Tip 1: Define your goals first
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat."
Lewis Carroll, "Alice in Wonderland"
To go somewhere, first, you need to know where you want to be. Despite the self-evidence of this principle, I still sometimes find myself stuck in a dead end when I start doing something without a clear understanding of my goals. This usually happens for three reasons: either I have not identified a desirable result, or have not set a timeframe, or have not established the criteria to compare what is obtained with what was initially intended.
For example, your goal is to learn a foreign language. How do you know when you achieve this goal or how do you judge whether you have reached it? If you reframe your idea in the following way: "I want to learn French from zero to B2 (strong upper-intermediate) level in two years," you will satisfy all three conditions of a defined, measurable and achievable goal. Firstly, you identified what language you want to learn. Secondly, you framed the time when you want to do it. Thirdly, you defined the desirable result, i.e., be able to communicate on the majority of everyday topics, and the measurement of your success – B2 language proficiency level which can be confirmed by tacking appropriate exams according to CEFR.
All three components of well-defined goals: result, time and measurement, are crucial for future success. Take away any of them and the whole structure will collapse. Unfortunately, we, as human beings, are not always able to formulate our goals in the described rational way. Often, we start doing something having only some vague ideas or intentions. Sooner or later, we may realize that some parts of a goal definition might be missing and decide to clarify them.
Moreover, we can decide to change our goal or even to give up on it. I believe, there is nothing wrong in that process and it is better to periodically review what you are aiming to. Not all of our wishes can or should be fulfilled.
As Stephen Covey wrote in his book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People":
"Begin with the end in mind."
Spare no effort in envisioning your goals. The more vivid vision of them you have, the easier it will be for you to pursue them.
Tip 2: Think in terms of energy, not time
"In the name of all that is good and logical, we give thanks for the chemical energy we are about to absorb."
Bender, Futurama 01x09: Hell Is Other Robots
Have you ever found yourself in a situation when, on the one hand, there is plenty of time to do something, but, on the other hand, you feel so exhausted that even cannot push yourself to work? After experiencing this myself lots of times, I came to realizing that time itself is not enough to progress towards your goals.
To reach your destination, presuming you know it, you must dedicate time for traveling and burn the fuel that powers your "vessel." It might sound silly, but you can think of yourself as a droid that recharges at night and wakes up every morning with a fixed number of hours to work, e.g., 8 hours per day, and some fixed amount of energy in its batteries. If droid works on a very energy-consuming task for the first few hours, it might find itself run out of energy and unable to perform on other tasks that are left despite still having time to do them. It will have to recharge the batteries first and return to work only on the next day. The time available for work on the previous day will be just wasted.
Of course, humans are not droids, and their experience with energy is more complicated than in my example with droid’s batteries. Physical, mental and other forms of human energy are consumed differently and have complex connections with each other. Consuming some food and drinking water or having a nap can refresh us and provide with new energy to continue our duties. However, the main idea remains the same: time and energy are not fully convertible. You cannot buy more time by spending more energy and you cannot accumulate energy beyond your natural capacity by spending more time recovering.
To succeed with your goals, you should plan your activities both from time and energy perspectives. If you observe your performance over a while, you might notice that during some hours you feel energized and can work more efficiently, and during some hours your "batteries" are depleted, and you need to recharge them. More importantly, you should spend these high-energy hours on your most important tasks.
Very often, if you feel tired or even worse, completely exhausted, it will be more productive to step back and take a break. A short walk, having a snack or taking a nap can help you much more in solving some task then a day-long marathon of hard work.
If you are interested in how energy works for humans and why managing it can be more critical then managing time, I can definitely recommend reading "The Power of Full Engagement" by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. In this book, the authors explore the ideas of energy types, energy cycles in human nature and increasing your energy efficiency supported by multiple examples from business and professional sport.
Tip 3: Separate execution from planning
"Plan your execution. Execute your plan."
Planning what to do and doing the work are entirely different types of mental activity.
First one requires a high-level overview of your current goals, priorities and to-dos from your notes. It is like going through the items in your mind and placing them in particular order on some imaginary shelves near your workplace for processing them. You take an item, try to categorize it according to your high-level goals or priorities, evaluate its weight and size and then place it on an appropriate free shelf marked with a priority number or color. Often you can find that there is not enough space to place new items and you start shuffling items on shelves, moving some less important of them back to an unsorted pile in a corner and putting new important ones on places that have been freed up.
After finishing sorting, you take the item from the first shelf, put it on your desk and start working on it. This type of mental work demands from you to focus exclusively on the task in hand. Only that way, you can go deep into the details of the current task and deal with the most complex problems. If you start switching to other items or get distracted, which happens too easily due to calls, texts, emails and other forms of interruption, you lose the context of the task and will have to spend another 15 to 20 minutes putting the task’s parts and necessary tools back on your workbench to continue working from where you stopped.
If you try to do both, planning your work and doing some task, at the same time, you will be basically switching between two incompatible types of work and introducing time-wasting interruptions by yourself. So, do not shoot yourself in the foot. Dedicate some time specifically for defining your work and time for doing the work itself. Also, it will be helpful to book some spare time in your calendar during planning, so that you would be able to deal with some unplanned work or catch up on schedule after an interruption.
If you want to know more about differences in mental activity, there is a good book, "A Mind For Numbers," by Barbara Oakley, a professor at Oakland University, where the author explores the topic of focused and relaxed ways of thinking in learning and at work.
In the next part, I will continue the list of productivity tips that I have discovered and adopted, so stay tuned and share your experience on productivity in the comments!