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Improving your productivity could be wrecking your life

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The top pick for weekend reads in Friday’s newsletter was Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport’s essay about the pitfalls of personal productivity. Knowledge workers have the freedom to decide how to get their daily work done, but that means tasks get assigned in a disorganized way and the day gets interrupted by the haphazard arrival of emails and scheduling of meetings, Newport observes.

“We must, in other words, acknowledge the futility of trying to tame our frenzied work lives all on our own, and instead ask, collectively, whether there’s a better way to get things done,” he concludes.

It’s a challenge in many industries and journalism is no exception. We deal with assignments large and small, meetings, conferences, interviews, and emails, oh so many emails. Just over the weekend, I received 62 emails that made it past the spam filter and are awaiting my review right now.

But one message was more helpful than others. It’s from Microsoft’s MyAnalytics app, a new-ish piece of the company’s Office suite designed to address the exact problems that Newport and others have uncovered.

The app monitors my activities and makes suggestions to improve my focus and wellbeing, some of which can be put into practice automatically within Microsoft’s apps. For example, one report tracks the number of days that I had significant activity outside of my regular working hours (18 out of 28 last month—not great). A metrics dashboard explains: “Research shows people who disconnect daily from work report lower levels of stress and higher wellbeing.”

A different section helps me set aside time on my calendar for work that requires deep concentration. Within Outlook, I get suggestions, or nudges, to carve out time for focus. Other sections promote better meeting habits and more collaboration with colleagues through nudges in other apps.

Of course, the features work better the more you use Microsoft’s apps at work. We use Slack, not Teams, at Fortune, and I track some of my meetings in Google Calendar, not Outlook. My wife’s company is more fully enmeshed in Microsoft’s ecosystem, and her MyAnalytics report and related app tweaks are even more useful than mine.

I wanted to learn more about MyAnalytics, so I jumped on a video call (via Teams, of course) with Kamal Janardhan, a longtime Microsoft engineer who’s general manager of a unit called Microsoft 365 Insights. The technology behind MyAnalytics goes back to a small acquisition Microsoft made in 2015 of VoloMetrix, a startup that was trying to solve the productivity challenge, Janardhan explained.

“After years of helping people completing tasks, being on from anywhere, we needed to help them actually manage the human and help companies manage the organizations,” she said. She was bursting with passion as she spoke from a home office converted from her daughter’s old bedroom. “Are you your best self, not just managing your time but managing your energy? Do you feel good about work, do you have good relationships?”

Remote work has increased some of the worst habits of workers, such as doing email after hours and scheduling too many meetings, Microsoft’s data shows. Janardhan said they’ll also try to help by prompting people to take a virtual commute at the beginning and end of the work day.

“We don’t have that space in our brains where it resets, where you think, you prioritize, you clean up your thoughts,” she said. I’m ready for it.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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