“I want you to try an experiment. Start by taking your phone.”
I don’t usually get personal in my blogs, but the smoothly persuasive tone with which Marcel Poelker pulled me into his talk may account for the unusual direction of today’s article. We were hosting a public seminar on something Marcel – who is CTO of the tech recruitment platform Taledo – called the Productivity Formula, a set of ideas he came up with to ensure he was making good use of his time and energy on the job.
The talk was pretty wide-ranging and holistic in its approach, but the tips on personal efficiency were those that really caught my attention. At the end of the seminar I looked at my notes – scribbled thick with tips and hacks to make better use of one’s time – and I thought, “there’s got to be something for me here.”
And so I decided to take action: I selected the four suggestions I liked best, and then put them in practice rigorously over 2 weeks.
How did it go? Let’s take it one step at a time.
Tip #1 – It’s not enough to switch your phone to silent while you’re working. Leave it in another room, away from your sight.
Experience: I must confess, I was a little skeptical about this one – almost all of the applications on my phone are available on my work laptop, so would it make much of a difference not to have it around?
Well, I must eat my skeptical hat – it did. It’s hard to measure how this affected my work as a whole, but the psychological effect was distinctly perceptible. Marcel wrote about this in greater detail, but there is definitely something about the upward-facing black screen of your phone that seems to be constantly screaming at you to pick it up, even when you can access literally the same exact information on your computer.
I went through one or two days of withdrawal, with my hand automatically reaching out to the spot on my desk where I usually kept my phone, but after that my mind got used to its absence and stopped seeking the distraction. I wouldn’t say that the difference it made was night and day, but I did feel that my mind was overall better focused on the task at hand and less inclined to wander.
Tip #2 – When you start to doze a little, don’t fight it, but take a power nap instead: sleep for 20 minutes, then get back to work.
Experience: This one was an authentic revelation to me and certainly the highlight of my ‘experiment’. True to my Italian blood, my solution whenever I felt a yawn about to take off was to run for the coffee machine. Besides, sleeping on the job had always appeared to me like a bit of a sacrilege, and something that grated hard with my sense of duty.
And yet, it turns out that a 20-minute nap is more effective at getting me energised than a whole pint of coffee. This may be subjective, of course, but I always woke up from these naps feeling like I could bounce off the walls. Also, a nap is a lot more enjoyable than a cup of coffee, so doing it with regularity gave me something to look forward to during my shift.
The only caveat – make sure you set your alarm! On the final days of my experiment I foolishly decided to trust my metabolism and thought I’d sleep my usual 20 minutes, only to wake up an hour later with a pile of things still to do and my biological clock gone off the rails. The body doesn’t lie – but it does, on occasion, deceive.
Tip #3 – If your research includes watching videos, speed them up to x1.5. Your mind will get used to the difference very quickly.
Experience: There were other tips similar to this one in Marcel’s talk, like speeding up your mouse cursor or setting up a variety of shortcuts. I went with the one regarding videos, because a considerable portion of the research I do involves scouring YouTube channels for educational material on tech (videos are often more popular than written blogs, particularly among coders).
The suggestion worked so precisely as Marcel said it would, that I can scarcely think of much to add – just as predicted, my brain rapidly got used to the difference, to the point that I barely noticed it at all, and 12-minute long videos were absorbed in just 8. It worked so well that I even tried watching them at x2 speed – but that did turn out to squeeze words together to a point where my ears, rather than my brain, could no longer differentiate them.
I’ll be watching all my videos at x1.5 speed going forwards, it’s genuinely an easy and helpful hack for someone like me.
Tip #4 – Compartmentalise your work: instead of opening endless tabs on the same browser, group them by project and open a new window for each group of tabs.
Experience: For me this was the least effective of the four tips I decided to try out, so I will not dedicate it too much space. It may be due to the fact that I’m already a fairly well-organised guy, but the main benefit here seemed to be to lower the potential for distraction – you tend not to drift back to checking your emails when you’re in a different window altogether. Changing habits this way did accomplish this, but I feel the effect was a lot less marked than, say, what I got from leaving my phone in another room.
“You know what the most important thing is? Getting started.”
This was Marcel’s final bit of advice at the end of his talk, and this blog was written in a similar spirit. If you’d like to improve yourself and how you work, there is no magic trick to make that happen by itself; you have to take initiative and find out what works for you.
I tried out these four tips, and this is what I learned. I hope that you will feel encouraged to try them out yourself, and possibly learn something different than I did.