Being highly productive is not an innate talent; it’s simply a matter of organizing your life so that you can efficiently get the right things done.
So, what behaviors define highly productive people? What habits and strategies make them consistently more productive than others? And what can you do to increase your own productivity?
Here are some ideas to get you started…
- Create and observe a TO-DON’T list. – A ‘TO-DON’T list’ is a list of things not to do. It might seem amusing, but it’s an incredibly useful tool for keeping track of unproductive habits, like checking Facebook and Twitter, randomly browsing news websites, etc. Create one and post it up in your workspace where you can see it.
- Organize your space and data. – Highly productive people have systems in place to help them find what they need when they need it – they can quickly locate the information required to support their activities. When you’re disorganized, that extra time spent looking for a phone number, email address or a certain file forces you to drop your focus. Once it’s gone, it takes a while to get it back – and that’s where the real time is wasted. Keeping both your living and working spaces organized is crucial. Read Getting Things Done.
- Ruthlessly eliminate distractions while you work. – Eliminating all distractions for a set time while you work is one of the most effective ways to get things done. So, lock your door, put a sign up, turn off your phone, close your email application, disconnect your internet connection, etc. You can’t remain in hiding forever, but you can be twice as productive while you are. Do whatever it takes to create a quiet, distraction free environment where you can focus on your work.
- Set and pursue S.M.A.R.T. goals. – These goals must be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely. Read more about this here.
- Break down goals into realistic, high impact tasks. – Take your primary goal and divide it into smaller and smaller chunks until you have a list of realistic tasks, each of which can be accomplished in a few hours or less. Then work on the next unfinished, available task that will have the greatest impact at the current time. For example, if you want to change careers, that goal may be driven by several smaller goals like going back to school, improving your networking skills, updating your resume or getting a new certification. And each of these smaller goals is supported by even more granular sub-goals and associated daily tasks. And it is these small daily tasks that, over time, drive larger achievement.
- Work when your mind is fresh, and put first things first. – Highly productive people recognize that not all hours are created equal, and they strategically account for this when planning their day. For most of us, our minds operate at peak performance in the morning hours when we’re well rested. So obviously it would be foolish to use this time for a trivial task like reading emails. These peak performance hours should be 100% dedicated to working on the tasks that bring you closer to your goals.
- Focus on being productive, not being busy. – Don’t just get things done; get the right things done. Results are always more important than the time it takes to achieve them. Stop and ask yourself if what you’re working on is worth the effort. Is it bringing you in the same direction as your goals? Don’t get caught up in odd jobs, even those that seem urgent, unless they are also important. Read The 4-Hour Workweek.
- Commit your undivided attention to one thing at a time. – Stop multi-tasking, and start getting the important things done properly. Single-tasking helps you focus more intently on one task so you can finish it properly, rather than having many tasks started and nothing finished. Quickly switching from task to task makes the mind less efficient. Studies have shown that changing tasks more than 10 times during an 8-hour segment of work drops a person’s IQ by an average of 10-15 points.
- Work in 90 minute intervals. – In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Tony Schwartz, author of the NY Times bestseller The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, makes the case for working in no more than 90 consecutive minutes before a short break. Schwartz says, “There is a rhythm in our bodies that operates in 90-minute intervals. That rhythm is the ultradian rhythm, which moves between high arousal and fatigue. If you’re working over a period of 90 minutes, there are all kinds of indicators in your physiology of fatigue; so what your body is really saying to you is, ‘Give me a break! Refuel me!’”
- Reply to emails, voicemails, and texts at a set times. – This directly ties into the ideas of single-tasking and distraction-avoidance. Set specific time slots 2-3 times a day to deal with incoming communication (e.g. once at 8AM, once at 11AM, once at 3PM), and set a reasonable max duration for each time slot. Unless an emergency arises, be militant about sticking to this practice.
- Invest a little time to save a lot of time. – How can you spend a little time right now in order to save a lot of time in the future? Think about the tasks you perform over and over throughout a work week. Is there a more efficient way? Is there a shortcut you can learn? Is there a way to automate or delegate it? Perhaps you can complete a particular task in 20 minutes, and it would take two hours to put in place a more efficient method. If that 20 minute task must be completed every day, and a two-hour fix would cut it to 5 minutes or less each time, it’s a fix well worth implementing. A simple way of doing this is to use technology to automate tasks (email filters, automatic bill payments, etc.). Also, teaching someone to help you and delegating work is another option. Bottom line: The more you automate and delegate, the more you can get done with the same level of effort.
- Narrow the number of ventures you’re involved in. – In other words, say “no” when you should. The commitment to be productive is not always the biggest challenge, narrowing the number of ventures to be productive in is. Even when you have the knowledge and ability to access highly productive states, you get to a point where being simultaneously productive on too many fronts at once causes all activities to slow down, stand still, and sometimes even slide backwards.