Being more efficient at work is a huge worry for most of us.

Without a job, we’d likely have no money. Our lifestyles would evaporate overnight. We lose our home. Worse still, the loss of confidence in ourselves, and from our colleagues, leads to a knock-on effect that can crush our self-confidence.

If you’re finding the demands of workplace are dragging you down, that you experience scattered thoughts, procrastinate and fail to deliver – don’t worry. We’re going to delve a couple of ideas that have helped me move from, well, a dead stop to ultra-productive.

These practises are easy to action. Follow the steps and you will produce huge improvements in your output.

Note: these tips apply to more than just your day job (hint: I used them to write and edit this post in under an hour).

Let’s do this…

I don’t remember much of the last 24 hours. Not because I was drunk (I rarely drink now). Not because of drugs (I don’t take drugs).

The lack of imagery is a result of a brain injury I suffered some years ago. The recipe for this story goes a little like this:

  • take one brain tumour
  • drop it into the lower left ventricle of my brain
  • slow cook for around 20 years.

When ready, serve up a major hydrocephalus, poor memory, and impaired executive functioning skills.

At least I’m alive. Which is jolly nice.

Fast forward to yesterday. One like many others since the tumour started its campaign of dirty tricks.

Yesterday was a haze. Much like pretty much every day of my life. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy myself, or that I am totally devoid of memories (although they are sparse for certain periods of my life).

What I’m trying to say is that, most days are a fleeting series of images. It’s like the blur of faces you see as a train flash past whilst you wait for the barrier to raise on the level crossing.

That kind of haze.

But I did some stuff – work and personal – and accomplished a great deal. How do I know? Because I wrote it down. Funny how you can convince yourself your notes are actual memories of events. The brain is a curious thing.

At the end of the day, I was drained. If anyone wants to share heavyweight information with me then it’s best left until the following day. Nothing is going to get past the barrier raised by my fatigue that follows at the end of a busy day.

Now, the obvious question for many of you (and the one that’s the basis for this post) is: James, if your memory is so poor and your executive functions so impaired, how do you achieve anything? And how does this relate to time management?

Yeah, both valid questions. We’ll deal with executive functions later.

Dealing with poor memory

First, let me say that my memory functions to a degree. In all likelihood, it’s probably less efficient than that of the bulk of healthy people walking planet Earth right now. But it still works, up to a point.

This means I have a foundation to work from. Which means I can develop new skills or find a simple ways to negate the impact of having poor memory. I’m going to share a couple of ideas. Some of them you may have already heard of, or tried, but I’ll add in my own experiences and enhancements.

Having a way to keep information is important. After all, you need some a reminder to do the work that needs to be done.

The first tool I use is… a pen and paper. Yep, that’s the first secret of improving time management skills when you have a brain injury. Or even if you have no impairments whatsoever.

Right now, you’re probably cursing me, but hold up. There’s more to come.

You probably already write huge amounts of notes. And I’m guessing that you also order your daily tasks based on importance. These are both good practises (although one of my daughters would disagree) and if you’re not using them then maybe you could give them a try. Just to see how effective a task list is.

Before we move on, I am aware of the latest buzzword called: scheduling.

For me it simply doesn’t work. The process of sitting down to create a calendar-based schedule is tedious and can be taxing, as this is the kind of work I leave until the end of the day. A time when I’m already tired.

Yes, I have tried creating schedules in the morning and this doesn’t work for me. Once I’m awake and up (*cough* there is often a significant delay between those two events), my mind is on the job. Well, my fragmented memory is on the job as it scrabbles to remember where I left my ‘to do’ list.

Note: my ‘to do’ list is where it always is – on top of my keyboard, in front of my PC. Some habits are useful.

Instead of a schedule I create a list of tasks for each week. This task list is then broken down and spread across the week with an average of 3 key jobs to do each day.

This is an effective means of time management that works for me. And will probably work for you too…

…when combined with these tools: a pomodoro timer and pair of noise cancelling headphones.

Here’s how the method works.

At the start of the end of each week, normally a Sunday evening, I pull out the list of notes I’ve made as I work across the week. Easy jobs, ones that I can complete in a matter of minutes, are grouped together.

For example, I usually receive a flurry of emails on a Friday afternoon. You know, those requests people sneak in at the end of week that ‘need’ answering by the following Monday afternoon. Each response might require 10 minutes of effort and you have five to respond to.

Those five emails become a work package.

Then I extract the next most important task and calculate a time to completion, for example, writing a design document might take two hours of my time, but isn’t required until Tuesday morning. This task will be my second of the day.

Finally, I find a less urgent and less demanding request, then make it my third work package for Monday.

Next, I find some ‘noise’ that allows me to maintain focus (something like this), set my pomodoro timer for 25 minutes, pull on my headphones and work.

At the end of 25 minutes, when the timer goes off, I stop. And I mean stop. No adding a few more lines of text or attempting to finish off the email response. I stop working and take a five-minute break away from the computer screen.

When the five-minute break is up, I start the process all over again.

How effective has this been for me? Well, on most days I clear all three of tasks well before 5PM. Some days I finish working by 2Pm (don’t tell my clients!) This leaves me time to go for a 30 minute walk, then sit in from of my computer and attempt to clear any minor requests of jobs I have on my list.

Most of you will know of the pomodoro method. The approach I use is a variation and has proven to be very effective at keeping me focussed and on-track.

There are variations of the technique and many books exist on the subject. The thing is, I find most of them to be too complex and time-consuming for my needs.

Still wondering how I deal with my impaired executive functions, in particular a working memory that can often be erratic? That’s easy.

Improving executive function

Executive functions include short term memory, planning, and attention. I have problems with all of those and often find it hard to keep tasks in my head. Let’s deal with each in turn.

I’ve found that binaural beats help me to maintain focus. There are plenty of cool apps that help drown out external noise allowing you to concentrate for longer. My preference is Oooo. Ultra-simple and very effective.

Whichever app you use, don’t get sucked into the precise frequency for your activity. Find one that feels right, press start, and then go to work.

Short term memory issues can cause huge problems (which they do for me). To reduce the impact, I’ve made my notepad my best friend. Every relevant thought, comment or statement is jotted down ready to be re-ordered into a list of tasks. Think of your notes as a second, more efficient brain that doesn’t forget.

Concentration is my Kryptonite! My brain injury has left me with an ADD-like response to the demands of constant focus. Again, writing notes on paper does help me cover off the gaps in my memory, but it also increases the demand on your brainpower. And we only have so much at our disposal.

But that’s not the only tool at my disposal For most of us office works, the obvious times when we start to lose focus is during big meetings. There are two simple tricks you can use to prevent the overwhelm:

  • If you create and manage the meeting, place natural pauses at the 25-minute points. Some people might grumble, but I’ve found most attendees are glad of periodic break as it allows them to recharge their mental batteries.
  • If you’re invited to a meeting, speak to the host, and explain the situation. I’ve done this every time I’ve received a meeting request and have never been turned down. In fact, the host should be more than willing to accommodate you as a loss of concentration during a long, boring meeting might result in you missing key information.


If you feel uncomfortable asking for breaks, don’t be! Brain injuries that lead to memory and executive function issues is not your fault and you’re making the best effort to be an effective member of your team. A good host should understand this fact and accommodate you.

And that’s it. Really. Work efficiency isn’t rocket science. It’s a case of finding ways in which of these ideas works best and apply them.

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