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Global Productivity, Part 2

Running the Day Productively

Five ways to stay focused and get things done today.

By Paul H. Burton

Part 1 of this series on productivity in the modern, global workplace focused on how to work together more productively in a global world. This segment focuses on how to get your own work done more effectively and efficiently in the midst of the modern workplace!

Getting things done is the fundamental objective of work. Our personal sense of accomplishment comes from checking things off the to-do list. The key to getting things off the list is focused effort, and focus requires quieting down the places we work — internally and externally.

Here are ideas on how you can achieve greater focus today.

1. Chunk Things Down – Break Projects into Tasks

Many projects appear harder and more complex than they actually are. This is the result of the psychological pressure that builds up for everyday work that remains undone. Chunking projects into more manageable tasks releases this pressure and gets the project moving forward.

Here’s how it’s done:

  • Set aside three minutes.
  • Pick a project.
  • Make a quick list of the steps to complete the project.
  • Take a look at the steps and consider how doable it is.

That’s it. Chunking is easy, and now each project is more manageable than it was three minutes ago.

2. Use the Pomodoro Technique – From Whence Came the Red Tomato Timer

Another terrific way to continually get things done is to employ the Pomodoro Technique. Francesco Cirillo invented this method, which carries his name, in the 1980s. The concept behind this proven system is to think about time in small increments instead of long intervals. It’s similar to interval training. Work for short bursts of time in a highly focused method, and then take a short break to recharge your brain’s energy level.

Focusing our effort into short bursts of time increases our ability to get things done. The short breaks give us a chance to rest before starting back into the next focused effort. The Pomodoro Technique treats the brain like a sprinter as opposed to a marathoner.

3. Learn to Off-Ramp – Follow Hemingway’s Lead

Being interrupted during a focused effort exacts a heavy productivity toll. The ideas floating in your head crash to the ground like spinning plates falling from the sticks atop which they were spinning. It takes time to get the ideas spun back up in your mind, and some may be lost along the way.

One way to minimize the lost time and lost ideas is to off-ramp from work efforts. Quickly jot down the ideas floating around your mind when an interruption occurs or is impending — someone stops by, the phone rings or a meeting is about to start, for example. With your jottings, you capture the thoughts and cement them on paper or a screen. Additionally, it lets you focus on the new task fully with the other thoughts safely written down.

On-ramping is the opposite of off-ramping. The captured ideas accelerate the return to work when the time arrives.

4. Reduce Digital Noise – Selectively Remove Agents of Interruption

Solid productivity results from focused effort. Focus denotes a quiet mental space free of clutter and distraction. The external world also affects our ability to focus. Eliminating or reducing external distractions is a great way to promote inner focus. The digital world has grown into our largest external noise factory. Reduce digital noise by taking these actions:

  • Unsubscribe from all groups and newsletters that do not continuously deliver value.
  • Delete apps that you do not use regularly.
  • Disable nonessential app notifications that aren’t vital to running the day.
  • Set devices to “Do Not Disturb” when you aren’t actively using them.

Digital noise is growing every day, but we can control how much we allow into our lives. Take command by limiting it to productive efforts when productivity is important.

5. Void Email Apnea – Breathe …

Most people hold their breath while checking email. That’s what Alex Pang, a Stanford University researcher and professor, reported in his book “The Distraction Addiction.” He credits this behavior to the anxiety we feel whenever we check email, as it often delivers the next emergency or demand for our time.

Not breathing is a surefire way to reduce performance. Imagine the performance hit an Olympic sprinter would take if she stopped breathing during a race for fear of losing!

Pang’s recommended solution is simple: breathe. Take a deep breath just before checking your email. Remain mindful of breathing throughout the crafting and replying process. More oxygen to the brain equals more effective communication.

The most overlooked aspect of productivity is the energy — mental and physical — it takes to do work. Understanding how we develop mental energy and properly nourishing the brain helps us perform at the high levels vital to success.

6. Take Three Deep Breaths – There’s Always Time for Micro-Breaks

The mind is productivity’s engine. It requires periods of rest to perform optimally. Rest seems anathema to the modern world’s need to do more sooner. Yet mental exhaustion — decision fatigue — is a very real consequence of failing to rest.

Naps won’t find their way into the workplace anytime soon. Coffee breaks may even seem too luxurious. But the micro-break is always available. Micro-breaks are easy to fit into a hectic day because they only take three deep breaths.

Try this exercise to experience the benefits of micro-breaks:

  • Put everything down on your desk or table.
  • Sit back and relax for a moment.
  • When you’re ready, take a long, deep breath in.
  • Then, exhale smoothly.
  • Take another deep breath in and out.
  • Take a third deep breath in and out.
  • Pay attention to only your breathing during the exercise.

Once you’re finished with the third breath, take a quick inventory of how you feel physically and mentally. A bit calmer? More at rest? Less stressed and anxious?

You’re ready to jump back into your work refreshed and relaxed.

Grab one of these immediately actionable suggestions to make the best of the time available today!

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Paul H. Burton

Paul Burton is a former corporate finance attorney and General Counsel who helps lawyers and legal professionals make the best use of their time. The author of eight guides on individual and leadership productivity, he delivers seminars and coaching services to busy professionals across the United States. You can learn more about Paul and his practice at

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