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InfoQ Homepage Articles Becoming More Efficient and Productive in a Distracted World

Becoming More Efficient and Productive in a Distracted World

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Key Takeaways

  • Multiple distractions at work extended over longer periods cause stress, anxiety, and eventually burnout
  • Productivity hacks can exponentially boost your physical and mental health
  • There are different hacks such as deep work, time-blocking, delegation, planning daily and weekly tasks, task prioritization and meditation to make you reach your peak performance level
  • Implementing productivity hacks results in measurable benefits in agile teams
  • Organizations have to play a key role in preserving employees’ mental and physical health

This article highlights how increased distractions in agile teams can affect our mental health and cause burnout. It outlines how various productivity hacks can help to reduce this problem and make you highly efficient using my real-life experiences. Finally, it discusses various steps the software industry can take to help preserve our mental health and reduce distractions.

Causes of Distractions in Agile Teams

Agile is the way of the world. It has proved to help organizations build products faster and release them to customers rapidly to meet their exponentially growing needs. It strongly emphasizes teams collaborate and interact with each other to come up with effective solutions. A toxic by-product of Agile is an increase in the number of distractions from doing focused work, where teams sit together and interact with each other. There are multiple meetings that teams attend, and there is an unwritten rule that everyone should always be available for each other. This has become even more relevant in the current era where most teams are working remotely. Unfortunately, even if this is not the intent of following agile practices, it is the current state of affairs in most organizations.

How many of us have had this feeling where we are constantly working on multiple things throughout the day? At the end of the day, when we review our work, we feel we haven't accomplished anything concrete or are starting to feel stressed and demotivated at work. The main reason for this is, our work environments are filled with distractions, from having unnecessary and unproductive meetings to people constantly checking their messages on phones, emails, and Slack channels. With Agile, these distractions increase exponentially as team members make decisions collaboratively, which means there is more interaction than usual. As a result, we feel demotivated, less productive, and burnt out. Burnout is a serious issue and is attributed to a lot of mental and health problems.

About 60% of the workforce in tech suffer burn out at various levels.  Multi-tasking, working on lesser priority tasks, de-prioritizing mental and physical health, and the added stressors of our daily life over long periods cause burnout.

Experimenting with Productivity Hacks

Let’s start with some background. I grew up as a shy kid throughout my childhood. I was average in everything academic, sports, dating, you name it. I constantly tried to emulate other overachievers around me as I had a fear of being ignored. So, when I finally entered the workforce, I wanted to change as I was tired of living such a life.

So, I started saying YES to every opportunity that came my way. I went out of my comfort zone and wanted to be the best in whatever I did. These self-made expectations made me work extremely hard. I was a star performer in almost all the companies I worked for. I spoke at various conferences and started my own career coaching business to help people get into leadership roles. I increased my salary by 150% since I started working in IT. Everyone started noticing me. I had established credibility, earned fame and money.

In 2016, I hit a roadblock where I felt I was losing my creativity and did not find satisfaction in anything I was doing. So, I took a self-exploration journey where, for four months, I listened to over 150 podcasts and read 30 books. This experience taught me a lot about myself and I picked up different strategies people use to succeed in business and life.

All these things were good, but working long and hard for several years finally caught up to me in mid-2018.

Picture this: it was June 2018, well past midnight. I got up from my bed to go to the bathroom, and within two minutes of entering the bathroom, things started darkening around me, and I just collapsed onto the bathtub bruising my head against it. After realizing I had not come back to bed after about 25 mins, my wife came to the bathroom and saw me lying beside the bathtub unconscious. Somehow, her screaming and shaking woke me up a little bit. I told her I could not move, and she had to drag me to a seated position against a wall to lay my back against it. We called the ambulance, and they took me to the ER.

After I got admitted to the hospital, they had diagnosed me with severe exhaustion and dehydration. The doctor also mentioned that I might have suffered burnout based on my lifestyle over several years. I realized that I had put so much pressure on myself to prove that I am worthy of living and can achieve fame and money. These self-made expectations had made me work extremely hard to the point where I did not realize what was happening in my body. My mind was telling me to stop, but I just kept on going.

Then after retrospecting my life, I realized I was chasing the wrong dream. I thought money and fame were everything. Once I reframed my mindset and wanted to impact and help people, I got a lot more satisfaction from my job as I saw other people thrive because of my impact.

I went through all the notes I had taken from my self-exploration journey in 2016. Then I made a list of all the things that I felt could help me get better mental and physical health. I prioritized them by assigning numbers, starting from one.  Each week I picked up one item from the list based on priority and started following it as part of my daily routine. I made sure I tried four items from the list every month. Then, at the end of the month, I analyzed which ones I liked doing and which ones were not effective. I eliminated the items that were not effective for me and replaced them with more from the list.

This constant experimentation over two years helped me figure out the productivity hacks that worked for me. Some of these hacks include - doing deep work, having morning and evening routines, focusing/de-focusing, time blocking, delegating work, different tips and tricks to prioritize tasks, dealing with emails, and making meetings more productive with remote teams, meditation, and much more.

Examples of How I Applied Some of These Hacks

My experiments opened my eyes to so many inefficiencies in the workplace that drain everyone’s energy. These includes prioritizing tasks, handling email communication, conducting meetings, and doing creative work. For example, $213 billion per year is spent on unproductive meetings; about 92% of the people in meetings multitask and on an average people check their emails 30 times per hour. When we realize these inefficiencies and follow some of these hacks, people can feel and observe drastic transformations in their lives and in the workplace.

Making Meetings More Effective

First of all, we have to decide whether a meeting is necessary to discuss a particular issue. Is this something that can be solved by talking to the person directly? Is it something that can be an email conversation?

If we decide a meeting is necessary, do not invite more than 7-8 people to the meeting. Research suggests that having more than eight people in a meeting prevents clear decisions from being made at the end of the meeting. Remember, if we have 15 - 20 people in a meeting, it is a conference, not a meeting.

Meeting invites need to have a clear title and agenda, and everyone needs to come prepared for the meeting. The worst that can happen is that people come to the meeting unprepared. The facilitator then spends a considerable amount of time explaining the reason for having the meeting and tries to get everyone up to speed. This consumes valuable time that could otherwise be spent on having constructive discussions. So, how do we prevent this from becoming a repeat occurrence?

When scheduling a meeting, put a note indicating everyone has to come prepared for the meeting and share one or two items that would help to steer the conversation in the right direction. Once the meeting starts, spend only a couple of minutes on setting the stage for the meeting and getting right into asking people to share their ideas and views. As a facilitator, your job is to control the room, make sure everyone gets a chance to speak, and encourage a free flow of ideas. You do not have to keep talking continually; instead, let others speak.

Start and finish the meetings on time. Have clear action items and follow up on them.

I am a huge fan of Amazon’s "Two-pizza model." This is exactly what it sounds like -- no team should be larger than what two pizzas can feed (about six employees). This implies that if a team is empowered to innovate and problem-solve on their own, they will be more successful in the long run if they follow this approach.

Become More Focused

Each morning, spend just 5-10 minutes reviewing which tasks you need to accomplish that day with the help of a to-do list. Prioritize the list by giving each task a number from 1-10. My rule is to finish the top three items on my list everyday. Any remaining unfinished tasks get carried over to the next day.

Schedule blocks of uninterrupted time, each focusing on one particular task. I usually try to do 4-5 blocks/day (each time block is about an hour long). Spend five minutes to review what tasks you accomplished and what gets carried over to the next day.

As part of my job, I have five categories I focus on: learning, reading, content creation, career coaching, and speaking. I want to make sure I dedicate time to each one of them. I track my time using an app called Toggl, so I can analyze how much time I spend on each of these tasks. Based on this information, I created a budget for my time, with each block being  one hour long:

  • 2 time blocks per week for learning and reading related tasks
  • 4 time blocks for content creation
  • 8 time blocks for career coaching
  • The remainder is for speaking

I usually keep Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday as my "meeting" days and reserve Thursday and Friday for tasks that need my creativity and thinking.

These time blocks are not set in stone, and they often vary based on my week. But, I have a general idea of the amount of effort I need to dedicate to tasks under each of these buckets. So, identify your buckets and allocate time accordingly.

During the weekend, spend 30 minutes to an hour going over different tasks and meetings for the upcoming week. Start putting time blocks on your calendar to focus on tasks that need your expertise and critical thinking. This also prevents other people from blocking your time via meetings, calls, and other distractions.

Finally, start doing deep work, where you focus on one high priority task at any given instant without any interruptions. Put your devices on "Do not Disturb" mode and focus on the task at hand. If you are working at the office, go to a conference room or a private area, if possible, to get the critical tasks done during certain times of the day.

Another option is to come to work early when the chances of interruptions are minimal and work on cognitively demanding tasks before the day starts with meetings and other craziness you may encounter.

Be More Social

Research suggests that one-third of your life is spent at work. On average, a person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime. That is a lot of time away from family. Of course, this is just the average; with all of the advancements in technology, people are working longer hours in various industries. For many, work has become the new family, which is sad but true.

So, why not make work a fun experience of getting to know our team and co-workers personally? It’s good to be social and approachable to people. Also, it helps to collaborate better during difficult situations at work since you have already built a rapport with people.

Here are some ways to be more social and human:

  • Try to hang out with your coworkers one day a week or month. You could do some sort of social activity with them and get to know each other
  • Make it a point to smile and say "Hi" to at least two people every day. This simple gesture can change your work and personal life dramatically

Given the fact that most teams are working remotely now, here are some things you can do to engage with remote teams:

  • In virtual meetings, spend the first couple of minutes making people feel at ease by asking the following questions:
    • How is your day going?
    • What are you happy about today?
    • What are you looking forward to this week?
  • Have periodically scheduled video calls with individuals to know how they are doing
  • Have weekly virtual happy hour sessions where the entire team gets to relax and be more personal with people

Benefits That I Got

Discovering and experimenting with productivity hacks that worked for me gave me better physical and mental health. I started focusing on things that mattered to me and could filter through other lesser priority tasks that were not valuable to my growth.

I began leading teams with a different mindset where I focused on optimizing different processes, from meetings to the way we were delivering products to consumers. This helped to increase my credibility, build team morale, and contribute to the company’s growth.

Teams were more mindful about what task they were working on at any given time, and most importantly, I was able to reduce the number of meetings that I had to attend or that were taking place in the workplace which involved my team. It helped to save time, money, and cost for everyone.

I also got into meditation. I started using meditation as a tool to gain mental peace, control, and focus. Consuming resources on mindfulness made me appreciate the little things in life that make a difference – like acts of generosity, kindness, and appreciation for having all the things I need to live a life with meaning and purpose. My stress levels and anxiety reduced drastically, and I started viewing the world through a different lens -- the lens of gratitude and forgiveness.

What the Software Industry Can Do to Help Preserve Mental Health

Advancements in technology have given rise to tools and systems that enable employees to keep working constantly. People are choosing work over family, and money over mental and physical health, which leads them towards the path of stress, anxiety, depression, medical issues, and eventually burnout.

To change this situation, organizations have to start educating their employees on the importance of mental health. They have to build work environments more conducive to better work-life balance through training, internal programs, flexible work arrangements, and wellness initiatives. It will help make work a happy place filled with joy and give them the feeling that they are making an impact in their lives and others’.

Also, teams should have realistic expectations that having collaboration tools to increase productivity does not mean people have to be available all the time. Individuals have to start setting boundaries by blocking their calendars, putting their instant message status on "Do not Disturb" mode and prioritizing their tasks to do more focused and efficient work. Change starts from identifying different distractions in teams and figuring out solutions to enable them to be highly productive and not burn out at the same time. Increased interactions in agile teams do not necessarily have to lead to increased distractions.

Remember that change is possible and starts with making small shifts in your current lifestyle that will eventually set you up for success at work, and with your health and personal life.

About the Author

Raj Subrameyer is a tech career strategist focusing on helping people to land their dream job and become successful leaders. He is passionate about guiding professionals to maximize their opportunities and discover their zone of genius. He uses his experience in the tech industry to research, speak and write about how we can embrace technology and become full-on digital citizens. He is a sought-after speaker at various conferences and has been featured in numerous podcasts and publications, including CEOWORLD Magazine, Authority Magazine, Career Addict, Thrive Global, Addicted2Success, and The Good Men Project. He is also the author of the new book - Skyrocket Your Career. His areas of expertise include career advancement, leadership, motivation, productivity, and entrepreneurship. In his spare time, he loves traveling and enjoying craft beer. You can find more info on how he serves people through his website.

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