It’s Not The Tools—It’s How You Use Them

“It’s just manic here. I have, like, no time.” Liz Ross, a marketing contractor at a global tech company, is speaking to me on the phone in a hushed voice, between meetings.

“I always wonder how much time we waste in our day writing the pleasantries in emails. ‘Dear Juliette,’” she lilts.“‘I hope you had a wonderful weekend … Just following up on below …’”.

But routine courtesies are just the beginning of why Liz has, like, no time.

Each day, she starts work by logging into five platforms. Yes, five. There’s the corporate equivalent of WhatsApp which she begins to check on the bus. At her desk, she starts the day ploughing through “X number of emails unread.” She logs into Microsoft Teams (a Slack rival) and takes stock of activities since she was last online. Next, she scans her calendar and then goes over her own to-do list. The day is a steady stream of emails, messages, mentions, notifications, alerts, meetings, phone calls, and y’know, talking with people.

“They told us technology would fundamentally change our working lives. Well, it has.”

“It’s not so much being worried that you’re gonna forget stuff. It’s that you’re like ‘wait a second, the admin that I need to do between all these different platforms is just overwhelming.’

“But if I’m prepped and have done like an hour of admin in the morning, first thing, I feel like I am far more efficient.”Wait…anhourof morning admin? Before doing any actual work?They told us technology would fundamentally change our working lives. Well, it has.

The rise of SAAS (software as a service) and our collective obsession with productivity have spawned a vortex of softwares and tools that promise nothing short of helping us to fulfill our human potential. Forget Mary Oliver and kneeling down in the grass, being “idle and blessed.”

But are all these tools and technologies actually helping us to achieve what we want? Or are they getting in the way?“I feel like I’m constantly online and people are coming at me from all different areas,” Liz says. “I think technology is there to alleviate the stress, but the amount of technology that’s on offer is actually heightening it.”

So, what can we do to tame the productivity-tech beast?

Part 1. Principles

There are so many new technologies coming out constantly, practical tips for specific tools won’t cut it. We need guiding principles.

Principle 1: Control what you can

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” wrote Annie Dillard.

But there you are, sitting in an open plan office, wearing silent headphones to signaldon’t talk to me. Your fingernail scratchings can practically be seen on the door frames where you’ve been dragged into meetings. You swat at Slack mentions like they’re mosquitoes.

How we spend our days isn’t exactly of our own choosing. But you need to control what you can.

Laura Mae Martin is Google’s executive productivity advisor, consulting with the head honchos on their productivity strategies and generallyhelping Googlers be as productive as possible.

“Executives may have more control over their schedule, but actually maybe even less control over their environments!” Laura says. “They are dealing with things that pop up all the time and require decisions from them on urgent matters, important phone calls, etc.

“(Almost) everyone has a boss and 3 top priorities so my advice is very similar from an Exec to an employee: Pick the things that are most important (your meeting with your boss or your Slack channels that need your responses ASAP) and then let the other noise fall to the background.

“We all have a level of control on how we spend our time, it’s just about being intentional and thinking far enough in advanced to do it.”

Principle 2: Assert yourself

Let me guess what you’re thinking.I would be more productive, but I’m stuck with a boss and office culture that expects me to be constantly responsive.

Abigail Ireland, an executive performance consultant based in London, works with people and businesses to boost productivity. She also runs aSkillshare courseon the matter.

For those who feel frustrated, Ireland has some straight shooting advice: be assertive.

“If the solution can be summed up in one word, it would be this: habits.”

“This is definitely challenging but it boils down to self-management and having the courage to speak up and set your boundaries,” she says.“Value yourself and you’ll find that others will start to value you and your time too. It’s a big mindset shift but so important.”

Principle 3: Remember, you’re the boss

In an epic 75-minute read onhow to configure your iPhone to work for you, not against you, Tony Stubblebine, CEO and founder, starts with an underlying principle: “your phone is a tool, not a boss.”

It’s a rule that should apply to all of our tech.

“Nothing in the status quo, not your laptop, not your phone, not your office environment, is setup for real productivity,” Stubblebine says. “However, almost always, you can reconfigure those things to fit your work style.

“Email bosses check their email on a schedule … Slack bosses know the definition of the word asynchronous. Just because someone sent you a private message doesn’t mean you need to respond right away … The entire idea of tool, not boss, is that everything you do should be moving your goals forward.”

Part 2. Practical tips

One thing is clear: Taming the prod-tech beast is like wrestling a wild animal to the ground. But if the solution can be summed up in one word, it would be this: habits.

Marshall Hughes, a coach andlogistics startup co-founderhimself says, “In productivity I’m yet to meet someone whose life wasn’t improved by putting in a couple of basic habits.

Tip 1: Triage email

Let’s start with the biggest beast in the zoo: email.

Hughes’21 Days To Inbox Zerois a list of follow-along steps that include triaging emails to either respond within two minutes, or return to them later during an allocated time. The steps also put you on a path to limiting your own email compulsions, while also setting up other people’s expectations not to receive a response.

“Everybody will say ‘but I am the exception to that rule.’ And that’s where we need to challenge their thinking,” says Hughes.

“The one or two minute thing almost always works. And it almost always works if the person has, at some stage in their daily routine, time set aside to sit down and actually go through the triaging of the emails.”

Tip 2: Cull notifications

Every app wants to send you notifications for any number of reasons.

“What you’re doing when you enable notifications on your phone is you’re saying … ‘I’m giving everyone in the world the ability and the permission to interrupt and to decide what my priorities should be,’” says Hughes.

If you’re dealing with a notification-heavy tool like Slack, Hughes says the first thing you should do is turn all notifications off. Then reintroduce only the alerts that you want.

“Slack is really really good at letting you control what notifications you receive. So you can choose certain keywords, and certain specific channels, or if you’re mentioned or there’s a DM coming through. It’s about going cold turkey but then having a look at when do you really want to be notified.

“By limiting the notifications that you enable, you know that there is something happening that is important enough to interrupt you.”

Tip 3: Advice for managers—let people get offline

Managers play a critical role in setting the tone and culture when it comes to prod-tech.

Kendra Kinnisonwhose coaching ranges from leadership and resiliencein the face of disasters like Hurricane Harvey,to forming a habit forflossing your teeth, says “If leaders set it up well they can make it so that others in the organisation have a smoother work environment.”

“The two biggest [tips] would be to give permission for folks to have quiet focussed time, and let people know thatweekly [review] rhythmof reflection and planning is quite valuable.”

By setting up “an intentional rhythm” of meetings, reviews and information-sharing, Kinnison says teams can be “aligned and productive” without having to be online constantly.

“Take score of their progress at the end of a week or deadline … not based on what they are doing minute by minute—everyone works differently.”

Ireland says managers need to give their teams “permission to switch off notifications and be offline entirely.” And Martin echoes this, saying that managers need to understand “that deep, focused work is just as important as meetings or being at your desk.

“If someone says they need to work from home one day to get everything done without distractions, let them! Take score of their progress at the end of a week, deadline, or quarter, not based on what they are doing at their desk minute by minute—everyone works differently.”

Simply being online and responsive is probably not an indicator of success. Managers need to remember why their employees are online at all—to do a job—and let them do it.

Tip 4: Advice for coworkers—let’s give each other some space

Finally, take a moment to check yourself. Areyoua compulsive pinger or serial interruptor?

“I … don’t Slack or ping anyone if the answer can wait for an email response,” says Martin. “I assume they are being intentional about their time just like me and don’t want to interrupt their work flow.”

Pro-tip from Kinnison: “Planned communication is often more helpful” than incessant pinging or top-of-mind interactions.

“Keep a running agenda of what you’d like to talk about with each person and have quality time with that person. I call it like having a little agenda where I keep a notepad open for each person and jot down things I’d like to talk about with each of my key team members. Instead of pinging them every time I have a question. Usually you can save them up and have a little delay so we’re not pinging each other all the time.

“[It’s] that notion of ‘let’s give each other space to do our work.’”

So let’s do it. Let’s leave each other alone.

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