Ten years ago, nearly to the day, I was given a promotion from starting-level engineer to upper management. Honestly, as exciting as the promotion was, I was incredibly overwhelmed. I felt that I didn’t have enough time to do everything that I needed/wanted to do and I began to feel that I was in over my head. Something had to give.
I’d heard of productivity books being helpful, so I decided to give it a try. I was hoping that the books would teach me how to get more done in less time. Not only did they help me achieve that goal, but other aspects of my performance as well.
After reading 100 productivity books, I have found that there are 15 key elements to staying productive and being efficient. I have compiled a list of my findings to help you to be as productive as you can be.
1. Don’t wait for others to set your deadlines, set them for yourself
While growing up with our structured school system, students are used to being given deadlines and working to meet them. This causes a problem when we suddenly don’t have a deadline to work towards. We tend to get lazy because there is no sense of urgency. This is why overachievers in school tend to be average in the real world, as they don’t have deadlines to work towards once no one sets it for them.
Successful people don’t wait, they set deadlines for their personal goals. While meeting external deadlines (those that are given to you) helps you to survive and meet the bare minimum, internal deadlines (those that you give yourself) make you push through your boundaries. The key is to be proactive, not passive.
2. Keep track of your time like you do your bank account
We like to think that we know ourselves well. But when asked to recall, we can’t remember what we did at this time on this day last week. Time is the most valuable resource we have. We need to track it like we do our bank accounts, because as the old saying goes, time is money. You can always earn more money, but you can never get back wasted time.
Keep a time-sheet to record how much time you spend on tasks. Even everyday/personal tasks. You’ll be surprised to see how much time you waste on certain things.
3. Don’t focus on your weaknesses, work on your strengths instead
It’s common practice to improve your weaknesses. But that shouldn’t be your primary focus. The most important thing is to first improve your strengths. Having a strength means that you already have a foundation for it (otherwise it wouldn’t be a strength) and acquired the basic skills. You should already have a solid idea of what to improve. The difference is that this growth will be exponential versus improving anything else.
Weaknesses cause limitations because you’re starting from the ground up. Everything is so new and it can be difficult to identify what works. But once you find those weak points, you can utilize your strengths (which you’ve improved) to help turn these weaknesses into an asset.
4. Rank tasks by importance, not the order you received them
Every task does not hold the same weight of importance as others might. Always ask yourself: What needs to be done right away? Regularly rank your tasks, and get the vital ones out of the way.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that because a task came earlier, it is more important than the following tasks. Some tasks have a leveraging effect, so even if they arise later than other tasks, it should be prioritized to be finished right away.
Example: You are planning to brush up on your presentation skills, so you read 20 self-improvement books to reach your goal. Then you decide to read books on speed reading. The best move would have been to read the speed reading books first, to make reading your self-improvement books quicker and more effective.
5. Don’t bite off more than you can chew
“You can’t eat the whole pizza at once.” Now while this statement may come off as a challenge (I’m sure some of you could scarf down a whole pizza with no issue) the point is that we think we can handle enormous tasks on our own. Taking on too much at once can be discouraging, and will ultimately lessen your motivation.
The solution: break down big tasks into smaller, digestible tasks to create order and relieve some of the stress.
6. Smart people know when to delegate
Don’t feel obligated to do every little thing yourself. Doing more doesn’t mean doing better. In fact, if you have too much on your plate you are very likely to make careless mistakes because you’re trying to do too much at once. Recognize which tasks can be passed on to others so that you can focus on more challenging and important tasks.
7. Use your brain for thinking, not remembering
Information is unlimited, it’s impossible to remember everything. There’s a popular saying, “You have already forgotten more than you already know.” Meaning, there is just too much information to retain it all through memory alone. There’s a variety of tools that we can use to organize our thoughts and ideas for us, such as: computers, notebooks, our phones, etc.
8. Review your productivity at the end of the day
At the end of your day, take the time to reflect what you have accomplished, and what could be improved.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What have I done well?
- What have I done poorly?
- Why did some things not work out as planned?
- How can I do better tomorrow?
When we don’t reflect, we rely only on natural growth. Successful people concentrate on deliberate practice, where they actively identify and focus on things to improve. Even if you feel that you’ve done a job well done, still consider what could be done in terms of improvement. There is always something!
9. Sometimes cutting tasks is better than adding them
Make it a practice to regularly clear out what isn’t useful to you. This can be manual tasks, physical items, or even relationships. Think about it, physical clutter doesn’t only take up space, but it inhibits our performance as well because we have the physical impression of overload. I know that I personally need to have an organized work space, or I just can’t concentrate.
Just like we need to de-clutter our surroundings, we need to do the same with our digital space, only making room for what it important and deleting the rest. Your device will work more efficiently, and you don’t have to sift through endless folders and files to find whatever you’re trying to access. Less is more.
10. Estimate time for your task
Sometimes this is something that we slack off on, going into a project without considering how much time it is going to take us. To help with this, follow the 2 minute rule. If it can be completed within two minutes, get it out of the way first.
Neglecting to estimate your time can cause you to waste time; because you do not have a real goal in mind or deadline you are trying to meet. If you don’t set a standard, then you won’t know which aspects need to be improved upon and tweaked for efficiency when the task is repeated.
Example: You are making an avocado salad. Before beginning, how long do you think it is going to take? 30 minutes? 15? 3? When we consider the task at hand and the time needed to complete it, we start planning on how to do it more efficiently.
11. Stretch your creativity no matter what your job is
We need a bit of creativity for every task that we complete, no matter how mundane it may seem. Creativity is not always a naturally given talent, but a muscle that can be trained. Perhaps you’re not the Renaissance man (or woman) of the century, but you can drum up some out-of-the-box ideas along with the best of them. We need a bit of creativity in order to step up our efficiency.
This could relate to tasks such as time management or production procedures. You need to exercise your creativity to make an already existing practice even better.
12. Know when to stop as tasks tend to devalue overtime
When the productivity of a project beings to diminish, you need to know when it’s time to call it quits. Tasks tend to devalue overtime. The longer a task is taking, the less likely it is to be successful. When it starts to seem that progress is declining, it’s time to cut your losses and reevaluate your game plan.
Example: When a business realizes that they are losing more and more money each month, they need to change their strategy.
13. Always assume that you don’t know as much as you may think you know
Because the truth is, most people don’t know much. There’s an endless supply of information relating to just about anything. Never be overly satisfied, always know that there is room for improvement. Just because you have a good thing, it doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be better. Always continue to strive for more and look for new insights. You’re really only the best if you look for new ways to grow. And most importantly, don’t allow yourself to be secretly arrogant. Or outwardly arrogant. Stay humble. You will gain much more respect from your peers and your followers this way.
14. Identify your instant gratification and ditch it
You might think that you don’t have an instant gratification trigger, but everyone has one. This is something that you don’t really need to work for, but fills you with enough confidence and feeling of productivity that you don’t feel you need to do anymore. What is yours? Identify yours, and overcome it.
Example: Your boss is always very complimentary, nearly to the point of being coddled. Since you’re always hearing that you’re doing a good job, you feel like you don’t need to do more. But in order to improve, you should strive to do more to get to the next level of excellence.
15. Start with the big picture, work down to the details
Identify the ultimate goal at hand, and start from the beginning. Then, break down every task in sequential order that needs to be achieved in order to reach this ultimate goal. Double check your tasks at hand, ask yourself how it fits into the big picture and if it is really necessary. Could you time be better spent on a different task? Don’t just work mindlessly. Always consider the big picture and the moves you are making towards it.