16 November 2013 - 10:49 am

Climbing the mountain of productivity, and the gear that will get you to the summit

Being enterprising means being productive. Getting out there and making things (ideas) happen. Not procrastinating. Getting the bloody work DONE.

But sometimes, being productive is so chuffing hard isn’t it? Especially at 3pm on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. I consider myself quite a productive person, but even I struggle sometimes, and get a bit halted in my tracks, lost in the mire, not knowing how to start my engine up again (clichéd metaphor overload anyone?). In fact, that’s exactly how I feel right now, which is probably why I’m writing this blog and not getting on with changing the face of enterprise education in The University of Sheffield like I should be.

But never fear, there are some brilliant tools out there to help those of us whose factories of the mind are suffering from a power outage. These tools are tried and tested by yours truly – I used most of them while I was in the crazy bug-eyed writing stage of my PhD, and I still use some at work these days when I need to get myself back on track. When I’ve finished this blog, I’m probably going to go away and use one or two of them…

  • Coffitivity/ Whitenoise

Recent research (here, its peer reviewed and everything) has shown that there is a certain level of ambient noise that is perfect for concentrating on work and boosting creativity, and believe it or not, this certain level is most frequently found in coffee shops. Just open Coffitivity on your web browser, and your ears will be filled with the low level noise that is perfect for blocking out individual distractions but not loud enough to be a distraction in itself. The same idea is behind a number of white noise generator apps. People often use white noise to aid in sleep as it tends to calm the mind and block out distracting noises, but the same can apply to working. White noise sounds range from true ‘white noise’ to crashing waves, rain, and ‘rainforest sounds’.

This is a tool to use when you really need to get your head down and get on. The technique involves steadily working in blocks of time which are followed by breaks. The default pattern is often 25 minutes working, followed by 5 minutes break. You repeat this three or four times then have a longer break of 20-30 minutes. That’s it. And there are lots of apps and plug ins to help you track your pomodoro time, with alarms to tell you when breaks and work time start and finish, and options to plan the tasks you are going to be doing in the time blocks

Computer says... no

Computer says… no

– the one I use is here . The great thing about this technique is that it forces you to be disciplined, not just about work, but about taking breaks as well, which only aids productivity in the long run.

A big barrier to productivity is the distractions that are so readily available to us these days through the internet. Using one of these programmes on your computer can really help. Put simply they block you accessing all or part of the internet. No facebook, Twitter, or Daily Mail sidebar of shame. You can set them to block certain websites (so for example you could still check your email or use the library web pages), and at certain times (I used to block everything except the uni web pages and Google Scholar between 9 and 12 and 1 and 5).

This is GENIUS. This combines the best bits about Pomodoro and the web-blockers. You set your pomodoro time blocks going, and while you are in a working phase, you can’t access the websites that distract you. Perfect!

  • Tasklist

Sometimes a barrier to being productive is that feeling of being a bit overwhelmed with all the different things you have to do. I know lots of people who use their email inbox as a ‘to-do’ list, and I admit I used to do this, but it’s so frustrating because it is essentially a task list created for you by other people. Instead use a separate tool to write your task list. I use Google Tasks because I can set deadlines which then appear on my calendar, and I can add emails directly to the task list as well. Perhaps a good old-fashioned pen and notepad would work too! The important thing is to not feel like you have failed if you haven’t achieved everything on your list. Instead, sit back and assess *why* you didn’t manage to get them done (too overambitious? Interruptions that you couldn’t predict?), and learn from that when you write tomorrow’s task list. Use your task list in conjunction with the pomodoro technique if you want and allocate blocks of time to tasks, you’ll soon learn which ones take the most time and act accordingly in the future.

For those of you who need to be productive by writing more, for essays or dissertations, say, this might be the software tool for you. It’s a writing application with a hugely stripped down interface, compared to Microsoft Word. You can’t format anything or insert pretty pictures. Just you, and your words. Great if you are struggling with a particular paragraph or concept. You can then put it back in Word once you’ve perfected it and worry about the formatting then.

  • Shut Up and Write!

Another one for those who need to write faster, write harder. And one that is purely non-technological. Instead it relies on those old-fashioned help-things, your friends. I learned about this through the Thesis Whisperer, my go-to general saviour when it came to navigating the process of writing  a 100,000 word behemoth of a thesis. Its like a collective, social pomodoro session. Go to a café. Get a coffee. Have a chat for a bit. Set a timer. Then shut up and write for 25 minutes. No talking, no chatting. Just writing.

There you go! You do realise there is no excuse not to get on with that essay now don’t you?

(And yes, I will take my own advice – back to work for me!)

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  • About the author

    Ali Riley

    I am one of the three Enterprise Learning Development Officers here at USE, and I work directly with the Faculties of Science and Social Sciences. My background is actually in archaeology - random I know - but I have always had a bit of a side-interest in how people learn, and now this has led me to this very rewarding role! I'm still to be found in muddy holes at weekends though... I'll be blogging about Enterprise Education, including news, events, success stories, and my experiences of working with academics to offer a great learning experience to students.