In an age obsessed with digital solutions, the real key to productivity may be as simple as pen and paper.
Almost 12 months ago to the day, I found myself in a bit of a funk.
Everyday tasks seemed that little bit harder. They took a bit longer than normal to complete and my brain seemed to fire slower.
Chatting about it with my boss and mentor (yes, that’s Sam!) she asked me what I thought was a strange question at the time, “What do you do in the morning”?
I replied: “Ummmm, have breakfast, drink my coffee, get my daughter ready for school and check my phone for news, updates, emails and anything real estate and work related”.
Sam offered this piece of advice: “Instead of starting the day digitally (ie by picking up my phone), I want you to try starting it analogue. Do it for 30 days and let me know what happens.”
So here’s what happened when I started my day in a totally new way and the impact making this change had on two other processes I’ve implemented since.
Start the day analogue
Initially I didn’t have much idea about how I was to start the day analogue. What did that mean? Was I supposed to get an old bell alarm clock?
In the end I borrowed one from my mother-in-law, amazed that it still worked! It woke me up at 6am and I got up and went about my day as usual.
For the first week, nothing changed.
Then, one night as I chopped up the carrots for dinner, the perfect lead sentence for our Jodie Stainton cover story in the magazine ‘popped’ into my mind.
I raced to my office, grabbed my notebook and scribbled it down.
Then my second great idea in two minutes ‘popped’ into my head – maybe tomorrow morning when I wake up I should write down my plan for the day on paper.
That’s analogue right?
So I did. Over the next 21 days, and every day since then.
Here’s what happened.
Overall I felt calmer and more organised. I had always made a to-do list every morning but writing it down longhand, as opposed to bashing it out on my laptop in a hurry, meant I was more detailed.
I considered each task more carefully and grouped them by importance, how long it would take to do each one and any deadlines connected to them.
The first few times, it took me about 20 minutes to do this, but now I’m a seasoned professional and, most days, it’s a quick 10 minute exercise.
But the biggest change was that I felt more at ease within myself and the start of my day didn’t feel so ‘rushed’.
When I looked into it, I discovered there’s actually scientific evidence that going old school and handwriting, rather than typing, increases activity in certain sections of the brain, just like when you meditate.
According to a study from Indiana University, long-form writing accesses creativity that’s not easily found in any other way.
It also helps us learn and retain information better, which might explain why there was some method in my teachers’ madness getting me to write lines about not talking in class, and it prompts us to slow down and tune in more to what we’re doing.
It’s also rumoured that authors such as Stephen King, J.K Rowling, and Danielle Steele draft their novels by hand, so there’s plenty of social proof this philosophy works.
Now, I’m not going to start writing articles by hand, but I’m definitely going to stick with starting my day with pen and paper.
How you can use this technique: Don’t make your phone or your laptop the first thing you look at in the morning. Go to the gym, see your family or do your morning routine – sans technology – and then either journal or write your to-do list the old fashioned way. A trust pen and notebook/diary are your friends.
Change your setting
Speaking of great authors, even the best get writer’s block.
They also say a change is as good as a holiday and, while I’m not sure I fully believe that, another strategy that has really worked for me this year is changing my setting when I have a mental ‘block’.
My go-to is my alfresco area, but I’ve also worked from the occasional cafe or a picnic table at the park just around the corner (yes, I’m fortunate to work from home).
As if by magic, this change in scenery will, 90 per cent of the time, trigger my creativity and get the words flowing again.
I can also usually do a whole lot more work and write an article much faster outdoors.
Why is that?
According to a study from UCL that was published in the journal Neuron, there’s a region in the midbrain that responds well to “novelty” rather than familiar things.
It’s the same part of the brain that regulates dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain, and it could aid learning.
“It is a well-known fact amongst scientists that the midbrain region regulates our levels of motivation and our ability to predict rewards by releasing dopamine in the frontal and temporal regions of the brain,” UCL Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience Dr Emrah Duzel said.
“We have now shown that novelty activates this brain area.
“We believe that experiencing novelty might, in itself, have an impact on our dopamine levels.”
Which means, when we change our work setting, we’re giving our brain something new, or novel, to process, which triggers dopamine release and that spurs our motivation and creativity again.
A Human Spaces global report found that workplaces that incorporate natural elements, like greenery and sunlight see a 6 per cent boost in productivity and a 15 per cent boost in creativity compared to offices that don’t.
How you can use this technique: Next time you’re stuck writing a listing description or unable to come up with a unique angle about what makes you the agent of choice for your listing presentation, take your laptop to your office courtyard, or walk around the corner to the park or the coffee shop. By the time you get there, inspiration will likely have struck.
Performing a work task in a mindful manner
Mindfulness has been a bit of a buzzword for a few years now, but it’s safe to say it’s a really useful practice for lowering stress levels, among other things.
Of course, there are no end of mindfulness apps, breathing exercises and, ideally, you’d take time out of your day to complete these and recharge.
The benefits are pretty clear.
When global advertising, marketing, and public relations agency, Ogilvy, implemented a mindful manager program with mindfulness app, Calm, 60 per cent of managers reported less stress and 54 per cent said they were better able to regulate their emotions.
Meanwhile, US health insurer Aetna found mindfulness programs led to an additional 62 minutes of productivity per week, per employee.
But what happens when you don’t have a program or an app to help you?
The past couple of months I’ve taken to completing one task – listening to and writing the blog post for the Elevate podcast – in a mindful manner.
I make myself a cup of tea, sit in my grandfather’s cosy, mustard rocking chair and hit play on whoever Sam is chatting to this week.
I listen, I enjoy and I make mental, and occasional physical notes.
Only when my tea is finished and the podcast is over do I hop out of what’s now dubbed ‘the podcast chair’ and sit at my desk again to write the blog post.
How has this helped?
Don’t tell the boss, but I look forward to sitting in that chair and listening to the podcast, just like I would any of the other podcasts I listen to during the week (true crime podcasts are my go-to).
I’m less stressed than I am sitting at my desk the whole time and my mind slows down.
My thoughts aren’t racing onto the next task or ruminating on the comma I missed in that last article.
I’m present, thinking only about the words the latest Elevate guest is saying.
I feel more engaged with what I’m doing. The camomile and spearmint tea helps too.
It’s also worth pointing out that in focusing on this one thing, I’m not trying to multi-task.
While many folks wear juggling a lot of balls at once like a badge of honour, I’ve found I get a lot more done by doing things properly, one at a time, and once, rather than trying to do everything all at once.
A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, backs this up.
The authors found that multitasking is actually less efficient because it takes extra time to shift mental gears every time you switch back and forth between tasks.
And, according to a University of California, Irvine, study, it takes about 23 minutes to get back on track with your task after you’ve been interrupted or distracted with something else.
How you can use this technique: Think about what real estate tasks you can turn into an enjoyable event in your weekly calendar. Can you do your daily call session with your favourite coffee in your favourite comfy chair? Or, if you’re dashing between open homes, try driving in silence now and again and pay attention to your surroundings, without distraction. Either that or pop on the Elevate podcast!!