Habits to boost your productivity and lower your stress

As unbelievable as it may be, we are well into 2021 and it doesn’t seem like life is going to slow down any time soon. But what if your new year’s goal was to try to reduce your stress this year? Asks Helene Vermaak, business director at corporate cultural experts The Human Edge.

Is stress free productivity even possible? Vermaak says that it is, but only if you are in control and put the right habits into place.  Charles Duhigg author of The Power of Habit says that the greatest predictor of high performance is habit. “By learning how habits work and how to master them we can improve our performance and productivity.”

How many of us close our laptops at the end of a long workday only to not have checked one item off our to do list, yet we still feel exhausted and end up asking ourselves – How did I not get anything done? I feel like I’ve been running around all day. I never have enough time!

“This productivity let down is common and it is depressing,” says Vermaak. “In response we often work longer hours which inevitably leads to burnout or we blame our lack of productivity on the amount we have to do, no time or others.”

But what if these weren’t the real problems and you could learn to manage it all? By creating the right habits and finding ways to manage everything rather than blame everything you can succeed. “The important words here are manage and habits,” says Vermaak, “having too much on our plates and conflicting priorities is nothing new. We can reclaim our time, attention, and energy by following the below eight tips – four things to stop doing and four things to start doing.

Stop checking your email first thing.

This does not mean only looking at your email once a day but rather that it shouldn’t be the first thing you look at. When you start your day by looking at email, your daily outlook gets distorted by the new stuff that has popped into your inbox. All new inputs seem important and therefore override any plans you made for the day.

Start looking at your calendar and to-do lists first.

Take two to three minutes each morning to review your calendar. This is the stuff you’ve committed to accomplishing and is the best data regarding how much time you have in which to do other work during the day. After reviewing your calendar, look at your to-do lists. And that’s it. Doing a quick review of your calendar and lists before checking email increases your likelihood of doing the ‘right’ stuff throughout the day. You’ll review the new stuff with a clear view of what you’ve already deemed important.

Stop planning on doing 10 things in one day.

Most of us pretend that somehow, between six Zoom meetings, lunch, dozens of emails to plough through and home-schooling the kids, we will find a way to accomplish ten key tasks. It’s highly unlikely. When we give ourselves unrealistic daily goals, we set ourselves up for failure and frustration.

Start making a list of three things to accomplish each day.

I’ve found you can usually accomplish three things well each day. And I’m not talking about mundane or routine tasks—I’m talking about three key items that will help important projects move forward. If you have extra time, great, you can always introduce a new task. But anything beyond three is dangerously ambitious.

Stop saying yes to everything.

Too often we think the word ‘yes” comes with magical powers. We think that by agreeing to every task that comes our way we’ll somehow be able to defy the odds and get it all done. It’s an illusion. Realise there is always more to be done than you can actually do. Stop saying ‘yes’ haphazardly, believing you’ll figure out the details later. Help your future self by not overloading your plate.

Start declining requests and renegotiating commitments.

When someone makes a request, ask a few key questions so you fully understand what that request entails. If you can’t do it, you might say, “I’m very sorry, but I will need to decline that right now so I can focus on other key priorities.” Or you might renegotiate the request in terms of how much you do or by when. For example, “I can’t commit to having that completed by Friday, but I could start on it Friday and have it done the following Tuesday. Would that work?”

Stop multitasking email and work.

This is one reason you never clear your email inbox. Email volume is less important than how you manage it. When you start sorting emails and then spend 20 minutes on a project that pops up in one of the emails, you end up losing time. It’s true, sooner or later you’ll need to do that project. But it’s less efficient to do it in that moment. Processing email is one task, doing the work entailed in email is another. Don’t mix the two.

Schedule “email only” time for focus and efficiency.

Set aside time each day to be in ‘email mode.’ A time when you won’t do anything else but read each email and decide what the next action is. Then park the results of that decision on a list or a calendar and archive the email away. When you spend 45 minutes solely processing your inbox, for example, you get through more items, which allows you to populate your calendar and lists according to priorities, which then allows you to do more of the right stuff throughout the day.

Vermaak says that research has shown that by adopting habits we can yield compound returns, build a culture of continuous improvement, and align our behaviour with goals and values while increasing efficiency.

“Stress-free productivity is possible, but only if you control your incoming requests and existing projects rather than letting them control you,” says Vermaak. “It is possible to end the day feeling both exhausted and productive.”


Helene Vermaak, business director at  The Human Edge. 

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