Not all work is meaningful. Not all work is even useful. We’ve all felt the frustration of getting caught up doing busywork that seems necessary but takes our time and attention away from more important activities.
At RescueTime, we’re working to ensure more meaningful work happens in the world. As part of that mission, we’re diving deeper into understanding what makes work meaningful, and how that differs from person to person.
If you’re not sure what kind of work is most important to you, or how you can spend more time doing those activities and avoiding busywork, this post is for you.
Why doing amazing work is important
Doing your best work isn’t easy. It takes effort, and it will probably stretch your abilities to their limits.
But it’s worth it, because doing amazing work can bring you opportunities you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
Doing amazing work can bring you opportunities you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
A great example of this is how doing your best work can help you build up your network. For Mikael Cho, founder and CEO of Crew, networking was almost impossible when he started his entrepreneurial journey.
Cho had plenty of people in mind that he wanted to network with, but he struggled to get any of them to agree to a meeting. Fair enough, says Cho, since he hadn’t proved he was interesting by doing any great work. He was trying to meet people before he’d proved he was worth meeting.
Giving up on that approach, Cho took to focusing on building Crew instead:
… instead of focusing my energy fighting for their attention, I focused on making something interesting. I started our company and I wrote about our experience along the way.
I went to almost no events, took hardly any meetings, and didn’t pay attention to LinkedIn.
A few years later, Crew is doing well, and those same people who turned down meetings with Cho are reaching out to him. “Once you’re interesting,” says Cho, “people want to talk to you. Your work is the ice-breaker.”
While networking events can put you in touch with lots of people, you can often reach a wider audience through your work. And when people get to know you through your work first, there’s no need to spend time pitching them during meetings or networking events—your work will speak for itself.
Cho realized networking first wouldn’t lead to a successful product or company. Networking needed to come after the work:
By focusing on your work, a good network of people naturally follows.
So whether you’re after a job offer, a network to tap for investment in your company, or simply getting to know more people in your industry, doing great work can get you noticed and give you an “in” to meeting people you admire.
How to do unique, creative work
It’s easy to say you should focus on doing interesting, creative work, but how do you actually go about that?
Writer James Clear says the answer is evident in the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, shared by Arno Rafael Minkkinen at a commencement speech for the New England School of Photography.
The theory is based on the Helsinki bus system, which has a station in the centre of the city that all buses leave from. For the first 1km or so, most of the buses share their route with several others, but after that first short period they split off into separate directions.
Minkkinen likened this bus system to the career of the photographers he was speaking to. Each bus route, he said, was like a direction they could choose in their careers. But after three years of working in one direction, they would still be in that first 1km where lots of other bus routes aligned with their own. They’d look around and see other photographers doing the same thing as them, and, frustrated at their struggle to find originality in their work, start over with a new bus route.
But the same thing would keep happening, since it would take more than three years to get past that first 1km to the point where the buses split off into separate directions.
You could repeat this process for your whole career, said Minkkinen, and never get to the point where your work takes on its own originality.
The answer? Stay on the bus.
In repeating this story, Clear points out that while showing up and spending time to hone your craft is important if you want to do great work, spending time on a huge variety of skills won’t ever get you to the point of mastery.
Focus is the way to mastery, says Clear, which is only achieved by staying on the bus. Eventually, you’ll see other people in your industry peel off into their own directions, and your work will start to shine in its originality.
What if you’re not sure what your best work is?
Staying on the bus sounds simple. But for many of us, committing to a single direction for our entire careers is daunting.
As writer Jeff Goins says, the more experience you have, the more confident you can be about committing to one direction. But when you’re starting out and lacking experience, it’s common to worry about making a commitment in case you want to change your mind later:
A little hesitation is natural. I’m wary of people who can name their dream immediately without having had any real experience with it.
But this hesitation can lead to switching buses often, as discussed in the Helsinki Bus Station Theory, or not getting on any buses at all, because you’re paralyzed by indecision.
Goins’s answer is to commit fully to one direction for just a season.
Don’t pressure yourself into a lifelong commitment before you’re ready. But don’t let that stop you from doing anything at all, either. You’ll never create great work or find the direction you want to commit to without trying something.
“Choose something that strikes your fancy,” says Goins, “based on the possibility that it could be your dream.”
Author and founder of ConvertKit, Nathan Barry, agrees that working in seasons is a productive way to try out different directions.
Committing to one direction indefinitely can be taxing, says Barry. Whereas choosing one direction for a seasonal period is more manageable, and can even help you produce better work, by giving you a set timeframe to plan your work around.
Committing seasonally gives you an opportunity to go deep, says Barry, while also having a chance to change directions and try new things until you settle on a direction you want to stick with long-term.
So commit to your goal with everything you have—for a season.
It can be frustrating to want to do amazing work while feeling paralyzed by indecision about what that work should be.
Whether your seasons are weeks, months, or years long, the approach of working in seasons means you can fully commit to something you want to try, without the pressure of saying no to everything else forever. After the season is over you can re-evaluate and try something new.
Ultimately, this seems like a winning compromise between committing enough to develop your skills and produce your best work, while not forcing yourself to choose a lifelong direction before you have the experience to know what you really want to do.
Start the journey towards doing your best work by choosing one direction. Choose your bus, and choose a season-length that feels best to you. Then there’s nothing more to do but stay on the bus for the entire season.
Big goals are exciting. At the start of each year I love setting a few big, audacious goals to aim for over the following 12 months.
But big goals have downsides, too. They can set us up for failure if we set goals that are too big to achieve, or if we don’t break them down and work towards them systematically.
Sonia Thompson, founder of TRY Business School, says big goals and high standards are a recipe for failure:
Setting the bar too high can serve to de-motivate and discourage you from ever getting started.
Lots of us set exciting goals, says Thompson, but struggle to reach them because they’re too big to be achievable. She says the way people set goals is the problem:
They set their standards too high. And when they have trouble keeping up with the level of activity required to meet their standard, their confidence takes a hit.
So let’s look at an alternative: small goals.
Small goals, more often
Small goals tend to be easier to achieve than big goals. Saving for a new computer, for instance, is easier than saving for a house deposit. Giving talks at 3 conferences is easier than earning half your income from speaking engagements.
Because small goals are easier to achieve, we can also set them more often.
Author and professional speaker Dorie Clark says setting smaller goals for shorter time periods makes you more flexible and quicker to adapt to new information or changing circumstances. Setting a year-long goal, for instance, can leave you doing something that doesn’t make sense six months later, after your circumstances or priorities have changed. Or you might give up on your year-long goal when it stops making sense, but be left goal-less until the new year rolls around.
Clark, for example, set a goal to get fit by playing racquetball with a friend, but soon found the early-morning games left her sleep-deprived and unproductive. If that was a year-long goal, Clark might have been left without any fitness plan for the rest of her year when she gave up the morning racquetball games.
Clark’s current approach is to set goals every six months, rather than annually, and to limit herself to just two goals. “The point of goals,” she says, “isn’t to successfully complete tasks we blindly set ourselves to years ago.”
… what counts is our ability to master the right kind of big goals—the ones that can change your life… You can only accomplish those kinds of goals when you’re willing to question assumptions regularly and re-evaluate as necessary.
Small wins beget confidence
Researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer have found that “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
The great thing about this research is that it shows regular small wins can boost our motivation and happiness at work. So we don’t necessarily need to set and achieve big goals to enjoy our work.
Consultant and author John Brubaker says this comes back to self-efficacy, or our confidence in our own abilities. Our confidence increases or decreases, says Brubaker, based on our ability to make progress.
So each small win gives us a feeling of progress, which makes us more confident in our own abilities, and thus more happy and motivated.
So how can you achieve lots of small wins? Small goals, of course!
Or, as Brubaker puts it, “baby steps”:
The one primary motivation that leads us to persevere is baby steps.
Lots of small goals that lead to overall progress will keep us motivated and happy along the way. They also play into something called “goal gradient,” which essentially means that the closer you get to achieving something, the harder you’re willing to work to make it happen.
With small goals, you get close to your aim more often, so you’re more likely to work hard to achieve those goals. Big goals take longer, and you won’t feel that goal gradient as often.
A great example of how the goal gradient works with baby steps was borne out in a study using coffee reward cards. Participants were given cards that entitled them to one free coffee after they bought 10. When participants got closer to earning the free coffee, researchers noticed they bought coffees more often to get to their goal faster.
Another group of participants was given a card that offered one free coffee after they bought 12. These participants were given cards that already had two coffee purchases counted, so they had 10 to buy before earning a free coffee—the same as participants with the “buy 10, get 1 free” cards. But the group with 12-coffee cards actually filled up their cards faster, because a card with two coffees already counted gave them a feeling of progress that brought the goal gradient into play. Even though they needed to buy the same number of coffees as the first group, this group felt they had already made progress and their goal was close, so they bought coffees faster in order to achieve their goal.
You probably don’t want to trick yourself into buying more coffee, but you can use the benefits of the goal gradient on yourself by setting smaller goals more often. Make your goals faster and easier to achieve and you’ll be able to chain a lot of small wins together to make more progress overall.
Start tiny. Really tiny
If you’re not sure how small your small goals should be, Sonia Thompson has a useful suggestion: try setting tiny goals. Embarrassingly tiny, in fact.
Thompson says tiny goals help us build the momentum we need to chase slightly bigger goals later. An embarrassingly small goal is so small it feels silly not to do it. But even a goal that small can still feel good when you achieve it. You’ll still feel like you’re making progress.
Embarrassingly small goals give you a solid way to start making progress and achieving small wins immediately. They’re not six-month or even quarterly goals. They’re tiny, five-minute, one-hour, one-day goals. And they’ll give you the momentum and confidence to work up to quarterly or bi-annual goals, says Thompson.
It may sound counterintuitive, but the key to getting extraordinary results is to go small rather than big. Take the pressure off of yourself to accomplish heroic feats each day.
Whether you already like to set big, annual goals and struggle to reach them, or you don’t yet have a regular goal-setting approach, try starting small. Set one embarrassingly tiny goal and start working towards it. Take notice of how your motivation increases as you get closer to your goal.
Then, use that momentum to set a slightly bigger goal. Each goal you achieve will reinforce your self-efficacy, so your belief in your ability to reach your goals will increase as the size of your goals does. Just remember not to go too big—small goals more often and lots of small wins along the way are key.
Whether you’re a student, you’re taking down notes during meetings, or you’re a regular at industry lectures and conferences, effective note-taking is a skill you could probably benefit from.
Although we tend to take notes for years when we’re in school, most of us don’t ever learn how to take effective notes, and how much time we’re wasting on approaches that don’t work.
And unfortunately, the most common approaches to taking notes really don’t work well.
What doesn’t work
Do you ever highlight books or your own notes? Do you underline important points? Do you sometimes re-read your notes to refresh your memory?
Here’s the bad news: those techniques are all pretty much useless.
In fact, highlighting is such a bad study technique it may even harm your recall ability, since it highlights particular notes and takes them out of their original context, which makes it harder to form connections in your mind—and thus, harder to remember the material.
Studies have found the most effective note-taking techniques are active, whereas re-reading, highlighting, and underlining are passive techniques. We need to interact heavily with our notes and the material we’re trying to learn if we’re to remember it.
Taking notes that will improve your retention
So what active techniques can you use to make your note-taking efforts worthwhile?
Handwrite your notes
For starters, don’t use a laptop to take notes, no matter where you are. A series of studies pitted laptop note-takers against students taking longhand notes and found the laptop approach faired worst in terms of information recall.
In the first study students watched a video of a lecture or TED talk, then completed 30 minutes of hard cognitive tasks before taking a quiz on the material from the video.
Students who wrote longhand notes outperformed laptop note-takers in recalling information to pass the quiz. And when the researchers examined the students’ notes, they found a clue as to why: the laptop notes tended to include a lot of verbatim transcription of the video, whereas handwritten notes couldn’t be written fast enough to do the same. If we can type fast enough to transcribe information verbatim, we can get away with writing notes without engaging our minds too much—we don’t have to think critically or even pay too much attention to simply write down exactly what someone’s saying.
So for the second study, the researchers specifically asked laptop note-takers to not write notes verbatim.
In this experiment, not only did the longhand note-takers still perform best on the quiz, the laptop note-takers still wrote verbatim transcriptions of the videos. The explicit warning to not do so made no difference at all.
For a third study, the researchers gave the students a full week before the quiz, rather than 30 minutes, and gave some students 10 minutes to review their notes before taking the quiz. Once again, longhand note-takers performed best, but those who took handwritten notes and reviewed them for 10 minutes before the quiz came out on top.
So while handwriting your notes is a better approach than using a computer, this approach works even better if paired with time to review your notes before testing yourself.
And if handwriting your notes seems too slow, you might look into learning shorthand to speed things up. While older shorthand techniques are based on hours upon hours of learning squiggles that correspond to various sounds and words, more recent shorthand approaches are more closely based on the existing English alphabet, but make it a lot faster to write down.
Use a Bullet Journal
To keep your handwritten notes organized, it helps to index them by page number and topic, as well as using a key of symbols to categorise ideas, notes, tasks, and other pieces of information quickly and clearly.
Luckily there’s no need to figure this out by yourself. The Bullet Journal system is designed to work with any notebook, and gives you a way to keep all your notes organized in one place.
Check out the Bullet Journal website for more details, but the basic organizational sections work like this:
- Set aside a few pages in the front of your notebook for your index and number every page after that (or buy a notebook with numbered pages).
- Turn to the next available page and put a heading to match what you’re writing. It could be a meeting name and date, the name of the person you’re meeting with, or the book you’re taking notes on.
- Go back to your index and mark down the heading and page number of your notes so you can find them again later.
The Bullet Journal system uses a set of symbols to mark notes, events, and tasks. You can also add your own to cover different categories if you need to. You might add an icon to denote an idea or something you need to follow up with a colleague, for instance.
The system also includes some simple setup to keep track of appointments or major events during the month and a daily to-do list. If you like keeping everything in one notebook, the Bullet Journal system and its handy indexing can help you keep track of your notes and find them easily later, even if they’re in-between tasks and agenda planning.
Draw your notes
Now this one might sound silly, but hear me out. Research shows if you draw something you’re more likely to remember it later.
A series of studies tested drawing against writing and other approaches for memorizing words, and found drawing came out on top.
In the first study, participants were given a series of words that were easy to draw (for example, “apple”) and were either asked to draw the word or write it down. To ensure participants spent the same amount of time either writing or drawing, they were given 40 seconds for each word and asked to fill the entire period. So they could write or draw the item over and over, or do it just once and spend the rest of the time adding flourishes and detail.
When participants were later tested on how many words they remembered, drawing helped them to remember twice as many as writing.
Follow-up studies compared drawing to other approaches such as writing down attributes of the object (e.g. its color, shape, size, varieties), focusing on a mental image of the object, and looking at a picture of it.
Drawing came out on top every time when participants’ memories were tested.
The researchers believe drawing works best because it combines various skills. When we draw an object we have to consider its physical properties, visualize it in our minds, and use our motor skills to render it on paper. Combining these skills, say the researchers, gives us a richer memory of each of the items we draw than if we simply copy down the word or look at a picture of the object.
Drawing your notes isn’t anything new. In fact, it has a name: sketchnotes. Designer Mike Rohde popularized “sketchnotes” with his books The Sketchnote Handbook and The Sketchnote Workbook. Rohde uses the term sketchnotes to describe the way he draws shapes and pictures amongst his notes to help him better take in the main ideas from conference talks, rather than trying to note down every little point.
Rohde advocates using signs and shapes such as boxes and arrows, different sized writing, and doodles to illustrate notes. You don’t need to be an amazing artist to use sketchnotes, he says. You only need to practice using simple shapes and images to illustrate your points.
While many of us are lucky to have left our lecture-listening days behind, opportunities for taking notes abound in almost any job. Whether it’s a quick note to remember something later or detailed notes on a book or research topic, there are plenty of opportunities for improving your note-taking approach.
And you can even combine these strategies. Italian graphic designer Serena uses a Bullet Journal to organize her handwritten notes and tasks, but also added drawings to her notebook:
… flipping through my bullet journal, I noticed that the daily logs with no drawings did give me all the ifnormation about what I did, but those days with drawings were totally impressed in my mind. For this reason, last month I decided to combine my daily logs with real comic pages, in order to track what I do, what happens and how I feel everyday.
Whether you combine drawing and handwriting your notes with a Bullet Journal or similar symbol categorization system, or simply choose one technique to try today, remember one thing: throw out your highlighters and stop wasting your time transcribing notes on your laptop.
There’s something quite special that happens when we reflect on what we’ve done.
Well, two things, actually. One is that we gain a better understanding of what we’ve done or learned. The other is that our self-efficacy improves—that is, our belief in our own abilities.
Self-efficacy is a powerful thing because the more we believe we have the ability to perform well, the more we do perform well.
Researchers have found that the practice of reflection makes what we’ve learned stick in our minds better, as well as improving our performance. In fact, there comes a point in our work or training when we’ve learned enough that reflecting on our experience can boost our performance more than further practice.
A study of customer service representatives found that those who regularly reflected on their training performed 25% better on the final test than other trainees. They also improved their chance of receiving the highest rating for their service by 20%.
The funny thing about this research, though, is that when given the choice, most people choose more practice over reflection. It seems we prefer doing to thinking.
But reflecting is good for us—whether it’s tracking our progress on goals or taking note of what we’ve learned, reflecting regularly helps us refocus and better understand ourselves.
Today I’ll look at three forms of regular reflection and how to implement them: weekly, monthly, and annual reviews. Click the links below to skip to each section:
- Weekly reviews: keeping you organized
- Monthly reviews: tracking progress on goals
- Annual reviews: a chance to reflect and reset
Weekly reviews: keeping you organized
The weekly review is a chance to tie up loose ends, prepare for the week ahead, and reflect on short-term goals.
Writer Alan Henry finds the benefits of conducting a weekly review make it worth finding the time on a regular basis:
You’ll be more organized, you’ll never wonder if there’s something you forgot to do or something you should be working on, and you’ll never be afraid you forgot about something important.
If you find it difficult to sit down every week and reflect on your progress, you’re not alone. For writer Chris Bowler, his weekly review was something to dread, because initially it just consisted of trawling through his task manager. As Bowler points out, to-do lists aren’t much fun to review because they tend to include lots of tasks we should do but don’t want to, and things we want to do but can’t right now.
Because Bowler’s to-do list was frustrating, his weekly review ended up that way, too, making it harder to do:
If [your] review is just another chance to get frustrated, you’ll let it slide more often.
Bowler was able to improve his weekly review by focusing less on his task list and more on his achievements from the past week and goals for the week ahead:
Previously, I would get frustrated with my weekly reviews as they would feel mostly useless. Now, I enjoy the process and look forward to the exercise.
Since completing weekly reviews consistently, Bowler has been able to shake bad organization habits such as setting arbitrary due dates for all his tasks so they wouldn’t be forgotten.
Since I’m bad at reviewing my projects regularly, I’ve developed this habit of setting a due date to bring a task back to my attention.
Now Bowler’s reviews include time to go over his projects and plan his tasks for the week ahead, replacing this bad habit and keeping him more organized.
What to include in your weekly review
If you’re just getting started with your own weekly review you’ll probably need to do some trial-and-error to figure out what works best for you. But to get you going, here’s a step-by-step example from author Michael Hyatt. Hyatt’s review consists of 8 steps designed to stop important tasks or appointments from being forgotten and help him stay on top of his workload.
Step 1: Sort through all loose papers. Some will need filing, others may need to be actioned, and some might simply need to be recycled.
Step 2: Sort through notes from the past week. All notes taken during the week are reviewed for action items, anything needing following up, and any information that needs to be transferred elsewhere for more permanent storage.
Step 3: Review last week’s calendar. Check for any follow-up needed for past events.
Step 4: Review annual goals. This is where you start looking ahead to the coming week. Review annual goals and ensure the next step for each goal is planned and scheduled on your to-do list or calendar.
Step 5: Review upcoming week’s calendar. Check if any coming events require preparation and schedule time to get this done.
Step 6: Review in-progress projects. Make sure the next step of each project is planned and scheduled.
Step 7: Review delegated tasks. Check anything that you’ve delegated or tasks where you’re waiting for someone else’s input and follow up if necessary.
Step 8: Review your someday/maybe list. Go through your list of projects, ideas, and tasks you’d like to do someday when you have time. This is your chance to choose something from that list and schedule it into your week.
This process might sound complicated, but with a checklist and some patience you could get through a list like this every week. Hyatt’s review not only helps him prepare for the week ahead, it also ensures nothing from the past week gets forgotten or overlooked.
Alan Henry says his weekly review helps him re-evaluate the work he does and how he plans for the week ahead:
I learned that when you take time to step back and reconnect with the things you have to do and why you have to do them, you begin to understand what’s really important, what you really have time for, what you need help with, and how much bandwidth you actually have.
Monthly reviews: tracking progress on goals
We all love to set big goals at the start of a new year, but they’re very likely to fail. Monthly goals, on the other hand, are easier to manage.
A monthly review gives you a chance to reflect on a longer period without being so vast it’s hard to grasp.
According to author and zen habits founder Leo Babauta, the monthly review “helps me feel like I’ve accomplished something in just a month, and it lets me take a big-picture look at my life.”
A monthly review is a good chance to set new goals, assess your behavior from the past month, and celebrate your achievements.
I’ve been writing and sharing my own monthly reviews for a couple of years and I’ve found the added transparency of sharing my reviews has helped to keep me accountable to the goals I set each month.
What to include in your monthly review
- Highlights from the past month
- His current weight and any change compared to the previous month
- The outcome of last month’s goal
- Goals (usually just one) for the month ahead
- Any changes to his codex—a list of his values and personal beliefs revisited monthly
- Books, movies, articles, podcasts, or albums enjoyed in the past month
Benson publishes his monthly reviews on Medium, so you can explore real-life examples of his template in action.
For an even simpler template, Rosetta Thurman from Happy Black Woman has you covered. Her monthly review consists of just four steps:
- List everything significant that happened last month. This doesn’t have to be just your achievements—any significant life changes or events you attended also belong here.
- Reflect on these three things from the past month:
- Your biggest personal milestone
- Your biggest professional accomplishment
- Your most valuable lesson learned
3. Choose a theme or emotion that sums up the past month for you.
4. Set goals for the month ahead.
Of course, the best monthly review template will be the one that works for you. For more inspiration, my newsletter The Monthly Review sends out various personal reviews every month. If you’ve already started your own monthly review, you can even submit it for inclusion in the newsletter.
Annual reviews: a chance to reflect and reset
There’s nothing quite like a brand new year for reflecting and setting new goals. Annual reviews tend to be longer than monthly or weekly reviews, simply because there’s a lot more to reflect on and a bigger time period to plan ahead for.
But that doesn’t have to make your annual review overwhelming. Whether you take a week off in December to complete it like entrepreneur and author Chris Guillebeau, or wrap it up in an afternoon, your annual review only needs to cover what’s important to you.
Maybe you want to reflect on your business or career achievements of the past year. Or maybe you like to set lots of goals each year, then reflect on your progress towards them.
Or perhaps you just enjoy making a list of your favorite books, movies, and TV shows from the past year, as I do.
Like any other review, a personal annual review is for you and should include whatever you find most useful. Even if that changes from year to year.
What to include in your annual review
Celes Chua from the blog Personal Excellence provides a 6-step template for creating your own annual review:
- Reflect on your biggest accomplishments from the past year.
- Reflect on your biggest lessons learned in the past year.
- Give yourself a score for how well the past year went. You can give yourself a grade from F to A+ or a score from 1-10.
- Plan your goals for the next year by asking yourself what it would take to look back on this year as your best year ever, or to rate it 10/10.
- Plan any new habits you can build to help you achieve the goals you set in the previous step.
- Plan your immediate next steps to achieve each of the goals you set.
If you prefer more in-depth reflection on the past year, Leo Babauta has some handy suggestions for finding details of everything you did:
- Check your TripIt account, or anywhere else you record details of your travels throughout the year to remember the trips you took.
- Browse all files on your computer created in the past year to see what you spent time working on.
- Look through your Amazon order history and credit card statement to see what you spent money on.
- Read through your notes and journal entries from the past year.
You can also set your RescueTime dashboard to show all your time logged and your productivity pulse for the full year:
Or, if you like having all your data in one place, you could use a service like Gyroscope or Exist*. Both of these services offer annual reports of your data that give you a simple way to reflect on your activities from the past year.
You may not want to dedicate a whole week of your life to your annual review as Chris Guillebeau does, but even spending an afternoon reflecting on what you achieved in the past year and where you want to be in 12 months’ time can bring clarity to your daily plans.
Guillebeau credits his annual review with much of his success as a writer and entrepreneur:
When someone asks how I can do “so much,” I always mention this week-long planning process. There is no hidden secret to working towards a lot of big goals at the same time, but taking the time to clearly define specific objectives each year has helped me more than anything else.
If you read this post thinking reviews sound like a good idea but too much hassle, you might want to try writer Laura Vanderkam’s approach of writing your review ahead of time. Writing your annual review at the start of the year tells you what to work on, she says.
I think the best approach is to plan for great things, but be open to even more wonderful things happening that you didn’t know to plan for.
Vanderkam suggests imagining it’s the end of the year right now, and the year went well. Now write down the 3-5 things that made it such a great year.
This tells you ahead of time what to work on. All you have to do is work towards making that review a reality.
… articulating what you find interesting and meaningful can help answer the question of “I have time, what should I do with it?”
If you’re ready to try your own reviews, grab one of these templates and adjust as you go. You’ll find your own needs change over time and dictate what kind of reflection is most useful.
*Full disclosure: I’m a co-founder of Exist.
Whenever I think about increasing my productivity I focus on things like what tools I’m using, my processes and systems, and how many tasks I’m checking off each day.
But productivity is more than just how much work we do.
Our health, our mood, our motivation and engagement in our work all affect our productivity. You can’t do your best work if you’re unwell, unhappy, and checked-out of your job.
Humans are animals
We don’t spend much time thinking about ourselves as animals these days. But we are. As advanced as we’ve made our societies, we haven’t stopped being animals with biological needs. Evolution progresses far more slowly than we do, which is why we end up with chronic stress from our natural fight-or-flight mode being activated all the time from daily work stressors, which aren’t really life-or-death situations at all.
As Yale social ecologist Stephen Kellert says, “The measure of progress in our civilization is not embracing nature, but moving away from nature and transcending nature and becoming independent of our biology.”
Writer Laura Smith suggests that we’re still struggling to design a modern workspace that makes us happy, healthy, and productive all at once because “we don’t understand our primal biology.” The outdoors was our original workspace, says Smith, and while our world has evolved beyond the savannah, our biology hasn’t caught up yet.
Kellert makes an analogy that gets to the heart of what we’re doing wrong with office design. Zoos, he says, are ironic. We find it inhumane to keep animals in sterile, concrete spaces that don’t resemble their natural habitats. And yet, this is exactly what we’re doing to ourselves when we spend the majority of our time inside cubicles and offices with unnatural lighting and away from the environment we crave—nature.
Biologist E.O. Wilson says we’re drawn to nature because “beauty is our word for the qualities that have contributed most to human survival.” Flowers, for instance, represent fertile land. We find them beautiful, but there’s a reason we’re drawn to the beauty in nature; it’s good for us.
And yet, as Kellert says, we’re moving further away from it. More and more of us are living in dense cities with little access to natural environments and their benefits.
Nature makes us healthy
City dwellers might have more business and social opportunities, but living far from nature is damaging for our health. Various studies have found those who live in urban environments with little access to green spaces like parks are more likely to have psychological problems than people who live nearby green areas. But even with parks nearby, city dwellers in general have shown to have higher risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses when compared to people living outside urban areas.
It’s not just parks and major green spaces that can improve our health, though. Trees alone seem to make a big difference. A study in Toronto examined the health of the city’s residents and the number of trees planted on each block. The study found that ten extra trees on a block correlated to a one percent increase in how healthy residents said they felt. This is the equivalent, say the researchers, of each household receiving a $10,000 bonus, or every resident being seven years younger.
What’s interesting is that the most beneficial trees seemed to be those planted in front yards or streets—places where the public could enjoy them simply by walking past. Trees planted in parks or in backyards, on the other hand, had little effect on the health of residents. The researchers suggest this may be because simply seeing trees around you makes you feel healthier.
The benefits of trees on health has also been shown when trees disappear. The U.S. Forest Service did an analysis on trees that succumbed to the emerald ash borer, a pest that’s highly destructive to ash trees. The emerald ash borer has killed 100 million trees across North America, which sadly gave the U.S. Forest Service some great data to examine how removing trees affects public health.
The results weren’t good.
The Forest Service concluded that both cardiovascular and respiratory disease incidents increased where the borer had killed trees. Between 1990 and 2007 the analysis found an extra 20,000 deaths could be attributed to the borer killing trees.
If nothing else, the research shows that we’ll be healthier if we’re surrounded by nature. But bringing nature into your workspace won’t just make you and your teammates healthier—it can make you more productive, too.
How to bring nature into your workspace
Nikil Saval, author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace says redesigning our office spaces won’t make us healthier and happier on its own. The problem is more fundamental, he says: we spend all day stuck in the same place. Shorter, more flexible workdays will allow employees to spend more free time doing outdoor activities, says Saval.
We are moving closer to this solution, with more companies hiring remote workers, increasing flexibility in employee hours, and even shortening the workweek. But in the meantime most of us are still spending the majority of our time in a single place—whether that’s a cubicle in a high-rise office building or a personalized home workspace.
While we wait for the short, flexible workweek to arrive and give us all more time to spend outside, we can add a little nature into our current workdays.
Get outside for a walk
I’m going to look at how to bring nature into your workspace, but I have to start with the research on how beneficial walking in natural spaces can be. It’s easy for many of us to incorporate a walk through a park or leafy area into our lunch break, and the benefits are enormous.
Plenty of studies have looked at the benefits of walking in leafy areas. Most have found that this simple activity can improve your mood and your ability to focus—giving you a boost at work after your walk.
One study at Stanford asking participants to either walk through a lush, green area of the Stanford campus or alongside heavy traffic for the same period of time. Those who walked in the green area were both more attentive and happier afterwards.
Another Stanford study tested how walking among nature can affect our tendency to brood. Brooding, which is essentially dwelling on negative experiences or thoughts, can be a precursor to depression, and tends to be more common among city dwellers.
This study again tested walking next to a busy highway or through a park-like area of the Stanford campus. Brain scans and questionnaires before and after participants went walking found a slight decrease in brooding among those who walked in the green space.
Japanese studies have also found walking in forest areas can reduce stress, hostility, and depression, while improving sleep and vigor.
The best news is you don’t even have to like walking in nature to get the benefits. One study sent participants on a 50-minute walk through either city streets or an arboretum before testing their performance on a cognitive assessment. Those who walked through nature performed around twenty percent better on memory and attention tests, and they were in better moods after the walk.
But here’s the cool part: the researchers repeated this study in the middle of winter when walking outside was quite unpleasant. In the winter version, test scores jumped just as much as they had for the nature walkers during the warmer season.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the benefits of walking through nature tend to be highest when your attention and energy is already depleted. So walking through a park early in the morning, for instance, may not do much, since you’re probably already fresh. But at lunchtime or in the afternoon when you’re facing a slump in energy and struggling to focus, a walk through nature could be just what you need to get through the rest of your workday.
Stay inside and look at nature
Now let’s look at some ways to bring nature indoors and improve your health and productivity in-between your daily nature walk.
I mentioned earlier that the researchers who studied the health benefits of publicly-visible trees in Toronto suggested we might only need to look at trees to get the benefits of having them around us.
Other studies have taken this further, testing how simply looking at a photo of trees can affect us. One study run by researchers at the University of Melbourne gave participants a menial task that required them to concentrate. After five minutes on the task, participants were given a 40-second break to look at a picture of a rooftop. The rooftop was either plain concrete or covered in a flowering meadow.
After the break participants returned to their task and the researchers tested how their accuracy and attention was affected by the pictures they’d seen. For those who looked at a plain concrete roof, their concentration fell by eight percent and their performance was inconsistent. Those who looked at the meadow, however, made fewer errors and their concentration rose by six percent.
Kate Lee, one of the study’s researchers, says this points to “attention restoration theory”:
The theory is that because nature is effortlessly fascinating, it captures your attention without you having to consciously focus on it. It doesn’t draw on your attention control, which you use for all these daily tasks that require you to focus. So gazing at natural environments provides you with an opportunity to replenish your stores of attention control.
The great thing about this effect is how easy it is to achieve. You could simply change your desktop wallpaper to a picture of nature, or add some photos or posters of natural environments to your office areas. If you’re lucky enough to work near a window, having a view of trees could do the same thing.
So long as you take some time every now and then to relax and enjoy a view of nature, you should get a small boost in your ability to concentrate.
Add plants to your office
Another easy approach is to add pot plants to your office area. They’re small, easy to care for, and can have a big boost on performance.
Unfortunately, more office designers seem to be focusing on a “lean” approach these days—clean, minimal offices that avoid clutter. It might be nice to have a neat workspace, but research shows the trade-off of adding plants is worth it.
A study from Cardiff University examined what happened when plants were added to a “lean” office. After plants were added, the researchers found an increase in workplace satisfaction among employees, self-reported concentration levels, and perceived air quality.
And here’s the kicker: productivity in the office went up by fifteen percent.
Lead researcher Marlon Nieuwenhuis says this study shows it’s worth adding a few plants to your office:
Our research suggests that investing in landscaping the office with plants will pay off through an increase in office workers’ quality of life and productivity.
Get more natural light
Finally, one aspect of nature that’s easy to overlook: natural daylight. Natural light, in fact, has a huge impact on how we feel and how well we work.
A study from Northwestern University in Chicago concluded that there’s a strong relationship between the amount of daylight exposure in the workplace and office workers’ sleep quality and overall quality of life. Workers in offices with windows, for instance, sleep an average of 46 minutes more per night compared to those in windowless offices.
The study also found those without windows in their offices had more problems with overall sleep quality, sleep efficiency, sleep disturbances, and daytime disfunction.
Study co-author Ivy Cheung says, “the extent to which daylight exposure impacts office workers is remarkable.”
Natural light doesn’t only affect sleep, though. Other research has shown natural lighting in the workspace can improve employee health, reduce absenteeism, increase productivity, and reduce employee turnover. It can also decrease headaches and eyestrain, which is reportedly the top health problem among office workers.
In fact, the benefits of natural lighting are so good that many European countries require workers to be within 27 feet of a window.
In the early 90s West Bend Mutual Insurance was able to test the benefits of adding more windows when the company moved to a new office building. The number of staff with a window view went from 30 percent in the old building to 96 percent after the move. Coincidentally, the company also found a 16 percent increase in productivity in the new building.
And workers seem to know instinctively that windows are beneficial. A 1975 survey of office workers found 35 percent immediately responded that lack of windows was their biggest concern with their workspace. And further research has found employees value any window they can access, regardless of the size, even more than they value office privacy.
Whether or not you agree with Laura Smith that we’re struggling to design successful office building because we’re ignoring our primal biology, you can’t ignore the proven health benefits of surrounding ourselves with nature.
Luckily, it’s quite easy to improve your workspace by adding small plants, moving closer to a window, and hanging photos or posters of nature. But don’t forget to get out of the office when you can, too, and take a walk in a leafy area. Your health and your productivity will thank you for it.
As more of us are working remotely these days, more digital task managers are offering collaborative features like sharing specific tasks, commenting on tasks, and making shared to-do lists within your team.
I’ve taken these features for granted as they’ve become more popular, but never really wondered how useful it is to share your to-do list. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to do so, so your colleagues can see what you’re working on or communicate around a shared project.
But what about when you have the option of keeping your to-do list private or making it public? Why would you want to share your tasks if you don’t have to?
Sharing your tasks lets others help you get them done
Xander Schultz believes so strongly in the benefits of sharing tasks that he created an entire app around the idea of public to-do lists. The app, Complete, sadly shut down xx date, but Schultz made a solid argument for sharing your tasks, even if you can’t use his app to do so.
Schultz says “a to-do list, in reality, is a to-do-later list.” Our to-do lists tend to be full of things we’re not ready to do yet, but hope to get to someday. This is where a public to-do list really shines, according to Schultz, because others can see what you’re planning to do sometime in the future and offer support and advice before you need it.
While sites like Yelp, Quora, and Amazon reviews are useful for gathering advice, we tend to browse these sites only when we’re ready to take action—and then get stuck for hours comparing reviews and debating what to do. Schultz says making your tasks public before you’re ready to act on them works better:
A public task allows the opportunity for people to push you the advice and motivation you need before you have to search for a solution.
Say you need to purchase a new set of headphones, for instance. That task might languish on your to-do list for months without you making any effort to get it done. When you do finally decide it’s time to get it done, you could spend hours researching different brands and models and comparing reviews.
With a public to-do list, according to Schultz, you could get recommendations from friends and followers about their favourite headphones well before you’re thinking about making the effort to find some for yourself. What could have been an hour-long task (or longer) that you put off could end up being a ten-minute task based on advice and suggestions from trusted friends.
A public to-do list can be beneficial for longer-term goals, too, says Schultz. He set a weight-loss goal that he struggled to reach by his due date, but with each new update he added about his progress, friends and followers offered support and helpful advice. Schultz says it doesn’t matter that he didn’t reach that goal, because sharing his progress along the way and receiving help to keep going was worth having a public goal that he didn’t complete.
Making your to-do list public will make it better for you
When software developer Joe Reddington made his to-do list public, he thought it would be a small, simple step towards personal transparency. He’s committed to being transparent and wanted to take a further step to prove that commitment.
He had no idea how big an impact that decision would make on his productivity.
Making your to-do list public, says Reddington, forces you to write a better to-do list than you would have otherwise:
… when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.
As soon as he made his to-do list public, Reddington noticed several issues with it: duplicate tasks, tasks written as questions, and tasks that were simply poorly-written. Reddington took some time to clean up his list and rewrite most of his tasks so they made sense to anyone reading the list. Doing so made each task easier to get started and easier to finish, so Reddington is now more productive simply because his to-do list is written more carefully.
I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.
Reddington says it doesn’t matter who looks at his public list, or even if anyone looks at it. Simply making it public does the trick:
… the number of people looking at it makes very little difference—all that I need to know is that someone might and that’s enough for me.
Sharing your goals makes you more likely to achieve them
Finally, something we can all agree on: whether you’re sharing simple tasks or long-term goals, you probably want to get them done. That’s the whole reason for putting them on your to-do list in the first place, right?
Well, here’s the good news: sharing big tasks and goals makes you more likely to accomplish them.
In a study of 267 people, participants were split into groups, each given different instructions for approaching a goal they wanted to achieve. Some simply kept their goal to themselves and worked towards it privately. Others wrote down a commitment to take action on that goal and shared their commitment with a friend. A final group shared their commitment with a friend but also sent that friend weekly progress updates.
Of the 149 participants who completed the full study, 70% in the weekly updates group either completed their goal or made it further than halfway to completion. 65% of those who shared just an action commitment with a friend also made it past the halfway mark or completed their goal by the study’s end.
But of those who kept their goals private, only 35% were able to get past the halfway mark.
This isn’t the only study to show this effect, either. A 2016 review of 138 different studies found that we tend to do more of what we’ve planned when others can track our progress.
There is a caveat to this effect, though. It works best for action goals, where the focus is completing a task or doing something. For identity-based goals, where the focus is on changing the kind of person you are, or being different, sharing your goals can backfire.
When we tell a friend about a goal we have to be different—for instance, to be a better friend—we tend to feel like we’ve made progress towards our goal simply by talking about it. Which, unfortunately, makes us less likely to take real action towards that goal.
So double-check what type of goals you have before discussing them, but if you have an action-based goal or a big task to complete, sharing your progress can help you get it done.
You may not be ready to share your entire to-do list with the world as Joe Reddington did, but simply sharing a goal or task with a friend can be just as beneficial.
Sharing your to-do list makes you rethink how it’s written, and gives you some accountability for your progress. It also opens up the possibility for others to share their advice and experiences with you to help you accomplish what you’ve planned.
Focus is something I struggle with a lot. In my freelance writing work I have to spend hours at a time researching, writing, and editing. When I’m working on Exist, my company’s personal analytics app, I sometimes spend whole days writing blog posts, or working on our iOS app.
With so many different types of work on my schedule every week, I find it hard to stick to one task until it’s done. Too often I pick up my phone or start browsing Facebook without even thinking about it. Before I know it, I’m struggling to even remember what I was doing before.
I’m not the only one, either. A study from the University of California at Irvine found that the participants (who worked in the tech field) could only work on a project for 11 minutes before being distracted, on average. What’s worse is that it took them 25 minutes to regain their focus.
25 minutes for every distraction can quickly add up. For work like writing and software development, your best work can only be done in a state of deep focus, since you need to keep a lot of information in your head as you work. If you’re only doing 11 minutes of work every time you hit your stride, and taking another 25 minutes to get your focus back, you won’t have much to show for your efforts after a full day of work.
So what can we do to stop this vicious cycle from holding us back from productivity? According to science, there are quite a few actions we can take to improve our ability to focus for longer periods.
Take breaks more often, and get away from your computer
Looking at Facebook or checking your email isn’t a real break. Taking real breaks means leaving your computer, standing up, maybe even going outside or walking around your workspace. A real break takes your mind away from what you’re doing completely, giving it the ability to reset before you hit the desk again.
Research shows the kind of unfocused, free-form thinking we do during breaks helps the brain to recharge.
If you find it difficult to fit in real breaks, try scheduling ten-minute meetings with yourself throughout the day.
Spend more time near trees
Spending time in nature is great for your brain. When I say nature, I don’t mean the nearest city street. I mean somewhere green and leafy. And, in particular, somewhere with lots of trees.
While walking is a healthy activity, when we walk in busy areas like an urban street, our brains have to stay switched on to keep us safe. There’s a lot of stimuli demanding our attention in this kind of environment—advertising, stores announcing sales, other pedestrians, cars, bikes, and maybe even trams.
When we walk in a natural area like a park, the peaceful surroundings allow the brain to relax, which helps us recharge our ability to focus. But more importantly, make sure there are some trees around. Trees don’t just add to the natural vibe, they also do something special to the brain. Research has shown just seeing trees is enough to improve our health.
Spend time on a hobby you enjoy
If taking a walk outside isn’t your thing, or you’ve already tried it an need another option, finding a hobby you enjoy could do the trick.
Daniel Goleman says doing something that’s passive, but requires focus, is key. For instance, playing a song on piano or guitar that you already know well, or cooking a favourite meal could work. It needs to be an activity that keeps your attention, but doesn’t work your brain too hard beyond that.
The key is an immersive experience, one where attention can be total but largely passive. — Daniel Goleman
Goleman says this type of activity can give the brain a chance to recharge. By staying passively focused on what you’re doing, you’ll stop yourself from continuing to think about work. If you don’t already have a go-to hobby that fits the bill, you could try cycling, knitting, drawing, or even colouring in.
Move your desk
For those times when you can’t leave the office, or you need to push through without a break but you’re struggling to focus, this may be the most simple change you can make. Research has shown working in natural light can improve productivity and decrease how many sick days employees take.
Unfortunately, most of us work in offices with artificial lighting that can cause eye fatigue and make it harder to focus. If you can, try moving your desk closer to a window so you can get more natural light during the day.
Take a flow day
Author, university professor, and productivity expert Cal Newport says the idea of batching similar tasks together sounds useful, but rarely works. This process introduces more complexity, says Newport, and “most people will abandon a tactic as soon as it makes their life more difficult.”
Newport tried a day of batching tasks himself, to see how it affected his productivity and focus. He established firm rules and stuck to them for an entire work day. The rules stated all work had to be done in 30-minute blocks.
If he needed to do a small task that would only take a few minutes, he had to spend that entire 30-minute block doing small tasks. If he needed to check something in an email, he had to spend a full 30-minute block on processing and replying to emails.
Newport concluded after his experiment that the type of strict rules he used are necessary for batching tasks to work. But he also found these kind of rules “will absolutely make your day more difficult.”
There’s no avoiding the reality that there will be times when you have to take convoluted action to solve a problem that could so easily be handled with just a quick bounce over to your inbox.
This is a pain in the ass.
Despite the extra effort and frustration that came with the experiment, Newport found his day was more focused and more productive than normal:
Even though I dedicated 6 hours in one 10 hour work day to uninterrupted focus, another 1.5 hours to exercise and eating, and another 1 hour to a doctors appointment, I still managed to accomplish an impressive collection of logistical tasks both urgent and non-urgent.
Most importantly, Newport found he was able to find more of that elusive “flow state” than he usually would. “Flow” being that state of getting so caught up in what you’re doing that time passes without you realizing it. Newport found the 30-minute block rule helped him achieve this by making small distractions a non-option:
…the percentage of time spent in a flow state was as large as I’ve experienced in recent memory. I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.
Since the strict rules can add effort and complications to your day, it might be best to save this approach for those rare times when you really need to spend a whole day focused on one big project. Scheduling a “flow day” once a month or so may help you get more done than you thought was possible.
It might sound strange, but research shows chewing gum can boost mental performance. Gum has been shown to improve cognitive abilities more than caffeine, but the improvement seems to be short-lived. One study found gum-chewers only performed better than those not chewing for around 20 minutes, after which they stopped seeing any benefit.
Researchers have tested gum that includes sugar and is sugar-free, but glucose content doesn’t seem to have any affect on performance. The best suggestion of why this happens seems to be something called “mastication-induced arousal,” which just means that the act of chewing wakes us up and makes us focus.
If you’re not a fan of gum, you could try this trick from author Gretchen Rubin: chew on plastic stirrers or straws. Rubin says the act of chewing helps her focus while writing.
It’s taken me longer than I care to admit to finish this article, thanks to constant distractions. With this list handy, next time I’m struggling I’ll have a few options to try that may just improve how much I can get done in a day.