In his autobiography, published posthumously in 1791, Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America, wrote about his habit of making to-do lists. Working daily from 5am-1am, he planned his hours meticulously, but always began and ended each day with a question. “What good shall I do this day?” he asked himself every morning. As the evening waned, he would sit down to reflect: “What good have I done today?”
Over two centuries later, lesser mortals grappling with a seemingly unending pandemic have far more mundane concerns to sort out. But to-do lists continue to proliferate, not only on scraps of paper, notebooks or bullet journals, but also dozens of organisational systems and gadgets. Productivity is no longer an idea linked only to economic growth—it’s a condition that enables a few people to get a lot done in shrinking amounts of time. But with its ties to mental health and well-being, productivity has now spawned an industry—with apps, stationery and other tools offering to help us perform at our optimal best at all times. And covid-19, along with the shift to work from home, has made matters more complicated.
“The quantity and quality of work I have produced in 2020 are, in many ways, superior to what I did in 2019,” says Barsali Bhattacharya, a business analyst based in Delhi. “The flexi-hours of working from home and having no commute to office have allowed more time and opportunity to engage deeply with my tasks.” But there have been distractions galore as well—the endless stream of bad news, worries about her parents, who live in another city, a sense of restlessness caused by the lack of physical movement that is part of office-based day jobs. “All that energy got translated into the easy gratification of ordering food on delivery apps and binge-eating,” Bhattacharya says.
We have all been there, done that—and, in fact, are doing it still. By the end of 2020, the food-delivery company Zomato estimated, it had delivered 22 biryanis per minute across India—that’s a staggering 11,563,200 biryanis for the whole year.
Indeed, a major revolution in productivity happened in the 1970s with the advent of ready-to-eat packaged meals in the market helping to massively cut down time spent in the kitchen and allowing more women to join the workforce. But this innovation, what we now call a hack, has outlived its functional practicality and descended into the realm of mindless self-indulgence, more an impediment to productivity than the other way round.
D for distraction
Distraction is the devil every productivity junkie wants to defeat. And the key to doing so often starts with a clear awareness of the goals to achieve.
“I am often called upon by human resources teams to coach employees who are believed to be struggling with productivity,” says Latha Vijaybaskar, a leadership coach and author of Masterstrokes: Re-inventing Leadership In Uncertain Times. The problem, she adds, does not necessarily pertain to the person being lazy or incompetent. “It is usually in their inability to understand what’s work and what’s not—and what completing a task involves,” she says. It’s this “basic lack of alignment between individual goals and the organisation’s ROI (return on investment)” that leads to a crisis of productivity.
The pandemic has made employees all over the globe particularly vulnerable to being laid off or having their salaries axed. The anticipation of such possibilities may turn into stressors, affecting output. “Productivity of an individual depends on their psychological state, the sector in which they work and the role in which they function,” says Rishi Kapal, a transitions coach, marketing consultant, and writer. In his new book, Managing Large Teams, he looks at, among other themes, the challenges of working with “multilocational teams”—a reality that has been brought home by the pandemic.
Of late, the productivity of office-based workers has been determined chiefly by the success with which companies were able to replicate the workplace facilities at home, says Kapal, especially by enabling secure access to data. Technology can be hugely beneficial in accelerating the pace of work with minimum fuss, but companies “should mandate best practices of using technology in their work-from-home or back-to-work policies, including taking breaks from it from time to time,” he adds.
This isn’t a misplaced suggestion. According to a survey by the Gmail-based customer service solutions for teams, Hiver, 55% of millennials in India are spending over two hours on email every day—52% check an email as soon as it lands in their inbox, 56% claim to be constantly striving to reach the Inbox-zero state (no unread emails). Bhattacharya took off email from her phone to avoid checking the device frequently. But now that she’s at home most of the time, her computer is within arm’s reach if she needs to look at something urgently.
Management consultant Sandeep Das, whose latest book, Hacks For Life And Career, is aimed at millennials, admits that email can truly be a productivity sinkhole. “I save it for the second half of the day, opting to work on my key tasks till 1pm,” he says. “I have also changed the way I write emails—using three-four bullet points, each no longer than a line, instead of long-winded passages, asking specific questions or passing on information.” It’s also best not to micromanage employees if you want results, he adds. “If a team is working on a project for a month, as long as I don’t hear from it, I assume it’s going fine.” Obsessive supervision usually tends to have the opposite effect.
“Any form of shame, punishment or negativity is also going to be counter-productive, as such strategies push people into a fight-or-flight survival mode,” Vijaybaskar says. “You may get a small amount of work done by the employee at the time but the output won’t have much creativity or innovation.” In recent years, applications like Slack and Notion have transformed the way managers can track the progress of teams, using these as virtual whiteboards to bring clarity and cohesion to schedules and deliverables.
Ulhas Mandrawadkar, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur who heads a 30-member team, was an early converter to such technologies. He is now on Roam Research, which he describes as “a note-taking app on steroids”. “Notion is for architects who know exactly how they want their work to be organised,” he says. “But Roam is for gardeners, who never know what they are going to need.” With its tagging and linking feature, Roam can generate complex maps of topics that interest its users—no matter the context or time frame in which these may have occurred. “It’s like a library to the internet that is your brain,” adds Mandrawadkar.
Yet, whether you use pen and paper or sophisticated tech to track your tasks, the ultimate key to being a productivity ninja is to be able to enter that state described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “flow”—the window of time every day when you are able to focus and work with high energy and efficiency. “The happiness that you get at the end of such a state is also very productive,” says Vijaybaskar.