I n early January, as you may or may not recall, our team here set out on a little experiment: design productivity hacks that we’d try every day for a month, and report back on our results (or lack thereof).
Well that month sure flew by. We each changed up our routines in some concrete way that we thought might help us get more done, and then also did a group experiment together to help us start each day. Did we find the secrets to our most productive selves, or did we just spice things up a little? Or discover something that we’ll never do again? Let’s find out!
1. I now understand (but still despise) coffee (Matt Haughey)
Experiment: Force myself to drink a cup of coffee every day, even though I’ve always hated it.
What I hoped to get out of it: Learn what happens to my energy and concentration, find out if there’s any variety of coffee I could learn to love (or tolerate).
The experiment taught me a few important things. There’s very little consistency in espresso and coffee, despite centuries of practice. Half of the drinks tasted like industrial chemicals to me. Half were bitter but tolerable. In the end, I didn’t develop a taste or addiction, though I did gain a better understanding of why people obsess over it. I felt focused, alert, and creative after a late morning coffee, and it felt different than drinking tea or a Coke. Quantitatively, I didn’t see enormous productivity gains and qualitatively my work didn’t come any easier. In the end, it was good to “walk a mile in the shoes” of the majority of office workers, but I’m glad it’s over.
2. Working on a school schedule taught me a lot (Lima Al-Azzeh)
Experiment: Organize my day on a school schedule (I was always a good student) by working in allotments of 90 minutes with one recess and one lunch break during the day.
What I hoped to get out of it: See if it helps me cover more work and do deeper work throughout the week than I would otherwise.
As a writer, I know I need longer blocks of time to get into deep-thinking mode to do my best work. I started by blocking out some of those 90-minute spans in my calendar to signal that I’m busy, but inevitably I’d get requests for meetings that would break the block.
At first, this was frustrating because I felt like I was losing control over my day, but it actually wound up making me much more diligent at defending my time. Whenever any kind of interruption loomed, I found myself assessing whether it was more valuable than that precious 90-minute block I need. When I’d relay this to my peers, I found that most of the time meetings could be moved so I could make room for that block of time. Other times, just questioning the need for a meeting wound up inspiring the host to cancel it.
This experiment forced me to be aware of all the possible sources of time-creep in my day and it made me realize that I alone am the keeper of my calendar. I’m also now more aware and empathetic towards other people’s scheduling needs.
3. Get up, get busy (Evie Nagy)
Experiment: Using Slackbot reminders, get up every 45 minutes to walk around and get a drink of water, no matter what I’m in the middle of.
What I hoped to get out of it: Jog my brain and alertness, and help ease my distracting back problems that get worse when I sit for long periods of time.
The first thing I learned doing this experiment is that 45 minutes goes by very fast. Each time Slackbot pinged me to get up, I felt like I’d just sat down. The inevitable result was that while I was really faithful to the experiment for the first two weeks, I started to get lax about it later in the month, arguing with myself that I was in the middle of something and would be fine just doing the next one.
However, when I did it regularly, I did feel better — less stagnant, more awake, more hydrated, and most of all, my back felt better throughout the day and into the night, when it’s at its worst. Since at times, it’s gotten so bad that I’ve had to stay home from work, this is a big deal to my productivity.
I will continue to set reminders for breaks, but spread them out just a bit — maybe an hour or a little more apart — to make sure I’m taking the breaks, but they’re not so frequent as to be annoying and distracting themselves.
4. Taking back precious minutes from meetings (Julie Kim)
Experiment: Cut all meetings that I call in half, and give myself permission to leave meetings when I’m not needed or engaged (and try to do it without looking like a jerk).
What I hoped to get out of it: Recharge/redirect effort between meetings and feel more like I’m more in charge of my calendar than it is of me.
This was hard! Surveying my calendar, I observed that most of my meetings are of the 30-minute “check-in” variety. One thing I did right away was enable Google Calendar’s speedy meetings feature, which defaults meeting invites to 25 minutes (for half-hour meetings) and 50 minutes (for hour-long meetings).
As for cutting meeting times in half, I thought hard about cutting all my 1-on-1 meetings to 15 minutes each, but ultimately decided against it. I could only think of a few instances when that time hadn’t been used well — to talk business, resolve conflicts, give feedback, or simply shoot the shit to find out the latest in someone’s life. Instead, for 1-on-1’s that end naturally before the 25-minute mark, I resolved to well, just end them, and give some precious “free” minutes back to both myself and the other person.
As for getting up and leaving meetings, I tried this twice, excusing myself each time by asking the host, “Is there anything else on the agenda I’m needed for?” In one case, the answer was a clear “no” and in the other, the host said “I can follow up with you after the meeting” which I took as a signal that I should stay — so I did, and that was definitely the right call.
5. Finding my happy place with soothing sound effects (Trina Robinson)
Experiment: Use the app Noisli to tune out distractions with background noise for 90 minutes per day.
What I hoped to get out of it: Improve my relaxation and focus.
The first week I spent most of my time trying out the background sounds provided by Noisli and found the crackling fire and bustling coffee house options akin to nails on a chalkboard. After more research into the app’s settings, I found my sweet spot: the soft hum of blowing wind playing in tandem with the rumble of a train traveling down railroad tracks.
By the end of the month I looked forward to the 90 minutes dedicated to this exercise. I could focus on a task without distraction, as if nothing else was around me. While I didn’t commit to this experiment religiously the entire month, I did it practically each weekday at the office. I actually came to depend on it the last week and a half. Putting in my earbuds and getting in the zone became one of the best parts of my day.
6. Non-work banter helps us work better (the whole team)
Experiment: Based on a one-word, non-work-related prompt that someone comes up with, have a free-wheeling 15-minute team discussion in Slack at the beginning of every day.
What we hoped to get out of it: Jump-start our brains and improve our team rapport and connection.
Matt: The daily water cooler experiment was a hit. It gave me insights into my team, but also got our brains running as we wrote and riffed off each other for 15 minutes. It was a fun exercise I wouldn’t mind doing every day.
Lima: The best part of this experiment was getting to start the day conversing with my team, since I work remotely and don’t get to see them in-person. But as far as helping me be more creative in my daily work — I still find that serendipitous banters, not scheduled ones, are the best source of inspiration.
Evie: I already knew I loved everyone on my team as people, but I got to learn so much more about them. Prompts like “high school,” “traveling,” and “Twitter” got us talking about our histories and perspectives in a way that I think will help us work together even better. The only challenge was that because of urgent work or meetings, it rarely was all five of us at once. But it still was absolutely worth doing and I highly recommend it.
Trina: Our daily water cooler talk was actually a really great exercise in team communication, and a stress-free opportunity to learn a more about each other. However, I did find myself not participating or dropping out of these conversations more than I expected due to work I got pulled into.
Julie: Honestly — ashamedly — I had the worst attendance in the group. I’d chalk that up to scheduling; the daily 9:30 time slot was terrible as it often conflicted with my first meeting of the day. On days without a meeting, 9:30, I discovered, is my daily pot of productivity gold. I start binging on consecutive 10- and 15-minute stretches of getting things done before my calendar comes calling, and it’s addictive. I think I’d have participated more regularly in the after-lunch hours, when I’m often low on energy and looking for a little playful, even productive, distraction.