Productivity tools

Debbie Harris
Nov 2023  •  2 min read

Psychological Tools

I signed up to Oliver Burkeman’s newsletter recently and it is proving to be a really wise choice.

He does not spam me or fill my inbox, he writes thoughtfully and in depth and I receive one email every few weeks.  He writes really fluidly about a lot of the things that I tend to worry about – and so his emails have become like an old friend you don’t see very often but who knows you really well; and with whom you enjoy spending time!

Recently he wrote about ‘productivity techniques’ and once again, his words and style resonated with me.  It was very reassuring to hear that I am not the only person who struggles with finding the best psychological tool for any given job – and he assured me (obviously not ‘just’ me!) that different techniques work for different tasks, for different people, at different times.  A carpenter would not ever say “from now on – it’s only the chisel for me!”  With physical objects, it’s easy to tell that they are obviously and only tools … the psychological tools are not so easily discernible and we often make the mistake that any given tool might be the silver bullet of productivity … when in truth, there is no such thing.

Any of our clients who have ever had a conversation with me will probably know that I like ‘order and simplicity’ (a lofty aspiration indeed – especially in my particular role!)  Order and simplicity of course are ‘in the eye of the beholder’ (think swan above and below water – serenity right there above effort and endeavour!)

So it was quite liberating to hear Oliver tell me (again – obviously not ‘just’ me!) that I can stop looking for that one technique (that silver bullet does not exist).

Anyway – one of the things he suggested (as a tool only) was to set a timer and work in six minute ‘bursts’ – as soon as the timer goes off; move on to a different task (no matter how engrossed you were) and set the six minute timer again.  I baulked at the idea – so few of my tasks are that ‘quick ‘n’ easy … but I was determined to give it a try (always being willing to add to my ‘toolbox’).

I tried it for one hour and true enough – it was really effective – of the ten tasks I attempted, I was able to complete seven of them within the six minute window … and then having crossed so many things off my list, was able to proceed with the rest of my day feeling very self-righteous about how productive I had been!  Obviously – I had to select quite specific tasks for this trial – but another day, I am tempted to try again without careful pre-selection.  Interestingly – of the three tasks I had to go back to – I actually felt ‘motivated’ to crack on with them because I had already ‘made a start’.

I reflected on the productivity techniques I had applied during the remainder of my day and was interested to note that I used another three or four styles (that I could readily identify).

But the most important thing that Oliver wanted me (!) to take away from his email was that …

“You need no longer feel overwhelmed by the vast array of techniques, systems and philosophies that crowd the internet and the shelves of bookshops, promising ways to improve your life, because you’re not trying to discover the “right” one. Instead, you get to pick from them all, as you see fit, for whatever purposes you deem them useful – and only for as long as they actually serve to improve your experience of being alive.”

And I got the feeling that he wasn’t just talking about productivity techniques …