Want to be more productive at work? Everyone tells you to “work smarter.” Do this. Do that. Tim Ferriss looks at things differently. He says, “Not-to-do lists are often more effective than to-do lists for upgrading performance. The reason is simple: what you don’t do determines what you can do.”

As a prolific, popular, and highly successful contributor to the business innovation scene, Ferriss is all about working smart. He says a lot of the things we should not be doing are so ingrained, we don’t consider their effectiveness – or lack of it. We let bad habits take over because they are habits – we don’t give them a thought (well, hardly ever). So we remain mired in unproductivity.

Counter-intuitive, maybe, but smarter

The truth is, it’s easy to make a list of things you should be doing (according to you, or according to some outside source) and tack those things onto your existing to-do list. Now you’re cooking – headed in the right direction, right? Wrong. It can feel harder to focus on your poor work habits because that requires some amount of brutally honest self-reflection, but as Ferriss notes, these are the very things that are holding you back.

To work smarter, you have to jettison those bad habits. But, first, you have to recognize and own up to them. So, here we go.

1. Doing More Is Not Doing Better

Look busy, the boss is coming. As it turns out, multitasking is nothing more than pretending to be busy without actually accomplishing anything. Long touted as the answer to getting more done, multi-tasking is no longer considered smart, or clever. That’s because it is self-defeating. It is impossible to do several things at the same time – what you’re really doing is bits of several things, randomly, jumping around like a grasshopper. Nothing ever gets finished. And that’s the definition of unproductive.

In effect, you are constantly interrupting yourself every time you switch from one task to another. Every interruption derails your train of thought, so you lose momentum.

Likewise, a to-do list that’s longer than your kid’s Christmas wish list is ridiculous. Not only can you not do everything at once, you can’t do everything, period. You really do need to prioritize. Besides, the longer your list is, the more overwhelming it can feel, causing you to do nothing. Start the day by deciding what is the most important thing you need to accomplish (or top 3, or whatever is relevant), and zero in on that.

On the other hand, it can be highly motivating to recognize your own accomplishments. So, write down little things you need to get done today, allot a short time period to do them, and cross them off your list. Hey, look! You’re Getting Things Done – all warmed up to tackle your top priority.

As a side note, do not arm yourself with an over-abundance of technology “tools” that supposedly boost your productivity. Clicking around among all those things can be a time-waster, too. Look for apps that can handle multiple aspects of your work – or, at least, apps that sync smoothly.

2. Stop Letting Other People Control Your Time

Eliminate interruptions. Unless it’s an emergency, it can wait till YOU have time to switch gears.

  • Whether you work in an office or from home, one of the most insidious time-stealers is people who drop by your desk to chat. Put a little sign on your desk or door that says, “Please do not disturb,” or “I’ll be available after 10:30,” or whenever you think you’ll be able to take a break. Or say something like, “I’m in a time crunch here, what do you need?”
  • Just because your phone rings or you get a new email doesn’t mean you have to respond right now. Let voicemail do its job (and never, ever answer calls from a number you don’t recognize). And turn off email alerts if you can’t ignore them. Create a friendly voicemail message and email auto-response that says, “I’m right in the middle of a project, but I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” No one will feel ignored or unimportant.

There’s another reason you do not want to answer unexpected phone calls that has nothing to do with time management. Most business conversations, especially direct negotiations, require advance preparation. The last thing you want is to be caught off-guard and unprepared.

Another bon mot from Tim Ferriss: “A big part of GTD [Getting Things Done] is GTP — Getting To the Point.” Sometimes callers or deskside visitors have something work-related on their mind but they want to get social first. You can kindly cut that off in the same way you would an outright interruption by asking, “how can I help you?” And don’t be that person yourself — other people appreciate brevity, too. If you want to chat, go to lunch.

Just say no to meetings that do not have a specific agenda and designated timeframe. This goes for phone calls and video conferences as well as in-person meetings.

In fact, practice just saying no in general. It’s up to you to decide what to do and when to do it.

3. Stop Practicing Creative Avoidance

Let’s be honest, here. While there are plenty of ways in which other people can interrupt your work – if you let them – we are often our own worst enemy here. Just like the temptation to respond instantly to new email alerts (or constantly check our email, just in case), many people are distracted by texting, social media, anything that’s just a click away. Some folks even take it further, playing online or video games, watching YouTube. Can you say “sidetracked”? So easy to do, but don’t.

Distractions are just a form of procrastination. Maybe you’re more creative about avoiding your work. You wander around the office aimlessly, get up to use the bathroom or grab a snack unnecessarily, you do minor tasks. Yes, you need to clear your mind, keep the blood flowing, use the restroom. But are you sure you aren’t just wasting time?

4. Get Professional Help

Because it’s so hard to see our own bad work habits for what they are, third-party perspective can be particularly eye-opening. All the ideas presented here are useful and valuable, but we’re all different. So we sabotage our workday in different, counter-productive ways. If you need more help shining more light on what might be holding you back, there’s help for you.

Aside from following Tim Ferriss (via his books, podcasts, TV shows, and blog), there are myriad other online resources where you can get help to be more productive. There is even an entire website called Develop Good Habits .

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