Over the last few years, I’ve read a ton of time management books and tried out literally hundreds of systems and standalone ideas for maximizing the effectiveness of my time, particularly in terms of my work.
There’s a huge, direct benefit for me when I find a productivity tip that really works. It enables me to get more work done in the same amount of time (allowing me to “grow” The Simple Dollar by writing in more venues or doing other things) or get the same amount of work done in less time (allowing me to spend more time with my family).
Here’s the problem with productivity tips, though. Most of them don’t work. Some are simply inefficient. Others are only efficient in certain situations. Still others only work well for people with certain mindsets.
I’ve tried many, many productivity ideas, yet I keep coming back to the same handful in the end. These tips work for me. They keep me from wasting brain cycles on remembering what I need to do and when I need to do it. They keep me from wasting time bouncing back and forth between projects. I think most of them will work well for you – at the very least, they’re worth trying.
1. Avoid multitasking like the plague.
Every time I attempt to multitask, I wind up doing each task with a lower level of quality than I would have if I had focused on just that task. My concentration isn’t fully sustained on any of the tasks I juggle, so I wind up using only a slice of my brain for each task. That simply results in lower quality work.
I also wind up investing the same amount of time – or even more – when I multitask. That’s because there’s a brief pause each time I switch my primary concentration between multiple tasks. If I keep switching back and forth, those lost seconds start to really add up.
In the end, I’m left with tasks done in a mediocre fashion and, quite often, no time saved at all. That, to me, is a lose-lose.
Here’s the way to solve it: focus on only one task at a time. Let the rest slide. Work on that one task in bursts – at most an hour in length. Then stop and catch up on any incoming messages you need to deal with, take a break, and so on.
How I Do It
When I begin a big task, I shut off everything. I turn off my cell phone and the ringer on our home phone. I close my email program. I shut my office door. I choose music (or similar audio) that’s conducive to concentration. I set the clock to an hour or so. Then I bear down. I do the research. I write the article. I let everything else go. After about five minutes, I usually get into some sort of flow where I fail to even notice what time it is until my clock alerts me that the time is up. When I stop and step back, I usually realize that I’ve completed what seems like a lot of work, far more than I would have achieved with interruptions.
2. Keep a notebook/PDA with you and write down your thoughts.
We all have lots of good ideas float through our heads throughout the day: things we need to do, ideas for future directions, facts we need to look up. In an average day, I usually have twenty or twenty five of these little things bubble up from my subconsciousness.
Many people try to just trap these in their conscious mind until they can do them, but doing that makes it harder to concentrate and really bear down on an important task. You’re using part of your mind to keep that idea locked in place. Thus, you’re unable to devote your full concentration to the task at hand – the multitasking problem all over again.
Instead of doing this, keep a pocket notebook or a PDA with you at all times to jot down any small things that pop into your head. Don’t worry about whether it’s a good idea or not – just get it down on paper and deal with it later. That way, you can go immediately back to whatever task you have on hand instead of wasting brain cycles on trapping that idea.
How I Do It
For years, I used a simple Mead pocket notebook to do this. Quite often now, though, I simply jot the note down using my iPod Touch. I use Evernote to do this. Evernote allows me to see my notes, edit them, and add new ones on my iPod Touch even when I’m offline, but I can access these notes, edit them, and add new ones from any web browser as well. There’s also a useful client program for Windows and for Macs, which I leave open all the time in case an idea pops into my head when I’m working on something – I just switch to Evernote, jot it down, then go back to my main task very, very quickly.
3. Keep an “inbox” and process it once or twice a day.
So, what do you do with all of those jotted down notes – and with all of the other things that come your way in a given day, like mail, miscellaneous tasks people send to you by email, and so on? It’s pretty simple – once or twice a day, process all of it. Take some sort of action on all of those stored-up items – toss them in the trash, file them away, take care of the task, pencil it in on your calendar, or so on.
The goal needs to be eliminating everything in your inbox. You should strive to get to “empty” once a day, with everything in there dealt with in some capacity. If you let it build up, it will grow out of control.
How I Do It
I usually keep two separate “inboxes” – one on the computer and one on the left side of my desk. I pick through each of these at least once a day, usually at the end of the day. I make it my goal to deal with everything in some fashion, so I usually spend time adding to my idea file, taking care of little tasks, adding things to tomorrow’s to-do list (see #5), updating my calendar, updating my grocery list, and so on.
The biggest challenge I had to work through with this was not simply making another pile out of things that needed filing and things that need further reading (like notes for a future post). I’ve recently solved that problem (see #7).
4. Keep a project list – and focus on it at least an hour a day.
We all have a lot of projects that we’d like to work on – projects that aren’t really essential to what we’re doing, but would go a long way towards making life easier once they’re complete. Things like reorganizing the pantry, cleaning out the garage, sorting through all of our kids’ clothes and putting up everything that isn’t at least 3T in size, doing a small marketing project, writing something intriguing but complex, and so on – they vary widely from person to person.
One great method for doing this is Mark Forster’s Autofocus system, which he’s discussed in various forms in his books. It’s pretty simple, actually: you just keep a project list in a college-lined notebook, one project per line. When you finish one, cross it off. When you fill up a page, keep adding projects to the next one. Then, when you’re ready to tackle something, start going through the notebook, browsing all the tasks until you find one you want to do. If you go through a whole page without tackling any projects on it, tear out the page and throw it away since the tasks left on it are ones you aren’t really compelled to do.
Of course, a project list is useless if you don’t use it. Set aside one hour each day where your focus is on one of the projects on your list. Pick one out and make some progress.
How I Do It
I keep a “to-do” list that is a maximum of thirty items long for such projects. I use Remember the Milk to keep this list. I order it by the day that I add a task to the list, so that the oldest one is always at the top of the list. If the list has thirty projects on it and I want to add another one, I simply delete the one on top of the list. When I want to work on something, I start at the top of the list and go down the list until I find one that’s compelling for me to work on at the moment.
This works amazingly well for me. If a task reaches the top of the list and I haven’t taken significant action on it, it’s because on some level I’ve realized that I’m not really that interested in the project. It also keeps my “project list” from getting impossibly big, making it feel like a realistic thing to manage.
5. Keep a SHORT to-do list for each day – four items, max.
I used to weight down my to-do list with way too many things to do. At the end of the day, though, I would not only feel as though I rushed through stuff, I’d feel like I hadn’t really accomplished too much because there was always stuff left on my list.
The solution is pretty simple. Your to-do list should have at most four items on it. Naturally, your day routine will have several other tasks that you do as part of a routine (checking and responding to emails, maintenance tasks, regular meetings, and so on) – don’t include these on your to-do list. Instead, those routine items should be used to fill in the gaps between the big items on your to-do list. Finish off each day with the routine of ensuring your to-do list for tomorrow is ready, but you can/should be assembling it throughout the day.
Construct those items carefully so that they can be done with about fifty minutes of truly focused work. This way, you can complete a task on your to-do list with a single block of focused time (as in tip #1, above). If you need to fit in more work than that on your to-do list, add it to the one for the day after tomorrow, or the day after that.
How I Do It
Again, I use Remember the Milk for this. I just add items throughout the day to my lists, then at the end of the day, I fill up tomorrow’s list to four items with tasks that always need done – drafting posts, researching a particular angle, and so on.
Each day, I live by this list. I close out distractions and focus on one item on the list until it’s done. Then, I do all of my routine tasks in the gaps between these big jobs. If things go well, I might steal an item from the next day’s to-do list if I have time for a fifth thing.
6. Check email only twice a day.
Email is almost always a major time sink. It’s rarely a simple matter of just reading messages. Many messages demand responses, and some messages demand follow-up tasks. Leaving that email window open throughout the day ensures only one thing – your concentration will be interrupted constantly by messages that come in that need responses.
My solution is to simply close the program. Open it only two times a day or so and do an email session, where you deal with everything in your inbox. Then, close the program completely (including notifications) and move onto something else. If it’s truly urgent, someone will come directly to you, so don’t worry about missing out on something vital.
How I Do It
I check my email twice a day. I often do one email session while eating lunch, then a second session just before finishing up tomorrow’s to-do list and quitting for the day (on occasion, I’ll do a third one in the morning before the kids wake up, but this one is often interrupted). My goal with each session is to clear out my inbox – I deal with every message immediately unless it involves a task that’s going to take more than five minutes or so.
7. File things once a day.
This is actually a pretty recent addition to my routine. I had to add it simply because I had a giant pile of things that didn’t need immediate action, but needed to hang around for future reference: statements, prospectuses, post ideas, receipts, magazine articles, and so on. My pile of such items eventually came to dominate my desk and it was often impossible to find anything in there.
To take care of this, I started a very simple filing system in a box that I keep next to my desk. This keeps my desk clear most of the time (giving me space to work on things at hand), plus it enables me to find stuff quickly when I want to find it. The best part? Once the system is in place, it doesn’t take much effort to maintain it – maybe a minute a day. Considering I’d often burn ten minutes digging through the pile finding things, this is a huge time saver for me.
How I Do It
I just made a filing system that makes sense to me, since these are just documents for my own use. Six folders (“to-read,” “2009 receipts,” “post ideas,” “prospectuses,” “2009 account statements,” and “other”). Within each folder, everything is dated and ordered chronologically. It works like a charm for me – I usually have a great idea of when I put things in there, so it’s quite quick to find them. Filing a day’s worth of items takes less than a minute and I’ve had no trouble finding a single thing.
8. Start your day with your major creative or thought-intensive task.
When I start my day, I have a choice of the four items on my to-do list. Which one will I tackle first? I’ve usually had breakfast and a shower and prepared the kids for their day, so I’m wide awake and my brain is running.
I’ve found, time and time again, that starting your day with your most thought-intensive task sets the tone for the whole day. It forces you into prime thinking early on and you can ride that wave throughout most of the day. If I do a major thought-intensive task after several hours of work, my brain turns to mush for the rest of the day. Finishing the day with my easiest task leaves me pretty fresh for my evening activities with my family.
How I Do It
Whenever I look at the day’s to-do list, I always choose the item that seems to be the most thought intensive. That means I do my heaviest thinking earlier in the day, usually ending with an afternoon task or two that doesn’t require nearly as much active thought. I’ll do creative work in the mornings and things like interviews in the afternoon, for example.
9. Take lots of microbreaks (or at least switch to very different tasks regularly).
One of the biggest enemies in a workday is lethargy. It’s easy to find yourself in a low-energy period, sitting there having trouble keeping your eyes open or concentrating on anything. Once you’re there, it’s often very hard to pull yourself out of it – you’re running on low energy for the rest of the day, even if you do rebound a bit.
The best way to combat it is to never let your energy level get that low. That means not sitting at your desk or your work area for long periods. Get up and move on a regular basis. Instead of eating a big, heavy lunch, eat smaller snacks throughout the day. Stretch. Drink water. Do this as often as you can – bookend task sessions with a microbreak where you do these things.
How I Do It
Whenever I finish an isolated block, I take a five minute break. I get up from my desk, walk downstairs, get a drink of water, use the bathroom, stretch a bit, and maybe grab a very small snack (like a granola bar or a piece of fruit).
Doing this has basically eliminated the mid-afternoon energy lull I used to have – around two, I would basically hit a wall and not be productive for the rest of the day. Now, I can keep going until … well, read the next tip.
10. Don’t overwork.
Sure, once in a while, you have to put in some extra hours in order to really do your job well. It’s also important to note that different people have different energy levels for their day.
Given that, though, the worst mistake you can make is to overwork. If you’re nearing the end of the day and you just can’t seem to get anything done, don’t push it. Time and time again, I’ve found that pushing myself to get just a little bit more done at the end of the day has long term negative ramifications. I have a harder time getting going the next morning, for example, and if I do it consistently, my overall productivity slows to a crawl.
How I Do It
If I feel myself starting to slip at the end of a day, I stop. I finish up my day and move on to something else.
Burning myself out with regards to my work is incredibly dangerous and something I take great pains to avoid. Stopping early might slightly reduce my productivity for that given day, but it doesn’t drag down my long-term productivity at all – if anything, it does the opposite, because I’m not burnt out the next day.