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.
There have been many times throughout my career that I've thought, "If I didn't have kids, I'd be a rock star at my job," or "If my kids were older, I'd have more time to devote to my work," or "If I were single, I could be married to my job." And then I'd snap back to reality and realize I AM a wife, I AM a mom, and my kids ARE young - and I'm SO HAPPY about those facts! Those facts are what make me a whole person are the areas of my life that I love the most.
So why is it I feel like when I embrace my role as a wife and mom, that I can't be amazing in a professional role, too? The reason is simple - because I can't be incredible at everything at the same time - no one can. I can be laser focused at work, but them my home life suffers, or I can be all in all the time at home, and my work life suffers. It's a conundrum that I think all working parents face. It's a big source of what you often hear called "mommy guilt." Working moms tend to try to just DO more to make up for the fact they are away from their families at a job during many hours of the day, but this can lead to over-working and over-scheduling. In an interview with clinical psychologist, Nicole Grocki about this topic, the Mindful Return website explained, "Here we’re grappling with the mom’s belief that if a mom does more, and ignores the guilt, the better she will feel. But this behavior can lead to burnout and becoming physically unwell."
I, like many, turned to productivity to help me figure out the secret formula (spoiler alert - there isn't one!) I wanted to do all the things, be great in all areas, and appear like it was easy. When I dove in, I realized that one of the biggest secrets to productivity is not to do it all, but to do the right things. No matter how productive you are, you can not do it all. A productivity system can help you get more done in less time - that's true - but it cannot create more hours in the day, it cannot develop meaningful relationships with your kids, it cannot foster camaraderie with your co-workers, it cannot magically make you smarter or more knowledgeable. All of those things take time and dedication. If you are simply checking things of of a list - read the kids a bedtime story (check), read a business book (check), make a dinner reservation for date night (check) - you may not be fully experiencing the joys of life.
"No matter how productive you are, you can not do it all."
I don't want you to feel discouraged though, because I have a few suggestions for you!
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 Hungary-based biologist PhD, currently working in the R&D field. In line with his burning enthusiasm for productivity, Csaba Vadadi-Fulop launched his blog www.productivity95.com where he blogs about productivity and personal development.
1. Limit morning decisions
Either prepare for the morning the night before by completing tasks before bed or by creating a few standard choices for your regular morning tasks. For example you could lay out your clothes before you go to sleep or you could pre-define a few pair of pants and a few tops that match so it's very easy to pick out an outfit in the morning. You could make your lunch at night or you could have several items that you know you like, don't take any preparation, you know fit in your lunch box, and are all located in the came general area in your kitchen that you can mix and match into a lunch bag in the morning. The fewer decisions in the morning, the more energy you'll have during the remainder of your day.
I used to be a serial snoozer. I could hit a traditional alarm clock's snooze button every 9 minutes for a good hour before finally rolling out of bed. I tried using my Fit Bit as an alternative and set multiple alarms that would vibrate until I turned them off. That worked better, but I soon learned, I can turn them off in my sleep! I think I may have found the best solution for me - I have been setting an alarm on my Google Mini and when it goes off it the morning, I have to actually speak to turn it off, "Hey Google, cancel alarm." Even if I don't get out of bed immediately, having to talk out loud seems to wake me up enough so I don't fall back asleep. I like setting backup alarms to make sure I'm out of bed in time. Additional alarms throughout the morning can also keep you on track - try an "it's time for breakfast" alarm, an "it's time to dry my hair alarm", or an "it's time to load the car" alarm. Remember all those little things you do in the morning that could be wasting time - like checking email or social media on your phone or watching the news. If you want to build those into your morning, give yourself a set time so you don't get carried away!
I'm a big proponent of timing everything you do so you know how long things really take. I used to think it took SO long to do my makeup that on most days, I'd just throw my makeup bag in my purse and do my makeup at work. Once I timed myself, I realized it takes me less roughly 5 minutes for my entire regimen and there's usually plenty of time for that in my morning! I also know how much time it takes me to take a shower with and without washing my hair (so I can sleep in a little on days I don't need to wash my hair.)
4. Do things in order (or at the same time!)
Think through everything you have to do in a morning, and figure out the most efficient order of tasks. It doesn't make sense to put moisturizer on first and then put in your contacts just like it doesn't make sense to fix your hair before putting on your pullover shirt. Also consider which things can be done at the same time. Multi-tasking isn't usually a great idea, but for some mindless tasks, it's great! For example, I get my jewelry out while I'm brushing my teeth and use my Turbie Twist towel to absorb the moisture from my wet hair while I'm doing my makeup. This is one of my favorite morning hacks because it significantly reduces the time it takes to blow dry my hair!
I try to only open a drawer or a door twice a morning - once to get out what I need and a second time to put those things away. I open my top bathroom vanity drawer to get out my contacts, my hairbrush, and my makeup bag. Then I close the drawer and don't open it again until I'm done with all of those items. I open the door under my vanity to get out my curling iron and/or hair dryer and hair products, and then I close it. I don't open it again until I'm ready to put those away and while I have it open I spritz myself with body spray before closing the door for the final time.
6. Put things away as you go
I like to wake up to a clear bathroom counter and leave for work with a clear bathroom counter. It allows me to start the day with a little control. When you do your makeup, try taking out all the items you will use out and set on the counter. As you use them, put them back in a makeup bag, so when you're done, everything is back in your bag and it's easy to just put it back in its place. Try a heat proof bag or container for curling irons or straighteners, so you can put them away as soon as you're done instead of leaving cords all over the place! Keep a wastebasket next to where you get ready so you can throw away cotton swabs, tissues, cotton balls, etc. as you go.
7. Empty your head
Whenever you think of something you need to do, either write it down in a place you will see before you walk out the door or set a reminder on your phone that will create a notification so you can feel confident you won't forget. If I need to take food for a carry in or return a library book or drop my car off at the repair shop, I set a reminder for early that morning so that when I look at my phone before I walk out the door, I'll see the notification. This helps me sleep better not trying to remember what I have to do in the morning. I also set reminders at times all throughout the day for things I need to buy, errands I need to run, phone calls I need to make, etc. It's nice to get them out of my head and into a system I trust.
Each chapter of the book is one of the 10 steps to ultimate productivity. For each step, you will be taught why it is important, learn from some real life examples, receive tips about how to put the step into practice in your own life. There are also bonus materials that you can access online to help with your own personal productivity system.
The ten steps are:
- Clear Your Mind
- From Tasks to Projects
- Focus on What's Most Important
- Be Productive Anytime and Anywhere
- Delegate Tasks to Achieve More - Work in a Team
- Group Your Tasks and Shift Gears
- Take Control Over Your Documents
- Check Your System Regularly
- Master Your Emails
- What Else Can You Improve?
Planning saves time and helps us feel in control. There are many options for planning tools from a simple notebook to a pretty planner to slick digital apps. There is no perfect method for planning your days, but there several questions that you can answer to help you choose the right planner for you!
- Do you prefer digital, paper or both?
- Do you want to keep personal and professional plans separate or do you prefer one overarching system?
- What do you want to include in your planner? Appointments, tasks, ideas, and/or notes?
- Where will you need to access your planner? Will you carry it with you or leave it in one location?
Once you've answered these basic questions, you can move on to the more detailed options based on your paper vs. digital preference.
- How big? do you want to be able to fit it in your pocket or your purse, or do you carry a work bag or backpack?
- Does color matter?
- Do you like pages to lay flat? Do you prefer spiral bound planners?
- Do you want the pages of your planner to be pre-printed or would you rather draw/write everything more like a bullet journal?
- Do you want calendar pages to have the dates filled in for you, or do you want to add your own dates?
- Do you want to have space for monthly, weekly and/or daily planning? Is it important to have your days broken into timed increments?
- Do you want a to-do list on a separate page from your calendar or all in one area?
- What weight do you want your paper to be?
- Do you want a hard or soft cover? So you want the cover to be wipeable?
- How much do you want to spend on your planner?
- Do you want a calendar only or do you need a task manager as well?
- Do you want to be able to share the contents of your planning system either for others to view or to delegate?
- Do you want a free tool or a subscription based tool? How much are you willing to spend?
- Do you want to be able to use your digital tool on a computer, a tablet, and/or a smartphone?
- Is it important to you to link to other apps? For example, do you want to integrate a task manager with your calendar or note taking apps?
- Do you want the ability to import and export information?
- Does the tool have the ability to categorize and color code items?
I like a hybrid approach and use a digital calendar, digital task manager with digital reminders, as well as a paper planner. I prefer to keep personal and professional somewhat separate, but do combine them in one view. For example, on my iPhone's calendar app, I have my personal Google Calendar, my "side hustle" Google Calendar, and my work Outlook calendar overlaid on one another so I can see everything at once. For me, I want to capture time bound meetings and appointments, deadlines, and special dates like birthdays and anniversaries on a calendar and to-dos in a task list. I need a place to jot down notes and ideas, and a place to store a piece of notepaper as well. It may seem redundant to have tasks in both a digital and written format, but the physical act of writing things down helps me process and remember them better. When I transfer items from my digital task list to my physical planner during a regular planning time, it helps to cement in my mind what is truly a priority.
Buy a special writing utensil to use with your planner. A mechanical pencil may be your best option - it's erasable, the tip will always be sharp and it won't bleed through the pages. But there's something fun about using a special pen that writes so smoothly... Just make sure to test pens on a small section of paper to make sure it doesn't bleed or smudge. Different types of paper react differently to different types of ink. Consider a couple of colors of pens/highlighters to use and make a system of what each color means. For example, if you decide to add both work and personal obligations, you may want to use one color for work and one color for personal.
Create a way to keep your place. Find a reliable bookmark, fun binder clip, or reusuable sticky note tab to mark your place in your paper planner. My planner comes with tabs for each month, but I will still want to mark which date I'm on to make it that much quicker to do my planning.
Decide how far out you will plan. Most people do well to put in the big events for the whole year on the calendar and then plan around those on a monthly or weekly basis. A quick review of your calendar and digital tools before bed allow you to write down your appointments and must dos the night before in your paper planner. This will allow you to rest easier knowing you haven't forgotten anything and that you have a solid plan for the next day.
Set a regular planning meeting with yourself and your family. My husband and I both work full time and have a significant commute, plus have some volunteer commitments, lots of parenting commitments and also appreciate some downtime. We have to have at least a weekly check in to figure out who's going to pick up the kids, what we will have for dinner, etc. This doesn't have to be a formal meeting - ours is usually after a meal and we both whip out our phones and check who has to go in early, who has to stay late, and what kid's activities are coming up that week. This allows us to plan our grocery shopping list and arrange childcare for the week ahead. We invite each other to events using our digital calendars so know what is expected of us.
I hope you can find your ideal planner in the next couple of weeks so you can start off your 2019 feeling like a planning rockstar! If you have another planner you love, please share with us in the comments.
I want to use my energy in a positive way to accomplish my goals efficiently. So how do I stop the feelings of annoyance and anger that suck up so much of that energy and cloud my thinking?
- Determine what is causing the feelings of frustration.
- Acknowledge the feelings, and control them instead of letting them control you
"What if you said in your head, 'na-na na-na boo-boo you can't make me mad' and created a new identity for yourself as someone who is slow to anger?"
- Go on the offensive against your anger.
- Create a focus before you get frustrated!
Do you have other tips for keeping it together when you are dealing with a difficult situation or feeling angry? Some readers may appreciate the tips heading into the holidays when stress levels and frustrations tend to run high! Share with us in the comments.
Emmons, Robert A., and Michael E. Mccullough. “Counting Blessings versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, vol. 84, no. 2, 2003, pp. 377–389., doi:10.1037//0022-35126.96.36.1997.
Tracy, Brian. “Plan Ahead and Increase Productivity.” Brian Tracy's Self Improvement & Professional Development Blog, Brian Tracy International, 22 Sept. 2017, www.briantracy.com/blog/time-management/plan-ahead-and-increase-productivity/.
If you’re anything like me, you are so busy that you feel like writing down what you’re doing is just another task you don’t really have time for. But, if you commit to just one week, 7 days, of writing down what you’re doing in 15 minute increments, you will be amazed to see how much you actually accomplish in a day’s time! If you’re really honest when you track your time, you will see more wasted time than you like, but you’ll also see how much time of your life is spent doing things you can’t NOT do – eating, sleeping, grooming. When you know what time you have left after those kinds of non-negotiables, you will automatically feel more in control and more motivated not to waste those remaining hours. Take the time to track your time! Download this free printable to track your time this week. It’s broken up into 4, 6 hour sections, so you can visually see how much of your time is really spent during the overnight hours (hopefully sleeping), morning, afternoon and evening/night. You’ll be amazed how many hours are already spoken for, so that’s what makes being productive in those remaining hours so important!
Once you’ve finished a week’s worth of time tracking, you will see patterns in your days. There are things you do every day. Some of those repetitive tasks will occur at the same time each day, but others could be mixed throughout your day. In your time tracking phase, you were only recording in 15 minute increments, so you didn’t find out how much time it actually took you to empty the dishwasher or take a shower or drop off the kids at school. Identify the things you do at least 3 times/week and then get your timer out! Time yourself doing each of those tasks. Don’t rush to beat the clock – just do them as you normally would and then keep a log of the tasks and the times they take. If you want to be really scientific, do the tasks multiple times and then take an average time. There are lots of time tracking apps out there - one free one I've used is Toggl. What you can gain by timing yourself is a realistic expectation of what you can accomplish in a certain time-frame and the ability to insert quick tasks into random time openings in your day. Have 10 minutes before you need to get in the car – well, now I know it only takes 6 minutes to empty the dishwasher – why not?
Now that you know what you do, and how long those things take, you can now really prioritize. Once those things are you’ll need to do a big bad brain dump! Get out pen a paper or try the sticky note mind mapping that I tried in “Confessions of a List Maker.” After everything is out of your head, begin categorizing all of the to-dos. Don’t get hung up on your system, your goal is to have a master list of all of the things you will want to plug into the open slots in your days. Last week’s post talked about how to figure out what to do next – take a few minutes to read that post. If you set a focus for the year and related goals, take a look back at those to make sure the items that are on your list help you get where you wanted to go. Now, review your list again and get rid of some things! There are many things we think we need to do, that can either be done by someone else or just not done at all. Ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t do X? If you can live with the answer, cross it off! Now prioritize what remains within each category so you have a next action for every category of your life. Remember this process can be done on paper or in your favorite digital tool.
Finally it’s time to put it all together. First take a blank time tracker and plug in all of those everyday must dos for tomorrow– include everything that you have to do from meal prep to kid drop off to brushing your teeth – you now know exactly how much time each of those take. Now take a look at your prioritized lists and choose what you’re going to fill in the blanks with. Remember the importance of margin. You can’t really make back to back meetings work. What if you need to walk or drive to the meeting or even just take a bathroom break? That means you’d have to leave one meeting early or arrive at the next meeting late. Instead of booking yourself solid, give yourself some leeway. I like to see at least 10 minutes between appointments. If you have a task that you haven’t or couldn’t time, give your best estimate BUT add 25% to that estimate. The worst thing that will happen is you finish early and you plug in another task (maybe one that you previously timed so you know that you can absolutely run to the pharmacy and back in 20 minutes.) Fill up every box in your day’s time tracker even if those boxes say “rest” or “watch TV” or “family time.” If you give purpose to each slot of your day, you are less likely to squander your time.
Always be looking for ways to be more efficient! Are there things that you can do in the background while you are doing other tasks? – like watching your favorite TV show while you fold laundry. Be wary of attempting to truly multi-task because that usually leads to poor quality or longer efforts. Read about the benefits of single tasking in a previous post. Are there things that you just don’t need to do or can replace with something easier or quicker? For instance, I believe with my whole heart that a damp dishrag thrown in the dryer with a wrinkly shirt while I shower is much more efficient than ironing! Do you really need to re-pot the flowers or is the plastic one they came in just as worthy of the position on your front steps? Sometimes shortcuts do mean lowering our expectations – I’ve become pretty good at that – but others are just a smarter way of doing things. Remember to enlist your family and/or be willing to pay for services that help save you time.
"Don't worry about your system being perfect - an imperfect system is better than no system at all."
Once you get going and have all your responsibilities out of your head and in your chosen system, give yourself time to review all tasks and decide what is the “one thing” is that will move you forward, and what the next one is, and the next, etc. Consider assigning due dates and reminders. If you have projects that you repeat, create a template so you can copy and repeat what works best for you. Don’t worry about your system being perfect – an imperfect system is better than no system at all!
A woman with many roles in life who knows the necessity of keeping things in order!