Our days are filled with small, unused pockets of time during which most of us turn to smartphones for a short shot of Sudoku, bird-on-pig warfare or some other brief distraction. Designer Stefan Pintaric fills those precious seconds with tiny but rewarding tasks that ultimately make him feel less preoccupied and stressed about work. He calls it being microproductive; here's how it works.
When the clock strikes 5, or 6, or 11.30 (whenever it happens to be that you deem your work day over), it's common to find relief through disconnecting — from your workplace, your clients or from whatever project is occupying your thoughts. This can be harder in practice than in concept: looming deadlines, demanding or irate customers, and one's own perfectionist tendencies can mean the work day never really ends.
Paradoxically, I've found that one of the best ways to stop the constant preoccupation with work is to keep at it, filling my downtime with easily accomplishable yet rewarding tasks. This has become vastly more feasible with the advent of smartphones and tablets, and the ubiquitous presence of the laptop for most professionals.
The key to microproductivity is to eliminate the goal-setting, task-list mentality that we typically employ to keep on top of our workload. Microproductivity instead holds that getting anything done is better than getting nothing done. Don't plan to finish a major task in an unrealistic time-frame; the point of the practice is to squeeze productivity out of whatever time you have.
Instead, consider some of the following points for staying productive on the go. You'll find that nagging anxiety at the back of your mind will fade as you know you're doing the most you can.
Identify true downtime
True downtime is any time where you're waiting for some prerequisite event to resolve in order for you to progress with whatever it is you want to do. The length of these waiting periods then determine what kind of small tasks you might be able to accomplish reasonably before your wait is over.
We encounter these periods of true downtime every day: the queue at the grocer, the elevator ride or the wait for the subway. Periods such as these already see us turning to our phones to check the time, or to see if we've got a new text message from last night's date. These are the ideal times to get microproductive; rather than pushing through yet another level of Angry Birds, get something — anything — done instead.
You can do a lot in 30 seconds
The smallest periods of downtime are the most lucrative from a productivity perspective: They happen with great frequency, adding up to a substantial amount time on the whole. However, since that sum-total time is divided into such small increments, it is important to use those increments for tasks which are realistically accomplish-able within them. Here are a few examples of 30 second tasks:
- Sort your email. Individual messages may vary wildly in length, meaning you might not be able to read a long proposal, but a quick glance at the subjects will let you sort them meaningfully so you can respond appropriately later. If you're using Gmail, setup labels for different task groupings. The more detailed you get here, the more useful to your workflow. If you're an editor, labels like "Rough Draft" "Final Review" and "Pre-Press" are examples of ways to tag your mail so that you can respond to it later. A designer might benefit simply from tagging the extensions of different attached filetypes — ".psd" ".css" ".ai" — from your teammates.
- Set Alarms. Every day has its own schedule, no matter how typically consistent your routine is. Use your elevator ride to set an alarm for when you want to start your lunch, and one 10 minutes before you want to return from it. Those "I lost track of the time" answers when you're arriving late for a meeting will be a thing of the past. Further, you can time your tasks to ensure you're on top of things. Again, as with your inbox, you don't have to set every alarm you'll need for the day in 30 seconds; just thinking of and setting a few will make your day easier.
- Take a "Note to Self". Considering most mobile phones, intelligent or otherwise, have some kind of audio recording capacity, why waste time trying to type out a note to yourself when you could record your own voice? It may seem awkward at first, but as you get into the habit, you'll quickly see that 30 seconds of audio will tend to contain more information — and more coherent information — than your hurried touchscreen or predictive-text memorandums. You'll spend less time trying to decipher your own shorthand, and more time re-connecting with your Eureka moments.
- Update Your Project Status. Whether it's using project management software, a shared Google Calendar, or an email list, quickly checking in with your team to let them know where you're at with your task list is really valuable, and takes next to no time to do.
- Prune Your Contacts. Over the course of a given week, the number of people we communicate with in our professional lives can often lead to our having hundreds or thousands of contacts in our various lists. While retaining this information can be useful for repeat business, oftentimes this can lead to substantial bloat. When you have five different John Smiths and you only ever talk to one, consider eliminating a few of the others. The old fashioned Rolodex had one advantage over the mobile phone: you had to be choosier about whom you put in there.
- Give out your card. Just because you're not in a professional setting doesn't mean you don't have a professional opportunity in front of you. One of the best things you can do to promote yourself remains the tried and tested approach of giving out your card. Start thinking of it when you're out and about on your daily errands; you'll start to see opportunities you may have been ignoring.
Introducing yourself and giving your card to your butcher may well result in his giving you a call to redesign his signage, build him a website, or get in touch with his sister who's a major player at a local design firm. That 30-second handshake and card exchange can have huge payoffs down the road.
Ultimately, you'll start to figure out how best to use your downtime to stay productive your way. The above examples hint at just a few of the activities that can be accomplished in a negligible amount of time, but as you add your own, you'll find the rewards increase exponentially.
So the next time you're on the escalator, in a queue or waiting for the train, think about being microproductive — your inner taskmaster will thank you.
Agree with Stefan? Disagree? Do something similar yourself? Let's hear about it in the comments.
Microproductivity: Not a Second Wasted [Explore Create Repeat]
Stefan Pintaric is the Editor of Explore Create Repeat, a blog put out by the team at 4ormat.com providing inspiration to creative professionals. Explore Create Repeat aims to give its readers content focused on the creative process and its interaction with the challenges of freelancing. Stefan also fronts Toronto weirdrock band Trematron and creates music for local independent game developers as PixelPorn.