To Get More Done at Work, This Productivity Exec Says You Need to Get Deliberate

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Tweets. Texts. Emails. Shared documents. New comments on shared documents. A work day can be a storm of notifications, with each alert keeping us up to date on everything and nothing simultaneously. And Joshua Zerkel, Evernote’s director of global community, says it’s too much.

Before joining productivity platform Evernote, Zerkel worked as a productivity consultant full time. He was shocked at the number of articles and posts (just like this one!) extolling new ways to get productive or organized. He says the deluge of emails, tweets and notifications is too much for most people to get on top of. “It’s astonishing.”

Part of the problem, according to Zerkel, is that we’ve never learned how to work. No one is formally taught how to focus in meetings, how and when to check email and when to look at the countless notifications we get every day. As new technologies emerge, it becomes harder and harder to catch up, because most people are struggling enough to navigate the existing chaos.

To add to the complexity, technologies evolve. So, email-filing strategies that made sense five or six years ago become outdated and just another set of hard habits to break.  

Thankfully, Zerkel has a common-sense approach that can weather any tech or work evolution: Get simple and be deliberate. This framework will help you avoid overthinking any task and know what you want to get out of every day and every project. He explains more below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Let’s start with the basics. How do you plan your week?
Once a week, I have an overview where I sit down and I say, “Here’s what I need to accomplish in the next week.” I plan out which projects need to be done and on which specific days. Usually, this happens Thursday or Friday, so I have that list when I come in on Monday. There’s always stuff that can’t be planned for or is more reactive. But this way, I start with the most important thing.

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So you use your priorities to shape your time. How do you structure individual days?
The key secret for productivity for me is, I start every morning with a workout. It takes me out of my head and into my body. By the time I’m done, I’m really ready to go.

I need the morning time — that’s my best time to do my best work. So I try to push all of my key tasks that require a lot of thought into that time. I try to avoid having meetings in the morning whenever possible. I typically find a quiet spot to do content creation, because I do a lot of writing for work. And then toward the latter part of the day is when I’ll have more meetings and conversations with people and do follow-ups on other pieces of work.

In the afternoon or late afternoon, toward when I’m going home, that’s when I do all the random tasks. And I don’t think most people think about their tasks in that way. They’re trying to do all their tasks in whatever shoehorn moment they can find. But try to move your most important tasks to that chunk [when you can be most creative] and your random tasks to the other chunk [when critical thinking is less important] and see what difference in productivity that makes.

These shifts seem so simple — but they’re so hard for people to adopt. What stands in the way of people’s productivity?
I think the desire is there. We want to feel like, “I’m empowered, I’m productive, I’m in control.” But we go from zero to 60. And I think it’s much better to take just one step. What is one thing in your work life that you feel could be under better control? Is it your email? Is it your files? Is it your time? Choose one area and do one thing to make some small tweak today and see what that changes, rather than, “You know what? On Monday I’m going to be implementing this entire productivity system where I’m going between managing my time, my tasks and my files.” Good luck with that. It’s too hard. You can’t change all that behavior on a dime. It doesn’t work. But we can tweak one thing. And usually those tweaks add up to a big productivity change.

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What about email? So many struggle to keep up, but that’s really also a symptom of a bigger problem, isn’t it?
You need to have a bias towards action. People overthink the filing of their email. So they spend a lot of time not actually just processing their email but figuring out where to put it. And this was important maybe five, 10 years ago when search was not good, but with all modern email programs, whether you’re using Gmail or Outlook or whatever, you can find your email really easily just by searching.

I used to be highly, highly, overly organized, and I was the type of person who, if you looked at my folder structure, there would be intricate hierarchies of information like folders and subfolders and folders within them and everything meticulously named. And I used to spend a lot of time organizing when I should have been spending time doing the things that I needed to work on. So, for me now, I have no folders. I just archive. And if I need to find it, I just search for it.

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Should we also wait, then, to check mail when we can actually reply and not just frantically check our inbox for updates?
People can wait half an hour or an hour. It will be OK. The world will not come to an end. And I think we have just been in this notification culture for long enough now that we feel like we need to be instantly on top of everything. But it’s a huge detriment to us staying productive and staying empowered with how we manage our time and our tasks.

If I receive something from someone and I have time to open the email, I have time to figure out where it should go. If I don’t have time to process it, I typically don’t open it just yet, because then I just have to do it again later. It’s a waste of my time.

When it comes to time management, everyone says, “Learn how to say no.” But that’s not always realistic or effective. What’s the tweak that will make this thinking work?
People come to me with tasks or things they want to have me do or help them with. I want to say “yes” to everything. And I think most of us do. But building the muscle around, “I would love to do this, but I’m working on this other thing” helps the requester recognize priority is really important, and I think that’s a missed piece. And I think it will help if we are able to have that conversation around, “I’m doing this, this is why, here’s the priority level. If I do this, for you, this means I can’t do that. Is that OK? Let’s make the choice together.”

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Acting deliberately seems like such a novel way to approach the work day. How do we get to this point?
I think we have to detangle it a little bit. If you’re not in that deliberate mindset — and most people aren’t there yet — you have to ask yourself, “Did I decide to do this?” And if you didn’t decide to do something, it’s happening by default. And by definition, you’re disempowered. You have not taken ownership over that thing. It may have been handed to you, but you still get to decide. “Am I doing this? Am I doing this now? Can this be done later?”

So, if you’re confronted with that list of tasks and you feel great about it, great. If you don’t, ask yourself, “When did I make the decision to do this? Why am I doing this?” Rather than thinking about being deliberate, think about deciding. “When did I decide this?” Decide to decide.

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This process could help people sidestep the stress they feel upon getting a new project — stress that sometimes isn’t warranted.
If you weren’t the one who made the original decision to have this handed to you, then of course it puts you in the position of being reactive. But even in the reactive state, all of us are working because we’ve decided to. We’re not beholden to anybody. And even in the moment when you’re being handed something, you’re still making a decision, “Yes, I accept this,” or, “No, I don’t.” Or a counter-offer. We forget, because we’re busy: We always have that power, and we just don’t exercise it.

It seems like an antidote, in part, to the struggle to feel engaged at work — and a way to gain empowerment — to ask yourself, “Why am I in this meeting?” “Why am I doing this project?”
That’s something that I do. If I receive a meeting invitation and there’s no agenda and I’m not really sure what the context of this meeting is, I will ask. I have asked, even my superiors, “Can you please give me a little bit more context to make sure that I’m spending my time in the best way?” No one is going to be mad at you for asking a question like that.

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It’s a more empowering way to go about the day, to find your own hacks and your own purpose, rather than expecting someone else to lead you through it.
People think, “Someone’s monitoring my efficiency, and they’re going to give me the tweak.” But the reality is, everyone is too busy. You have to think about it yourself. You know better than anybody. You’re the expert. I don’t think people recognize themselves as the expert. That’s a pity, because all of us are experts in our own way over our own domain. And if we own that, we can improve things so much.

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If you’re not a boss, how can you be the leader of your own time?
The simplest way is to break things down into the tiniest component parts. Even if you are not sure that you’re in charge of yourself and your time, find one thing where you feel, “I’m actually OK at this thing. Can I be a little bit better at it? Sure. Can I make the smallest of tweaks to improve it? Sure.” It doesn’t have to be a sea change to make a difference. Of course, people are looking for the sea change. They’re looking for, “I’m going to flip the switch, and tomorrow things will be magically different and better.” This is not reality TV. It doesn’t work that way. It’s incremental. It all has value.

Linda Lacina

Linda Lacina

Linda Lacina is the managing editor at Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Smart Money, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Family Circle. Email her at [email protected]. Follow her at @lindalacina on Twitt…

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