Ever heard about the productivity trick with the whistle and the egg? No? Me neither. But it wouldn’t surprise me if there was one. (You Google it. I’m afraid).Ends up, we humans are pretty wacky creatures. What works and what doesn’t is often a mystery – and different for every one of us. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try a strange productivity trick every now and then. And it definitely doesn’t mean you should resist your own weird productivity tricks. So long as you aren’t harming anyone, and it actually works, have at it.
Just to get your creative productivity ideas flowing, we’ve rounded up some of the weirdest personal time management tricks around. I cannot vouch for how effective some of these are. I can’t even vouch for how safe some of them are. But according to their champions, they work.
Hire a few stagehands – or an accountability partner
This one’s for you procrastinators. Apparently, the opera composer Rossini (think Bugs Bunny music) had an awful time with procrastination. Really awful. Like the opera house is rented. They’ve sold tickets for a show that opens tomorrow. But the opera hasn’t yet… been… um… written.
The opera house manager, fearing disaster, upped the ante. He locked Rossini and four stagehands together in a room on a high floor. The stagehands were to take each completed page of the opera and throw it out the window, where copyists waited below to transcribe it. If Rossini didn’t keep producing pages, the stagehands were to throw him out the window.
It worked. But if you’ve ever heard Rossini’s operas, and you thought there was a bit of giddy desperation to them, that’s why.
Need a more actionable twist on this than hiring tough guys? Consider a business coach, or even a personal coach. Can’t afford that? Find an “accountability partner”. And yes… of course there’s an app for that.
Coaches and accountability partners are especially effective if you’re doing just fine with day-to-day tasks, but you’re procrastinating on a big project that could actually change your life.
Make everybody stand at meetings
Expect some blowback if you institute this. Also expect some marvelously creative excuses. But you will trim your meeting times down by a lot if everybody just stands.
This is more powerful than it initially sounds. As you almost certainly know, meetings suck up an incredible amount of our time. Up to 31 hours a month, according to research from Atlassian. That means we’re spending nearly one full workweek every month in meetings. It gets worse: According to that same study, about half of the time in those meetings is wasted.
The problem is so bad – and so big – it’s motivated all kinds of management techniques to try to minimize meetings. Millions of dollars of software have been sold and created to try to replace meetings.
So when you hear that Neal Taparia cut meeting times down by 25% simply by getting people to stand, it makes you sit up and notice.
Neal got thinking about the sitting issue not because of productivity. It was his health he was worried about. Alarmed by all the data supporting the idea of how “sitting is the new smoking”, Neal wanted to see what he could do to sit less.
Meetings seemed like a good place to start. He even re-named them: “meetings” became “stand-ups”. And he took it one step further: Whenever someone spoke at these “stand-ups”, they had to hold a medicine ball. If they talked too long, their arms would get tired. So the stand-ups got even shorter.
25% isn’t even the biggest cut that some people have seen in meeting times, thanks to standing. According to a study from the University of Missouri, standing versus sitting cut meeting times by 34%. That’s almost ten hours a month!
Email hacks: Optimize subject lines and use “next, next, next”
After meetings, email is the number one time sink for most workers. In fact, depending on your job and company culture, email may well be worse than meetings.
From Boomerang for Gmail’s infographic, Insights from 5 Million Emails.
There aren’t any studies backing any of these up, but I’m including them anyway. Especially for #1, I think there’s a real opportunity for most of us to trim our email time down by at least 2-3 hours a week:
1. Try to distil the essential message of your emails down to a few words
Then use those words in the subject line. In other words: Think tweet length, not email length. This will make for longer subject lines, sure. But it means people will be able to see the gist of your email as they scan the subject lines in your inbox.
Best-selling author Jason Womack recommends writing email subject lines last. Also use verbs up front so people know what to do. For example: “Hire a social media assistant: Y/N?” or “Call Susan B. today to confirm start time for Tuesday’s workshop: 415-555-xxxx.”
That kind of specificity lets people know exactly what they’re supposed to do. It works because when we’re that clear on what a task involves, we tend to get it done faster.
2. Stop surfing messages: Plow through your inbox one email at a time.
This one’s saved me a lot of time already. I noticed that when I looked at the 100+ emails in my inbox every morning, I tended to pick and choose which message to manage. Ends up, that picking and choosing takes up quite a lot of time. Now I just start with the first one and deal with it. That either means
- Reply to it.
- Delete it.
- Unsubscribe from it (I am always asking myself, “can I unsubscribe from this?”).
- Create a filter so it automatically goes to a folder. That way I don’t have to manage each new email from this source anymore.
- File it for reference later. I have 300+ folders/labels for different research topics. Gmail lets you have over 600. My 300 are set up so I can assign an email to any one of them in less than 3 seconds.
- Put it in my “read later” folder (for late nights when I can’t sleep or times when I can’t do anything more productive).
I’ve cut my inbox management time down by almost a third with this method. Many other people have too. It seems sorting emails helps a lot of us reach Inbox Zero. George Kao, who has his own set of folders/labels, recommends saying “next, next, next” as you plow through your inbox.
Rethink your to-do list
What’s the most essential element of productivity? If you say time, I’d mostly agree with you. But what’s the second most important element?
I’d say it’s not a suite of productivity apps. It’s not a genius filing system. It’s not even the art of delegation. It’s your energy level. We’re all so obsessed with managing time that we may have overlooked the real engine of productivity: Our energy.
Productivity expert Mark Vardy (and other time management experts, like David Allen) recommend sorting your to-do list by energy level. Vardy also suggests you consider sorting your list by time required or by priority. David Allen would urge you to sort your list by location: Things you can only do at the office, for example. Then things you can only do at home, or while you’re out shopping.
I don’t know about the location sort, or even the time-sorted list, but I’ve had a “burnt out list” for years. It works great. My productivity tends to fall off a cliff when I’m toast, so having a list of low energy tasks really helps. It means I can still make progress even when all I can do is just lie on the couch (and watch Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays, or other YouTube videos).
The low energy list is almost as helpful as the high-energy list. That’s because all those niggling little tasks that have previously taken up your time will no longer take up your time when you’ve got the mojo to do big things.
So no more filing when you could be pitching a huge new client. No more filling out forms when there’s a presentation to practice. Get all those little housecleaning and bureaucratic chores done when you’re in a lull. Then you use your high-energy hours for tasks that deserve a spark.
There are far weirder productivity tricks than what I’ve covered here. But I thought I’d keep it tame and focus on things that might actually help. It’s up to you to figure out if you’re like Benjamin Franklin, who believed in taking “air baths” naked. Or if you want to just chuck the productivity tricks entirely and be like Marissa Mayer, who figured out how to work 130 hours every week.
How about you?
Got any strange productivity tricks that work for you? Want to share? Leave a comment and tell us about it.