Plan And Prioritise Your Way to Productivity Zen

The data is in and we are all struggling to use our work time as effectively as possible. We are hit with notifications almost constantly, the number of different apps we use keeps growing and we’re drowning under a rising data tide. How do we become more productive in the face of this tidal wave of busyness?

Matt Cowdroy, from Think Productive, presented some interesting data at a workshop about achieving productivity zen. He says we spend 2.5 hours each day just looking for information. We have also many tools and data repositories that we’ve landed in a world where data sprawl is a reality. And the volume of data we’re faced with is doubling every 14 months and that rate is increasing.

At the same time, we are expected to “communicate” even more than ever before. Cowdroy said that many of us spend up to 80% of our time “communicating”. But the reality is we’re not actually communicating but really managing notifications and messages.

When you add those numbers together, it’s little wonder we spend more time working but feel that we’re getting less done. We are overwhelmed.

Cowdroy says we need to offload some of that data we used to store on our heads to an “second brain” – an external tool that holds the information we need.

Evernote senior Vice President Norm Happ said that feeling of being overwhelmed is common.

His advice is to think about what you need to get done, plan when it’s best to get things done and stay on track. A big part of that is setting up a work environment that supports great productivity.


According to Happ, about 20 million meetings are held per day across the world. But two-thirds of attendees say meetings are unproductive and almost half say they’re a waste of time.

He offered the following tips.

  1. Plan meetings so that you have the right people with their roles defined.
  2. Ensure meeting rooms are suitable and comfortable.
  3. Keep meetings as short as possible. He recommends 20 minute or 50 minute times so people have time each hour to keep up with email and have time for bathroom breaks if they have back to back meetings.
  4. Establish goals and expectations for the meetings .
  5. Start with a positive and look at what’s been completed previously rather than what’s not yet done.
  6. Follow up actions promptly – less that 24 hours.


When it comes to email, both Cowdroy and Happ said you need to set boundaries and stick to them.

For example, Cowdroy takes his email offline when he’s focussing on specific tasks. And he uses an app called Forest ($2.99 from iOS App Store) which gamifies staying on task. When you don’t get distracted by email, social media or other off-task activities, a new tree is added to your forest.

Happ noted that email is not really about your priorities. Email that comes from other people is about what’s important to them, not you. He also scraps email his cc’ed on, admitting that he doesn’t pay it any attention and that he only reads about a third of the email directly addressed to him.

In my case, I’ve quarantined email to two time slots per day when I’m working. I check my email at about 9:30 each morning and in the mid-afternoon.

Information Access

With the volume of information we are faced with growing daily, Happ said we need to find ways to reduce the 2.5 hours we’re spending each day we’re looking for our work instead of doing our work.

As a senior exec at Evernote, it’s obvious he has a vested interest in pointing us towards that product. But his advice was sound.

You need to have a single place for information to be stored that is accessible to everyone at any time and from anywhere. He said the company rule at Evernote is that all information, other than a very small and specific set of information, is open and accessible to everyone. That means all meeting notes and financial information, for example, is open to all staff with payroll and HR data, and other similarly sensitive information more limited.

By having a single place for information to be stored, the concerns about who has the latest version of a file and having one place to store and find everything can help redirect that 2.5 hour time sink.

Learn To Say No

“‘No’ is a complete sentence,” said Happ.

While we all want to be helpful, it’s important to be able to say no to tasks that distract us from when we need to do.

It’s a simple lesson that I know I find hard to learn.

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