Everyone seems obsessed with productivity. We’re all trying to do more in less time, always hoping we’ll cross that last thing off our to-do list. Here’s the plain truth: That to-do list is endless. Not only that, but if you measure success solely by the number of tasks you do, you’re doomed.
We have to start by redefining productivity. It’s not the number of tasks we accomplish that matters. It’s the quality, the benefits of those tasks that really matters. So we must start with our definition: productivity is accomplishing the most important tasks more efficiently.
I find one thing that’s effective for me is to articulate the benefit I gain from being more productive. Whether my goal is to make more money or carve out more personal time to spend with my family, keeping the end result in mind helps me stay focused on the tasks that really do matter, that really move me toward my goal.
Once you’ve defined productivity, one of the most useful exercises is to learn a little more about human nature, human behavior. Cyril Northcote Parkinson gave us Parkinson’s Law, which describes the relationship between work and time: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” What that means is that a task will take as long as we allot to accomplish it. A deadline can either push us to work harder, or it can be the perfect excuse to drag a task out much longer than necessary.
But you can put Parkinson’s Law to work for you. Make commitments to deliver work earlier than you ordinarily would. If you promise a report in a week, then according to Parkinson’s Law, you’ll take the entire week to finish that report. But if you promise it in two days, you’ll buckle down and the very same report that could have taken a week is finished in the two allotted days.
If you make yourself accountable, you’ll push yourself to deliver on time. Putting your reputation on the line by making an external commitment—having a person waiting for your portion of the deliverable—forces you to work efficiently. It can also be useful to enlist the aid of a colleague in boosting productivity by creating a reciprocal commitment. You deliver work, your colleague reviews, polishes and critiques it—all on a tight deadline—and you do the same for your colleague. You can both end up accomplishing more work of better quality.
Understanding Burst Work
Another technique that works for me is burst work. Most of us aren’t marathon runners. If we commit to long periods of working, our drive wanes. We fatigue. But we can work hard for short periods of time. The key to burst work is taking frequent breaks to refresh your focus and drive. The best breaks involve physically moving around. Change your scenery. Go for a walk. Do some pushups. If you clear your head, you’ll be ready to buckle down and do another burst of work.
I’ve found physically changing the way I work has done wonders for my productivity as well. Rather than sitting at a desk all day, I spend at least some of my workday at a standing desk. Standing up increases blood flow, and the simple act of shifting between sitting and standing desks helps provide a quick break.
Making a List
Finally, one of the most important and effective productivity hacks I’ve found is to list everything I need to accomplish, and prioritize those tasks. I jot down tasks that occur to me throughout the day (so I don’t stress about having to remember them). After I’ve compiled the list, I have three symbols I use as shorthand to help me identify tasks that deserve my attention before all the others.
Tasks that generate money get a $. Tasks that please an existing customer get a . Tasks that create a system—something that will work automatically once it’s complete—get a ∞. Once I’ve classified the items on my list, I get down to work. Tasks with multiple symbols have the highest priority—those items are more productive. Tasks with one symbol follow, and only after I’ve crossed all the jobs with symbols off my list do I tackle the items without symbols. It’s all about accomplishing more valuable tasks, taking care of the priorities.
We can work ourselves to death and still accomplish very little if we’re working without a meaningful definition of productivity, or if we’re working without appropriate priorities. Determine what you want to accomplish—more money, more free time—and structure your day to accomplish those goals. In the end, productivity is prioritization.
Mike Michalowicz is the author of Profit First, The Pumpkin Plan and The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur and is a nationally recognized speaker on entrepreneurial topics. He is founder of Profit First Professionals, an organization of accountants, bookkeepers and business coaches who guide their clients to optimal profitability. His small-business blog shares strategies and techniques for entrepreneurs.
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