As the new year gets underway, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about how to improve my clients’ productivity – and my own. After all, we have things we need to achieve this year, and plenty of things we aspire to achieve if only we could get more done.
I’ve read plenty of articles on the subject, and most provide information that is already pretty obvious or just not for me. Sometimes the best articles are the ones where other CEOs and business leaders give more practical advice. These articles spark new ideas for me to try.
But after reading up on the subject, I’ve realized that productivity boils down to three things:
Let’s take a look at how these three things can be practically applied to improve your productivity on a daily basis.
Planning. The most productive people plan their work and organize their time. These people set goals – long-term (yearly) as well as the short-term (daily) – and use tools like checklists, task lists, and time blocking. Without planning, people are more likely to get sucked into distractions, have deadlines sneak up on them, or lose sight of what matters. So think about what you want to achieve in the long-term and what needs to get done in the short-term to be successful. Then block your time accordingly.
I use a five-tier system. I set annual goals for myself – professional and personal – and I try to balance aspiration with pragmatism. I do this at the start of the year, setting 2-3 goals for each of the different areas of my life. Then, I look at each quarter and what I want to achieve in that time towards my annual goals. I know some quarters may be busier with travel or family time or other special events, so this helps me spot any potential bottlenecks and I adjust my plans as needed. Then I break down my quarterly goals into months, again to spot any bottlenecks and to also see if my plans can realistically be achieved in that time frame. I then plot out each week’s goals in a table sorted by category. I limit myself to 2-3 weekly goals for each category, so I have less than ten for any given week. Finally, I keep a task list for each day, using my weekly goals as a guide and adding any more immediate tasks (responding to emails, administrative tasks, running errands, etc.). And of course, I use my task list to block time in my calendar, so that I ensure I have time for all my tasks and other activities (working out, eating, writing, etc.). Each week I review my progress on my weekly goals, each month I review my progress on monthly goals, and each quarter I review my progress on quarterly goals. This keeps me moving forward and adjusting as needed to be successful. (After all, plans are just that – plans.)
Prioritization. Many leaders will warn you that there will always be more to do than you can handle. Knowing what is most important to tackle is critical, so you don’t get bogged down by things that keep you from making progress towards the big picture goals. There are lots of methods for determining something’s priority level – decision criteria and threshold measurements that quickly evaluate whether or not something deserves your time and effort. The general approach is to figure out whether or not the task before you will advance your long-term goals or add value to your business. And then all the rest should be either be delegated to someone else, set aside for when you have time, or rejected altogether. Remember: being strategic means knowing what not to do as much as it means knowing what to do.
I keep my priorities straight through planning and organization. For each week, I know what I need to achieve, and when I make my daily task lists, I highlight the things that must get done that day. Then I tackle those things first, saving less important things for later in the day. That way, if something comes up and I don’t get to the less important items on my list, I can push them to the next day or later in the week. I also front-load my week, putting all the priority objectives in the first couple of days and leaving more unplanned time later in the week, so I have spare time to achieve objectives or else extra time to either get ahead or work on side projects. When new opportunities come up, I use the lift-risk-reward method to assess its importance and urgency. If I decide to take on something that requires more effort, I adjust my planning to make sure I stay on track and use my time to achieve my long-term goals. Some deadlines are fixed and will take priority while flexible deadlines can be shifted to accommodate new clients and projects.
Focus. All this planning and prioritization is useless if at the end of the day you don’t actually sit down and get things done. Just because you blocked time on your calendar doesn’t mean you will actually use that time as planned. You need to commit to the plan and follow through.
There are several different techniques for staying focused. The most basic one is to eliminate distractions of modern technology: leave your phone on silent in the other room, turn off your internet connection, turn off alerts from your mail application, and close any social media sites or applications. Another is to tell others that you are blocking off time and should not be disturbed, and along with this could be a change in environment – closing your office door or even moving to a quiet conference room away from your coworkers. Speaking of which, create the right conditions for focus: silence or music you can ignore, something to eat or drink (stay hydrated), a comfortable place to sit (but not too comfortable), the right temperature (do you work better in cold or warm environments), etc. Sometimes changing your environment periodically keeps you focused too. Try taking short walks every couple of hours, especially if you can get outdoors and walk around somewhere with some greenery. And pay attention to your natural circadian rhythm. Always get a good night’s rest and then see where you have more energy in the day, using those times for harder tasks and lower energy periods for more mindless tasks.
I’ll be honest: I personally struggle with focus. My brain is isn’t wired to sit still and pay attention to just one thought at a time, and I’ve struggled for years with staying focused and not multitasking. But lately I’m trying some approaches that are working for me. First of all, I make sure to get a full night’s sleep, and then my morning routine consists of a quick workout, drinking a full glass or two of water, eating a light healthy breakfast, and jumping right into my first big task of the day. I use the Pomodoro technique to keep myself engaged, and I don’t keep any social media websites or my mail application open during these periods. (It takes a lot of discipline to ignore that email or message but if you use Pomodoro then it’s no more than 25 minutes before you respond – not a long time at all.) I work at home but I sit myself at the dining room table with some tea or water and I put on some music that I usually tune out (sometimes I don’t put on any music at all and just work in silence). And after each task accomplished I will reward myself with a visit to social media, a snack, some small task that I’ve been itching to take care of, or playing with the cats (amazing what some feline companionship and purring can do for the soul). And I keep in mind how good it felt the day before to get my work done. The visualization of success – how it feels to achieve my goals and not have any work lingering when I relax at the end of the day – keeps me moving forward.
Success is not something we dream of, it’s something we do. We achieve the long-term by focusing in the short-term and accomplishing daily tasks. Planning helps us tie the immediate work before us to bigger aspirations, as well as allocating our time in a way that sets us up for achievement. Prioritization ensures that the most critical tasks get done while preventing us from expending time and energy on things that don’t matter. And focus keeps us moving forward, step by step, task by task, minute by minute, towards improving our work, our businesses, and ourselves.
So what are you waiting for? Start being more productive today!