The new year begins, resolutions are formulated and most likely I am not the only one who wishes to be less stressed for 2021. In this context, I set out to find practical self-management methods, productivity tips and other approaches that help me to reduce stress or to cope better with high demands respectively. As Bruce Lee once said: «Don't wish for an easy life, wish for the ability to handle a difficult one.»
Productivity self-management tips and methods
Stress and Performance
As humans, we have a stress response when, for example, a situation is new to us, seems unpredictable or uncontrollable, or we associate the situation with a social threat (e.g. fear of embarrassing ourselves in front of a crowd).
It is important to note, however, that stress is not negative per se. Stress can have both positive and negative effects on our well-being, performance and productivity. The relationship between stress and performance was studied already over a hundred years ago by psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson. Their research results became known as the Yerkes-Dodson Law.
The Yerkes-Dodson Law
The Yerkes-Dodson law states that stress is beneficial to a certain degree in certain activities because it brings energy and drive. If the optimal amount of stress is exceeded, performance decreases again. The optimal amount of stress depends on the activity. Those who have to work on complex tasks and do intellectually challenging things need concentration and can tolerate less stress, while routine tasks or well-trained activities can even benefit from stress and get a productivity boost.
If you want to increase your resistance to stress in general, you can look into the concept of resilience. Resilience is a term originating in materials sciences and describes the resilience of a material.
The good news is that every individual can make a contribution to increasing his or her own resilience. Indeed, resilience research shows that, among other things, creating meaning in life or cultivating (geographically) close relationships significantly increase resilience and therewith increase your resistance to stress and your capacity to regenerate better after stressful situations. In the words of the philosopher Nietzsche, «when you have a strong ‘why’, no ‘how’ is too hard.»
If you want to dive deeper into findings from stress and resilience research and learn nine concrete tips, you can do so in my interview with stress researcher Prof. Gregor Hasler (click here for the article in English and podcast in German on this blog).
What Responsibility Do You Carry?
The purpose of this text is to help us cope better with the demands of everyday work life and to establish methods, tricks or self-management systems that support us in achieving this goal.
So, before I list a few approaches below that I already use or want to experiment with, I would like to offer a question here as a starting point that everyone must answer for themselves. As the name implies, self-management methods can only work and help with our productivity if they fit into an individual's daily life and are adapted to its individual challenges.
This powerful question comes from Jerry Colonna (here talking on the Tim Ferriss Show) and is a very potent starting point for your own reflection. The question is: In what ways am I responsible for the conditions and situations I am not happy with?
The answers to this question are as varied as our individual circumstances. The answers can range from very simple (such as «I shouldn't read emails before I go to sleep.») to very complex circumstances (such as «I've grown apart with my partner, but I'm afraid of the break-up.»).
The question of responsibility is primarily not intended to put the burden on your shoulders and cause further stress, but to show that in many situations you can exert more influence to improve the circumstances than you might think.
This kind of self-efficacy - the ability to contribute to improving the situation yourself - is an effective antidote to stress, which, as we know, can be caused by loss of control. So, take pen and paper and invest enough time for your own reflection and for identifying your own personal fields of action.
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Approaches and Resolutions on Offer for Less Stress and More Productivity
None of us - me included - manage to consistently stick to our resolutions and keep them for an extended length of time. Research has shown that it is more promising to formulate resolutions where we start a new behavior, as opposed to those where we try to stop a behavior.
For this reason, I have formulated my approaches and resolutions so that they can be started as new behaviors. I share my approaches and resolutions with you in the hope that one or two methods may serve as inspiration or starting points for your own self-management systems.
1) Meetings and the Right Choice of Schedule
The programmer, investor and co-founder of Y Combinator in Silicon Valley Paul Graham distinguishes between «maker schedules» and «manager schedules» - i.e. between the scheduling and daily organization of the makers and the managers.
Managers coordinate, delegate and decide next steps. To do this, you need (virtual) meetings, which are usually incorporated into the daily structure at hourly intervals. A good manager's day is a good meetings day, where many things were clarified, planned, organized, delegated and decided.
For makers who code, build, write or developing a new concept, this hourly cycle is a disaster. Because nothing ambitious can be created in an hour and interruptions are costly. Creative, ambitious work requires an undisturbed half or full day. Accordingly, a single inconveniently scheduled meeting can ruin an entire creative day by cutting up the morning or afternoon.
To summarize: The creative productivity of makers requires a different schedule than the coordinative productivity of managers. This results in several things:
- You have to ask yourself which schedule is the right one for your own goals and priorities and block out appropriate time slots in your schedule. On certain days or at certain times, each of us is sometimes a manager, sometimes a maker, and we have to take this into account by creating time slots for ourselves. For example, I block out at least every other Friday (my "Joy Work Friday") where I don't take appointments, phone calls, or read emails. This guarantees that I have a window of time to be creatively productive. This in turn takes pressure off the other days.
- It is effective to schedule meetings at off-peak times and to concentrate them on one half of the day so that as much of the morning or afternoon as possible can be used for demanding, creative work. This is a favor to coworkers and to yourself.
- You have to ask yourself if purely speculative meetings (e.g., to get to know someone and grab a coffee) or meetings without a clear reason for your involvement, are really valuable enough to risk focused work.
- It is worthwhile to talk to coworkers, customers and other stakeholders to understand what kind of schedule they are working to. Perhaps collaboration can be improved for everyone in this way.
2) Setting Priorities with Eisenhower
Setting priorities is one of the great mantras. But which methods help here reliably and simply?
Most of you are probably familiar with the so-called Eisenhower principle, according to which we divide our tasks into both important / unimportant and urgent / not urgent. The easiest way to do this is with a matrix.
By dividing our full to-do lists into these categories, we create prioritization. Tasks that are important and urgent we must tackle ourselves and complete immediately, while unimportant and non-urgent tasks can be ignored altogether. Everything that is urgent but not very important can be delegated. For everything that is important but not urgent, we set a date when we will take care of the task ourselves. When setting a deadline, we can pay attention to what kind of task it is (remember the maker vs. manager scheduling and Yerkes-Dodson: Is the task intellectually demanding and requires rest and concentration or is it a routine task that you can fit into a hectic day somewhere?).
3) The 1 Minuten Rule
If a task can be done in less than a minute, tackle it right now and get it out of the way. Out of sight, out of mind and more capacity for the important things.
4) Mental Clean Up with Routines
The poet W.H. Auden is known for the quote «Routine in an intelligent person is a sign of ambition» - a statement I fully subscribe to.
Routines are very useful in many things: Referring to the Eisenhower principle, we could formulate the routine that at the end of the working day we sort the remaining tasks according to Eisenhower, prioritize them and thus set up a clear plan for the following day.
This example of a routine has, among other things, the advantages that by writing down tasks, we have lightened our brain and tidied it up mentally. That way we can start more liberated into the end of the day with family, friends or our hobby.
The brain is there to generate ideas, not to hold them. The routine gives us more capacity for new thoughts or focused work.
Another routine I find effective is to incorporate some kind of exercise between the end of the workday and the beginning of your leisure time - whether it's going to the gym, taking a long walk, jogging, doing yoga etc. Especially in times of working from home, it is important and effective to clearly draw the line between office and home with such routines.
5) Email Hours
The email inbox must not become our to-do list. It is important to me to decide on my most important tasks myself (with the help of Eisenhower) and I must not lose sight of it because of the flood of emails.
A workday at the end of which I could cross some things off my to-do list is much more satisfying and better for my productivity than a day in which I primarily answered dozens of emails.
If the email flood is too big or demand for undisturbed, in-depth work increases, one solution can be to set up a kind of email office hours. For example, we can concentrate our email work in two time slots per day. In an automated out-of-office message or in our signature, we could share this information with collaborators and partners. Here's a simple example:
PS: I work on my emails on weekdays between 8:30 - 9:30 am as well as between 1:00 - 2:00 pm.
These email hours can be oriented to the maker’s or manager's schedule, thus giving us room for maneuver and freedom for focused work, and yet we are still available for important concerns of stakeholders every day.
When viewing or filtering emails during email consultation hours, we can also apply the Eisenhower principle. Important and urgent tasks in the inbox go on the to-do list for the rest of the day, unimportant and non-urgent emails can be ignored until we have time for them.
6) Undivided Attention
Multitasking doesn't work for me and harms my productivity. By quickly switching back and forth between different tasks and topics we waste energy. That's why I always ask myself before I read emails or take a phone call whether I am now able to devote myself to the person or topic.
For example: If I have a video conference to moderate in 5 minutes, I will not read emails or take phone calls unrelated to the video conference in the 5 minutes before.
If the person's concern is urgent, I can't respond adequately at that moment anyway, and if it's not urgent, I don't have to deal with it immediately anyway either. The only risk then is that I'll be distracted during the video conference and won't be able to give my full attention to the people and issues there.
So I ask myself the question: Am I now in a position to invest at least 5 minutes to process a topic - be that in the sense of delegating, scheduling or responding directly?
7) The Important Things in Life
One of the most memorable metaphors for me has to do with how we lead our lives and use our time. You could also say that this metaphor serves each individual to find their work-life balance. The metaphor - whose originator I can't remember - goes like this:
We have an empty glass in front of us. Also on the table in front of us are a few golf balls, some marbles, and a pile of sand. The golf balls stand for the most important things in life, the marbles are also relevant and the sand stands for the everyday things that also need our attention.
Now, what happens if we fill the glass with sand first? The glass will be full and neither the marbles nor the golf balls will find a spot. But if we start with the golf balls, we will also be able to add a few marbles, and the sand will still find its place somewhere in the cracks and gaps between the golf balls and marbles.
The moral of the story: If we don't plan for the most important things in life first and make room for them, we run the risk that they won't get the place they deserve. Conversely, the everyday things will always somehow still find a slot.
What are your golf balls, marbles and grains of sand?
Quite frankly and honestly, I don't manage to stick to my own resolutions every time. Maybe not even half the time. But every time I do, I have improved my everyday life a bit and enriched it with quality of life and reduced stress.
And the fact that the approaches and resolutions compiled in this text don't come across as very groundbreaking is more of a strength than a weakness because that means that they are relatively easy to implement and can still have a high impact.
What methods or self-management systems will you set up for yourself, or what tricks do you already use? I would be happy to read from you so that we can expand the repertoire of tricks for all readers.
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