There are numerous methods and life hacks aimed at enhancing efficiency. I find many of them overly complicated, so I thought I’d share some minimalist ways of getting shit done. My perspective here is the dynamic work life of a freelance academician such as myself, but I’m sure these principles can be useful for students and people doing all kinds of work. They may be incompatible with the structural demands and conditions of many workplaces, though – which is largely why I choose the insecure and precarious freelance path over employment. I need a great deal of freedom in order to perform my best and preserve my creativity and wellbeing.
I do a lot of public speeches and lectures and I also do academic research and writing. All of these tasks require that I be on pointe. I can’t afford to waste time on meaningless administration or communication. Here are a few, interrelated principles that make my work life easier and more fulfilling:
Plan according to your own rhythm
I’m very efficient between 7 am and lunch. Most of my intellectual work happens between 7 am and 10 am. Therefore, I schedule demanding tasks as early as possible in the day; that is, reading, writing or preparing lectures. Undemanding tasks like answering emails or sending invoices can wait until the afternoon, when I’m running out of brain juice. Get to know your own rhythm and plan accordingly; it makes a world of difference.
I also find it hard to keep working once I’ve finished a demanding task. I’m sure it has to do with dopamine levels. I try to roll with it by setting deadlines for myself so that I’ll get a natural pause after finishing, say, a chapter or a presentation. Today, for example, I set the deadline for the preparation of a speech just before lunch and then had a nice, long lunch break before picking up work again.
Don’t answer emails first thing
This principle is connected to the one mentioned above: don’t spend too much of your precious energy and intellect on answering emails, unless that’s the most important task of your workday.
If you open your inbox first thing in the morning, chances are you’ll get stuck answering emails for longer than you planned. You risk being kidnapped by someone else’s agenda, answering a row of questions or performing tasks that they’re asking of you, rather than following your own agenda at your own pace. I won’t even look at my inbox (or inboxes – sadly, I have three) before I’ve finished the more demanding tasks of the day.
Reading and answering emails first thing in the morning forces you to react to the priorities of others, rather than working intentionally according to your own rhythm and priorities.
Be nice and precise
Sending emails is an artform in and of itself. It’s easy to create misunderstandings or even animosity if you’ve poor email hygiene. If you spend an extra minute reading and answering an email, you can prevent several days of confusion and cerebral haemorrhage. The same goes for skipping the niceties: it may seem quicker, but establishing a benevolent tone will aid communication; especially if there is any conflict. The time you think you’re saving when glancing through the text received and typing a mindless answer, you’ll probably have to spend tenfold later on.
Firstly, read emails thoroughly before answering them. Read them once and then read them again. Make sure you understand what the writer wants. Are there any questions or concerns to address? Is the text purely informational? If the email is unclear, which is often the case, ask for clarification in the nicest way possible before answering. “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking of me, is it…?”or “My interpretation is that you want me to X/Y/Z, is that correct?” or “Can you please clarify the question so that I can give you the best answer possible?”
Secondly, pose any questions clearly. Maybe even list them. I can’t say how many times I’ve sent an email with a number of questions and received a response answering none of them. This probably has to do with people reading sloppily. Being overly clear and precise may help. Also, be as brief as possible.
An email may look like this:
Hope your weekend was good. I look forward to seeing you next week!
I have some questions regarding the project:
- What date and time do you want my text?
- Could we meet ten minutes before the meeting starts and go over some details, just the two of us?
- Is there anything else I need to know before getting on with my writing?
Do one thing at a time
Lastly and most importantly, do one thing at a time. Multitasking is a myth. The experience of focusing on multiple shores simultaneously is really just the brain moving quickly between foci points – with severely impaired quality, compared to doing one thing at a time.
The brain needs at least twenty minutes to get into flow and perform at its best. For each interruption, it takes another twenty minutes to regain full concentration. That means you’ll never be able to reach your potential if there are notifications, signals, people and what not interrupting you constantly.
This is what I do to get into flow and stay there:
- Keep my phone on mute – people just can’t call me spontaneously. They have to make an appointment by email or text.
- Keep as few tabs open as possible on the computer – if I’ve no intention of answering emails, I don’t need to see the inbox in the corner of my eye.
- Set time aside for social media and stay off it when I’m working.
- Keep a clean and serene working space free from distractions.
- Wear earplugs on trains or in public spaces.
These minimalist principles are really about intentionality, agency and neurological peace. You can’t exhaust or manipulate your brain and body into performing well if conditions are hostile; at least not for a very long time.