This is a longer piece where I share the chance to #WorkOutLoud about my attempts to improve my productivity and apply the learning from extensive study of productivity books, websites and blogs.
Last week was a turning point for me. Having been overwhelmed for several months with the sheer volume of things that I was taking on, I was feeling like I was drowning a lot of the time. Then, last week I managed to pull things back into some control (or maybe an illusion of control!)
Several themes emerged in my productivity spring clean. Here are some notes I put together in Evernote to reflect on the experience.
1. Email as a servant rather than a master
I have been saying it forever – email ensnares me and drains my time. I follow all of those bad habits – let the inbox become a to do list of things where I haven’t decided on the next action. David Allen‘s (Getting Things Done) fundamental principal of getting the inbox to zero is a basic discipline. When I am in control of my inbox I can be more in control of how I spend time.
I use Remember the Milk
to manage my tasks. It’s a fantastic programme that works across all of my devices. I have been using it for a few years, and just moved it to the next level by making much more use of the email function in it. It is possible to forward an email as a task, so that it appears straight away in Remember the Milk. You can also email lists to become tasks. It’s a very efficient way of handling email and turning it into tasks. I also use Evernote to store longer pieces, or emails with attachments. They can then be scheduled and again appear in Remember the Milk.
This all sounds more complicated than it is. In practise it means I can get my email sorted quickly and then concentrate on what I should be doing, and I can spend more time working in my task management system on things, rather than on my system making it work.
2. Task Management to Motivate
It is the things I have completed and not the list that is growing that I should be focusing on. It’s about what we get done, rather than what is still to do. It is too easy to get overwhelmed with a task list that runs into several hundred items. Instead, we should realised that this means that we have captured everything and don’t need to worry about tasks until they appear in front of us.
I still don’t have the discipline right for this.
My tasks are always scheduled to a particular day. This helps me to let go of things until I know that I need to think about them. However, because I am over-ambitious about how much I will get done and how soon: I tend to over-schedule.
I will sit down at the beginning of a day with far too many things to do. I estimate how long things will take, so I can see immediately that I have too much scheduled for the day. This will require me to be much more self-disciplined about what I schedule each day.
3. Daily goals
At the beginning of each day I also need to find a Golden Three that I want to get done. Three Golden Goals for the day. Then try doing those early . Once they are completed, go down the list – focus on Top Priority items first and really make sure that stuff isn’t getting deferred. Even if a task looks big – it’s a question of starting. So, today I have “Blue manuscript – figure out design of it.. first step?” It is just that – a first step. So I need to commit to writing (paper or Evernote) as I think through what needs doing, turn it into a simple next step, then execute that first step. If I do that with most of the “priority“ items each day I would really move forwards. This could be just a few minutes on that task to get clear what I need to do. That avoid tasks becoming too big and onerous and causing procrastination.
4. Weekly Perspective
At the end of each week I carry out a weekly review. I am getting good at capturing the tasks from the previous week as part of the Review process. But I could also do with a short narrative for the weekly review as well. Once I have captured all the tasks, I need to take a look at the tasks for the coming week – are they balanced out or should I defer some things? Then, I should look at my current projects list and see if there are any other tasks that I need to create. Then, write for 5 minutes in the journal about the coming week, what it could be like, what aspirations I have for it, how to get there. Review the previous week’s writing as part of this process.
5. Celebrate success
This year I have been looking at ways to get a BYY focus that works. BYY? Best Year Yet. I am breaking it down into Best Month Yet, Best Week Yet, and Best Day Yet. Starting at that granular level of a day, I look to improve in tiny ways each day. As Robin Sharma says, constant improvement, even in very small ways adds up. If we make three small improvements each day, that is nearly 100 improvements a month, over a 1000 improvements in a year.
Making these improvements only works if we celebrate success regularly.
How do I celebrate success? For example, sometimes I shift a heap of work or I achieve one of my projects – I need to be clear about how I celebrate these things. Give myself a reward, have a half day, go for a walk, go to the gym. There are loads of things I can do. These actions need to be clear so that at a basic level I am feeling appreciated.
6. Reading and Learning Focus
We are what we read. Like food for the brain, what we read shapes our thoughts. It’s really important to read regularly. This year I have set myself a target to read 50 books. I am on target. I use the Good Reads
website to keep track of my reading.
I try to ensure that the books I read are supporting what I am aiming to improve, also give me ideas for my creative projects, inspire me, and above all motivate me.
7. Healthy Habits
I have written about the Pomodoro technique a while back. It is a timer approach that breaks the day down into 25 minute slices. Using a timer (virtual or real) we time ourselves as we work on a specific task. It is a great way to get down to something and get on with it. Twenty five minutes is enough to get focused without losing the will to live! We have the opportunity to get something started if we are struggling to move anything forwards.
Walking is a great way to unlock ideas too. We process thoughts differently when we are in motion rather than sitting still.
It’s also important to think about where we work. Different environments serve different purposes. Getting up and going somewhere different is always worth considering. Using different types of spaces will serve different levels of focus and concentration. Sometimes I use a coffee shop, sometimes a library, sometimes the bedroom or lounge. Last week I experienced Ziferblat
– they have one in London, Manchester and Liverpool. Set out like a large lounge with free drinks, breakfast cereal and cake, payment is by the minute with all the refreshments free. It’s a great idea – the space itself is very informal and creative. I will certainly use the one in Liverpool, having tried the one in Manchester.
8. The First Hour
I need to be much clearer about the ability of the first half hour to shape the day.
I am still rubbish at getting to the meditation cushion. It should be one of the first things I do. Today, I meditated for 5 minutes and it showed me how scattered and distracted my mind is. Unbelievable – I just couldn’t calm and empty my mind. Beginning with this practise is fundamental, as is spending a few minutes looking at the task list for the day and being clear that I will commit to it. I really shouldn’t do Facebook or the newspaper until these actions are done.
8. Work as an Energiser
We too often see work as a drudge, something that drains us, that we need to take holidays from and have rest after we have done it.
However, if we are doing work that we love, and manage to get into flow with it, things feel very different. Work can release us from exhaustion, create focus and flow and make us feel energised again.
Then we aren’t simply sitting around trying to recharge, find a source of energy from somewhere. Instead, we realise that energy comes from within when we are motivated, engaged. The passion for what we do becomes a source of energy rather than a drain of energy.