My Life As An Efficiency Squirrel

One writer’s quest to make the most of her time at the office.

By Claire Suddath

ILLUSTRATION BY SERGE SEIDLITZ

I was interrupted seven times while writing this paragraph. First by a co-worker who asked what I was working on. Second by an editor who wanted to know when I could turn it in. My work phone rang. Someone texted me. I checked my e-mail ... twice. Another co-worker asked if I had any gum. Now I’m debating between writing the next paragraph and going to get a snack. Probably Oreos. What? They’re delicious.

A Microsoft study on office interruptions found that workers experienced an average of four interruptions per hour. For every 30-second distraction, the research firm Basex estimates it takes 5 minutes for workers to return to work. That’s 22 minutes wasted every hour, which, according to Basex, adds up to almost $1 trillion in productivity losses each year. “Right now we have millions of workers that are trying to get through the day,” says Jonathan Spira, chief executive officer and chief analyst at Basex, “and we just keep interrupting them.”

At the same time, growing workloads make us feel we just can’t get everything done. “Technology is the biggest culprit,” says Tony Schwartz, founder of the worklife balance program The Energy Project. Ironically, “being tethered to our phones and computers drains us of the energy to be constantly responsive.”

So how do we change this? Right now there are more than 1,000 books on Amazon about increasing your productivity, including a book called NutJob that appears to have been written by an overly efficient squirrel. (“Tip One: Find a nut.”) I spent one week sampling several different productivity-enhancing techniques, and I’ll tell you about them. Right after I dunk this Oreo.

1. Cleaning my inbox

The Suggestion

At work I receive dozens of e-mails a day that I don’t really need to read. Productivity expert Judith Glaser says they’re a waste of time and that I shouldn’t check e-mail every day. When I tell her that my bosses might not like that, she says “check it only every hour or two — but not during the time of day when you’re most productive.”

Glaser insists there should never be an unattended e-mail in my inbox, which at the moment looks like the digital equivalent of the TV show Hoarders. When a message arrives (or when I get around to checking my e-mail), I should immediately delete it, reply to it, or archive it for a future action. This is sometimes referred to as “Inbox Zero.”

The Attempt

With 960 unread messages in my personal inbox, some dating back to 2007 (Hey, Myspace message alerts), emptying it seemed impossible. Instead, I randomly deleted about 140 unread messages and called it a day. I did avoid my work e-mail for several hours at a time, though.

Did It Work?

I’m not sure if ignoring e-mails made me more productive (I still had to read them eventually), but the lack of constant alerts made me less stressed. Also, it seemed nobody cared that I didn’t answer them immediately. My fear that Bloomberg Businessweek would fold should I stay offline for a few hours was unfounded.

2. Completing a project in a timely manner

The Suggestion

I often get sucked into a black hole of cat videos at work, and apparently this is good. In September, scientists at Hiroshima University released a study concluding that looking at cute animals makes us more focused workers. “We think that the effect is due to a positive emotion of cuteness,” Hiroshi Nittono, one of the lead scientists, explained in an e-mail. Another tip from Tony Schwartz: “Do the most important thing first every morning without interruption. Before e-mail.”

The Attempt

I wrote this article in the morning after looking at pictures of a kitten. It put me in a good mood. Surprisingly, I got a hefty chunk of work done before checking e-mail. But I wasn’t completely distraction-free: I looked at both Twitter and Facebook.

Did It Work?

The benefits of kittens are debatable, but I’m going to keep trying to complete a task in the morning before checking e-mail (or the latest Maru video), as that really did start my day off productively.

3. Keeping energy up throughout the day

The Suggestion

Schwartz’s Energy Project isn’t just a way to be a speedy worker — it’s a system that helps you achieve a healthy work-life balance. Part of that balance, Schwartz says, is knowing when to rest. But I basically sit at my desk all day long, which according to recent research means I’m probably forming deadly blood clots in my legs RIGHT NOW. Schwartz disapproves. “Clicking around on the computer and checking e-mail doesn’t count as a break,” he says. “You have to actually stop working. It isn’t about how long you renew, it’s about how well you do it.” At one point, he advised taking a nap.

The Attempt

When I felt sluggish, I left the office and walked around the neighborhood. I got coffee and I ran errands. I walked into nearby shops and looked around. Did you know Pottery Barn sells $79 moonshine jugs? Why was I even in Pottery Barn? I felt like I was playing hooky.

Did It Work?

Yes. I felt reenergized, and when I returned to work Facebook didn’t have its usual magnetic pull. I should stop working more often. For my sanity and for my blood clots.

4. Tackling lunch hour

The Suggestion

I bring my lunch and eat it at my desk every day. Schwartz says this could be damaging to my productivity and my health (eating lunch at your desk has been linked to overeating). He suggests having lunch away from the office to “renew my energy.” Yen Ha, a New York architect and lunch-break advocate who co-runs the blog Lunch Studio, told me going out for lunch spurs creativity. “It’s important to get out of the office and have a change of scenery,” she said. “Get something else besides a computer in front of your eyes.”

The Attempt

The first day I took my salad to a nearby park and finished it in less than 10 minutes. Later in the week I had a luncheon scheduled with a former editor who’s now retired. We idled away an hour and a half at a restaurant. The editor told me that in his day, people took two-hour lunches that often involved alcohol. I guess you’d have had a lot of free time on your hands if your career took place before the Internet.

Did It Work?

It rejuvenated me, just like the midday breaks. And I wound up paying more attention to what I was eating.

5. Implementing to-do lists

The Suggestion

To-do list techniques are like recipes — they’re all slightly different. If you don’t want to keep a written list, the free Remember the Milk app lets you create endless lists on your phone and the Web. It’ll even send alerts to guilt you into finishing a task. But what should you write on your lists? Robert Pozen, author of the new book Extreme Productivity, suggests a multi-tiered approach that combines daily appointments and tasks with notes on how they’ll help you achieve larger goals.

The Attempt

I tried a method from 43folders.com, which suggested that the only items written on a to-do list should be small, actionable goals that can be achieved in one sitting. Instead of adding “Write article,” to my list, I wrote, “Practice writing to-do lists.”

Did It Work?

Yes. The smaller items were easier to complete, which encouraged me to go through even more items. The Remember the Milk app was less helpful. It took about 10 minutes to simply create a checklist.

So, did I find a nut?

While I saw value in almost every productivity technique I tried, many were hard to implement. I’d like to take proper breaks, but I can’t guarantee I will get out during lunch. I can keep my e-mail box tidy or I can work in 90-minute blocks without interruption, but I can’t seem to do both simultaneously. I confide my failings to Schwartz, who tells me not to worry. “That’s because they’re not a ritualized part of your life yet,” he says. “I’ve been abiding by my ‘Do the Most Important Thing First’ rule for 10 years, and I’m still not perfect.” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what my to-do list looks like if I feel happy, grounded, and able to check everything off. And if I get my work — namely, this article — finished. And it looks like that’s going to happen.

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