This in-depth guide will show you how to be productive, step-by-step.
Learning how to be productive is an essential skill for those looking to achieve more and get more out of life. Instead of working 60+ hours a week (which has been proven to be useless) you should be learning how to allocate your time, energy and attention so that you can work smarter, not harder.
The following post will guide you through what it means to be productive, how to set your goals, plan your tasks, manage your time and maximise your energy and attention.
This post has been repurposed from my free email course, the 7-Day Productivity Plan. It takes about 35 minutes to read and contains a lot of detailed advice and content. If you'd rather go through the content step-by-step over a few days, then sign up to my free email course, and you'll be drip-fed the content via email.
WHAT YOU'LL LEARN:
WHAT IS PRODUCTIVITY?
There’s a big misconception that doing more work makes you productive. Does this sound like you or someone you know:
“Wow! I replied to over 100 emails before lunch, what a productive morning.”
Increasing the volume of work you do, doesn't necessarily mean you're being productive. The above statement is a great example of being active, but not necessarily productive. Productivity is your ability to increase your effectiveness and efficiency. When you do this, you can make faster and better quality progress towards your goals. Let’s break this down:
Effectiveness (goal orientation) – Effectiveness is your ability to make progress towards a goal or outcome. This is why setting goals is so important. A goal lets you measure whether you’re being productive or just active. The person in the example above might be productive if his goal is to sign new clients for his company and he's just responded to 100 leads. But if the emails have nothing to do with his goals (which is often the case with email), he’s potentially not being as effective as he could be. Effectiveness is all about choosing what to focus on.
Efficiency (process orientation) – If effectiveness is doing the right kind of work, efficiency is doing the work the right way i.e. it's not what you do, it's how you do it. Or put another way, if you’re on the right path towards your goal, efficiency is how quickly you walk the path. If it took the person in the example a week to respond to his 100 leads, this is less efficient than someone who can respond to 100 leads an hour. Efficiency highlights why setting goals and being effective is crucial to get right first. If you jump straight to efficiency (which a lot of people do) all you’re doing is working on the wrong things quickly – which is a complete waste of time.
Skip forward to 8:45 in the above video and listen to Scott Hanselman give a great overview of this idea of effectiveness and efficiency.
There are three key pillars of productivity that you need to master if you want to be more effective and efficient; time, energy and attention. Check out my venn diagram – productivity is the overlap where your time, energy and attention all work together and contribute to more effective and efficient work.
- You may be good at managing your time and energy but can’t focus your attention, in which case you won't be productive as you get distracted easily.
- You may be good at managing your time and attention but don't have much energy, in which case you won't be productive as you can’t sustain your effort throughout the day.
- You may be good at managing your attention and energy, but can't manage your time, in which case you won't be productive as you're not setting aside the time needed to complete a task.
So, here’s the real geeky bit; if we were going to write productivity as a formula (I told you), this is what it would look like:
TIME + ENERGY + ATTENTION = EFFECTIVENESS + EFFICIENCY
Mistakes to avoid
- When it comes to being productive, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to be really active and do lots of “stuff”… lots of “work”, but not actually achieve what you want. If you focus on being “busy” instead of “productive”, you'll lose motivation as you get overwhelmed without achieving your goals.
- Often people complain about having “too much to do” but “not enough time”. That's not going to be you. You're going to be so well organised that you get everything done and still have time for the other important things in your life.
Further reading on this topic
- Planning Life Before Work with Johny O'Donnell (highly recommended)
- 16 Productivity Tips for Part-Time Entrepreneurs
- How to Overcome Procrastination
- Start with Why by Simon Sinek (book summary)
STEP ONE: CHOOSE YOUR PROJECT
While learning how to be productive, I find it's best if you have an actual project in mind you can think about when digesting these ideas.
For the purpose of this blog post and to help you take action, you'll need to choose a project that you're going to focus on. You can 1) apply what you're going to learn to an existing project or goal you're working on, or 2) you can use this as an opportunity to create a new goal or project to focus on going forward. Decide this now!
Examples could be: setting up a website or blog, starting a side-business, growing your existing business or achieving a great result on a project at work. This post will also improve your general productivity and organisational skills, but it's good to have a project or goal in mind as you read on.
As I've written about, one of the secrets to increased productivity is to work on something you care about that really excites you. This idea is summed up really well in Simon Sinek's TED talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”. Check out the video below (it's well worth the 18 minutes it takes to watch).[ted id=848]
Next we're going to dive into your chosen project a bit more and set some clear goals around it. This is going to help give you a clear direction around what you need to do so that you can focus on the tasks that matter most.
STEP TWO: HOW TO SET GOALS
The importance of goals
Goals are extremely important when it comes to productivity:
- Goals provide direction and define what you're going to spend your time on.
- Goals keep you motivated towards some desired outcome.
- Goals help you prioritise what to work on and when.
Creating a vision
A vision is a picture of what you want your life to look like and helps you to define your short-term goals and daily tasks. Follow these steps to create a specific and actionable vision for your chosen project:
1) Define your short-term goal and time frame.
“I want to build a photography website and be earning $1,000 a month in 3 months time.”
2) Define your time budget.
“I’ll spend 15 hours a week on this project.”
3) Define your long-term goal that will be the result of your short-term goal.
“I want to quit my job and travel more.”
4) Put it all together.
“My goal is to build a photography website, work 15 hours a week and be earning $1,000 a month in 3 months time. I’ll continue like this until I can increase my website revenue until I can cover my living expenses. I’ll then quit my job and take my side project full-time and start traveling within the next 6 months.”
Notice how this goal has very little to do with being more productive. Your goal is your motivation and defines why you do what you do. Productivity is how you're going to achieve this.
Feel free to write more than one goal; you might have a goal you're trying to achieve in your professional life, and you may have a completely separate goal for your personal life.
Be sure to check out this article on how you can use 90 day sprints to make your goals inevitable.
Daily & weekly tasks
Once you have a vision for what you want to achieve in the long-run, this can be used to plan and prioritise your monthly, weekly and daily tasks.
I recommend people focus on 2 or 3 main tasks per week (of course this is going to depend on the type of working you're doing and you don't have to stick to this). Things you do on a daily basis will often contribute to weekly goals or tasks.
For example, one of my weekly goals is to write a blog post and the daily tasks that contribute towards this are things like 1) writing the first draft, 2) creating a header image, 3) publishing the post and 4) promoting the post on social media.
Use your vision to remind yourself of what you're trying to achieve and use this to prioritise your daily and weekly tasks. For example, in the case of our photography business above, daily or weekly tasks could be:
- Create 5 concepts for the layout of my website homepage.
- Write 3 blog posts and 1 guest post this month.
- Create photography “packages” to sell and advertise these on my website.
In Asana (where I organise my tasks), I use the project description area to keep a written record of my vision:
Mistakes to avoid
- Not setting clear and actionable goals. With no goals, you have no way of measuring your progress. That's when you end up being “busy”, doing lots of “stuff”, but not really making any progress.
- Don't try and do too much. When deciding what you’re going to do on a weekly and daily basis, don’t try and do too much. You need to budget time for inevitable setbacks and distractions. Remember what I said above – don't rush and don't over-commit. Instead of doing 10 things badly, do 2 or 3 things really well.
Further reading on this topic
- The Productivity Secret (highly recommended)
- 5 Ways You Can Tackle Big Goals
- The Magic of Thinking Big By David Schwartz (book summary)
STEP THREE: HOW TO MANAGE TASKS
A big part of learning how to be productive is learning how to manage your tasks and goals in a more effective way. Often people make mistakes when setting goals and don't take the necessary steps to plan out their projects, hurting their productivity.
The problem with big goals
When I go out for a long run I often start with a sense of dread, knowing that I’m miles from the finish. When I focus on getting up the next hill, or getting past the next lamp post, or simply putting one foot in front of the other, this feeling melts away. Before I know it, I’m rounding the corner onto the final stretch and wonder where the time went.
Having a goal is great and gives you a sense of direction, creates motivation and helps you to prioritise what to work on. Often we’re told to challenge ourselves and set the bar really high; this encourages us to set even bigger goals. This is great until you get hit by the feeling that your goals are unattainable and the whole process of working towards them now seems incredibly daunting. When this happens productivity goes out the window and the idea of quitting can appear more and more attractive.
The secret to overcoming this feeling is to take a different approach towards how you treat and tackle your goals. As described by James Clear, the trick is to schedule time to work on the smaller tasks that make up your goal. To do this, we must dissect and break down the goal into its individual components.
Planning out your tasks
Use the following steps to plan your projects:
1) Choose your task management app
You may already have a tool or app that you like using for managing your tasks – if you do, that's awesome! It doesn't matter too much what you choose to use, but I recommend choosing something that has the ability to:
- Organise tasks into different “projects”.
- Allows you to group tasks from multiple projects into different categories using “tags” or “labels”.
- Syncs with the cloud so you can access it from your phone, home and (or) work computer.
I'm a big fan of Asana because it's very simple and easy to use, but still very capable and provides me with all the tools I need for organising my workload. Other popular choices include ToDoist and Omnifocus.
2) Set up your projects
You can now set up different projects to organise your tasks. This doesn't necessarily mean you should have one stand alone project for the goal you're currently focusing on. In Asana, I have multiple projects all related to my side-business. For example, I have projects like website, content calendar and products.
3) List everything you need to do (and go for quantity)
Now you can list all of the smaller tasks you need to complete as part of the projects and goal you're working towards. Go for quantity and list everything you think needs to be done. You should also go for depth and break up your tasks into sub-tasks to make sure everything is thoroughly planned out. This makes scheduling time for these smaller tasks much easier later on (more on this tomorrow).
Here are some of the tasks from my “Content Calendar” project:
3) Assign due dates (DON'T skip this step)
A lot of people think adding tasks to a list is enough. They think that as long as they're written down, they'll get done. Wrong! If you simply add tasks to a list, there's no sense of urgency and no order between the tasks. How do you know what needs to be done first?
This step is crucial. When you add items to your task list, make sure to assign a due date so that you know when something is going to be completed by.
Due dates don't show you when something needs to be completed by, they show you when you're actually going to do the work.
When you put everything into an order like this, it becomes a lot more actionable. Instead of looking at a long list of things to do and trying to work out what to do first, you simply go through the tasks based on their urgency (due date).
4) Use tags or labels to group tasks by important “contexts”
Now you can categorize your tasks by “context”. A content is like a state or a mode that you're in. For example, you could have tags for things like low-energy, high-energy, 5-minutes, 60-minutes, home, work, email, commute, urgent and important.
The benefit of using these contexts is that you can view all “important” and “urgent” tasks in one place, regardless of what project they're in. Or if you have 15 minutes before your next appointment, you could view all of your “5-minute” tasks and see how many you can get through.
In the “My Tasks” area of Asana, I have a section called “Waiting” to group tasks where I'm waiting for someone to get back to me on something before I can progress. I also use a “Next Actions” section to group tasks that I plan to work on when I have a spare minute or two. These are usually quick and easy tasks. You could, of course, use tags or labels to achieve the same result.
Mistakes to avoid
- Avoid the temptation to add tasks to a list without attaching any information to them. Doing this is what leads to “overwhelm” as you add everything to an already long list and it becomes more and more daunting. Taking the extra seconds to think about the due date and important tags is going to save you a huge amount of time later and helps you prioritise tasks.
- These dates and tags provide you with ways of filtering your tasks. Instead of looking at a long list and trying to work out what to do, you can focus on the urgent tasks or the ones that suit your current context e.g. you're on the train and can tackle all of the “commute” tasks that are easy to complete on your phone during the time you have.
Further reading on this topic
- Modes, Themes & Maps with Mike Vardy (highly recommended)
- Task Management Tips with Francesco D'Alessio (highly recommended)
- Going Pro with Asana
- How Individuals Can Get Started with Asana
STEP FOUR: HOW TO MANAGE YOUR TIME
Now you're going to plan out when you're actually going to do all of this work using your calendar.
The importance of scheduling
Your to-do list is the place where you define and organize what you’re going to do. Your calendar is used to identify when you’re going to do those things and how much time is needed to complete them.
When you schedule appointments in your calendar, you’re saying to yourself: “I’m going to do A, B and C by X date and it’s going to take Y hours”. Once you make this promise, it becomes harder to procrastinate. You'll find you become less impulsive as your time is planned out and as a consequence, you get more done.
One of the benefits of using Asana is that as you assign due dates to your tasks, a calendar is created that shows when you need to have specific tasks created by.
The other great thing about scheduling your time in advance is that you’re literally making time for the work you want to get done.
So if you have five things you want to achieve today, and you budget 60 minutes for each item, it’s fairly easy to add these appointments to your calendar. Then you can literally see how long each task is going to take and how they fit into your day.
Read more about the importance of scheduling in my guest post on Productivityist.com.
Scheduling your time
Use the following steps to schedule your time:
1) Choose your calendar app
Your first job is to choose which calendar app or tool you're going to use to schedule and manage your time. Now you don't have to use a digital calendar, a diary is fine, however, I highly recommend you give a digital calendar a go as they're far more capable and will save you time later on.
Apps like Google Calendar and Apple Calendar are great options and are the default choices for Android and iOS users. I actually use both – Apple Calendar for my personal appointments and the Google Calendar is where my work-related appointments live.
Of course, it's a real pain to switch between multiple calendars during the day, which is why I use a third-party app like Sunrise Calendar to sync these calendar accounts into one place.
2) Link your task management app (if using Sunrise Calendar)
One of the great features of Sunrise Calendar is that it lets you sync with other services. For example, if you manage your tasks in ToDoist, Asana or Trello (among others) you can sync these tasks so they appear on top of your calendar.
Displaying your tasks on top of your calendar appointments is one of the most useful things you can do when planning your time.
Having all of your appointments and tasks in one place like this is incredibly useful. It reduces the number of apps you need to switch between. Instead, you can keep your calendar open during the day and refer to it to see what's coming up next.
3) Create your calendar categories (a.k.a. “calendars”)
Now you can create the “calendars” which you can use to categorise your appointments. The terminology can be confusing (how can you have multiple “calendars” in your calendar?). Just think of them as categories for the events you're going to plan. Appointments (or “events”) are usually shown as different colours on your calendar depending on which calendar they're in.
Set up some basic categories like home, work, social, random and any others depending on how you want to group your appointments. Just don't go overboard with the number of calendars you set up as it can make it harder deciding where an appointment should go if there are too many.
4) Set up recurring events for regular activities
This step is going to save you a tonne of time every week and is one of the major benefits of using a digital calendar. You might want to set up recurring events for things like:
- Your day job. Block out 8 hours (or so) for this time.
- Taking breaks or going for a daily walk.
- Going to the gym and working out (this will help you stay more accountable as well).
- Weekly meetings.
- Planning your time. Block out 15 minutes at the end of each day to review tomorrow's tasks.
- Planning your week. Block out 30 to 60 minutes on a Sundar for conducting a “weekly review” (more on this tomorrow).
5) Plan when you're going to work on your tasks
Now that your calendar is ready to go, refer back to your task list and start blocking out time to show when you're going to work on specific tasks. You can simply name the appointment as the task name. You can then have the task itself appear at the end of this block of time if you expect to complete it during this time.
I In the example above, you can see, the “Work on 7DPP Emails” appointment occurs twice (on two different days) and the task is shown at the end of the second occurrence when it's expected to be completed.
Sunrise is a great tool for planning like this as it allows you to drag tasks around automatically updating the due date/time on your task list.
Mistakes to avoid
- Be realistic with how much you plan to do on a given day and don't squeeze too much in. One of the benefits of using your calendar like this is that it forces you to allocate an amount of time to a task and you can clearly see how much you can fit into your day.
- Don't neglect your calendar. Make sure you keep your calendar open during the day and reorder tasks and appointments as you need to. You'll inevitably have to adjust your plan. Make sure you update your calendar as you go to ensure you're making enough time for other work.
- Be realistic with how much time you allocate to a task. Too often people (myself included) think something is going to take 30 minutes when, in fact, it's more likely to take 45 or 60 minutes. If you can get it right first time, it's going to reduce how much you need to adjust appointments throughout the week.
Further reading on this topic
- How Joe Joiner Became a More Productive Student (highly recommended)
- Why I switched to Sunrise Calendar
- Manage Your Day to Day by 99U (book summary)
STEP FIVE: HOW TO CONDUCT A WEEKLY REVIEW
Now we're going to look at one of the steps you need to take to maintain this system, the “weekly review”.
What is a “weekly review”?
Simply put, the weekly review is when you take some time once a week to reflect on what you’ve achieved over the previous week, take stock of your current situation and plan for the upcoming week. It doesn't’ have to be a massive process and by investing just a small amount of time on a Sunday afternoon to plan your week you’ll be amazed at how well this sets you up for success the following week.
Why not block out 30 minutes in your calendar now (make sure you come back here afterwards) to conduct your first weekly review this Sunday?
Conducting a weekly review
1) Fill out your weekly journal (5-minutes)
To kick off your weekly review, spend 5-minutes filling out a weekly journal. I have a note inside Evernote which I add to on a weekly basis. Answer these two simple questions:
- What were my major achievements this week?
- What challenges do I currently face?
￼Don’t worry about writing big detailed paragraphs. I use bullet points and aim for a minimum of three per question. The key is to keep this whole process simple. If I write in a nice and concise manner I’m much more likely to go back and reread these points later.
By using your weekly review to celebrate what you’ve achieved over the last week, you can bring a greater sense of fulfilment and personal accomplishment into your life. This helps bring real meaning to your work as you remind yourself of how what you’re doing contributes to a higher purpose.
2) Review your task list (10-minutes)
Now you can flick over to your task list and take stock of what you’ve got coming up over the following week. During this step, you might want to adjust any of the due dates and reorder tasks as you plan the new week.
During this step, you can add any extra tasks you can think of that need to be addressed. Go through your weekly journal, any notebooks, sticky notes or scraps of paper you use to capture ideas and get this all into your task list. You should also review the “Waiting” and “Next Actions” sections on your task list for anything that can be addressed the following week.
The goal of this step is to “prune” your task list by removing anything that no longer needs to be on there, adding new tasks, editing existing tasks and getting all your tasks into the right projects, sections and tags.
3) Review and update your calendar (10-minutes)
Take a look at your calendar and review your upcoming week. Spend a few minutes making sure there are no conflicts. When planning your time, don't worry about necessarily filling out the entire week. Get the major tasks into your calendar and plan at least 2 to 3 days ahead. You'll naturally add more tasks to your calendar as work comes up later.
Refer back to your task list and schedule blocks of time to tackle the major things on this list. Anything that’s going to take 30-minutes or more should be scheduled on your calendar. A good way to identify these tasks is to use time-based tags to group tasks by the amount of time they’ll take (refer to the steps above).
I like to tackle my most important and(or) challenging tasks first thing in the morning. That way, if urgent work comes up later I can rest a little easier knowing my most important work has been dealt with.
4) Review everything (5-minutes)
Spend a few minutes reviewing everything and check to see if there's anything you've missed. Make sure all tasks and appointments line up and check you're allocating enough time for different bits of work.
Mistakes to avoid
- Skipping the weekly review. You might be thinking that it's okay to skip the weekly review. From experience, I can safely say that the weeks where I've been the most productive are the ones that have been well planned in advance. Conducting a weekly review actually helps you to destress as you get everything well organised and planned out. Don't skip it!
- Over-committing. You probably remember me saying this before, but it really is crucial. Don't try and squeeze too much into your week. I remember weeks where I've planned all this stuff I'm going to do, only to have to push half of it back to the following week. Whenever I've done this, I've felt like the week was a failure (even though I got some good work done). It's far more motivating to do a quality job on a few really important tasks and then sneak in some bonus stuff at the end of the week if you have some spare time.
Further reading on this topic
- How to Get Started with Evernote (highly recommended)
- Getting Things Done by David Allen (book summary)
STEP SIX: HOW TO MAXIMISE YOUR ENERGY
Energy is a massive topic and there are lots of things you can do to increase your energy. We’re going to focus on three key areas: sleep, exercise and diet. Unfortunately in this course we can only touch on these areas very briefly, but we'll cover some quick-wins that are easy to implement and are guaranteed to maximise your energy.
Get enough “quality” sleep
There are lots of recommendations around how much sleep is necessary. Ultimately it comes down to what works for the individual. I aim for 7.5 hours in total each night which is exactly 5 sleep cycles (90-minutes each). By waking up at the right time i.e. at the top of a sleep cycle, you wake up feeling more refreshed and ready for the day.
You should also ensure you are sleeping between the hours of 10 pm and 2 am. Studies have shown that restoration is most effective during these hours. This means that even if you get the same amount of sleep but miss this window, you're more likely to wake up feeling sluggish the next morning.
Finally, don't keep your body up into the early hours of the morning and think you can “catch up” later. If you want to get the most benefit you need to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. I aim to sleep from 9:30 pm – 5:00 am. This means I can get up at 5 am and do an hour of quality undisturbed work the next day before hitting the gym.
Make time for exercise
There’s no arguing with the fact that exercise is crucial for a healthy lifestyle and boosting your energy. Scheduling a workout for the morning can be a great way of starting the day and setting your body up for success. Cortisol (the energy giving hormone) is highest in the morning to encourage activity and exercise, making the mornings a great time for your workouts.
Working out may not seem like it has a direct impact on productivity. But by looking after your body and keeping healthy you'll take fewer sick days, maximise your energy and improve your focus and attention. Make sure you get regular exercise during the week and you'll very quickly start to realise the benefits this has on productivity.
Make time for exercise at least 4 times a week. Schedule this in your calendar and set to repeat each week.
A final piece of advice I like to recommend is to go for a 10 to 15-minute walk during the day. Going for a walk is a great way of getting oxygen to the brain. This helps to de-stress, it clears your mind and it gives you time to reflect and plan your next move (schedule time for these walks in your calendar).
Spend 5 to 10 minutes working out a basic exercise routine and schedule this in your calendar. When I say “exercise” it can be anything that gets your heart going or pushes you physically – running, swimming, walking, playing sports, weight-lifting, boxing, the list goes on…
Fuel your body
My friend Duane once noticed me coming into work with green smoothies every morning. He asked what was in them and we got to talking about each other’s diet. It was after this conversation that Duane made a real effort to change his diet for the better. He cut out all processed food including the sneaky “low-fat” variety which pretends to be healthy and instead focused on eating whole foods, vegetables and healthy fats. He was amazed at how this simple change had a massive impact on his general health. He found he had a wealth of untapped energy and felt as if a “fog” had literally cleared from his brain, helping him to focus.
A nutritious diet is vital if you really want to maximise your energy. I love mixing up a green smoothie with the following ingredients:
- Dark leafy greens (e.g. spinach or kale) – Getting some greens into your breakfast can be tricky, but these ingredients are ideal for smoothies. Dark leafy greens contain essential nutrients that support your digestive system and strength.
- Chia seeds – Chain seeds are an excellent source of protein and fibre. These tiny seeds expand in liquid and help you to feel fuller faster. No more reaching for sugary snacks one hour after breakfast.
- Avocado – Avocado is an excellent source of healthy fat. We’ve typically looked down on fats for many years, but fat is actually a fantastic source of quality energy. Dr Libby explains that Fats are literally the most concentrated source of energy for humans. Imagine your body is a fire. Would you fuel your fire with fast burning kindling (sugar and carbs), or a nice slow burning log (fat)?
- Blueberries – Known for being rich in antioxidants, blueberries are more than just a tasty berry. Blueberries contain essential nutrients for brain development and function and are perfect for increasing your willpower and focus.
- Coconut water – Drinking coconut water is an excellent way of hydrating the body. Staying hydrated is fundamental for maintaining brain function.
- Banana – Bananas are an excellent source of potassium and energy, full of natural sugars, not the nasty artificial kind.
- Wholegrain oats – Oats are a complex carbohydrate that releases energy slowly throughout the day. Perfect for sustaining your energy into the afternoon.
Throughout the day be sure to avoid sugary processed foods whenever you can. These sugary treats give you a short-term buzz and you might think they help you “get through” the afternoon. But it's much more sustainable to consume a slow releasing and quality source of energy like fat.
If you have a grocery list, take a few minutes to review it and be sure to add lots of vegetables and whole foods to your next weekly shop. Next time you find yourself craving an afternoon snack, why not whip up a smoothie using the ingredients above?
Mistakes to avoid
- Skimping on sleep. Sleep is often the first thing that gets sacrificed when people get too busy. They think by sleeping less and working more they’ll be more productive. This is a big ‘NO’. Sleep deprivation makes you slower, less creative, more stressed and generally under-perform. On the flip side, high-quality sleep improves your immune system, balances your hormones, boosts your metabolism, increases your energy and improves brain function.
- Not sticking to a consistent workout plan. Workout routines often start with good intentions, but can fall flat after a few weeks when you're not seeing results. Scheduling time for exercise will help you to maintain a regular workout routine and overcome these issues.
- Avoid sugar like the plague. I really do believe sugar is one of the biggest enemies to your health and productivity. The scary thing is that you'll find sugar in about 70% of the products in the supermarket. It hides everywhere and goes by many names like “maltodextrin”, “xantham gum” and “high-fructose-corn-syrup”. Watch out for sugar hiding in seemingly healthy foods and cut it out of your diet as much as you can (we're pretty much sugar-free in our house now).
Further reading on this topic
- Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson (book summary)
- What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam (book summary)
- The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod (book summary)
STEP SEVEN: HOW TO FOCUS YOUR ATTENTION
Learning how to focus and manage distractions is the final pillar of productivity you must master in order to increase your effectiveness and efficiency.
Dealing with distractions
Have you ever planned out your day with the intention to get lots done, only to have this plan ruined by endless people coming to talk to you and emails kidnapping your attention? It sucks!
To deal with this, I recommend using the power of your calendar to schedule time during the day for “silent work”. If you work in an office, negotiate this with your colleagues and ask to be left alone during 9 to 11 am each day (or whenever suits you). You can do a lot in two hours and if you're not being distracted by anyone you can get a LOT done. The other alternative is to come in a little earlier at like 6 or 7 am and get a few hours of focused work done before other people arrive. This works well if you have a flexible schedule and can come and leave when you like. If you work on any side projects (like me), try getting up an extra hour early and use this time to smash out some work.
To deal with the emails, schedule one or two blocks of time during the day to look at your inbox and deal with replies, for example at 10 am and 2 pm. The rule here is that you mustn't look at your inbox outside of these scheduled hours. You'll be amazed out how much time gets freed up when you start doing this.
Remember, email is everyone else’s agenda for your time and you shouldn't let email run your day.
Keep your Inbox organised and clutter-free. The simplest way to do this is to “Archive” a message or conversation once it's complete. Anything that requires action should be added to your task list (your inbox is NOT a to-do list). This leaves only the conversations that are currently in progress and the messages you need to reply to – that's it.
Try scheduling time for email. Refer to the instructions above and schedule time during the day to manage your email (2 or 3 blocks of time should be enough). Don't go overboard and try and limit the amount of time you spend on email. I use a goal in RescueTime to track how long I spend in email and aim for less than an hour a day. BEAT THAT!
Every time you have to make a decision, whether it's deciding what to work on, what to eat or what to wear, you sacrifice some mental energy. This is why you often find you get a lot more done in the mornings.
Make sure you have your #1 goal for the day worked out the night before and don’t spend the first 10 minutes of your day planning what to do. Remember what we said a few days ago – leave time for planning each afternoon so that you can get straight into it the following day.
You'll now see the beauty of having a complete calendar is that it eliminates the need to ask yourself: “what should I work on next?” as you’ve already planned out your time. Instead, you can move from one task to another very quickly and without contributing to decision fatigue.
By lowering decision fatigue, you can focus for longer throughout the day and reduce task-switching which takes up valuable time. You'll also find yourself getting less distracted as your strengthened willpower keeps you on task.
Schedule some “focused time”. Decide when you're going to get some focused work done. Work this out with your colleagues or family if you work from a home-office. Schedule this into your calendar as well so that you have a consistent routine for getting into this focused state. If you work on any side projects (like me), try getting up an extra hour early and use this time to smash out some work.
Using meditation to improve your focus
Now we arrive at one of the great secrets to increased productivity, meditation. Meditation calms your mind and focuses your attention like nothing else can. Benefits can be realised after just 5-10 minutes of meditation a day. That's a very small amount of time invested for huge gains in productivity and personal well-being.
FUN FACT: Your brain physically changes shape after practicing meditation as you learn to control your attention and focus. This is because the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls fear, becomes less reactive. This gives you better control over your alpha rhythms which are thought to reduce the likelihood of stimuli grabbing your attention.
In other words, you get distracted less easily and focus better.
I've been meditating on and off for a while and WOW! I've noticed drastic improvements to my focus, I feel calmer and less stressed each day. I highly recommend you get started with meditation which will improve your productivity and contribute to a healthy and balanced lifestyle.
Try meditating for 10 minutes. To get started with meditation, download the Headspace app and start “Take10”. This is the first block of lessons which eases you into meditation with 10 minutes a day for 10 days. I guarantee as soon as you finish the first lesson you'll feel an instant sense of relief.
Mistakes to avoid
- Saying “yes” when someone asks you for “5-minutes”. Very rarely, when someone asks you for 5-minutes of your time, does the thing they need you for actually take 5-minutes. It's much more common that they're going to need you for at least 15 or 20 minutes and “5-minutes” is used as an excuse to bother you. Not only that but when you get back to work, you're probably going to spend another 10 minutes getting back in the “zone”.
- Letting your inbox control your time. Keeping your inbox open during the day and instantly responding to each email is a sure way to waste a lot of time. Stick to your scheduled blocks of time for checking email and you'll find that you depend on it far less than you think.
Further reading on this topic
- Manage Your Inbox with the 4 D's (highly recommended)
- How to Overcome Procrastination
- 6 Ways to Avoid Distractions & Get Stuff Done
- Why You Should Start Meditating Today
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (book summary)
Phew, that's a lot of writing… If you're still reading at this stage, great job!
Remember that perfecting your productivity system is an ongoing task. Feel free to experiment with new techniques and habits to get more done. You should also bear in mind that there is no one size fits all when it comes to getting more done. What works for someone else may not work for you, which is why I always recommend people experiment with various techniques and tools to create the system that works for them.
Learning how to be productive is a never ending task. Be sure to check out my other blog posts to continue your learning today…
Hanselman, Scott. (2012, April 9). It's not what you read, it's what you ignore – Video of Scott Hanselman's Personal Productivity Tips [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://blog.apastyle.org/apastyle/2010/11/how-to-cite-something-you-found-on-a-website-in-apa-style.html
TED. (2009, September). How great leaders inspire action [Video] Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_how_great_leaders_inspire_action
Freedom Fast Lane. (2015, January 22). Todd Herman: Making Goals Inevitable With 90 Day Sprints [Blog Post] Retrieved from http://freedomfastlane.com/todd-herman-making-goals-inevitable-with-90-day-sprints/
Clear, James. (n.d.). How to Achieve Your Goals (This Simple Trick Makes Progress Easy) [Blog Post] Retrieved from http://jamesclear.com/schedule-goals
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