Posts Tagged ‘productivity’

Thoughts from the beach

June 7, 2012 Leave a comment

I recently returned from a break of over two weeks off work, which included a 10 day holiday in Barbados. This came at the right time, following a very intense period on my current project which has been full-on since Christmas. I returned to work refreshed, and relieved to find my deputy summarising events by saying “you’ll find a lot of emails about a lot of things, but basically, the last one says, ‘Thanks.'” Naturally as I return my break has given me some fresh perspective and a few observations.

Time to switch off is important; I didn’t realise how stressed I was until I discovered how relaxed I had become. I think it’s important with a stressful job to have a two-week break because it always takes me a couple of days to forget about work including all the things I forgot to do before I left. Then two or three days before going back to work I start to think about it again. By taking over two weeks it meant I forgot about work altogether for at least ten days – a break of just a week means I hardly turn off. I’m sure I’m not alone in being like this (I know others who say the same). On this occasion, immediately before going away we attended a big social event, which really helped to get work out of my system straight away and I started my holiday proper with a clear mind.

As the holiday drew to an end, and on the overnight flight (I can never sleep on planes), my thoughts naturally started to return to the work facing me on my return. When I’m in the middle of the daily routine I normally find I’m so busy dealing with all the immediate tasks in hand that I never have the chance to look beyond the immediate to the longer term. Too often urgent tasks crowd out the important but less important. I don’t spend enough time thinking strategically – what do I need to do now to make things better in 3-6 months? Never mind anything longer term than that. Being away from work allowed me to think about these things, and act on my return to bring some of it about before the moment was lost.

The other thing a period of leave gives me is a chance to reassess my own work. Again, this doesn’t happen enough at work because I’m too busy. Some things I need to do personally – push back more with some of the random requests I get from management. Also I need to offload some more tasks to others as I’m just too busy in general. Luckily I can do that at the moment as I have some capable people who can take some of these things on – which isn’t always the case.

A couple of side notes: firstly I couldn’t believe how many people took laptops on holiday – it’s the last thing I want!

Secondly I noticed that the waiting staff at the hotel restaurant addressed their manager as “Sir”. At the team meeting following my return I suggested this might be something we should consider copying, but the rest of my team were of a different opinion!

Some other views:

The Case for Vacations – Emily Pines, The Energy Project

The Importance of Vacations, for Stress Relief, Productivity and Health – Elizabeth Scott

The Importance of Taking a Vacation – Mary Abbajay

Take Vacation The Journey, April 2011


Energy and Sleep

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

My current project has recently been at a critical point. We have all been very busy and I have had to focus hard and maintain a high level of productivity

Last year I stumbled across the Energy Project. I did the quiz then read the book, which explained what I have always felt (perhaps it reinforced some of my prejudices) – that the typical work day doesn’t lend itself to getting much done. In particular it drew my attention to the significance of our bodies’ natural rhythms, especially understanding the importance of the work/recovery cycle both within the day as well as the more obvious daily one.

A lot of this is either obvious really, not least the need for adequate sleep. Margaret Thatcher reputedly needed little more than four hours’ sleep per night when Prime Minister, but she was the exception. In today’s 24/7 society there are so many calls on our time, something has to give, so sleep loses out. This is especially true in a macho business culture (I don’t think it’s as bad today as it was) – I bet I’m not alone in getting emails from colleagues at midnight to prove how hard-working they are. Yet we fool ourselves. I always feel the effects of a late night or a bad night’s sleep on my productivity the next day. I doubt many of my colleagues are different.

I’ve always noticed that I have a strong body clock. I’m a morning person and I’ve never liked late nights (even as a student). I always wake up at the same time every morning regardless of what time I went to bed. In fact I never use an alarm clock; I’m always awake within a few minutes of 6:30. So I’ve never been inclined to work late into the evenings. But time runs out in the evening before I’ve finished what I had planned to do, and I sometimes used to keep going otherwise it would be next week before I could carry on with it. And I’ve also often found it difficult to switch off and get to sleep straight away when I do go to bed.

Reading the Energy Project encouraged me to pay some attention to my sleep patterns. I already knew that I needed a good seven and a half hours sleep per night, so to be sure I get it I ought to allow eight – which means in bed by 10:30. This year I have been much more rigorous about it and feel better for it. I noticed that, counter intuitively, I get to sleep more quickly when I go to bed early, rather than later. It also works best if I go to bed regularly at the same time. Both may be due to the body’s natural 90-minute ultradian rhythm – if I miss the right point in one cycle I have to wait for the next one. l

The other key thing is to allow time to wind down, by gradually relaxing both brain and body. I now try to limit computer use to before 9:30 (I tried 9:00 originally, but found that didn’t leave enough time in the evening to do anything at all, by the time dinner and family routine was out of the way). So now rather than switching off the computer and going straight to bed, I now try to relax, and also to get everything ready for breakfast and work the next day, which also helps me to get off to a quick start in the morning.

Making these small changes to my routine has made a clear difference to my energy levels, and my performance.


Some suggestions on how to get a good night’s sleep.

A short article on the effects of sleep deprivation.

Categories: Work Tags: ,

Where the time goes: monthly admin

December 29, 2010 Leave a comment

I have recently been planning a new phase of work, and one of the issues I had to consider was how much work (if any) I could assign to myself. So I have been doing some analysis of how I actually spend my time, compared to what is in the project plan.

After email, the next big killer of time is the weekly and monthly status reporting cycle. As a development project for a consultancy firm, this comes in two separate streams of work; weekly status meetings and updates for the client, and monthly project reporting to my management. On top of that there are some routine administrative tasks that have to be carried out each month.

Weekly status reporting

I have two separate weekly meetings, one with my own project team, and a wider client project team meeting. Both take at least an hour, and also I always need some preparation time for my own team meeting and to send out minutes at the end, which usually means 4 hours per week for both.

I have to provide a weekly report to the client PM; this is very simple and takes only about half an hour, additionally I need to keep the plan up to date, review risks/issues and if I keep on top of it I can do that in an hour.

The other thing I have to do weekly is complete a timesheet recording how I have spent my time, to justify to the client how they are spending their money (if it is a time and materials contract) which takes me a few minutes a day if I record it as I go along, so perhaps 30 minutes per week.

This is a total of 6 hours per week.

Monthly status reporting

Monthly reporting is aimed at my management, written reports around month end followed by a review meeting a week or so later.

I have to write a monthly status report, which although not too arduous involves reviewing and updating quite a lengthy document due to the size of my project historically. This usually takes about an hour and a half. More importantly, I have to complete a financial report; luckily most of the work is done for me (when I used to do it in the past it used to take me a couple of days spread through the month) so all I have to do is check it and deal with any discrepancies and anomalies, and this takes me about two hours.

Finally there is the review meeting itself; with preparation this takes me about an hour and a half. Of course I usually get some actions following the meeting, and I’m not even counting the time spent on those.

That’s 5 hours per month altogether.

Company administration

There are a number of personal or project-related admin tasks that I have to do throughout the month.

Of these the most significant is raising invoices, which can be time-consuming to ensure it is correct and requires reconciliation against timesheets and leave bookings to make sure they are all in line. Surprisingly this takes 2.5 hours, even though someone else actually does some of the routine work.

Then there are the other bits of routine administration that can pop up any time but especially around month end – approval of other people’s expenses and overtime, leave requests, payment of invoices. None of this takes very long, but it still takes a few minutes to log on to the right system and press a button, perhaps an hour in total.

Finally there is personal administration, which again tends to follow a monthly cycle. This involves entering time and expenses into separate systems. Surprisingly, the most time-consuming task is dealing with mobile phone expenses, as it has to be itemised between work and personal use, and is more time-consuming than it might be. Altogether this works out at 1.5 hours per month. Of course my employer seems to think that I should do all this on my own time!

So that all takes about 5 hours per month


At an average of 6 hours per week, and 10 hours per month, that means that 34 hours per month is taken up with routine reporting and paperwork; as close to a week as makes no difference. As I also worked out in an earlier post that just processing email took a further 6 hours per week, in practice this means (at best) I have only 3 working days per week for more productive work.

I have worked on some projects where routine reporting and paperwork took up a much higher proportion of my time. I think that my current weekly and monthly overhead is about as low as it can be, and could easily double. The only way I can reduce the amount of time I spend on things like this is by finding a project administrator to take over some of the remaining routine tasks.

Categories: Work Tags: , ,

Where the time goes: email

October 28, 2010 1 comment

I have recently been planning a new phase of work, and one of the issues I had to consider was how much work (if any) I could assign to myself. So I have been doing some analysis of how I actually spend my time, compared to what is in the project plan.

One of the big time-consumers is keeping on top of email. So for a random week I tracked the number of emails I sent and received, and the time I spent each day processing them.

I normally process email daily. I set aside a specific time to deal with it and ignore it for the rest of the day, unless I have a spare 10 minutes or so. I try to read and respond to everything that can be dealt with easily more or less straight away. If a more considered response is needed I add it to my ‘To Do’ list and prioritise it alongside everything else.

I have defined the time to process the email as including the time taken to deal with it following my normal routine, but excluding any response that required prolonged effort. For example during this particular week, there was an issue that required two emails, taking an hour and a half to write by the time I had checked my facts, thought about it and chosen the right words. I haven’t included this time as “processing” email.

I have counted all genuine emails including staff circulars (which I am expected to read and act on if necessary), but not auto-generated system emails like those reminding me that it’s month end.

That works out as 6 hours, in practice nearly a full working day per week, as follows:

Day Emails received Emails sent Minutes to process
Monday 19 12 70
Tuesday 17 11 75
Wednesday 13 7 80
Thursday 18 11 75
Friday 19 9 60
Total 86 50 360
Average 17 10 72

Was this week typical? My gut feeling is that if it isn’t, it underestimates the time slightly. On the Wednesday I had a half-day meeting, which also involved most of the people who tend to send me emails, reducing the number that day.

What about the others in my team? I’d guess they probably all receive slightly less than me; we don’t tend to email each other too much within the team

How does this compare with other projects? I have certainly worked on some projects where emails were far more common. I remember one job I had where I was getting 40-50 per day. I have had times when I have had less email, but only in non-Project Management roles.

It would also be interesting to know if the slightly over 4 minutes per email received is a good rule of thumb to use, if in a different environment I find I have much more (or less) email. If so it would mean someone receiving 100 emails per day would have time for little else – remembering that some of them would need time and thought before responding.

One thing’s for sure, my project plan doesn’t include any time for processing email!

Categories: Work Tags: ,

Productivity tip: Go for a Walk!

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Like many people, at one time I used to find I was “too busy” to take a proper lunch break. I used to eat my lunch at my desk, maybe browse the internet for a bit and then carry on. Of course this was counter-productive – the positive effects on health and productivity of taking a break during the working day are widely accepted, even if they are not always accepted by all our bosses.

I am also not alone, I expect, in finding the standard 9-5 working day doesn’t fit well with my natural biorhythm. I am at my best in the morning, so I usually get most of my work done before lunchtime, and then after that I fade.

Like many people, I tend to suffer quite badly from a post-lunch slump; between 2 o’clock and 3 o’clock I never really used to get anything done at all and it was usually past 4 o’clock by the time I got properly stuck back into my work again, and by then it was soon time to stop again.

What I found out eventually was that not only do I need a break away from my desk, but that I need to get outside to get some fresh air and activity. I started noticing this when I started running at lunchtimes, I realised that (counter-intuitively) I seemed to be less jaded in the afternoons after running, than on the days when I didn’t. So I started making a point of going out for a walk on the other days and found that without the inevitable tiredness caused by running a few miles, I was even more alert.

So now, unless it is wet, I eat my lunch at my desk as I work (I always find it a struggle to wait until 12), then when I’ve finished whatever I’ve been working on I go outside for as close to an hour as I can manage. For me, a good brisk walk works best – a purposeful pace seems to revive me by the time I get back to my desk I am firing on all cylinders and ready to get back to work. This seems to suit my body’s metabolism and reduces the urge to go to sleep in the afternoon.

Even if your body doesn’t crave physical activity like mine, you still need to give your brain a rest. When we are busy, it may seem that we are too busy to take a break, but in fact not taking one means our productivity suffers – so in fact the correct response should be that we are too busy not to take a break. I find that getting away from my desk enforces a proper rest on my brain (and eyes) by doing something else entirely. After 4 hours or so of (usually) sustained effort I need it. When I get back I feel much better, and ready to do battle again.

Secondly, by going outside and having a walk, I give my brain a chance to idle. Walking along the street (especially in a busy city like London) is never dull, even if I have no particular object in mind. Sometimes I just pick a direction and walk, other times I will go somewhere specific, like Regent’s Park which is near to my current office and large enough to be able to get away from the urban bustle. My thoughts are directed away from whatever I’m working on, which means that straight away my subconscious sets to work and I usually remember several things I mustn’t forget to do, or a solution comes to that problem I was grappling with before lunch. How often does this happen to all of us on the way home? By going outside at lunch time I get two chances a day for my subconscious to produce that eureka moment, instead of one.

Lunch is not for wimps – improve your productivity by having an hour off at lunchtime!

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