How to be more productive? Finance Indaba speaker Marcel van den Berg reveals all

Dutch productivity guru Marcel van den Berg, Think Productive’s director for Western Europe, who will be speaking at the upcoming Finance Indaba Africa 2016, sat down to talk to us about productivity – where we’re going wrong, how we can improve, and how simple changes can have big consequences.

By Toni Muir

We’ve all had days when our inboxes just never seem to empty, when we don’t get the time to do any or many of the items on our to-do lists, we spend precious time in what turns out to be a pointless meeting, and where we feel utterly flustered by the end of the day because we haven’t been nearly as productive as we needed to be. According to Marcel, the key to being productive is… being in control.

  • Marcel is one of the most anticipated speakers at the Finance Indaba Africa? If you still don't have tickets, click this link and use code FB2016 to register!

“The word ‘productivity’ is interesting because it implies something. We define productivity as achieving what you want to achieve with the least effort, or having the ability to achieve what you want to achieve with the least effort,” Marcel says.

“Productivity is about reducing stress, worrying less, achieving more and enjoying what you do.”

In this regard, it’s also important to be clear about what you want to achieve, and knowing what the two or three main drivers of results in your job are, he adds. “You can relate it back to Steven Covey’s ‘big rocks’ analogy: the big things you want to achieve in life you must put first. The trick is learning how to do that.”

Something Marcel pegs as equally important in being productive, is knowing when to stop and take a break. He explains that the eight-hour work day dates back to the industrial age, when much of the work was physical. Today, most of us knowledge workers use our brains to work, only that the brain cannot work effectively for a period as long as eight hours, or sometimes more. “It also needs to rest,” Marcel says. “If you rest, your brain is capable of producing better results. Though the thought of rest does feel counter intuitive.”

In addition, the brain has a limited capacity to make decisions. "It’s not that you aren’t willing, it’s just that your brain’s ability to take decisions is over. It’s called decision fatigue," Marcel explains.

"That’s why some people try to eliminate unnecessary decisions, as it affects productivity. Doing something like this saves thinking energy.”

You get people, for example, who choose their entire week’s working wardrobe before the week begins, or plan out their meals in advance, or who even eat the same meals day after day to avoid having to make such fairly mundane decisions. It all comes back to attention management, Marcel says, when and how you use your attention to create the biggest impact.

You’ve surely heard the expression, ‘work smarter, not harder’ more than once. It’s all very well to say this, but what does it actually mean?

“If times are busy and there’s a lot to do, the first thing that people naturally do is think they can deal with it by working longer hours. But that’s the wrong approach because there’s no end to that. So putting in more time is not the answer.”

According to him, it’s more about doing the right things, and thinking about what will create the most impact, as well as how you can manage your attention and use your brain in the best way possible. Thus, you need to look at output. “It’s arbitrary how many hours a week you want to work, so you have to be smarter about work and do things that will add value to your work,” Marcel says, citing the 80-20 rule as a good example. You also need to be critical about what you have to do and what could – or should – be delegated, he adds.

So how did we come to get mired down in this productivity dilemma in the first place? What are we all doing wrong? “I don’t think we are doing things wrong, per say, I think it’s just that we’ve never been taught how to work,” Marcel says. “We learn a profession but never how to work or how to organise our work. We might watch how our colleagues or superiors do things, and learn from them, or figure out a way of doing things that works, but very few people automatically develop a way that gives them a feeling of being on top of things.”

Marcels says that when he first came across the principles of productivity he was upset because they are, in essence, quite easy to comprehend – though applying them is another thing. “It’s not rocket science,” he says. “These things can have a tremendous impact when applied. I don’t understand why we don’t learn them in school or university, or sooner in life.”

Graham Allcott, founder of Think Productive, cottoned onto this glaring need, launching the company in 2009 in the UK. The company has seen superb growth in a relatively short time, and now has offices in the US, Canada, Australia and Western Europe – the latter being the entity where Marcel fits in. Think Productive’s courses focus only on the topic of productivity, covering personal productivity, meetings and emails, and its client base ranges from small organisations, universities and government institutions right through to multinational companies. The training model uses the analogy of a ninja, taking nine identified characteristics thereof and showing knowledge workers in today’s economy how to apply these in their everyday working lives. One of these, for example, is ruthlessness.

“Nowadays, when there is so much coming towards you, you have to be ruthless in making choices and determining to what you pay attention. For a long time, time management was the order of the day. Nowadays the focus is on attention management because our attention span is not eight hours, it’s two to three that we are at our very best.”

Zen-like calm is another ninja trait, and pertains to having a clear and open mind.

“People carry a lot of stuff in their heads. The brain is not capable of carrying all these loose things around and cannot prioritise to bring things up at the right times."

This is why your brain will remind you, in the middle of a meeting, to stop at the supermarket for something on the way home, for instance. It’s much better to use your brain for creativity and new solutions, or putting together business proposals. So we tell people to get everything out of their heads and teach them a system to do this, which allows them to be more present in the now and to give their full attention to what they’re doing at present.”

Marcel says there is a lot of momentum for skills development such as this, though it’s initially difficult to sell the concept, as most people don’t want to admit there’s a problem or that they could use a bit of help. “Many people we encounter love their work but are fed up with all the other things that come with it, like emails, meetings, document drafting, and so on, and are looking for a better way of dealing with those less-enjoyable aspects. People feel great relief when their email inbox is emptied, like it’s a burden they didn’t realise they were carrying. We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response to the training programmes,” he says.

Marcel will be presenting at the upcoming Finance Indaba Africa, and promises to touch on some of the characteristics of a productivity ninja. The session will include both conceptual and practical aspects. “We always start with the psychology, the thinking model and concepts, but then delve into the practical so people know straight away how they can apply it. I usually try to challenge people in the way they think about their work, and we always end up laughing at ourselves,” he says.



Marcel’s top productivity tips:

  1. Nurture your attention: Attention is as delicate as an egg. Easily broken, very hard to put back together. But look after it and it’ll grow and thrive.
  2. Silence those pings: Turn off all visual and audio notifications on your desktop or mobile devices. The ping is far too addictive and tempting – you’ll want to go and check.
  3. Lower your expectations: Realise you’ll never get everything done. Instead, make the best choices about where to deploy the capacity and energy you have to get the best results.
  4. Unplug! Only be online for tasks that absolutely need online access. Get unplugged and offline when you need to fully concentrate on being creative.
  5. Don’t use email as a ‘to-do list’: If you do, you’ll end up having a to-do list written by others, sorted in the wrong order!

This article first appeared in CFO Magazine.

UPDATE- 13 October 2016

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