In the first part, I finished my recommendations on the importance of separating the execution of tasks from their planning. Now, let’s talk about the preparation itself and other, more technical, aspects of efficiency.
Tip 4: Free up your mind
As in my example with a desk and shelves, you can think of your brain as of a task processing area on your desk. If your desk is occupied with a lot of other tasks, you leave only a small portion of your mental capacity for actually doing a job and constantly waste your energy for keeping the other tasks on the table, i.e. in your head. For example, try to keep in mind a list of twenty or just ten tasks for a few days and you will find that it becomes really hard to focus on a single task because you repeatedly go back on other tasks not to forget them. The more items you try to remember, the more time and energy it will take. Of course, some might argue that there are known technics to remember a long sequence of items, e.g., cards or events, but why not use less mentally expensive approaches.
So, how can you remember lots of tasks and use a minimum of your energy for that? Obviously, use shelves! I mean, consider some tools that will help you to put aside items you don’t need right now. You don’t necessarily need any fancy computer programs or mobile apps for that. Even a simple pen and paper will do the trick. A calendar, paper or electronic, is also good to use. The unloading process itself is very straightforward:
- compile a list of to-dos;
- decide by when you need these tasks to be completed;
- estimate how long it will take to deal with them;
- put them on the date when you should start working on them to complete them in time;
- review your calendar for overloads and distribute the tasks according to your work capacity;
- the most important, concentrate on what is on your schedule today and forget about other tasks – when another day comes, the calendar will tell you about them.
There are plenty of readings on this topic, starting from “Getting Things Done” by David Allen, a well-known classics of task planning, or The Rule of 3 by J.D. Meier, which, in my opinion, is the easiest and most effective to start with on your journey to personal productivity.
From a productivity point of view, the more free space you have in your brain, the more you can focus on some single task. Therefore, you can deal with that task more efficiently and, potentially, with a better outcome.
Tip 5: Protect your productive time
Have you ever found yourself in a situation when you came to work in the morning, opened your email and “Bam!”, you realized that by some magic it was already 3 pm and you haven’t even had lunch today? I have. When I tried to analyze these cases, sometimes, I couldn’t remember what I was doing at that time. It was like a chain reaction: I opened one new email, replied to it, opened another, started to write a response, didn’t finish it, got a reply to my first response, switched to it, replied, returned to my second draft, realized that I had forgotten to mention something in the previous answer, turned back, sent a follow-up email, came back to my second draft, spent another few minutes trying to remember what I wanted to write, got a Skype message from a colleague, opened a chat window… At 5 pm, I understood that I hadn’t touched the tasks I had to do on that day. Repeated all that on the next day.
The scenario described above might be already familiar to you. On the one side, an email is a handy tool that can significantly increase your productivity if used properly. On the other hand, if you let this tool control your time, it will suck all the time you have. Don’t let this happen. Remember that you, not email, is in charge of your life. It is you who should decide how to use your time and what are your priorities. As I wrote in the first part, you have a fixed number of hours and a limited amount of energy each day. Use them wisely. If you react to external irritants, you will waste your resources on them and have less time and energy on what is really important to you. There is a good book, which I can definitely suggest, about using your email effectively – “Never Check E-Mail In the Morning” by Julie Morgenstern.
Another dangerous enemy of your productivity is interruption. The concept of focused work and how it is affected by interruptions was explored and popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Ph.D. of Psychology, and was described in his well-known work, “Flow”. Each time, a colleague stops by and asks you a question, an instant message or email notification pops up on your screen, your phone or Skype rings, you get distracted. You focus your attention on who or what interrupted you and lose sight on what you were doing. When you return to your work, it takes some time to restore your concentration. For mentally intense activity, such as programming, configuring computer system or writing a document, it might take up to 20 minutes before continuing your work. If you sum up all these 20-minute losses, the total number might surprise you. From my experience, just a few distractions are enough to completely ruin your perfectly planned day.
What can you do to guard your “flow state” from interruption? My suggestion is to dedicate some part of your time to focused work, when you turn off all notifications, silent your phone, possibly fully disconnect from the network and discourage your colleagues from talking to you by locking the door to your room or placing a visible do-not-disturb sign on your workplace. Going to a nearby coffee shop or working from home may also be a good idea. If you explain to your teammates that you concentrate on planned work during some specific hours and are open for conversations during others, you can create reasonable expectations of effective communication.
Tip 6: Establish a regular review process
Planning and executing without evaluating the result of your work does not seem to be a practical approach to increase your productivity. If you are doing something over some time and do not oversee desirable outcomes, maybe it is high time to change what you were doing or to stop doing it at all. The question is, how frequently you should review your results and make changes to your routines or activities. Well, it depends. If you evaluate your results too often, the difference in your progress towards a goal might be so small and insignificant that it will demotivate you. On the contrary, if performing a review only once or twice a year, you may discover that your strategy on reaching a goal proved to be ineffective or misconceived, and you have lost valuable time doing something wrong or moving in the wrong direction.
So, how to find the right rhythmicity in this process? A solution that is simple and works well is to link your reviews to each milestone of your plan. For example, if you follow The Rule of 3 in your planning by setting three primary goals for a year and then breaking down them for quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily steps, you can review your progress on daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly basis. The key idea is to evaluate the results of individual sub-tasks on small periods and perform the evaluation of overall progress on larger ones.
Trying the described approach, you should also adjust it to your planning horizon. You may find out that spending daily even half an hour planning your work for the following day is an expensive overhead. For example, I prefer to plan my schedule in detail for a week or two ahead. Doing so, I can schedule the tasks that are important for me in advance and spend on this less than an hour per week on average.
Another good practice for establishing a regular review process is to “Reserve Fridays for reflection”, as Scott Hanselman suggests in his article on personal productivity. Dedicate one hour each week, preferably on Friday’s afternoon, to evaluate your achievements from this week and compare them with your vision of the week that you had on Monday morning. Ask yourself: “What has worked well? Where have I failed? What to change?” Then write down your notes and use them when making your plans for next week. Following this simple routine, you can quickly gather valuable feedback that reflects your own experience and use it to improve your personal productivity strategies and tactics.
Some final thoughts
Remember that productivity is about producing, about the results of your work. You cannot be productive if you do not create anything of value for you or for other people. Just reading a book, watching a video or learning a new skill is about consuming value. Acting on what you have learned and implementing it at your work or in life, is producing.
What personal productivity tips do you practice or are going to implement? Share your experience in the comments!