Are you tired of being told to work smarter, when you don’t know how? “I can’t work any more hours than I am right now!” is a refrain I hear too often from my clients. It seems that everyone is trying to deal with increasing workloads, reduced staffing levels and a tight budget. I wanted to find out what the latest research is discovering about how to enhance productivity. Here are some surprisingly new – and a few not-so- new – ideas from recent research on productivity enhancers. In this article, I cite several authors, but my favorite book of late is Chris Bailey’s The Productivity Project. Over the course of a year, Bailey researched and personally experimented with many productivity systems and published the results in this book. It’s a fun and informative read.
1. Ruthlessly prioritize your tasks.
The trouble nowadays is that we have too many things to do; more than we could humanly accomplish. The best method to get a handle on your to-do list is three fold: set daily intentions for the big 3 tasks you wish to accomplish, prioritize your tasks and decline many of the less important tasks. Be ruthless in your prioritization and ability to say no!
To be super-productive, Bailey recommends identifying the three most important things to accomplish daily and write them down. I do this in my quiet time over morning tea: I look ahead to the day and set my intentions about the most important things to do. Or, you might do it at the end of a day in preparation for tomorrow. Review your intentions at the end of the day, and move any that didn’t get done to the next day.
To prioritize your tasks, start by listing every task that you do. To ensure the list is comprehensive, you might track everything you do for several days. Next, rate each task on a scale of importance from 1 to 10 where 1 is not very important and 10 is imperative. Keep in mind that not all tasks on your list are best accomplished by you. A 9 or 10 on your list is a task that only you can add value to. Now, schedule only the tasks rated a 9 or a 10. Say no to the rest. Easier said than done, right?
You might exercise your “say no” muscle by challenging yourself to say no 5 times a day. Start with little no’s, like “No, I don’t want pasta with my entrée” or “No, I’m not OK.” Graduate to large no’s such as “No, I really can’t take on that volunteer project right now.”
Another system to ruthlessly prioritize your tasks is to use the “4 D’s” (Do, Defer, Delegate, and Decline) to prioritize your tasks, using this rubric:
2. It’s not about managing your time anymore. Instead, manage your energy and attention.
We have evolved from a time economy, in which time spent on the job equals the number of widgets made, to an information economy, where results are more important than putting in face time from 9:00 to 5:00. In fact, when working with information, longer hours do not necessarily equate to increased accomplishment. Chris Bailey, in The Productivity Project, discovered that he accomplished only slightly more during weeks that he worked 90 hours compared to the weeks he worked only 20 hours. This is due to the weariness our brains experience when we push beyond our limits. Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy teach us the best way to work is to focus on a project for 90 - 120 minutes and then take a break. This is similar to the Pomodoro Technique, which suggests you eliminate distractions for 25 minutes at a time and work solely on one project, then take a 5 minute break. The point is to set aside time to focus and eliminate distractions. Research shows that, after an interruption, it takes 25 minutes to return to the same place in your thought process. In other words, distractions and trying to multi-task are time wasters.
To manage your energy and attention, it’s important to identify the time of day in which you feel most energetic. Most of us know this instinctively: I’ve known since a young age that mornings are my most productive time. However, many people are night owls who come into their peak energy period after dinner. Once you recognize your peak energy time, schedule your most important tasks during that time.
3. Restrict your email and connected time.
Tony Schwartz recommends you read your email at 3 scheduled times during the day, perhaps at 7:00, 11:30 and 4:30. Tell your co-workers of your practice. You might even put your email hours in your signature line, as in “Please note: I respond to email only 3 times a day. In the future, if your message is urgent, please call me at ….” Turn off your incoming email notifications on both your computer and cell phone so you won’t be tempted to let them distract you. Keep your email replies brief – pick up the phone and talk to the person if your reply demands elaboration. There are several benefits to restricting email activities. First, it trains people not to expect immediate response from you and to call you if their issue is urgent. Second, it saves you time and energy by grouping this reactive task into discrete time blocks, leaving other times uninterrupted for other work.
Likewise, Chris Bailey suggests you turn off your electronic devices between 8:00 pm and 8:00 am. Again, let co-workers and especially your boss know you are doing this. A good way to inform your boss is, “I throw myself into my work and give it my all during the day. In order to keep doing that, I need downtime each night. If you need me urgently, here’s how to get in touch with me….” If you are the boss, think of the role model you set when you turn off email and cell phone at night! You will retain your best workers if you set this example and encourage your team to guard their own downtime.
4. New and old ways to manage your to-do list.
There are many apps and software to manage your time, and I encourage you to experiment to find the system that works for you. Here are two surprisingly simple systems that recently caught my attention.
Chris Bailey again comes up with a novel idea – use a simple notes app that syncs between all your apps, so you can capture your thoughts anytime, anywhere. In this article, he reviews the apps that you might consider. Bailey simply pins his three daily intentions to the top of his list of notes, then keeps his to-do list underneath that.
Or, for those of us who still like the kinesthetic, albeit old-fashioned, pleasure of writing with pen and paper, digital product designer Ryder Carroll has designed the Bullet Journal method of tracking to-do lists. Using a conventional journal – or his special journal available for purchase on his website – you set up an index or table of contents in the front of your journal, a future log, a monthly log and a daily log. Ryder encourages you to do “rapid logging” of everything you need to track, using different bullet points to differentiate between tasks (use a dot-shaped bullet point), a note (use a dash) and an event (use a circle). You can see Ryder Carroll demonstrate it here:
As long as we are working with limited amounts of time and resources, we will always seek ways to be more productive. Use what works well for you AND, at the same time, be on the lookout for new ideas that can help you accomplish more with less stress.
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