I actually don’t know if I’d be considered super-productive. But I do get asked a bit how I “manage to do it all”. I certainly don’t do it all, and I have my days where I’m woefully behind or buried or overwhelmed. What I DO do, however, is get the important stuff done on a pretty consistent basis.
There’s an entire industry of books, gurus, and other stuff around being more productive, getting more done, being more efficient. I don’t particularly subscribe to any one system because, well, I haven’t found one that works for me. So I guess I’ve created one of my own, more or less.
But when I think about it, this isn’t a system. It’s not fancy. It’s four deceptively simple ideas that I put into play, every day, in order to manage the work I have to do. I’d love to hear what works for you, but here are four “secrets” I use every day.
1. Schedule meetings with yourself.
If you’re drowning in meetings, there is only one way to make sure you carve out the time to dedicate to project work.
That means that just like other meetings on your calendar, the time you block off for that work is rendered unavailable. I understand that some meetings you can’t say no to, but sometimes, you can push back a little on the need for a meeting or a call, or ask for clarification around the urgency and schedule accordingly. Sometimes, the answer is just that you aren’t available.
I try to keep Wednesdays meeting-free unless that’s the only option for something that’s important or time sensitive or both. That way I know I have big blocks of time where I can buckle down and plow through meaty projects.
2. Keep a deadly simple to-do list.
I’ve tried every to-do list program known to man on my computer. And every time, I come back to a handwritten list in my Moleskine. I spend 45 minutes or so at the start of each week reviewing last week’s list, combing through my email, and building a new, fresh list for the week.
That’s just what works for me, but what you have to do is be willing to keep that list of priorities somewhere. For some people, it works to ONLY put on the list the top 5 things that have to get done for the day, and then they’ll look at the whole list. For me, I put a little ** next to the items on my big list that have to come first. I don’t even look at the rest until those are done. If something comes in that has to trump something else, I adjust, but stick to the same mindset.
Knowing what has to get done first is the only way to stay focused. It’s a matter of carefully weighing priorities and understanding what gets the choice position on the list relative to the other things. That balance will shift constantly. And the stuff you WANT to do and the stuff you NEED to do aren’t always going to be the same things.
3. Turn off the email, Twitter, Facebook…whatever your devilish distraction is.
The trouble with the constant flow of information from these places is that they’re interruptive. It’s too easy to get distracted by an incoming email or a Twitter reply that feels urgent, but probably really isn’t. It feels that way because it’s RIGHT THERE, but if you’re dedicating time to something concrete, those messages can send you down rabbit holes and you’ll never get back on track.
Because of my job, I keep Twitter up in the background. When a message for me comes in, I glance. If it can wait, it does. If it can’t, I deal or delegate, and go back to what I was working on. But for most of you, your job doesn’t depend on split-second response to messages like these. So you need to evaluate when you can shut it off. And do it.
I don’t do well with “scheduled” blocks of time to check email or do Twitter, but that might work for you. I deal with it more spontaneously but with a concerted focus. So I’ll say ok, next on my list is to process email for 15 minutes or so. And I do, then I go back to the next thing on the list. Find a way to fit in the stream of messages that doesn’t totally derail you when you’re in Flow.
4. Make hard choices.
I don’t watch a lot of TV. I spend a lot of evening hours writing after my daughter goes to bed, or early morning hours before she gets up. I sometimes skip out on the after parties at events (or the pre-parties) in order to work and get stuff done while I have the luxury of a hotel room free of distractions. I don’t play Angry Birds for hours, though it’s hard to resist.
There is no magic in this. And some people simply aren’t willing to sacrifice their family TV time or their weekly book club or whatever, and that’s fine. It’s all personal choice. I’m a single mom, so I have to balance work with time I spend with my kiddo. But regardless, if the goal is producing more or being more efficient, something has to give. I know that no one dies wishing they worked more. But for me, big deposits now will hopefully mean bigger return later, and the ability to rework the balance in favor of more time for me. We’ll see if I’m right.
What Are Your Secrets?
There’s probably nothing in here you haven’t heard before. The trick is – like anything else – you can’t just read it. You have to do it. That’s the biggest secret of all. Actually making the changes to your daily workflow to do these things. Taking the time to evaluate your current work patterns, and adjusting where you need to.
Most people’s productivity problems aren’t because they don’t have enough hours, it’s because they manage them badly. They spend way too much time trying to refine the system or chasing unimportant or distracting items, and not nearly enough time to do the work itself.
So when the chips are down, the big secret to productivity is to quit making excuses for our own lack of discipline, and just get going. That list over there isn’t going to check itself off. Tough love from the Tacks. But that’s why you come over here, right?
Now go make things happen. Off with you.
image credit: Ross. Simply because I thought it was fun.