Space for speed – a productivity hack

I'm not sure, but it looks like a productive place! ;)
I’m not sure, but it looks like a productive place! 😉

I used to be a research academic in universities. I did it for 24 years, in fact. For part of that time I was also the Centre Manager for what was then the UK’s largest social science research unit. Impressive, eh? 😉

One of the things that used to drive the university administrators mad was the fact that researchers at universities (and I’m including lecturers here) is that they all wanted private offices – and large ones at that – despite the fact that they weren’t in them for huge swathes of time. It was, the administrators said, massively inefficient.

And given that the university was in the middle of a city, pretty expensive too!

What was the planners’ solution for this productivity gaff?

Hotdesking and open plan offices were the answers, they said. We’ll give you a brand new, purpose built, shiny building, they said. It’ll be lovely, they said…

“We quit” the researchers said (well, a couple of them did, the rest just grumbled and started to sabotage things in a passive-aggressive way).

Why?  Why would smart people rather work in a run down, and frankly shabby, building rather than anything nice? The answer lay in their offices. Now, before you jump to conclusions it was certainly an ego thing for some of them but for lots (my personal opinion it was the vast majority) what they needed was a combination of:

  • the privacy – most academics are introverts and don’t work well in distracting environments
  • the space to spread out – the traditional looking messy academic office

The thing is, that space is needed for a reason. Like most of us, academics work on lots of different projects at once, sometimes for days at a time but very often only for an hour or so here and there. Now, I’m sure you can imagine the issue here, if you insist on tidy working spaces. As you swap between projects you have to spend time putting everything away and then spend time getting out the things you need for the next project.

In terms of productivity, that’s lost time and lost output.

It gets worse – then better

Unfortunately it’s worse than that, because not only is there the physical wasted time there’s also the psychological issue of then getting your head in gear and starting to be productive. Consider the advantages of just having several “workstations” then, each one set up for you to work on a different project. To change projects you simply scoot your chair to the appropriate workstation. It might be a little like moving chairs at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in Alice in Wonderland, I suppose.

The thing is however, that you don’t waste time packing/unpacking and you don’t wast mental effort trying to get your head back in the game.

There’s another, perhaps bigger, advantage to having workstations set up if you can find a way to do it and it’s to do with the prompts our brains get from physical clues. As social animals, we associate certain things (behaviours, feelings etc) with certain physical prompts. Therefore by having a workstation set out in a certain way, when we sit down at it we’re instantly reminded of what we were doing when we last sat their, reducing the warm up time we need.

That’s productivity genius!

But here’s the problemmmmmmmm… and it’s a big one!

Not many of us have big enough offices to be able to leave several different workstations ‘on the go’ at once. Currently I’m working on five reasonably sized projects and as I work from a small home office five workstations is definitely out of the question! So what are our options here?


Much of my work is done on a computer. Now, I may not be able to have much by way of physical workstations, but I can certainly use my computer in a way to simulate that with a tiny bit of set up. My computer, like all modern ones, can create virtual screens that sit alongside the physical one. I move my hands over the keyboard and those virtual screens are dragged magically so that they show on the physical screen.

Here’s my trick. I have a virtual screen set up for each project I’m likely to work on that day. It takes me about ten minutes at the beginning of the day to set it all up but I’m busy drinking my tea at that point anyway. From then on, at any point when I need/want to change projects I simply slide to the appropriate virtual screen and – bam! – I’m almost immediately ready to go.

I’ve also found it handy to have a ‘general purpose’ screen with things like my diary open on it for anything that comes in and surprises me.

Productivity Trays

This is an idea my wife used very successfully for a long time. It’s not as good as workstations but it’s better than nothing! It works very well if your job tends to involve a lot of paperwork, books etc.

Each project that’s live has it’s own in-tray. These are arranged alongside each other on a shelf so that they’re clearly visible, to save mental effort of hunting for the right one.

Importantly, each tray, when it’s packed, is filled left to right, very strictly. That means that things she had on her left as she was working are always on the bottom etc. Unpacking is therefore a simple process of sweeping right to left: she could recreate her ‘workstation’ in a matter of only a minute and – importantly – have it look more or less exactly the same as when she stopped working on it, so that her brain has all the physical clues it could about what was what.

Kickstarter notes

This is an I idea I first hear from Stever Robbins (the get it done guy) who has a pretty cool podcast of that name. The idea is very simple, at it’s core. As you approach the end of the time you have for a project, just take two minutes to jot down in your diary, notebook or whatever what the next steps are for that project – what you need to do next when you come back to it. (Add a sentence of what you’ve just done if you like.)

Then, when you come back to the project, you don’t have to spend time reading what you last typed etc to get back in the flow. A simple scan of your notes to yourself will get up and running in almost no time.

I’ve found that this not only gets me going but also reminded me of what I’d just done, but even if it doesn’t do that for you, it can get you off the ground quicker.

Think of it as the project-based version of the voice-over and montage at the beginning of your favourite TV series. “Previously on NCIS…”

Project ordering

Now, I have to confess that because of my other productivity tools, I don’t use this one, but a couple of other people I know find it quite useful. Much like ‘trip chaining’, which is where you drive to the shops and then realise that as you’re already out of the office you might as well nip up to the bank, project ordering works on that idea that as you’ve already thinking about things like (let’s say) finance it makes sense to move from looking at the finances for your secret under bunker to something related, such as the finances for your project to buy enough books to last six months (which is approximately how long the food supplies in your secret underground bunker are planned to last, but that’s pure coincidence, obviously).

The point is, you might be chaining project, but you’re not changing the way you’re thinking, helping you get up to speed on the second project faster.

By planning carefully you might be able to get a third project to follow on from the second in a way that keeps you at least partially withy your head in the right place. Think of it as one of those dinner-party games when you take it in turns to say a word starting with the last letter of the previous word. 😉

Your productivity?

Okay, that’ll do for now. There are more ideas, obviously, but by the time you’ve ready about 1500 words you deserve a break! 🙂

What about you? Do any of these ideas strike a chord? Got a better idea? Got a modification? Share your wisdom!

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