do, and it just grows and gets worse. Now, there's usually three different reasons why we might procrastinate, either it's too big or it's too boring or it's too scary. So if it's too big, how can you make it smaller? How can you maybe just make a start, take the first step and get

it going? If it's too boring, how can you make it more interesting, make it more fun? Maybe change how you do it. Maybe change your environment. If it's scary, that's the time to give yourself a pep talk. Quite often, we see nerves as a sign that maybe we're not good enough, but actually, nerves can also be a sign that we care, and that actually, this is exactly what I should be doing rather than a sign that I should back off.

So what you can do is start the day by eating a frog for breakfast. If you do the unpleasant task first, get it out of the way, now everything else will taste sweet by comparison. Saying yes is our default, isn't it? We want to say yes to new opportunities. We want to help our clients. We want to be helpful to our colleagues as well. The problem is we can't say yes to everything. And so we're going to have to start saying no at some point. And in fact, if we never say no, we're going to end up saying no by default to whatever drops off the list or whatever never makes it to the top of the list, and sometimes those are the actual things that are going to make a bigger difference.

One of my tips for saying no is to say yes on your own terms. So instead of, "No, I can't help you," or, "No, I haven't got time right now," you can say, "Yes, I'd love to help, and actually, this is the best way I can help. Yes, I'd love to talk about that. How about four o'clock, or how about next week?" Saying no is really important for the team as well, and we can only do that when we are clear about what we're saying yes to. What's the mission here? What are we trying to achieve? When we know that, then we don't end up having six people turning up to the same meeting and we don't end up creating work for each other.

When there's so much we want to get done, it can be tempting to think we have to multitask. And in fact, that's still on some job requirements, isn't it? ‘Must be able to multitask.’ The problem is multitasking is a myth. All the research suggests that when we're trying to multitask, what we're actually doing is we're rapidly refocusing. And every time we refocus, there is a switching cost to our attention, which makes the work harder, makes us slower and also makes us far more likely to make mistakes.

So instead of trying to multitask, let's focus on serial mono-tasking. Do one thing, do it to a sensible level of completion, then move on to the next thing. Another way of avoiding multitasking is to batch up similar tasks together so you reduce on the switching cost. So dealing with your emails at specific times of the day is a good way of batching up tasks.

Here's the thing, productivity and wellbeing go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other. Back in the 1980s, we used to have a lot of company leaders, a lot of country leaders who would brag about how little sleep they can get away with just so they can create more hours in the day. But actually, all the research these days shows that when we're sleep deprived, the long-term cognitive impairment is equivalent to being drunk. Because when we're sleep deprived, we don't do our best work and we don't do our best thinking. When sleep deprived, we're not as creative, we're not as good at building relationships. And all of those things are things that are crucial in business.

So next time you’re tempted to sacrifice your sleep to get a few more things done, consider it might be more productive to just stop there. The short term gain by getting those things done is not worth the long term pain.

We spend a lot of our time thinking about what work do we need to do, what we need to get done, but it's time to start thinking about how we do that work, the way that we work, not just the work that needs to get done.

Final thing I want to say is this: let's focus on progress, not perfection. You'll have good days, you'll have bad days, and what's important here is knowing what works. So put these things to the test, see what works for you, and do more of that.

About the author

About the author

She is Head Coach and Chief Encourager at GraceMarshall.com, Productivity Ninja with Think Productive, one of the world's leading productivity training companies and her book How to be REALLY productive was named Best Commuter's Read in the CMI / British Library 2017 Management Book of the Year Awards.

Productivity isn't just about being super-organised or time-management, it's about our relationship with our work and how we think about it.

Grace Marshall

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