Down with Hacks!

Stop doing what doesn't workI’m so sick of productivity hacks. I’m sick of only 5 Steps! and hearing about how Just 15 Minutes! can change your days and your lives. Because here’s the thing – it’s just not true.

There is no one secret to being (or feeling, which is arguably more important) productive. Well, actually, there is, but no one wants to talk about it – it’s just doing good work. It’s setting boundaries for yourself – to turn off social media and email or decide to do one task (and only that task) until it’s finished – and trudging ahead and learning how to WORK.

The problem with the hacks – and why they don’t work – is that they don’t take into account your ideal schedule, what your work style is, what your work is or what your goals are. If you are a planner and love to make plans and get things done, then regimented lists will be your savior. If you’re more of the creative type and your work lends itself to the “creative process,” then you’ll want to leave more open space devoted to creating. But you have to know those three things before you determine YOUR hack and how to overcome the noise of life and actually do good work.

Your ideal schedule

OK, this is a big one. But you really need to know yourself. There are all sorts of assessments out there that will tell you how you work best and what you like to do and what you should be when you grow up. While I love studying assessments and discussing them, they’re just not necessary. If you spend just a couple hours reflecting on how you’ve worked well in the past, you’ll get to this one.

Jobs often put boundaries and rules around how we work or how we’re supposed to work (maybe there isn’t a hard requirement to be in the office all day, but people would start to wonder if you were never there). So if your job isn’t flexible or you started your job and just started working like everyone else did, you’ve got to dig a little deeper.

I like to think back to school. Between law school and undergrad, I was in school for quite some time, where no one told me how or where to work. I always got my work done, generally with relatively little stress, and my friends at both schools will confirm that I had plenty of time for fun. So, I think back to how I did that. Much to my shock, when I did this exercise, I realized I just worked a normal work day! Sure, I took workout breaks, the occasional lunch break to catch up with friends, and of course, there were hangover days (I went to school in New Orleans – it was inevitable). But by and large, I studied 8-5. Although the evenings creeped later if there was a looming deadline, I’ve always hated working late into the night.

I also know that I was able to keep that schedule because I gave myself a few things that I wanted to focus on or get done each day. Much of that was by necessity – in both law school and undergrad I had big books and I just couldn’t carry around all of them. But having those few things to get done and softly mapping out in my head how I would get everything else done by the deadlines was what gave me freedom to have fun in the evenings and on most weekends. Once I got it done, I was done for the day and didn’t spend my time thinking about school projects or what case I was inevitably forgetting to read for constitutional law.

So – think back to how you’ve worked in the past that was successful and felt relatively easy to you. Map it out and try to follow a similar schedule now if your work allows.

Your default work style

Once you figure out a schedule that works for you, you’ve got to think about how you’ve worked in the past that worked. So, again, think back to a time when you got to work exactly how you wanted to – and it worked. Consider where you were working – how quiet or noisy was it? Were you working with a group? Were you always in the darkest corner of the library with your nose in a book?

Something huge happened to me in law school that taught me a lot about how I work best. Many people read a ton of books or talk to others that have been to law school about how to go to law school. That wasn’t me. I was very confident, I knew that I was good at school, and why would I waste my time reading “how to go to law school” books when another Harry Potter had just come out?

Well, during finals of first semester, everyone kept talking about their study groups. And study lounges in the library were booked up and everyone had this set study group. I had no idea what they were talking about and my very first natural instinct was to feel left out (I have a huge fear of being the girl in the lunchroom with no place to sit). But I didn’t feel left out at all. I wondered why they were all wasting their time in groups probably shooting the shit and catching the lowest common denominator up on the materials. For once in my life, I wasn’t jealous or feeling left out of a “group.”

I learned then and there that, when it comes down to doing Very Important Work (which studying for your law school finals definitely qualifies as), I am best on my own. Even though I’m an extrovert and some of my best memories of both college and law school involve me teaching or debating friends about something we were studying – I know that I wasn’t doing Very Important Work then. That was “studying light” for me. Which I need, but not when I’m up to the wire.

So – think back – when were you most productive, and what was the setting? Try to find settings like that to do more work in and, if need be, have a conversation with your boss about why. If you are sincere and explain that you’ve really thought about how you work best and can contribute best to the company, they should get it. If not, go searching for a boss that does.

Your work and your goals

OK, this is a tricky one and might be career-changing for you, but if your work and your work goals don’t fit in with how you work best, you’ll constantly be struggling to feel productive and get your work done. It’s just a fact, and it’s one of the myriad of ways that alignment comes into play in your work.

You have to align your work goals with a way that works best for you. If you are a trial attorney and your goals are to work on high profile cases, yet you hate traveling for work and like to feel settled and connected to your home community, then you may need to redefine what your work goals are. You can still do trial work, but high profile cases go where the plaintiffs drive them and that often means traveling for long stretches of time.

So, after you’ve figured out your ideal work schedule and your natural way of working, start brainstorming how your current career path and goals can fit into them. You can get really creative here, because if they can’t, you need to change your career goals.

That might seem drastic, but it’s better to change your long term expectations now so you are moving toward something that will feel natural and easy to you than to keep trying to push your square self into a round hole. You might succeed, but I can guarantee you it won’t feel like success.

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