Monday, May 4, 2015

How to Get More Stuff Done

We all have our own systems in place for helping keep us on track, our personal methods for structuring and organizing our days.  This is as it should be.  Different people, different personalities and even different roles require varying degrees and types of structure.  The issue is not 'how' you organize your day but that you do.

Regardless of 'what' we do for a living we are all required to get stuff done over the course of the day. If we also add in all of the chores waiting for us on our personal to-do lists the 'stuff' waiting for our time and attention becomes overwhelmingly huge.  It is likely safe to say that with everything that is pressing upon us for our time and attention we could all benefit from becoming just a little bit better in managing our day.  No one, but the heart surgeon, is likely telling you to slow down and to do less!

The question most of us struggle with though is How?  How do I get more done when I already feel as though I am stretched to the limit?  How do I possibly get more done when I have 'inherited' work from downsized colleagues and am now carrying the workload of one and half (if not more) people?  How do I manage to get 'more' done and feel that I am not just surviving, but thriving?

The challenge in dealing with the issue of Personal Productivity is that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution.  There is no one method that you can pick up and apply that will work equally well for you and your 12 closest colleagues.  Pieces of it will work, but they need to be blended with other aspects of other systems to create a collage of elements that work for you.  However, building the perfect system, one that helps you to work optimally, is not a haphazard affair.  It takes great insight into how you truly like to work, what you are good at (and what you`re not), and when and how you are most effective.

The bottom line is that becoming more efficient in your use of time takes... time.  An investment of your time to assess your current systems, determine what`s working and what isn`t and to source out elements to trial and add to the mix.  The following are top tips to try and perhaps adopt. Each will, in different ways, help you to get more done.  Since the implementation of any new idea will take some time and focus to make familiar and comfortable enough to become habit, I suggest highlighting your favourites and pick one to start.  Once it has become integrated into the way you manage your day, pick another.

Plan to your Focus.  We all have a specific rhythm to our focus.  Some of us are more energized and focused in the morning, some in the afternoon and some don't kick into high gear until later in the evening.  Understanding when we are at our best is important to how we schedule our day.  Plan your most difficult tasks for these moments.  We want to work on our more more mindful (not mindless) tasks during our personal peak times.  If you are at your best first thing in the morning then you start your day by working on some of your most challenging tasks, not in checking your inbox.

Understand your Time Wasters.  We all have the same amount of time available to us each day, however some people just seem to be able to get more out of their day than others.  Generally, if you examine their day, you will find less time being spent on meaningless activities; those activities that create a sense of 'busyness' but that do not move critical projects and goals forward.  However, understanding how much time we are losing each day, and week, to merely being busy is difficult unless we do a time study.  Over the course of one business week, record the activities you are engaged in.  This is easily done by creating a checklist of activities and simply checking off what you were doing every 15 minutes.  Taking a look at this, over the course of a week, will give you key insights into how you are spending your time and, more importantly, where you are losing it.

Powering through Procrastination.  Typically, the biggest hurdle to breaking through the procrastination we experience on many tasks is getting started.  We feel stuck, for some reason, and engage instead in avoidance behaviours, rather than taking action.  To break through this barrier try the following.  Gather up the tasks that you are currently procrastinating on and block off a period of time in which you devote 10 minutes to each task.  If you have 3 tasks you are procrastinating on, set aside 35 minutes.  Set  a time for 10 minutes and work, full out, on the first task for 10 minutes.  You are not looking to finish the task, merely to get a satisfying amount of work accomplished.  When the timer goes off... stop!  Take a break for 2 minutes, then work on the second task for 10 minutes, full out, then break again.  Don`t skip the breaks.  You will find that working for 10 minutes on the task is not as intimidating or overwhelming as when confronted with the thought of having to work on it for hours. Often, this quick 10 minutes is enough to break through the barrier to your ability to focus on the project for longer.

Pace Yourself.  We cannot maintain full-out concentration indefinitely.  At the very least we require a break roughly every 90 to 120 minutes, which coincides with our natural Ultradian rhythms.  The more physically and mentally taxing the activity the sooner we require a break, whereas less taxing activities will allow us to go longer before needing one.  Regardless of the timing do need recovery breaks at some point, breaks that help to renew our energy, not deplete it further.  Therefore, simply shifting to a different task is not going to work.  This break period needs to be customized to you and is based on activities that help you to restore and build your energy.  For some it could be a physical break, for others a quick musical interlude.  Building in breaks to your day may sound like you are going to be devoting less time to your tasks and may appear to be in conflict with your goals.  However, the goal is to get more stuff done, not to spend more time doing it.  Taking breaks that renew energy allows you to bring more energy and focus to the tasks you engage in, allowing you to complete them in less time. Strategic breaks therefore increase productivity, moreso than trying to power through task after task with little focus or mind power.

Create a Habit List.  Putting a habit you are trying to build onto your to-do list is not particularly effective because it doesn`t give you feedback on how you are doing at developing that skill.  It`s the consistency of the action that builds the habit.  Consider the habit you are looking to build (walk 10,000 steps a day, no caffeine, quit smoking, break for lunch).  Rather than merely creating a reminder onto our daily to-do list, we need to highlight the habit differently.  For this tip we are `borrowing`an idea from the comedian Jerry Seinfeld who felt that the best way to becoming a better comic was to write better jokes.  To do that it meant having to write jokes - EVERY day.  This is his biggest tip for new comedians and one he utilized throughout his career.  He starts with a large, wall-mounted full year calendar. Every day that he writes he marks off with a big red X. The idea is to keep the chain of X`s going. Your only job then becomes - Don`t break the chain. Do the same for the new habit you are looking to develop.  You need to be able to `see` at a glance how you are doing... not breaking the chain is a great way to get that quick and visible feedback!

Manage your Zeigarnik Effect.  You may not know what it is, or that it had a name, but you definitely fall prey to the effect.  The Zeigarnik Effect is the mental reminder system that is built-into your brains that nags you about all of your unfinished tasks.  It is the little voice that keeps interrupting your focus on one task to remind you about 3 other things not to forget.  Often we then start jotting all of these attention-seeking thoughts onto our to-do lists - despite the fact that we have no intention of actually getting to them that day.  At the end of the day they remain on the list and are interpreted by our brains as `not done`.  We have difficulty feeling good about what we have accomplished that day if we have too many 'undone' activities.  Instead, keep your to-list only for those tasks that you need and intend to do that day.  Maintain a reminder list for all of the other 'stuff' that is occupying head-space. Creating a physical dumping ground for it relaxes the brain and frees it up to devote more focus and attention to the task at hand.

If you have read to the end of this blog (thank you!) then you have invested some of your time in learning something new.  To get the most value for that time you need to take action.  Which of the ideas above would have the greatest positive impact on your life and work - right now?  How might you implement it?  What's the first step?  Taking action on one of these ideas is an investment in time that is likely to not only increase your productivity, but free up some of your time, allowing you the opportunity to re-invest it elsewhere.

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