It's that time of year again. We've already eaten too much turkey, and as holiday cookies spread throughout offices, our bulging waistlines remind us that New Year's resolutions are right around the corner.
Every year, "be more productive" ranks right behind "get in shape" and "eat healthier" in our annual quest to better ourselves. But just as long lines for exercise bikes at the gym dwindle week by week, most of our productivity-focused resolutions will be nothing but memories when February comes around.
Trying to make huge lifestyle changes at the flip of a switch never works. 92% of New Year's resolutions end in failure. But it doesn't have to be that way. The holiday season interrupts our normal routines, which provides an excellent opportunity to reset habits - we just have to find places where a habit change can have an outsized impact.
In that spirit, here are three very specific productivity-focused New Year's resolutions that can stick, even without superhuman feats of willpower. Pick whichever one resonates with you and try it in 2016. None of them will be easy, but they are all achievable.
Only check email at specific times
What if there were an email management technique that could create an extra half hour a day for you and markedly lower your stress levels, without any noticeable difference in your responsiveness? It turns out there is! Recent research conducted at the University of British Columbia shows that checking your email three times per day, rather than continuously through the day, might be the single most effective technique for increasing your productivity.
Not all emails are created equal, and the vast majority of emails do not require an immediate response. Unless your job demands that you reply to every email within minutes, you'll be better off if you let new emails wait.
Making the switch meant that the study participants spent over 20% less time working on their email. They saw significant reductions in stress indicators, and they were still able to read and respond to just as much email volume as before. The study may even be underestimating the benefits - other research indicates that it takes 64 seconds to fully recover from an email interruption. So in addition to creating an extra half hour in reduced email processing time, the research participants were probably working a lot more effectively during the rest of the day as well.
A few tips for getting started:
* Create calendar appointments for 2-4 times per day when you will check your email. Try to only check email during those times!
* Turn off email notifications -- both on your phone and on your computer.
* If you find yourself peeking, try Inbox Pause (for Gmail) or creating a Rule to move all your messages to another folder (in Outlook) to make breaking the habit a little easier.
Choose a system for tracking which emails still need attention, and which don't
Part of what makes email so addictive is that new messages get mixed in with messages that still need attention. It's easy to go into your Inbox with plans to work on something specific, only to get derailed by something shiny. One strategy that can help is picking a system to separate messages that still need attention from those that don't.
Personally, I archive everything that no longer needs attention, because then older messages aren't visible unless I'm specifically looking for them. Let's be clear - archiving does NOT delete your email. It simply saves it to another folder so you can find it later if you need it again.
Other systems can work well also. It's fine to mark messages unread or flag/star messages if they still need attention instead. The important thing is to pick a system and stick with it!
* Archiving, keeping emails that need attention unread, and starring/flagging messages that need later attention can all be reasonable choices.
* Use Search to find messages when you need to look up information, rather than keeping those messages marked as needing attention. Almost any desktop mail client released within the last 5 years has excellent search functionality, and most mobile email apps do as well.
* For messages that will need attention later, you can create calendar reminders, use a folder system to track them, or use an email productivity app to bring them to your attention when you're ready.
* If an email requires a lot of work, it often helps to turn the email into an entry on a to-do list or schedule time to work on it. That way, you can prioritize it in context with your other big projects.
Figure out tomorrow before you leave work today
At the end of every day, I like to spend my last few minutes at work reflecting on the past day and planning what I need to work on tomorrow. That way, I can determine what I need to accomplish tomorrow while my mind is still plugged in from today's work.
If my most important task for tomorrow requires thinking, I'm able to get a subconscious head start as I commute home. The next morning, I can jump right into tackling that work rather than spinning my wheels trying to decide what I should be doing. And best of all, when urgent requests inevitably descend in the morning, I know exactly what else is on my plate that day, and can triage accordingly.
* Start by setting a calendar appointment for yourself, blocking out 5-10 minutes at the end of each workday.
* This technique is especially effective when you keep an organized task list -- you can quickly glance at it and see everything that you need to work on.
Sticking with any of these resolutions will require dedication -- but it's a whole lot less sweaty than working off that stuffing at the gym. May your 2016 be productive!