The typical small business owner is stressed out, overworked, wears many hats, and is most likely annoyed with the circumstances. And since they have to deal with so many tasks, they often have no time to focus on more important projects–the ones that can add more to the company’s bottom line.
So what should business owners do? More often than not, we put in more hours to compensate. We work all day, stay up late, and sacrifice our weekends. Unfortunately, our efforts result only in barely keeping things the way they are.
Perhaps more frustratingly, most of the time we put in during these long hours isn’t even 100 percent productive. We go through our massive email inbox; look for and waste time downloading productivity apps on our smartphone, and browse our social media accounts. Next thing you know it, you’re watching a funny cat video or three.
Here’s what you can do to get out of this vicious cycle and actually do more work in less time:
Don’t rely on willpower alone
You might think that you need more willpower to stay productive. In reality, willpower alone isn’t enough. According to various studies, self-control/willpower is a finite mental resource that can be entirely used up. That means we might not always have the same amount of willpower at any given time; thus, there will be days when we’re more susceptible to giving in.
The problem is that if we fail once, we slip right back to our old procrastinating habits. And when this happens, it’s hard to get back on track. This is especially challenging when working on a major task because we tend to visualize its toughest bits, which causes us to delay.
Our brain then copes with this difficulty by engaging with busywork (e.g. Facebooking, net surfing) to pass the time.
To find answers to this predicament, we should look at what productive people do. Based on research by Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, expert performers didn’t spend more time practicing (proof: they usually get more sleep than regular people).
What sets these performers apart is that they were more productive when they rehearsed. Ericsson defined it as “deliberate practice”, where there is a deliberate effort to improve performance.
In other words, elite performers spent more time and energy on the most difficult tasks. For instance, if you want to get better at football, your efforts would be more successful if you regularly perform increasingly difficult drills instead of just casually kicking a ball with your friends every day.
Just do it
But wait–deliberate practice involves more effort and willpower on our part. How exactly can we stay consistently productive if we need to use a finite mental resource? There’s only one way to go about this: you simply have to start.
After you take the first step, human nature would take its course. There’s this concept called the Zeigarnik effect, which is our psychological tendency to remember unfinished tasks instead of completed ones. By knowing this, you can count on the fact that you can become productive by simply getting started.
Once you start, your main challenge is to remain productive and make a conscious effort to performing difficult tasks (i.e. deliberate practice). Here are a few ways how:
Take short breaks
A study by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration revealed that taking short breaks between long work intervals led to better alertness and focus. Other research has shown to verify these findings, stating that 90 minutes of work that are followed by 15-minute breaks coincide with the human body’s energy cycle. Taking this approach to work can help sustain your energy and help you stay focused
The method is particularly effective because you get to go all out in large chunks of time, with a planned 15-minute break to help you recover energy. There’s no need to pace yourself here; you’ll be motivated to work immediately on the more challenging tasks.
Monitor your activity
According to research by the University of Minnesota, people who strictly monitored their diet were able to do better in maintaining it. There are a couple of possible explanations for this: first, monitoring your activity shows you what you’ve actually done, not how much you think you’ve accomplished. This compels you to be more responsible. Secondly, monitoring your activity is a useful way to keep yourself from engaging in busywork.
Multitasking does not work. True multitasking is the simultaneous execution of more than one task. Apart from unconscious actions, what we humans do is actually task-switching; when we alternate between activities, our brains need time to change gears and gain momentum. Thus, our version of multitasking actually hurts our productivity and can cause mistakes.
To prevent ourselves from unconsciously multitasking our activities, we need to make a conscious effort to avoid the things that may distract us. For instance, you can keep your smartphone on silent and out of sight while working; Install tools like StayFocusd or Cold Turkey on your computer to help you focus, and limit the times you check your email.
Develop an evening planning ritual
Another way to help yourself stay productive is by planning the tasks you want to carry out the next day. This approach is better than planning your activities on the same morning because it frees our time and allows us to focus on the things we need to do. Furthermore, if we start our day without a plan, we tend to slip back to busywork