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Simple Productivity: 10 Ways to Do More by Focusing on the Essentials

Simple Productivity: 10 Ways to Do More by Focusing on the Essentials

These days our lives are busier than ever. We work more than ever. We are more stressed and exhausted than ever before. And yet we get less done and are not as happy.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

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The problem is that we are overloaded with information and tasks, and we try to get everything done instead of just the most essential things. Solution: focus on only the essential, eliminate the rest, and allow yourself to get into that beautiful state known as “flow”.

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And although it can be hard to give up all the busy-ness that we’ve grown accustomed to, the change will have tremendous benefits on our sanity, our stress levels, our happiness, and yes, our productivity.

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Here are 10 simple ways to be more productive with less effort:

  1. Clear your head. It’s impossible to gain perspective, and to know what is truly essential, if we are in the middle of an information stream. Take an hour, or half a day if possible, to shut off the information flow, and to get a larger view of your life and your job. The time you take off will be well worth it. Tell everyone that you are unavailable, shut off all communications, shut yourself in somewhere private, and take some time to think about what is important. What do you want? Where are you going? What will it take to get there? Another good way to clear your head, which is necessary for focus, is to write down everything that you need to do, all your tasks and projects and ideas. Dump the contents of your mind on paper, and then stop thinking about them for a little while.
  2. Focus on the essential tasks. Once you’ve gotten your head cleared, you need to figure out what tasks are most essential. Ask yourself this magic question: “What task can you do that will get you the most return on your time?” Figure out the project that will get you the most recognition, win you awards, or get you the most business. Something that will pay off big. Not something you’ll forget about in a week, but something that others will remember you by. This is an essential task. Make a list of these types of tasks — they’re your most important things to do this week.
  3. Eliminate the rest. Now look at your overall list. What’s on there that’s not essential? Can you just drop them from your schedule? Or delegate them to someone else? If not, put them on a “waiting list”. Then, as you focus on your essential tasks, check back on this waiting list every now and then. Sometimes you’ll realize that the less essential tasks weren’t really necessary at all.
  4. Do essential tasks first. If you’ve got a list of things to do today, and one or two of them are truly essential, do those items first thing in the morning. Don’t wait until later in the day, because they’ll get pushed back as other urgent stuff comes up. Get them out of the way, and your productivity will truly soar.
  5. Eliminate distractions. You can put essential stuff on your list all year long, but if you are constantly interrupted by email notifications, IM, cell phones, your RSS reader, gadgets and widgets, social media, forums and the like, you’ll never be productive. Turn these things off, disconnect yourself from the Internet if possible, clear your desk of all papers, clear your walls and surrounding areas, and allow yourself to truly focus.
  6. Use simple tools. Don’t fidget with a bunch of gadgets or the latest and coolest applications. Find a simple notebook for writing things down, a simple to-do list (no frills) and the simplest application possible for doing your work. Then forget about the tools and think only of the task at hand. If you’re too worried about the tools, you’re not actually doing anything.
  7. Do one thing at a time. Multi-tasking is a waste of time. You can’t get things done with a million things going on at once, pulling for your attention. Focus on the essential task in front of you, to the exclusion of all else, and you are much more likely to get it completed, in less time, with less effort.
  8. Find quiet. In addition to a quiet working environment, you need time every day that you can call your own, where you don’t have to do work. This could be through reading, taking a bath, walking in nature, going swimming at the beach, going jogging, meditating. Not reading your feeds. Get away from the information overload and find that peace that will allow you to truly focus when you do work, and to review your day in your mind, and to get the perspective to see what is essential.
  9. Make the most of your work. It’s one thing to write something great, or to create something fantastic. But it’s entirely another thing to make that great thing explode, to get you attention, to earn the recognition you deserve — which will lead to more business or more opportunities. Once you’ve created the Next Great Thing, promote it, show it to others, find a way to have it carry you as far as it can take you. Don’t just create something and move on to the next thing. Use your energy and talents to their fullest extent.
  10. Simplify some more. Once you’ve simplified down to the essential, and eliminated distractions, you should become productive. But distractions and the unnecessary have a way of creeping back in and accumulating. Every now and then, take a look at what you’re doing, at the information coming into your life, at how you spend your time and the tools you use. Then simplify some more.

Leo Babauta blogs regularly about achieving goals and becoming productive through daily habits on Zen Habits. Read his articles on 10 Ways to Reduce Your Work Week, Zen To Done (ZTD), the Top 50 Productivity Blogs, doubling your productivity, keeping your inbox empty, becoming an early riser, and the Top 20 Motivation Hacks.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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Leo Babauta

Founder of Zen Habits and expert in habits building and goals achieving.

The Gentle Art of Saying No How to Find Your Passion and Live a Fulfilling Life Simple Productivity: 10 Ways to Do More by Focusing on the Essentials How to Pare Your To-do List Down to the Essentials A Guide to Becoming a Better Writer: 15 Practical Tips

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Last Updated on August 20, 2019

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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