Feeling overwhelmed? Too much to do yet you keep being given more and more stuff to do? Does your to-do list feel like the never-ending painting of the Firth-of-Forth/Sydney Harbour/Golden Gate Bridge?
You are not alone.
This is an issue that comes up in pretty much every meeting I have with the managers I work with.
I’ve read tonnes of books and articles, watched loads of YouTube videos and listened to podcasts all about being more productive. The various gems I’ve discovered are things I’ve shared with clients over the years but now want to share with you.
Here are my top 10 useful things to help you feel a bit more zen and a bit less zany:
1. Get everything out of your head and in to one place
This was one of the most useful exercises from the book The Productivity Ninja. When you are using your brain to remember stuff you’re making it work extra hard and using vital energy which would be better spent on your meaty tasks. I now have a big spreadsheet which I keep live. Any new thing comes up, I simply add it to my spreadsheet.
2. Prioritise what’s important
The spreadsheet I mention in the first tip is designed around the Eisenhower Matrix. Some of you will know this as the four quadrants from Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This approach helps you separate the wheat from the chaff. The wood from the trees. The important from the inane. It also helps you (a) work out if a priority is someone else’s urgent and (b) if work is better being done by you or if it’s something that can be delegated.
3. Be intentional
One of the most simple yet profound frameworks I’ve come across is the 3-A framework, as outlined in Caroline Webb’s excellent book How to have a good day. By asking yourself questions around ‘Aim’, ‘Attitude’ and ‘Attention’, you can be much more mindful and intentional in how you plan your day. Put more simply, asking yourself “What would a great day look like for me today? and What three things would I have achieved?” can be a way to reset your productivity compass.
4. Ask the question
Do you work in an organisation where everything is URGENT and a MASSIVE PRIORITY? Does your boss regularly come up with new things to do?
If you answered yes to these questions then being able to push back is an essential weapon in your arsenal. And yes, you can do this and still keep your job. It’s an approach that I used myself, as a busy senior manager. By always having a live list of things, in particular the big things, that you and your team are working on, when your boss asks you “Could you just…?” Gently yet firmly ask them which of the other important priorities they would like you either put on hold or stop altogether in order to refocus on the new thing. In my experience, this makes people think a bit more deeply about (a) do they really need that thing and (b) do they need it now.
5. Weekly planning
Blocking out time for the week ahead is an essential. Without this you’re far more likely to get caught up in the tyranny of the urgent (and more likely, other people’s urgent). A useful question to ask yourself is, “If there were three key things I wanted to achieve this week what would they be and why?” Once you’ve identified the most important things to focus on, you can then make time in your week for these. And by make time, this might well include declining some of the many meetings I’m sure you’ve been invited to.
6. The power of buffer time
Many managers I’ve worked with have said that one of the most helpful things has been to put in place a buffer in each day. On average, most who’ve done this have said that blocking an hour with nothing in and marking that private has been a lifeline. It’s either helped by giving extra time for a task that has taken a bit longer than expected; or it’s helped with an unexpected crisis; or it’s simply enabled the person to catch up with a colleague. If having buffer time each day feels like too big a leap for you then how about buffer time a few times a week, or even once a week? For example, Friday is my buffer time.
7. Focus on your energy
In his book, The Productivity Project, Chris Bailey talks about getting over the outdated notion of time management. This is a concept that stems from the industrial revolution, where many of us were in employment where we were paid for how much we did per hour.
In today’s world, the knowledge economy, it’s about the creativity and quality we bring. In order to be creative, problem solve and build and maintain work relationships, we need to have sufficient reserves of energy. Where possible, try and book meetings and tasks around your energy. For example, I used to have one-to-one meetings with my staff in the morning because that’s when I had the most energy. When my energy is lower, later on in the day, I tend to use this time for admin type tasks. Things that require less brain power and focus.
8. Use your calendar for time-blocking
So many managers I work with have allowed their diary to be at the behest of other people’s meetings. No wonder, then, that so many of them are having to wait until they get home ‘to do real work’.
One tactic that can be useful is to block out time in your diary for project work but mark it private. Unless you’ve given them certain permissions, other people won’t see what it is and hence, most will assume it’s a meeting. And if someone does cheekily send a meeting invite in that time-slot, you can push back and say you’re not available at that time but you are free at another time. This worked pretty much every time I did this, as I know it has for other managers.
9. Work on tasks in batches
This links to tip seven. By chunking things together more often than not means you can get more done. For example, if it’s appraisal time, as I know it is for some of you, why not do the writing up of appraisals in one hit? By doing this, you’re likely to remain in the right headspace and get in to the flow of the work. When you do tasks in snatches of time here and there, you’re far less likely to gain momentum and flow. Ironically, doing thing this way may take you longer than if you block out a larger chunk of time, say two hours, and get it done in one hit.
10. Challenge yourself
A really useful technique is to time yourself. The Pomodoro Technique, for example, allows you to work for 25 minutes and then have a 5 minute break. There are various apps you can download, although I use the Google timer. Personally, I prefer to work in 60 or 90 minute chunks. Although I do, sometimes, use the shorter Pomodoro technique for things like tackling email or admin-type tasks. Knowing the timer is going to go off at any minute gives me an adrenalin rush and helps me stay focused on task as I don’t want to lose against the beeper!
What kind of tips and tricks help you remain productive? Why not share your advice in the comments box so others can benefit from your experience?