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Five methods to improve your productivity

Also in this compendium: Thoughts after being fired.

One way to get through your day is the pinball method. Jump into the chute early in the morning and carom from activity to activity, hoping to ring some bells and win some reward points.

Actually, there's no such system – or none recommended by productivity experts, anyway – but if it rings true, you may want to look at five more highly recommended scheduling processes that tech writer Stephen Altrogge collected:

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Time blocking: Plan your day in advance, scheduling activities in your calendar, and then work on them in the pre-determined fashion.

He stresses blocking out both proactive and reactive blocks. Proactive blocks involve focusing on important tasks known in advance while reactive blocks allow time in the schedule for the inevitable requests and interruptions that will occur.

Productivity expert Cal Newport, who cherishes this approach, has been asked why he bothers with such a detailed level of planning: "My answer is simple: it generates a massive amount of productivity. A 40-hour time-blocked work week, I estimate, produces the same amount of output as a 60-plus-hour work week pursued without structure."

The Most Important Task Method: Here you focus on the essential challenges, the one to three tasks critical for success. You don't limit yourself to three tasks in the day but make sure those are completed.

"The reality is most days there are only a few essential things that must be done. Yes, there are a thousand voices clamouring for our attention, but most of those voices aren't crucial. The notifications blowing up your phone and the e-mails filling your inbox can all wait. If you can complete the one to three essential tasks, everything else becomes secondary or even unnecessary," writes Mr. Altrogge.

The Pomodoro Technique: With a timer, work in a 25-minute burst on a task and then take a five- minute break before beginning another 25-minute interval (known as pomodoros, after the Italian word for tomatoes, since the creator of the approach used a tomato-shaped timer).

The difficulty, of course, is protecting 25 minutes of uninterrupted time. But while Paul Klipp, president of Lunar Logic's Polish branch, only manages two such uninterrupted sessions in a day, he says they allow for more productivity than the remaining work hours combined.

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90-Minute Focus Sessions: Research has shown that our focus wavers after about 90 minutes so this breaks your day into 90-minute sessions of focused work and 20- to 30-minute breaks, in line with the body's ultradian rhythm.

"Most people pay little attention to the natural rhythms of their body and use stimulants like coffee to power through periods of low energy. This almost always results in a complete crash around 2:30 p.m., which corresponds with a trough in your ultradian rhythm," notes Mr. Altrogge.

"Working in 90-minute bursts allows you to correlate your maximum energy levels with your task list, which then gives your productivity a major boost. You're working with your body instead of against it."

Polyphasic Sleep Method: This asks you to change your sleep patterns so instead of it coming in one six-to-eight-hour chunk you break it into smaller pieces, such as a four-hour respite twice a day or even a bunch of naps throughout the 24 hours. It can free more time up for work and provide a different – very different – balance for the day. Productivity experimenter Steve Pavlina tried this approach, but gave it up because of the difficulty of chopping his work and other activities into 3.5-hour blocks, around his various naps, and the fact his schedule was so wildly different from his wife's.

2. Setting the transformation dollar target

One of the most important steps in a transformation project is setting the financial target – what you expect to achieve. And two consultants say the tendency is to set it too low – way too low.

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"We recently looked back at 15 companies we've worked with, comparing actual savings at the end of their transformations with the numbers their managers thought they could make at the outset," McKinsey & Company's Pooya Nikooyeh and Jared Sclove write.

"The result was instructive. On average, the companies delivered 2.7 times more than their senior executives thought possible when the transformations got under way. At one industrial company, the outcome was 4.7 times greater than the original target: $50 million."

They say many management teams are prisoners of their past and fail to imagine what can be achieved with new approaches. Incremental thinking can add to the problem. They recommend starting with what's theoretically achievable and adjusting that figure downward only when there's clear evidence that certain actions are unrealistic. Instead of putting the burden of proof on those arguing for an aspirational target make those pushing for a lower number support their case with facts. They need to explain why you can't do it.

Adopt the mindset of a private equity firm – look afresh at the company's operations and use benchmarks or analyses drawn from relevant competitors. Also, look for opportunities in unexpected places. "Companies need to escape 'groupthink'; they should act boldly and get away from the sort of cozy consensus that says a 5 to 7 per cent improvement – but no more – may be doable. It's important to set a target without necessarily providing full clarity about exactly how it will be achieved," they insist.

3. I just got fired!

Nirmalya Kumar was leading a big data team of about 70 people when he got word he was being fired. Telling the story on LinkedIn, he doesn't ask for pity, since getting turfed is a common occurrence these days. "But, still nothing prepares you for this. I realize that I am unemployed for the first time since the age of 18," he notes.

The next day, he was a bit lost and a bit later than normal leaving the house. There was no job to go to, but still a Starbucks where he could grab his morning coffee: "I find a new proposition for Starbucks that never occurred to me previously: A place for unemployed managers, all dressed in suits, with nowhere to go."

Once fired, he says you discover your friends and the integral qualities of those who worked with you. He found the "human" aspect declines the higher in the organization former colleagues reside. Those at the "bottom" of the pyramid treated him with the same respect and affection as always. Those in the middle, like his team, were sincerely sad to see him go and repeatedly mentioned what fun it was to have worked with him. But at the top, with three exceptions, the executives he worked with closely for three years went silent.

They know how the system works. Indeed, his parting advice to his team was: "When in future anyone mentions me, please don't say anything positive. Throw me under the bus to gain credibility in the new regime."

4. Quick hits

- Here are five perilous assumptions about communications that blogger Bob Morris warns against making: The message sent is received; the received message's intended meaning is understood; the recipient understands the intended meaning and cares; the recipient who cares will take appropriate action; and the appropriate action will succeed.

- If you need to disagree with your boss in a meeting, consultant Alison Green suggests starting by being non-confrontational, with a comment like "If we went in that direction I would worry about X," or "another way to look at it is X," or "my take was a little different; I thought X." Restrain your ego and emotions, grounding discussion in what the organization requires.

- Don't get too hung up at bounce rates for your website since sometimes they are natural: People come after a search, find what they want, and leave rather than delving further into what's available since their need is satisfied. Pay attention to return rates, which indicate whether visitors are coming back and building some connection to your site.

- When you make a strategic decision on a market positioning or investment, ask yourself what that means you can't do, advises London Business School professor Elsbeth Johnson. If your organization seems to be avoiding hard choices and grabbing at any straw in the wind, pretend you're cash-strapped, which is an effective constraint on choosing everything.

- Chairs are lethal, says endocrinologist James Levine. Lack of movement slows metabolism, reducing the amount of food that is converted to energy and thus promoting fat accumulation, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and more. Time to stand up if you have been reading this sitting down.

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