Let's now consider the specific context of our work environments. The way we engage with our digital tools in these typical modern workplaces can affect our productivity.
We can think of how we work in terms of four aspects: workspace, work tools, work styles, and workflow.
Our Work Space
Is your workspace inspiring and energizing, or does it make you feel stressed?
Research has identified a link between large open-plan offices and poor productivity. Our physical work environments can affect our performance and distract us in numerous ways.
This includes factors such as noise, temperature, lighting, and interruptions from coworkers. And if we work from home or in a distributed way, there are other distractions that can also come into play, such as family members demanding attention, and chores that need to be done.
Getting intentional about how you set up your workspace, helps support your ability to be intentionally productive.
Here are three suggested ways you can improve the physical aspects of your workplace.
Number 1: Can you create flexible workspaces or areas which support the different types of work that you need to do?
For example, a quiet space for writing, idea generation, or other forms of deep work. Or a more social space for when you're doing more shallow types of work that you don't mind being disturbed.
For more information about the difference between deep and shallow work, reference Cal Newport's writings on the topic.
Number 2: Can you design or redesign your space, taking into account the five senses?
This could involve using natural and eco-friendly materials, inspiring colors and textures, or moving your desk so that you have more access to more natural light.
And introducing plants and flowers to workspaces have been shown to improve people's mood. Studies have also found that scents like lavender can make us calmer and more focused.
Number 3: Do you need to be working inside all of the time?
Studies show that walking and being in nature are both beneficial for our brain's performance. Can you head outdoors for a brainstorming session or a walking meeting?
Our Work Tools
For knowledge workers, our work tools typically comprise things like email, meetings, video chats, and messaging. There are also calendars, time, and project management tools.
And then there's the specific specialist software we might need to make and create with.
Collectively this environment is known as the digital workplace.
These tools are meant to help us do our work well, but the way we use them can also hinder our focus and outputs.
When we keep our email or instant messaging open in the background, that draws us into participating in a perpetual, continuous collective conversation, where we are guided by someone else's requests and demands and therefore easily distracted.
The notifications, dings, and pings associated with these conversations are dopamine triggers. On average, emails are opened within six seconds of their arrival, and many of us are on permanent standby, refreshing whilst we wait for the next hit or response.
Research has also shown that having our smartphones in line of sight is detrimental for productivity, as it splits our attention in two. When we need to do deep, focused work, this means we're only bringing half of our cognitive energy to the task at hand.
Unstructured, unnecessary meetings can also be a drain on our time and energy.
So how can you manage these elements of your digital workplace so that they don't cause overwhelm or disrupt your focus?
- Can you create different routines for the different types of work that you do?
- Can you turn off your notifications and close apps when you're not using them?
- Can you put your smartphone away, so it's not visible in your work area?
- Can you set boundaries and expectations for coworkers, clients, and family members as to when you're available and when you're not?
- Do your meetings have a clear intention, purpose, and planned outcome? Are they really necessary? Could they be a call or an email instead?
There are two common types of communication styles associated with our digital work.
The first is synchronous communication. This prioritizes being connected over being productive.
We have a deluge of demands and information coming at us all the time. As mentioned previously, we have got into the habit of being available, accessible, and responsive to these demands, continuously, in real-time, all the time.
This is a reactive way of working, which over the long term affects our concentration. It can cause us to feel more anxious and stressed because we're permanently on distracted standby. And stress and anxiety can be terrible for productivity.
Research indicates that a lot of us are spending as much as 80% of our workday on email, messaging, and status meetings. When we are plugged into these perpetual conversations, it makes it impossible to have long, uninterrupted periods of time during the workday to get the real work done.
And that's why we end up coming in early or working late, usually because it's quieter, and we have time and space to think, so we can focus better.
On the other end of the scale, we have asynchronous communication.
Working asynchronously means working out of time. You take control over how and when you communicate with your team, colleagues, or clients. This communication style places productivity before connection.
It means turning off notifications, closing messaging, and only responding to other's requests or communications at a time that works for you.
For many knowledge workers, being able to designate when they work and when they're available to communicate, is proving to be better for their wellbeing and productivity. It also helps us to accommodate the other responsibilities in our lives better too.
After the big global "stay at home, work from home" experiment we've gone through, even more companies are incorporating this style of working into their culture.
There will always be times when you need to be available and accessible. So the solution is a blended approach, blocking sections of time in your days when you do focused, uninterrupted work, and then other sections for meetings, emails, and other busywork.
A workflow helps you to plan and organize how you begin, work on, and complete your projects and business processes.
It can include tasks, information, automation, documents, outputs, and deliverables.
A workflow is meant to help you to work in a more focused, efficient, and productive way,
However, when we work on our own or in small teams, we often fill many roles, and it's easy to feel inundated with the number of varied work tasks we need to complete.
Unsupportive workflows can also hinder our ability to perform well at work.
Let's consider workflow from the perspective of systems and processes.
Your system is the overall way that you do things. It's the way you run your business and the framework for managing your team, clients, and projects.
Your processes are all the things you do to make your system work effectively and efficiently.
There are usually three layers to managing workflow in a digital workplace.
First, there's some form of overall tracking system or project management tool.
Then, there's a task list of activities and to-dos.
Third, we use some form of the calendar to designate, allocate, and prioritize time for these tasks and activities.
To be able to work with intentional productivity, it's important that you have some degree of control over your calendar and can devise a personal workflow.
You need to be able to schedule your tasks in a way that works for you and supports your focus.
For example, do you prefer to work on multiple projects in one day? Or is it more effective for you to take on a single project for a day or two, before starting the next?
Can you schedule a time for things like self-care practices, solitude, socialization, and rest periods in your workday?
So, consider your workspace, work tools, work styles, and workflow.
How much of your typical day are you spending on each type of work you need to do in your role?
What's your predominant communication style? And how do your environment, tools, and processes impact your ability to focus?
Which aspects of your work style and workflow might not be supporting your productivity and wellbeing?
Get clear on what needs to be prioritized and embed wellbeing practices into your workflows.
Whether you are a company of one, or many, to make intentional productivity a norm in your work culture, you need to ensure you're setting aside sufficient time and space for focused work and creative thinking.
In the next lesson, I'll be talking in more detail about stress and procrastination.