Productivity, Startup Advice

How to use your time effectively, according to science

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Amantha Imber

Inventium founder Dr Amantha Imber. Source: Supplied.

If there’s one thing startup founders are short of, it’s hours in the day, and according to Amantha Imber, innovation psychologist and founder of Inventium, time is effectively the biggest barrier to innovation.

Speaking at the Disruptive Innovation Summit in Sydney today, Imber said innovation is important for all businesses, but people often feel they don’t have the time to explore all the options they would like to.

“I would argue that we do have enough time, but we’re not actually using our time in a really good way. We’re not actually structuring our work days in a way that makes us most efficient,” Imber said.

So, what can startup founders and business owners do to make more time for themselves? Imber has some science-based tricks up her sleeve.

Become a single tasker

In modern business, there’s plenty of focus on multitasking, but it “actually doesn’t exist, if you look at what’s going on in the brain”, Imber said.

“Your mind is unable to focus on two separate things, consciously, at the same time. And yet we talk so much about multitasking.”

A more accurate description of what we call multitasking is “task-switching”. For task-switching to happen, the brain has to change its goals and focus, and also adjust the rules its working to, for example from the rules of writing a report, to the rules of reading emails.

Referencing research by David Myers from the University of Michigan, Imber explained how when we shift tasks in this way, it costs an average of 40% of our time.

“If you are a constant multi-tasker or task switcher, and you just stopped that behaviour and focused on one thing at the one time, you could be achieving the exact same output but leave the office at about 2.30pm in the afternoon,” she said.

Don’t check email before lunch

Because of the many digital distractions around us, “we’re in this constant state of shallow work, we are just doing work that is fairly non-cognitively demanding”, Imber said. A prime example is checking emails.

We’re fitting “deep work” relating to the actual core of business around this shallow work, “when really it should be the other way around”.

According to Imber, research from the McKenzie Institute found people spend an average of 2.6 hours every day in their inbox, and it’s easy to be distracted by “digital temptation”.

“That is a lot of time doing something that is not really achieving anything other than shuffling words around electronically,” she said.

Studies have shown most people have their highest cognitive function in the first two hours after waking up, Imber said, but a lot of people spend that time reading and responding to emails, rather than completing core tasks.

If you wake up and immediately check emails, you’re “essentially setting your day up to react to other people’s stuff”, she said.

Imber has now deleted the email app from her phone, and she doesn’t check emails until after lunch, when she has “done the most important things that I want to make progress on”.

“This is hard to do but it just gives so much impact,” she said.

Make your phone boring

Research from the University of London compared people working with no notifications coming from their phones to those who were receiving them while completing a focused task. Although the latter group were not checking the notifications, their IQ was 10 points lower.

That’s the equivalent of missing a night’s sleep, or of “smoking a bit of marijuana”, Imber said.

In order to stop mobile phones from being a drain on productivity, Imber recommends deleting the most distracting apps, or even something as simple as switching to greyscale mode, to stop your phone from being so colourful, bright and distracting.

“We’re essentially walking around with a little pokies machine in our pocket,” she said.

“Suddenly, your phone becomes a whole lot less tempting.”

Inventium founder and chief Amantha Imber

Inventium founder and chief Amantha Imber at the Disruptive Innovation Summit. 

Shut down your day

Finally, Imber advised attendees to deliberately shut down their day when they leave the office.

She admitted that she used to continue working when she got home but said it was a “bad strategy”, which was “turning me into someone who is going to become exhausted and enjoy my work a whole lot less”.

For startup founders, who can find switching off particularly tricky, she recommends creating a “to-done” list of things they have accomplished in the day.

“It’s really easy for startup founders to lose sight of what they’ve actually achieved in any given day and actually reflect on that,” she said.

She also advocated the theory of “parking on a downhill slope”. Ernest Hemingway used to stop writing each day in the middle of a sentence, making it easier to pick up where he left off the next day, she said.

“If you’re writing code, for example, as a startup founder, then don’t finish the line. It just makes it so much easier to get started the next day,” Imber said.

Not being able to switch off at the end of the day can have negative consequences for business, Imber said, and balance is an important thing to build into startup life.

“Certainly, a lot of the research that I’m aware of around burnout would indicate that you do need to take breaks. It’s really important — it shouldn’t be worn as a badge of honour to eat lunch at your desk, for example. That causes all sorts of negative consequences,” she said.

“I’m not saying don’t work at night and don’t work at weekends — I work at weekends and I love what I do … but don’t go burning the candle at both ends”.

StartupSmart attended the Disruptive Innovation Summit 2018 as a guest of the event.

NOW READ: Maximise your productivity with these seven daily steps

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is a reporter at StartupSmart.

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