Can I tell you a little secret?
Working smart isn’t about doing more in less time. It’s about doing less in more time.
Let me explain: Being truly productive — maybe “effective” is a better word — is not about rushing mindlessly through your to do list. It’s about first being prudent with task selection and then doing the tasks that make the biggest difference.
The Most Important Thing
If there’s one thing I’d want you to take away from this post, then it’s this: Use the Eisenhower matrix to identify what tasks are important and what tasks are urgent and then act on them in this order:
- Quadrant 1 – Urgent and Important tasks – these are critical to your day and must be dealt with immediately. Think dealing with a heart attack or child in hospital.
- Quadrant 2 – Not Urgent and Important tasks – You want to spend most of your time in this quadrant. Think regular exercise or good parenting. If you exercise regularly you’re less likely to end up with a heart attack.
- Quadrant 3 – Urgent but not Important tasks – Unfortunately we waste a lot of time in this quadrant. Think ‘urgent’ emails or constantly responding to SMS messages. These appear urgent but are just interruptions and hijack your day.
- Quadrant 4 – Not Urgent and Not Important – These are downtime and recreational activities. You need to decompress but try and schedule these towards the end of the day.
Once you’ve decided on which tasks fall into which quadrant you can use one of the productivity tricks below to work through your targeted to do list.
1. The Pomodoro technique.
Essentially this is breaking your tasks down into 25 minute increments and attacking your work with intense focus for those time slices. After each 25 minute slice you take a 3-5 minute break. And every four pomodoro’s you take a 15-3- minute break. That’s it. The idea here is that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.
2. The Getting Things Done (GTD) approach.
This approach categorises tasks in two ways. By projects (which we’re all familiar with) and by contexts which is a set of conditions necessary to execute on the tasks. Imagine this: You need to make an appointment to see the doctor, call the plumber to fix the bathroom and call back your accountant. These tasks would probably fall into the health, home maintenance and finance projects respectively. But they would all be executed from one context – your phone. One of the benefits of the GTD method is that it allows you to club tasks by context and keep several projects moving forward using the ‘context handle’.
3. Process your email in batches.
Email is one of those quadrant 4 tasks that can really hijack your day. Don’t check your email too often. That’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to productivity. Train your stakeholders to expect replies from you at 10am, 12pm and 3pm (using an out off office message and/or a message in your email signature) and then stick to these times. You’ll be amazed at how many ‘urgent’ tasks ‘resolve themselves’!
4. Reserve your creative work for the morning.
If your day involves work that’s creative or requires critical thinking, schedule this for your mornings. For most people mornings are their ‘prime time’. This is when you’re likely to get the best breakthroughs and maximum output on creative pursuits. Save the admin tasks for later in the day.
5. Plan your day the night before using time boxing.
Planning your tasks the night before gives you emotional distance from the overwhelm that inevitably creeps into your busy work day. Plan your tasks on your calendar using time boxing and stick to the plan. Only make exceptions for emergencies!
6. Learn the art of saying “no”.
Know what makes Apple so successful? They know how to say ‘no’. They say no to hundreds of possible design features that they could cram into their devices and distill it down to the bare essentials. They are masters of elimination. The end result? Simplicity in form and functionality. This is the approach you need to take to your to do list. Distill it down to the bare essentials and then go to town on those tasks first.
7. Use a timer (I like Vitamin R for the Mac).
Here’s another very powerful secret. Time yourself while you’re working. Set yourself aggressive time lines too. Think it’ll take you an hour to write that article. Try and do it in 45 mins. You’ll find that it’ll sharpen your focus if nothing else.
8. Consume audio content while running or exercising.
Use audiobooks whenever possible. Check out the Amazon matchmaker offering which allows you to swap between reading the ebook and and listening to audiobook version while still keeping your bookmarks intact. It’s an awesome product and often offers the complimentary audiobooks to go with your existing ebook at prices as low as $1.99.
9. Develop rhythms of focus and rest.
In keeping with the Pomodoro technique make sure you figure out a rhythm of focus and rest. I tend to keep the longer work sessions and shorter rest sessions towards the beginning of the day. As the day wears on I tend to shorten the work sessions and take longer breaks. Work out the rhythm that’s right for you and then go for it.
10. Do a productivity audit on yourself.
Having experimented with excel, handwritten notes, and a few other methodologies, I’ve found the best way to track your time is to get rescuetime.com setup on your computer. It automatically tracks your activities while you’re online. And if you decide to upgrade to the professional version (currently around $10 a month) you can even track your activities offline.
You only need to track your activities for a month to do a productivity audit on yourself. That’s enough to get an understanding of how you’re spending your time and compare it to how you think you’re spending your time.
Trust me you’ll be surprised.
11. Don’t multitask, Uni task.
Let’s bust one of the biggest prevailing myths around productivity. Multitasking does not work. Several studies have demonstrated the myth of multitasking.
Mult-tasking causes more distractions, dulls your focus and increases stress levels. Its costs far outweigh its benefits.
12. Use your mornings as a springboard for success.
Know the secret of the highest achievers? They use their mornings to get a jump on their day. By the time they’ve reached their afternoon they’ve completed their most important tasks. They even get a workout done, read or listen to inspiring material (often while working out) before they start their day. This increases their energy levels and sets them up for success.
The first few hours of the day sets the tone. What do you do to get yourself into gear when you wake up?
13. Identify your prime time and eliminate distractions during those hours.
Get very clear over all the times when you’re most productive. Most people hit their stride at about 10 am. When’s your prime time?
Also, eliminate distractions to take full advantage of your prime-time hours. For example, if you find that your prime time is at 10 am then make sure you don’t change your email and avoid meetings around that time.
Block out that time in your calendar and use it to become laser focused.
14. Develop rituals that you associate with high performance.
Have you seen Rafael Nadal arrange his drink bottles obsessively in between sets at wimbledon? That’s an example of a high performance ritual.
Rituals are great because that don’t involve a lot of thinking, and automatically get you into the design for high-performance work. I find this is one of the best ways to achieve ‘flow’.
15. Stop procrastination dead in its tracks once and for all!
One of the biggest drains on your productivity is procrastination. Procrastination affects your productivity in two ways. Firstly, you lose time when you are procrastinating. Secondly, and more importantly, delaying tasks often comes with a cost. For example, if you don’t exercise regularly you’re more likely to end up with a heart disease or stroke. Or if you let important tasks build up you’re going to spend a lot more time putting out fires that you would never have had in the first place if you had completed the tasks ahead of time.
Want to overcome procrastination? Use this mindfulness approach to become aware of your patterns around procrastination so you can overcome them.
What You Achieve is More Important that How Much You Achieve
At the end of the day it’s not how many tasks you get through but how many strategically important moves you’ve made in your day. It’s about identifying the most important items on your to do list and then applying these tools to get them done first. Applying excellent productivity tools blindly to your to do list is like using a blunt instrument to cut through steel. You’re wasting your time.
Featured photo credit: insung yoon via unsplash.com