Reflecting on 2021, I’ve identified a few broad strategies that have helped me be much more productive, both professionally (including on some EA projects) and personally. I’ve summarized these thoughts below; please feel free to share additional ideas or respond to these in the comments!
Spend time training on the programs you use most frequently—even the basic ones
A conservative estimate suggests I’ve spent more than 10,000 hours working in Microsoft Word over my time as a student and employee. I kinda assumed that I knew everything I needed to know about working in Word. But I watched a few tutorials on YouTube, and the ~45 minutes I spent watching those, along with the hour I spent messing around in Word afterward, are probably the highest ROI of any work I’ve done in the past year. I learned tips and tricks that have made me work faster and more efficiently in Word, especially when completing certain formatting-sensitive tasks. I can’t recommend this enough. Here are a few videos I’d recommend on Word. Word tools that I found super helpful but had previously not known about include: setting default font and paragraph settings, changing the paste options, and using find and replace more effectively (i.e., to remove formatting). Depending on the work you do, macros can take Word to a whole new level. And Word is just the beginning
Many of us spend up to several hours a day on email. Improving your email efficiency is thus potentially high-leverage. Learning about folders, tags, shortcuts, rules/filters, and other tools can be super helpful. There are trainings for whatever client you have—Gmail, Outlook, etc; I’d highly recommend checking some of them out.
This same advice applies to any program that you extensively use, whether professionally or personally, such as Excel. I’ve found this Excel playlist helpful.
You can also go a step further and do some training on using your computer and/or phone most efficiently. Simple shortcuts can make a big difference! For example, I’ve found learning how to quickly create a split-screen has been super helpful (on Windows, drag any window all the way to the right and it’ll automatically bifurcate your screen). Avenues for learning more about this include books, articles, and YouTube tutorials. Here’s a few I’ve found helpful: Windows keyboard shortcuts, Mac keyboard shortcuts, Windows 10 tips.
Maintain a list of ongoing projects with latest progress logged and decision points identified
My job involves managing a ton of smaller projects and coordinating their review by a bunch of different people. It’s easy for things to get lost in the shuffle. By keeping a list of current projects, I ensure that nothing gets forgotten, keep projects moving through the process, and have a sense of where my time and energy are actually going. I can’t share my actual work log, but here’s a generic version.
There are a lot of advantages to this approach. I’ve found that it both greatly reduces the likelihood of catastrophic failure (i.e., forgetting about an important project or time-sensitive action item) while also reducing the amount of wasted mental energy spent on making sure I’m not forgetting day-to-day items. It makes it much easier to reflect on whether you’re allocating your time and attention on your biggest priorities. You may find that you’re working on a bunch of projects related to an issue you’re less interested in, while one of your key priorities is falling to the wayside. It’s much easier to see that if you’re writing things down! As a bonus, whenever anyone mentions in passing “hey, maybe we should try X!” or you wake up with a sudden idea for a personal project, you can add it to the list. This way, you’ll have a clear record of ideas when you’re next trawling for project ideas, rather than something being written down on a post-it, never to be seen again.
Establish regular check-ins with set discussion topics to ensure that projects are progressing
As previously discussed, it can be too easy for projects or priorities to get lost in the shuffle. Establishing regular check-ins is a good way to establish a minimum threshold for what’s getting done as well as a minimum threshold for communication.
I’ve found this invaluable both personally and professionally. I talk to my boss several times a day, but having formal check-ins every other week where we go through my task list ensures that we touch base on everything I’m working on (whereas certain projects might otherwise fall by the wayside) and creates a ready-made opportunity for either of us to raise ongoing concerns. I’ve found that regular check-ins facilitate a higher quality, more reflective kind of communication that might not otherwise occur. In preparing for the check-ins, I have a chance to reflect on the work I’ve been doing, which often allows me to identify recurring issues or potential sites of improvement. And in the check-ins themselves, both my boss and I have the opportunity to raise concerns or ideas that might not come up when we’re caught in the flow of day-to-day work. And indeed, I’ve found that during times where these check-ins don’t occur, problems tend to linger longer without receiving the proper attention
Regular check-ins with key colleagues/research partners/etc. are also invaluable when you don’t otherwise communicate particularly frequently. This is particularly useful when dealing with folks who are busier or less proactive; some folks may otherwise not realize that you can be a resource for them or offer solutions. Regular check-ins thus create a minimum level of communication that can help facilitate collaboration.
I also use this approach in my personal life: I have a weekly check-in with my romantic partner. That might sound artificial or strange—we live together, we communicate plenty!—but as I mentioned above, communication, full stop, is not the same as effective or goals-oriented communication. Creating a formal check-in has been surprisingly helpful.
I hope this is helpful to someone–at the very least, I found it helpful to write all of this down–and happy new year to all!