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Do You Feel Chronically Unproductive?

May 17, 2016

I remember my first day at a full-time desk job. It was with a young startup of 15 odd people. And my first week on the job was spent trying to figure out how to work the coffee machine and navigating tabs on multiple excel sheets. There were a lot of excel sheets. Google sheets actually. Gmail was the tool de jour here, I realized, being used to its full potential for just about everything — to talk, to create projects, track projects, video chat, raise SOPs, MOUs — you name it. And this continued for a good eight months before I started sending that my productivity hadn’t really improved. I was still struggling with my organizational skills, my work days hadn’t changed much, there was always something ad hoc or urgent that kept coming up day in and day out, and I couldn’t really keep track of what was happening, knowing only that things were…just happening.

About a year into the job is when it really started sinking in. I could feel the bottle neck getting tighter with the all the work that kept piling up. I was working at the same speed, and in the same way, on the same tool, without any signs of improvement having occurred. I started feeling unproductive more regularly.

And I wasn’t the only one. I figured that one of the main reasons why the company struggled so much in the initial days was because nobody could ever get on the same page. We were all always too busy scurrying through emails of different nature, all stringing our individual attentions to different requirements at once. So, at any given point, all of us could be found working on too many different aspects of the business. We were working hard, but not tactically enough.

Figuring out my productivity style

Before I took up a full-time job, I had been a freelancer and for a good 3 and half years. In that time, I had figured that I was very comfortable working in a certain way. All my planning was done on a white board above my work station, different colored post-its flapping off the whole thing. I had a timer app wherein I’d set deadlines for completing projects and that helped me stay on track a lot. I communicated via emails with all my clients, but every time I needed to follow-up on something, nothing that would take more than a minute, I’d just make a quick phone call. I wouldn’t work on weekends, and gods forbid I’d sync my inbox with my phone.

In the current job, all my work would happen over emails, including assignment of work, tracking a project’s progress, changes in schedules — everything. I also realized that people here were rather non-confrontational and did not do a lot of phone calls unless it was with the vendors. Which means we relied a lot on Hangout chat. There were occasions when I’d come to work on a Monday with a couple of chat messages waiting for me to be read. These would have been sent over the weekend, by a remote team member, usually about a follow-up or a query, and I’d think, “So, this could have taken no more than ten seconds on a phone call. And now they’ve had to wait two whole days for my reply.” That Monday onward I’ve had to sync my Hangouts as well, and I am not one to enjoy answering work queries on a weekend, let me tell you.

After not a lot of soul searching I figured I needed to go back to the work routine I was most comfortable with, one that did not make me feel like a complete waste of work space. I needed to bring back my Kanban, get a proper time tracker and task management tool, all so I can start feeling good about how I work. And (if I am being completely honest) build an intentional off time for my weekends.

What works me may not work for you

I am the big-picture kind of girl. I need to see the end before I can even start. I like binging on ideas and I like experimenting with my work. Armed with post-its and a white board, I started mapping the whole flow of a project’s event, all in front of me, all in plain sight. Because I like finishing my work, at least, a day earlier, just so I have enough time to review it before it’s released, I started using … time tracker app. And more than anything, I like knowing that I am getting better at my job. Which means, I had to figure out a way to schedule some time for reading New Yorker and HBR, and I did, with a little help from Habit.

My colleague, a backend engineer, who sits next to me, is my anti-ego. He is logical, thinks linearly and analytically. He writes the longest emails, is very controlled in his approach to things, and not quite a quick decision maker. Tracking time is a concept that does not agree with him (I have seen him work for two nights straight to get a lousy code perfect). He does, however, love creating a list of tasks he needs to do (for which he is currently using Toodledo). Does not need to know the big picture, he says, and is comfortable working with the “what’s next” attitude.

Now, while we both work in the same environment, we work in completely different fashions. Our styles do not align and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. What brings out the best in me does not have to work for him. But as long as he has figured out his productivity style and tools that complement it, he is as right as I am in choosing the tools I do.

How to choose the right productivity tool

Play to your strengths. Think about everything that makes you good at your job and pick a tool that complements it. This is not to say that you should abandon your organization’s tools and systems. They serve an important function too — they bring everyone down to one shared platform for collaboration. I haven’t ditched Gmail. But I have found ways to make it work better.

Finding tools that enhance your work capability; little tools that help you get through you work smoothly and effectively, has its payoffs.


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