Why productivity hacks won't help

Many of us turn to hacks and tricks for an easy way to achieve more work in less time, but Amantha Imber explains that they may not get to the root cause of the problem

Why productivity hacks won't help

Having spent the last few years researching, writing and podcasting about the world of productivity, I’ve learnt that many people – myself included – love a good hack.

A productivity hack promises us an easy way to achieve so much more in so much less time. For example, you might have read that batch-checking your email is far more effective than dipping in and out of your inbox multiple times an hour, as most of us do. You might have heard that using website blocking software such as Freedom will help you stay focused on tasks and not succumb to digital distractions.

While both strategies will help improve your productivity, the problem with hacks like these is that they can be like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. If the way we work is fundamentally broken, hacks can only help so much before things come undone. If our inbox remains an over-whelming mess, checking it less won’t fix the fundamental problem. Likewise, if you are suffering from digital addiction, website-blocking software may not actually help you overcome your addiction.

  • Get to the root cause

Instead of relying on hacks, try to get to the root cause of your productivity problems. Often, this comes down to reviewing your workflow. Workflow is the underlying explicit or implicit system that specifies how your work gets done. Workflow refers to how tasks are assigned, executed and tracked.

For Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport, dealing with email overload is a classic example of how the underlying workflow is broken, and how hacks to stay out of your inbox won’t fi x things.

“Often, the underlying issue is that there’s this workflow that depends on ongoing email communication to get anything done,” Newport explained on my How I Work podcast.

“If you want systemic change, you have to replace your current workflow with something better. To what extent are you rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic when you’re building a more complicated system for an underlying workflow that’s just inevitably going to keep you overwhelmed or not have enough time to work on what’s important.”

  • Change your communication workflow

When Newport was appointed as the university’s director of graduate studies, he saw the role as a chance to change his workflow around how he communicated with his team. Newport organised his tasks using a Kanban board, a simple chart to help visualise a project’s work-fl ow using the Agile methodology. At its most basic, a Kanban board has three columns: To Do, Doing, and Done. All tasks associated with a project start in the ‘To Do’ column and gradually make their way across to the ‘Done’ column.

Newport added in a fourth column labelled ‘To Discuss’. “I realised I could save a ton of email communication through having a ‘To Discuss’ column,” he told me.

Every time Newport had something that he needed to ask his department chair or program administrator or anyone else he was working with, he resisted the urge to just shoot off  an email in that moment. Instead, he listed the topic for discussion on his board.

“While sending an email in the moment would give me a little bit of relief, every one of those is a new unscheduled message that’s out there and a new unscheduled response. That’s then going to potentially lead to a long back-and-forth chain of unscheduled messages, which I learned doing the research for my book, A World Without Email, is productivity poison.”

Newport ended up having ‘To Discuss’ columns for separate people that he frequently needed to discuss issues with. Then, whenever he was next meeting with them, he would be able to plough through the topics for discussion swiftly and resolve them then and there.

“This probably saved me many dozens of unscheduled emails per week by just waiting until I got to those next meetings.”

  • First look for low-hanging fruit

Newport’s advice is to change common work-flows one at a time – and to pick the lowest-hanging fruit first. For example, workflow around scheduling meetings is highly inefficient in most companies. Oftentimes, 10 to 20 emails can be exchanged to organise a simple 30-minute meeting. Instead, using meeting scheduling software such as Calendly.com can dramatically reduce the to-and-fro communication required for this common basic task.

Meeting scheduling software works by allowing the user to allocate blocks of time they have available for meetings, then send a scheduling link to the person or people they want to meet with so they can book in the time that works best for them. Ten-plus emails can be replaced by a single email – a classic example of how changing the workflow provides a far better solution than an email productivity hack.

So, instead of relying on the latest productivity hacks to transform the way you work, instead think about some of the most inefficient workflows in your organisation. One by one, redesign them to make the process more efficient so you are no longer reliant on hacks that don’t address the root cause of the problem.

Dr Amantha Imber is the founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading behavioural science consultancy, and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful people.