Friday, July 5, 2024

how to get a little more done each day by eliminating productivity dead zones

Have you ever felt "there is just not enough time in the day?" 

 Maybe a better question is whether anyone has not! 

Today's tip will help you get a little more work done in the time you have. 

The tip is based on a study by Tonietto et al. (2019) showing that when people have open time within an hour of a scheduled event, such as a meeting, their pace of work slows down. ( "Open time" means that no specific work was planned for that hour.) The authors recorded the number of tasks performed, and study participants did fewer tasks—that is, were less productive—than in hours that ended with no such event. The authors call these scheduled events "boundary events." 

What is a boundary event? Anything you have scheduled on your calendar or plan to do at a specific time, such as meetings, time blocks to do specific work, or even the time you plan to stop working for the day. We can think of these pre-event hours as "productivity dead zones." 

The exact reason for this phenomenon is unknown, but the authors speculate that it is because the perception of time differed before a scheduled event. In other words, the pre-event hour was perceived to be shorter, hence not enough time to do anything. Jude King has a good summary of the findings here.

This may be why we sometimes think, "I don't have the time," to start a new task, even though that task could normally be done in the time we have before the event boundary.

I wondered if this was true for me, so I started paying attention to my own pre-boundary event behavior. Sure enough, during that time, I typically did not take up new tasks—not just "big" tasks but also tiny ones. 

So, I set a goal of using that time more productively. I discovered that I could get quite a bit done. For example, last week, I was half an hour away from leaving home for an appointment. Instead of frittering that time away, I completed three tasks from my "do today" list. One of these, I had estimated would take an hour! 

If you determine that you have this tendency, what can you do?

Here are two options, each a variation on the theme "be prepared."  

The study was of how people behave in the hour before the event, an "open hour," i.e., when they have nothing planned.

The first option is to schedule your tasks in your calendar in advance.  

That approach does not work for everyone, and the alternative of having a list of priority tasks that you can draw from can work just as well. 


But what if I work through the boundary and am late? 
Excellent question! 

If you find that is an issue, set a timer to let you know it is time to move on. Set it at least 5 minutes before you need to switch so you can take a breath. 

 Which leads to the next question. 

 Are you telling me that I must fill every minute of my working day with work? 
 An even more excellent question!!

No, absolutely not. In fact, you could choose to use the time to do something that is relaxing or - heaven forbid - fun. The idea is to make conscious decisions about how to spend your time rather than let your unconscious mind take control. 

What should I do if I can't finish a task that you have started? 
This happens all the time! You plan to finish something in an hour, but don't. You get interrupted. You are bored. 

The solution is another tip: "Leave breadcrumbs" in the form of a written note reminding you where you left off and what to do next. 

To take action:  

Start your work day every day with a set of tasks you would like to complete.

Pay attention to your task behavior in pre-boundary event hours.  

When you are in such an hour, push yourselft to start a task from your list.

Set a timer as needed to avoid being late for the event.