The Toll Bridge of Communication

I’ve read lots and lots of “productivity hacks” and methods supposedly designed to help you get more done. Some are okay and a lot are terrible, but I’ve noticed that most seem to be focused on the space between you and your work. Most of these methods assume that given the clear space to work, you are simply having trouble executing – maybe you can’t concentrate, maybe you aren’t working effectively, etc.

But in my experience where the rubber meets the road, that’s not actually where most threats to productivity come from. They mostly tend to come from external forces, due to the fact that the majority of those who care about these kinds of methods have to work with other people, usually to a large degree.

Whether they’re your clients, co-workers, bosses, or direct reports, people demand your attention. A lot. They’re not deliberately trying to undermine you, but here is a weird thing that happens in the brain of all people: when you can’t see someone, you sort of accidentally default to assuming they’re not doing anything. Sure, you wouldn’t say that and you wouldn’t even think it if asked directly, but when you haven’t actively thought about it, your awareness of other people is usually static. Your brain isn’t constantly holding a dynamic universe containing the movements and activities of everyone you know; it’s just keeping their identities in a mental file folder.

So when you need something from Jill in accounting, you ask her. You never even stop to think that she might be busy trying to be productive. The thought might even annoy you! Heck, “productive?” Her job is to help you, isn’t it?

And of course, other people think that about you. Not consciously, but when they reach out to ask you a question or a favor, they’re doing it because their mental inventory told them that you were the right person based on what you could do – never mind what you might actually be doing.

So here’s the best productivity hack I know: every day, tell everyone what you’re doing and when. Just put a little notice up (in the world of remote work this is actually a little easier than in an office setting, but even in an office you can do it) that tells everyone your basic itinerary for the day. It doesn’t have to be deeply detailed, just something like “I’m going dark from 9 to 11 on this project, then I’ll be available from 11 to 12, then lunch until 1, then dark again from 1 to 4 on this other project, then available to respond to things from 4 to 5.”

This very simple action builds both walls and bridges – like a toll bridge. It builds walls around your time, and it builds bridges in terms of your rapport and role as a team player. It gives people a viable way to connect with you, while simultaneously imposing a reasonable cost to do so. When people get these informal daily notices about your work, their impression of you subtly shifts to one where they view you as dynamic. As productive. And this, in turn, helps make it so – because no one wants to interrupt a busy bee.

This is a 5-minute task that can save you hours of lost time to friction and interruptions. Plus, it helps give YOU a little reminder and motivation to stay on task – after all, you said you were doing something. You made a public commitment to be doing it, so you take away your own ability to put it off or procrastinate without also making yourself a liar.

What happens between you and your work is on you – but at least you can impose some order on what happens between you and everyone else.

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