Theories abound on how to most effectively manage your time, set priorities and eliminate distractions, but there’s no single recipe for efficiency. Productivity is one of the principal factors in being competitive at anything you do. Experts from Open Forum and beyond have shared their insights on how to maximize your time and get more done each day and become a master of productivity. Here is some of their best advice.
Refine your to-do list
Tracking and managing tasks is central to productivity, and to-do lists are the most common way of organizing responsibilities. All lists are not created equal, however. What you may see as procrastination (detailed, rigorous list-making) can pay off with organizational clarity.
Productivity guru Merlin Mann describes the “anatomy” of a proper to-do list. As J.K. Glei highlights in her article on productivity concepts, Mann’s assertion is that “the primary idea of a to-do is that it's a task that can and should be done—a point that might seem obvious until you start uncovering how many of the items on your to-do list may not belong there.”
He states that the ideal items on a to-do list should share these common qualities.
- It's a physical action.
- It can be accomplished at a sitting.
- It supports valuable progress toward a recognized goal.
- It's something for which you are the most appropriate person for the job.
Open Forum expert Mike Michalowicz also proposes a specific and innovative approach to prioritizing your to-do list. “Make two columns on your sheet of paper,” he instructs, “a small column to the left, labeled Type, and a second, wide column, labeled Task.” After all your tasks are itemized, he directs you to “put a dollar sign ($) next to the tasks that will bring you revenue within the next 30 days,” and “a smiley face next to the items that serve an existing client”. Simply put, the tasks that have both a dollar sign and a smiley face should be tackled first. (Here's the secret to doing more faster.)
Technology can also help. On The New York Times "Bits" blog, Claire Miller recently featured a new tricked-out Web app, called Asana—created by one of the co-founders of Facebook—which is essentially a high-tech version of a traditional to-do. “Using Asana,” Miller reports, “employees (or members of a family or another group) can break a project into tasks, assign the tasks, add notes and tasks along the way and track the project’s progress.”
Finally, J.K. Glei has some excellent tips (a seven-step plan, to be exact) on boosting daily output. Some advice includes batching similar tasks, planning meetings in your low-energy periods and simplifying your tools.
Spend, maintain and regain energy (in balance)
Economizing time and multitasking may feel like productivity, but research increasingly suggests that filling all your free time with activity achieves negative results. “Our constant stimulation is penetrating the few moments of clarity we have left,” says Scott Belsky. “In the modern era, we must force ourselves to have a window of nonstimulation every day.”
John Jantsch champions a similar point about efficiency in his secrets for getting more done each day: it’s not only about how you spend your energy, but also about how you restore it.
A few classic methods that Jantsch suggests are running, meditation and yoga, conscious eating and “creating boundaries by shutting technology." If you’re up on health, then these tactics may seem intuitive—but intention is often confused with action. Are you actually exercising in the morning and taking 30 minutes to sit in the sun, or just thinking about it? Try scheduling it. Aside from the obvious health benefits, breaks allow your mind to work unconsciously on a problem.
Tony Schwartz, President and CEO of The Energy Project, has done extensive research on the science of high performance. His conclusion: "We're not meant to operate the way computers do. Human beings are designed to pulse between spending and renewing energy.” At the 99% Conference this year, Schwartz shared some of his key insights and suggested that a 90-minute work cycle is the best way to optimize focus and capacity. What’s more, "Sleep is the most important behavior to get right in our life, and it's the first one we get wrong. Sleep is more important than food."
If you spend more time focused on being happy, you may actually work harder.
Capitalize on competition
It’s no secret that we’re competitive creatures, often driven by ego and rewards. While this can create conflict in the workplace, it can also drive progress if managed correctly. John Mariotti underscores the value of establishing incentives and metrics to help improve your employees’ productivity. “What gets measured, gets managed,” he explains, and “What gets managed, gets done. Therefore, if you want productivity to be good—and get better—then measure it and manage it.”
The relationship between pride and productivity is not exclusive to your staff, however. Channeling the power of positive reinforcement and measured success can help you discipline yourself as well. Scott Belsky asserts, “Ultimately, you must audit your productivity on a regular basis. You should question the obvious assumptions you make in your process and measure your output.”
Drawing on theories of cognitive behavioral therapy, training yourself (yes, like a pet) can help you create positive patterns and work habits. Writing down how you actually spend your time in 30-minute increments throughout the day will give you a solid picture of how and when you’re wasting time. Then revise your plan of action. Simply creating awareness about your current habits can also help you stay on track. Peter Bregman, author of 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done, says, for example, that he often "sets his phone alarm to go off every hour, as a reminder to stay on task.”
More job-specific training is also one of the easiest ways to increase productivity, claims Annie Mueller. “Good training, given to the right people, and applied effectively, will make you and your team sharper, better, and able to produce higher-quality work in less time.”
Optimize your environment
De-cluttering and organizing the space around you is a common directive from the productivity experts above. “Take a long, honest look at your work space, your filing system, your office organization, your supply closet, your accounting system, your policy and procedure manual,” says Mueller. (The list goes on.) You can then set up a fresh system for yourself and your company. If this seems like a particularly daunting task, Mueller suggests that you seek professional help for training on the basics of productivity.
Organizing your organizational procedures is the first step, but cleaning and customizing your physical environment is equally important. Glen Stansberry has experimented with many different workspaces and suggests, for example, investing in a plant, an ergonomic chair and noise-cancelling headphones. He also recommends the Unclutterer Workspaces Flickr feed as a source of neat inspiration.
There are hundreds of apps and programs that can help you maximize your time. Different products work better for different people, but Jantsch highlights a few gems in his vision of an app-driven supercharged productivity system.
Evernote: Evernote is a multi-platform note-taking application for mobile devices. Jantsch describes it as “a giant file cabinet for anything I want to capture. It is simple, yet brilliant, and most important, my activity there syncs to every device I use.”
Reeder: Reeder is an iPhone and iPad app that helps you keep track of what you’ve read. “The real value, however, is what it allows me to do with the content,” says Jantsch. “I can send something I like to Evernote, e-mail a post, bookmark to Delicious and tweet right from the Reeder screen.”
Central Desktop: Central Desktop is a social collaboration hub that helps you manage projects and documents in the cloud. It’s great if you work with customers or colleagues in different places, or if you have a home-based business.
IBlueSky: IBlueSky is a brainstorming and mind-mapping tool that helps you organize and prioritize big ideas. You collect and organize thoughts on the go, and then e-mail the complete project in PDF and PNG formats.
However, beware of making your system for productivity too productive. “The manual labor involved with productivity is valuable,” Belsky reminds. “Repetitive rituals will make you pause. If you make your system for productivity too productive, you will become anesthetized to your responsibilities.”