Unclutter your immediate surroundings

Over the years, quite a handful of my colleagues and peers have inquired how I get so much stuff done in a single day. I used to shrug because I didn’t have a clue what the heck they were talking about — as you know, I’m perpetually worried about productivity and effectiveness!

Not that I’m not productive or effective, just that I know I could be so much better deep down. But as I’ve gotten serious about my study of organizational behaviour over the years, I’ve realized that personal productivity is a real challenge for most people. And yet, most people don’t know what to do about it.

I’ve found that the most straightforward approach to levelling up productivity is to change one’s immediate surroundings. That could be one’s work desk (though my desk is almost always cluttered), the workstation or laptop itself, instant messaging systems, and applications. And while uncluttering the work desk barely takes minutes, the same cannot be said of the workstation you’re using (or the messaging systems or applications, for that matter).

One of my dear friends invests an entire Sunday every month to organize stuff on her laptop. “It keeps me sane,” she remarks. And I’ve experienced sanity amidst the most significant crises, thanks to the time and effort I put into organizing stuff on my computer and cloud storage.

I do the same for emails. Interestingly, most people don’t know how best to manage the inflow of information that they get bombarded with on a day-to-day basis. The result is an overwhelming amount of unread emails. And the worst part is that you don’t even know what you haven’t read so far. No wonder people miss out on important emails and hence, critical deadlines.

I use a system of folders and categories to organize all the incoming messages. It makes the information easier to locate, which is the whole point of having an email account, an inbox, and the archive section. The email wasn’t meant to be a digital black hole of information that nobody could find.

And I guess that’s why the technologists came up with instant messaging systems. I find them helpful in getting the message across quickly, expecting some action or confirmation that will help me move my project further. Period. Everything about these systems is redundant. For example, you can share files via OneDrive; it doesn’t have to be Teams. Oh, online collaboration? You can make changes right within emails these days; why don’t we use that option?

The challenge is that we want a single application to do it all, and hence we’re spending a majority of our work lives inside these applications. It used to email, and now it’s Microsoft Teams or Slack or whatever poison your organization is subscribed to.

My status of these applications is perpetually busy or Do Not Disturb because I am busy and do not want to be disturbed. Unless there’s a fire out there or a genuine life threat, everything can wait. Yeah, I know there are deadlines, but ignore them if you’re not setting them. That doesn’t mean you don’t do the work, you do, but you choose not to get distracted by all those unnecessary pings when you’re working.

The final piece of the puzzle will be the number of applications you’re using. Limit them to the absolute essentials and, if possible, consolidate the apps. For example, you don’t need PocketCasts subscriptions when you’re already using Spotify. Please bring all your podcasts to one of the apps (I guess it will be Spotify) and enjoy the simplicity. Likewise, if you primarily use the web browser to access your emails, remove the desktop apps; they’re clunkier anyway. The idea is to get rid of each and everything app that you don’t need.

I could talk about this topic, but I’ll save that for some other day. A couple of bonuses:

  1. Put your phone on silent mode. Always.
  2. You don’t have to answer each incoming call — be in on the phone or teams.
  3. Schedule your calls and, if possible, batch all of them together. All my calls are scheduled after 1 pm because that’s the time when my energy’s low (I wake up at 4:30 am).

Take care of the above aspects, and I can guarantee a positive increase in your overall productivity and focus. Sure, not everything I shared purely falls into the “unclutter” category, but they do occupy a chunk of your time, energy, and thoughts. All the very best.

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