Last week was Labor Day which meant a day off of work for many of us. Long weekends are exciting, but short weeks tend to overwhelm me. There is just as much to do, with one less day to get it done. When time is short, choosing the right thing to work on first is even more important.
"There's so much to do that I don't even know where to start!" How many times have you said that? I'm here to help! Not because I'm the expert, but because I've faltered and failed enough times to find a better way.
Gary Keller suggests in his book The One Thing that we ask ourselves this question over and over, "What is the ONE Thing I can do such that by doing it, everything else will be easier or unnecessary?” In the past, I thought that checking several things off of my to do list was better than completing one task - even if that one task was more important or urgent.
In fact, doing less, can help us accomplish more in the long run. Keller says, “Until my ONE Thing is done — everything else is a distraction.” Distractions are everywhere - email anyone?? Read the last post about the No Email Hour to help avoid that trap! Once you figure out what that ONE thing is, focus on it, and accomplish it, you repeat the process over and over! The hard part is determining what that ONE thing is.
Experts often point to the Eisenhower Matrix of urgent and important tasks. This matrix is named after the 34th President of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was experienced at prioritizing while he was a general in the US Army and the Allied Forces Supreme Commander in World War II. He suggested identifying the urgency and importance of a task to determine what to do first. An urgent task is one that is compelling or requires immediate action or attention. An important task is one that is of great significance or value. If a task is both important and urgent, that puts it in the "do first" quadrant. A task that is important, but not urgent should be scheduled for a later time while a task that is urgent but less important can be delegated to someone else. Finally, if a task is not urgent and not important, this is something that likely not even do at all!
The Eisenhower matrix is a great framework to help sort out your tasks, but I would suggest a little twist to increase productivity even more using this simple order.
A busy day at home is the perfect opportunity to apply these steps. Let's say you have a sink full of dirty dishes, 2 loads of laundry to do, a doctor appointment to schedule, and uncomfortable email to send, cookies to bake for an event, kids to take to and from sports practice, and a few things to pick up at the store. Here's how the 4 steps above can help you be productive.
"It's super easy to check something off your list when you don't even have to do it!"
First you should look for an opportunity to delegate. If you can completely delegate a task, that's an easy win, but even if you can delegate only a step in the process, that can free you up to work on something else at the same time. If you have kids, there are plenty of ways they can help like unloading the clean dishes from the dishwasher, sorting laundry or even starting a load.
"Do one or more steps of a task, and the rest happens automatically!"
You have several automations already created for you in your day. In our busy day example, your dishwasher and clothes washer and dryer automate some of your tasks. Automations do require prep work. You have to empty the dishwasher of clean dishes and load it with dirty dishes before you can start it. You have to gather and sort your laundry, put a load in the washer with detergent before you can start the washer. Once you get your machines working for you, you can complete other tasks while your dishes and clothes are getting clean - in this example, scheduling that doctor appointment.
It is important to get automated tasks going before you do other tasks. If you waited until late in the day to start the laundry, the automation doesn't buy you as much time as if you start it early in the day. You may need to revisit your automated processes from time to time (like switching the clothes from the washer to the dryer in order to start a new load)
"A big, scary task looming over you will hinder your productivity the rest of the day - just do it!"
Now that you've got others working for you (delegation) and your machines working for you (automation), it's time to remove the stress. There may be one task on your list that has been causing you anxiety or stress. If you put it off, you may be focusing on it instead of other tasks throughout the day. By getting it out of the way, you will better be able to focus later. In our example, that uncomfortable email may be a source of stress. While your machines are working for you, take the time to just do it!
"Be aware of cause and effect, and think downstream."
Finally consider dependencies in tasks. You still need to take kids to and from sports practices, make cookies, and go to the store. The kids' practice is dependent on a specific time. It's scheduled, so you can't do it before the time it occurs. Since you'll be away from home during the drive to and from practice, and you probably shouldn't leave the house with your oven on, you either have to get the cookies finished before you leave, have enough time to bake the batches while practice is in session, or not start until you return home from pickup. You don't have any chocolate chips, so you can't make chocolate chip cookies until you've been to the store. Now that you've thought through all of your to-do's, you can determine the best order to complete your tasks in.
By using these 4 steps along with the principles of the Eisenhower matrix, you will be able to choose to put first things first and become the most productive version of yourself!
Keller, Gary. The One Thing: the Surprisingly Simple Truth behind Extraordinary Results. John Murray Press, 2019.
“The Eisenhower Matrix: Introduction & 3-Minute Video Tutorial.” Eisenhower, 2017, www.eisenhower.me/eisenhower-matrix/.
When you are overwhelmed, it is all too easy to focus on busywork like reading and answering emails instead of the tasks that really matter. You probably have your email program open all day long, and you may even have pop-ups or audible notifications set up to alert you when a new message comes in. Email can contain important information, but it is likely the single biggest distraction of your workday!
You may think you can check or compose emails while you are doing other things throughout the day, but Gary Keller says in his popular book, The One Thing, "Multi-tasking is a lie." What he means is that we cannot truly do more than one thing at a time. Productivity psychologist, Dr. Melissa Gratias explains it well, "Our brain does not perform tasks simultaneously. It performs them in sequence, one after another. So, when we are multitasking we are switching back and forth between the things we are doing." The price we pay for attempting to multi-task is called switching cost.
"Switching cost is the disruption in performance that we experience when we switch our attention from one task to another," explains James Clear, author of the New York Times bestseller, Atomic Habits. Just think of how many times a day you check your email! A study published in the International Journal of Information Management in 2003 reports that a typical employee checks email nearly every 5 minutes and it takes over a minute to get back to what they were doing before the email interruption. Do the math - that's a waste of 10 minutes every hour which equates to an hour and 20 minutes out of an eight hour workday just getting our brains reset back to what we were concentrating on before we stopped to check email.
To combat this distraction, start by choosing one hour of your workday to NOT check email. Trust me, I know this is hard! I picked a hour in the morning because that allows me to get important tasks done without distraction early in the day. Select an hour in the portion of your day where you feel the sharpest and most awake so that you can leverage that energy and get meaningful work done when you are at your best. It would would be a shame to waste the best part of your day on your inbox!
To really make this hour productive, make sure you have a task list in order of priority handy so that you can jump right in doing the thing that matters the most. Next week's post will be about how to do first things first (I'm pretty excited about this one!)
If you get really good at a "no email hour" in your workday, you may want to try increasing that time. Depending on the type of work you do, it may be detrimental to be 'off the grid' for too long. Some experts suggest only checking email a couple of times a day, but in my day job, that would just not be acceptable. If I do need to be away from email longer than an hour or so, I sometimes set a temporary automated out of office message to set the expectation that my response will be delayed. The message can be very simple like, "I'm working on a high priority project and will not be checking email until 2 p.m. If you have an urgent need, please text me at ###-###-####."
One caveat that makes the "no email hour" tricky is that many tasks may require sending emails, so be careful not to get sucked in to your inbox when composing a new message. To avoid the temptation, try these shortcuts to open just a blank message instead of your entire inbox.
Outlook - When you want to send a message, simply right click on the Outlook icon on your taskbar, and choose new message. You could also create a desktop shortcut to compose a new message (instructions here.)
Gmail - There is a handy dandy Chrome Extension called Quick Compose for Gmail that allows you to open up a blank message withOUT going to your inbox. Once you've installed the extension, there's even a keyboard shortcut!
iPhone Mail App - Use 3D or haptic touch (which basically means that you tap and hold) on the mail icon until a menu appears, and then select new message. This brings up a blank message without taking you into your inbox. NOTE: if you have multiple email accounts set up on your phone, the message will be automatically from your default account, but you can easily change that by tapping on the from address and choosing the proper account.
These are the three mail apps I use most often, but if you use others, I'm sure a quick Google search of "how to compose a message without opening my (insert mail app) inbox" will bring up tips to help you.
Try the "no email hour" for a week and let me know how amazing it feels to get an entire hour's worth of work down without email interruptions!
Clear, James. ATOMIC HABITS: an Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. RANDOM House BUSINESS, 2019.
Clear, James. “The Myth of Multitasking: Why Fewer Priorities Leads to Better Work.” James Clear, 4 Feb. 2020, jamesclear.com/multitasking-myth.
Hoyt, Alia. “How Multitasking Works.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 27 Jan. 2020, science.howstuffworks.com/life/inside-the-mind/human-brain/multitasking.html.
Jackson, T., Dawson, R. and Wilson, D., 2003. Reducing the effect of email interuption on employees. International Journal of Information Management, 23(1), pp.55-65
Keller, Gary. The One Thing: the Surprisingly Simple Truth behind Extraordinary Results. John Murray Press, 2019.
Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
I am not a morning person! I like to BE up early, but I don't particularly like to GET up early! Because of that, my mornings go much more smoothly when everything is ready the night before. Getting into a habit of preparing for the next day the night before was one of the single biggest boosts to my productivity!
When I was primarily working from home this spring, evening prep was pretty simple - a list of my most important tasks for the next day and sometimes I laid out a letter that needed to go to the mailbox. Since it didn't really matter what I wore and I didn't need to pack a lunch, there really wasn't that much to it. Don't get me wrong, doing that little bit of prep for the next day still went a long way, but it wasn't as critical as I knew it would be when I was back to working in my office most of the time. To set myself up for a successful transition, I really embraced evening prep - almost too much because soon it felt like my evenings were focused around tomorrow.
That first week back to the office exhausted me. Between working the same full day, commuting, wearing office appropriate attire, showering EVERY DAY, fixing my hair and makeup, packing up my breakfast, snacks and lunch, preparing my work supplies, not to mention trying to spend quality time with my family - it was exhausting! I was trying extra hard to make everything run smoothly, so I was spending 30-60 minutes preparing every detail of my morning the night before. I felt robbed of my evenings and the time with my family, so I decided something had to change!
There were two key areas I identified as time suckers, and I made a plan to fix them!
I am on a mission to get healthier and slimmer by the time I turn 40, so I take my breakfast, snacks and lunch with me everyday. For breakfast I make a protein shake, snacks are usually fruit, nuts, cheese, and lunch may be leftovers or a salad. Previously, I was spending a good 30 minutes an evening preparing food. I analyzed my evening food prep routing, and found the areas that were taking the longest and came up with ideas to streamline the process:
I now pack my lunchbox immediately after I empty it. I make my shake the night before as well and just shake it up before I drink it the next day. I've gone from 30 minute lunch prep to less than 10
I lay my entire outfit the night before - complete with jewelry, shoes - everything. I used to do it right before bed. First I would have to look at my calendar to see what was going on the next day so I dressed appropriately. Then I'd pick something out, find all the coordinating accessories, and a good 15-20 minutes later, get to bed. I wanted to get more sleep, so I decided to try to win back those few minutes before bed.
Now I pick out my clothes for the next day as soon as I change out of my work clothes, which is usually very soon after I walk in the door. Since I'm already in my closet hanging up clothes or putting them in the hamper, it makes sense to just grab an outfit for tomorrow right then. Because I always look at my calendar for the next day before I finish my workday, I can skip that step since it's fresh in my mind. By the time I'm in my comfy walking clothes, I am done preparing for the next day!
Your pain points may not be the same as mine, but take some time to think through your routine and identify what is taking you the longest or what frustrates you about your morning or evening routine. Think about the problem and how you would tell someone else to solve it. Track your time savings and celebrate the extra time in your evening - and spend it well!
Quick and Easy Protein Shake
Puree all the fruit you will need for the week ahead of time and store in airtight container in the refrigerator.
The night before combine almond milk, fruit puree, protein powder, and chia seeds in a shaker cup, put in the shaker ball, and SHAKE! Store in the refrigerator and shake well before drinking.
To be truly productive, it is almost imperative to have a master to-do list where you record everything you need to do and use it to prioritize your actions as you work toward completing tasks that will ultimately help you accomplish your goals. Though I believe this is true, today I want to introduce a different concept that I think is almost as important to your personal productivity - a done list!
A done list is just what it sounds like, a list of things you’ve completed. There are a couple of options on how to create a done list, but before I tell you HOW, let me tell you WHY.
Why a Done List?
1. Develops Positive Emotions
Sometimes in the midst of all the items left undone on our to do list, it’s easy to forget all that was accomplished in a day. At the end of the work day, the emotions we feel are directly related to the progress we made (or didn’t make.)
Dr. Teresa Amabile, a Harvard Business School professor and co-author of The Progress Principle found that when people recognized their small accomplishments, they experienced more positive emotions which in turn, encouraged future accomplishment. In a Harvard Business Review article, she explained a study which analyzed 12,000 employees on a daily basis. ”On days when they made progress, our participants reported more positive emotions. They not only were in a more upbeat mood in general but also expressed more joy, warmth, and pride.”
2. Creates Momentum
We tend to focus more on our failures than our successes, so keeping track of what we’ve accomplished can remind us of what we are capable of. Organizational psychologist, Karl Weick says “Once a small win has been accomplished, forces are set in motion that favor another small win. When a solution is put in place, the next solvable problem often becomes more visible.”
Completing a task feels so much better than starting 10 tasks and not quite finishing any of them! Every time you record something you’ve finished, you get a little hit of dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter in your body’s nervous system that plays a role in feeling pleasure. It actually helps us focus and improves motivation. So completing one item literally can increase our chances of completing the next one.
A woman with many roles in life who knows the necessity of keeping things in order!