There are so many things competing for our attention on a daily, hourly and even minute-to-minute basis. There’s work, certainly, and social responsibilities (did you remember the baby-shower gift for your neighbor?) and then if you’re adding a kid or three into the mix, forget it—every moment becomes a splintered mirror and you can’t even figure out where to look first. When we try to do too many things at once, none of them gets done well—or at all.
Productivity has two basic parts to it: planning and focus. When both are in perfect alignment, we get things done better and faster, leaving time for the most important things, such as family time, time to sit and create, health and whatever else requires our attention and promotes our joy.
Many great minds have pondered productivity and the most effective way to find it, but not every tool works for every person. It’s been shown that not getting enough sleep profoundly affects your productivity, yet some folks (with a specific gene mutation) can get by on hardly any sleep and get things done.
No matter how you get there or the tools you use, the most important part of your productivity audit is to set goals and prioritize. What needs to get done? Which thing is the most important? And what needs to happen right now? You won’t be productive unless you’re clear on those.
Making Your Plan
Gary Keller and Jay Papasan authored The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. Their main message is to ask yourself why your goal is important, what it will do for you and your family and the world. And once you have your answer, you make it your daily priority and let anything else that doesn’t serve your goal come later or fall away.
For example, if your goal is to start a business, arrange your time so that you can work on it daily, preferably when you’re at your best. If you have a day job or other responsibilities, that may mean waking up early, foregoing lunch with pals or staying up late to get your foundation down. What are the necessary tasks you can tackle in order, such as researching loans, reviewing your competition and finding your vendors? Whatever the next thing is to get closer to your goal, that’s the priority for the day.
For some people, making their plan is as simple as jotting items down on a sticky note. For others, apps such as Asana or Wunderlist are helpful in categorizing to-do lists and keeping you on task. (Lifehacker has a comprehensive list of helpful productivity tools).
Getting Things Done
Instead of feeling like you have to steal time from yourself, try giving yourself time in the form of extreme calendaring. For example, Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk blocks all his waking hours in five-minute increments, and not just for work. He also schedules his lunches, family time, exercise and creative brainstorming. Time-blocking does two things: it gives you a map of your day, and it also provides a reality check. So perhaps you’re intending to visit a friend, finish a presentation, hit the gym and bake a pie, all in one day. Super scheduling helps you truly figure out what you can realistically fit in a day—and what plans need to fall by the wayside or get pushed to tomorrow.
Or if you insist on ticking things off your list as you go, one way to do it is to tackle anything that takes two minutes or less first—that could be writing overdue thank-you notes, making a quick donation pile from your closet or returning an email.
Another way to enforce focus is the Pomodoro Technique, which involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and just doing one thing in that time—no checking Facebook or returning calls or making another cup of tea while the timer is going. That 25-minute block is a genius because it’s short enough to be easily achievable but long enough to get something done. If there’s a more complex task or one that requires more time, assign more 25-minute chunks to it.
You can also magically add hours to your day by steering clear of TV and mindless web browsing (unless you actually have scheduled a time to do that). Digital devices are designed to keep your interest, and addiction is a real problem. If you need a gentle nudge, a website blocker such as Freedom can help break the “I’ll just check Twitter” habit by closing off sites you designate for a window of time. You can also take apps off your phone to slow yourself down from automatically checking them.
In your downtime, do analog things—clean the kitchen, call a friend, finish your book. You can also do double duty whenever possible—fold laundry on that conference call, walk the dog on your way to the market, reply to emails while waiting for the dentist.
Try stacking errands and meetings whenever you can so you’re not using time to get there and back, and whenever you can, have staples such as cleaning supplies, toilet paper and stationery delivered through Amazon or a similar service, and you’ll save yourself a few hours—and the impulse buying that so often happens on that trip to Target.
The Productive Person’s Secret
It seems odd to think that one of the main keys to productivity is to sit still and do absolutely zero, but global business leaders, athletes, entertainers, and other successful influencers swear by meditation to help steady their minds and clear the clutter. Science backs this up: Meditation also makes it naturally easier to focus on what you’re doing. “We found that only those trained in meditation stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative emotion after task performance, as compared with the other two groups. In addition, both the meditation and the relaxation groups showed improved memory for the tasks they performed,” researchers said.
So yes. Sit, focus and then get it all done so you can enjoy the things that matter the most.