I know in the past I’ve got to the end of the day, and realised that although I’ve been “busy”, I’ve just not been productive or effective. This is something I’ve really worked on for the past couple of years, so I thought I’d share my 5 top practices that have had a significant effect on my own productivity.
To prove the point, so far this year I’ve massively improved my core company Appware; it’s far less reliant on me personally, I need to put much less time into it, and it’s making more profits. I’ve also launched 2 new companies, one specialising in drone video and photography, and another where we’ve developed and launched a stand up desk product. All of this was done in just the first 3 months of this year!
All of the tips below are practical and simple to do. I think that all of them are applicable to anyone. And even if one thing doesn’t fit with the way you work, adapting it to do so might. And as there are 5 different tips, hopefully at least a couple will be useful!
So here goes…
1. Use your diary properly
Most of us use a digital diary these days, but not in the most effective or efficient way. Even something as simple as diarised client meetings can be improved. Always add the postcode (or zip code for my American cousins), who the meeting is with and why, full details (copy paste that last email into the notes field), include travel time. That way you’re not digging out all the information at least twice.
Also, add a follow up in the diary for the day after. I think we can all be guilty of getting back to people too slowly, with the info we said we’d send after a meeting. This ensures that this doesn’t happen.
If you attend business networking meetings as I do, then following up is one of the most important things to do. By adding these follow ups in your diary, you won’t then forget.
Another great way to use your diary is to block out time for important tasks you know you should do, but often don’t because you’re too busy. A good example of that kind of tasks is monthly business reviews, goal setting, and staff reviews. By putting them in the diary with time set aside for them, you’re far more likely to actually do them. Most diaries allow you to add recurring monthly/weekly commitments too, so you only have to add them once, and then they magically appear every month. A good time saver, and again, stops you forgetting to do something that should be done regularly.
If possible, don’t arrange your own meetings either. Otherwise, it’s too easy to change your own plans to fit in with other people. My PA handles my diary (as I can’t be trusted with it as I’ve proved on many occasions!) and she won’t think something in my diary isn’t important and override it as I might be tempted to do. This means I really am doing the things I deemed most important.
My final diary tip is not to overfill it. No matter how much you try to minimise it, there will always be emergencies that pop up. Make sure there are enough gaps in your diary for this kind of thing.
2. Have Some Daily Rituals
You’ll notice I use the word rituals rather than habits. The word habits has negative connotations and the language we use is really important. Though I guess that’s a whole blog in itself.
Back to the daily rituals… This is basically a checklist of things I do, every single day. Before I do, or even look at, anything else (so that includes checking emails, Facebook etc) I do everything on this list.
I use a tool called Workflowy for this, it’s both a web and mobile App so you can use it wherever you wish. As well as other lists I have a specific daily rituals list. One of the beauties of Workflowy is I can reset this same daily rituals list every morning.
I currently have the following things on this list.
Do a 7 minute workout
I use a mobile App called 7 (get it here)
Some Mindful meditation
I use the Calm mobile App (get it here)
Complete a daily 5 Minute Journal
Yet another mobile App (get it here)
Watch something inspirational
TED talks are a great resource for this.
Also called 750 words. I use Evernote for this but there are lots of options. Sometimes this is just a stream of consciousness but sometimes it’s a blog post. More info on this practice here.
Each day I choose a particular subject (e.g. 10 blog article titles I want to write) and write 10 ideas around this subject. This gets my creative brain going!
A boring but important one this. Each day I make sure that the company accounts are up to date, and any known payments (both in and out) are in our budget for the next 30 days. That way I’m always on top of our cashflow (super important) and don’t get any last minute surprises. Doing it this way also frees up a couple of days at the end of each month. Bonus!
My final task is something I call #1day1task. Each month I choose between 1 and 3 goals I want to achieve that month. I then break them down into smaller tasks and assign them to each day. Every day I’ll then tackle that task that I know is moving me nearer my monthly goals. This works in two really great ways. Firstly, I’m always making progress towards those goals and do achieve them in the timeframe I set. Secondly, even if I don’t get a single other thing done that day, I know I’ve actually achieved something important to my longer term goals!
So that’s number 2. Have a set of rituals or actions to tick off. Every. Single. Day. That way, you’re always making progress and moving things forward.
3. Minimise Distractions
All the above is great, and having a list of tasks to complete each day is important, but only if you can actually concentrate on doing the tasks you’ve set! To do that you need to get rid of as many distractions as possible.
Firstly, switch off your computer's email software and close down anything you’re not using especially social media. I only check emails twice a day so I’m no longer a slave to email. This came about after reading The 4 Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss a couple of years ago. Shortly after I read it and discounted handling email like this as impossible, I spent a day working from home to avoid distractions. What I actually ended up doing, was spending the whole day firefighting my inbox. At that point, I adopted the twice a day email check as a test for a month. As it works so well, over 5 years later I still only check my email twice a day.
Then there’s your smartphone. On your phone switch auto-email off too. If it’s set to manual then if you’re out and about for the whole day, you can still get your email so don’t panic. You just control when you get them rather than having a constant pinging of incoming emails. Also switch off all social media push notifications off, in fact, there aren’t many Apps where I do allow notifications.
If you really want to concentrate then put your phone into airplane mode so you don’t get disturbed at all. I often do this if I feel I need an hour or so to really concentrate on something. I also find that music and headphones really help me concentrate too.
The other thing that makes a big difference to my productivity and creativity, is my environment. I do try and work from different places, and in different ways. Sometimes I’ll work from the office, sometimes from home, sometimes even abroad, or coworking spaces or coffee shops. I realise that not everybody has that level of flexibility, but even if you need to be at the same desk every day, you can still change your environment. The stand up desk product I mentioned earlier, came about because I wanted to try a stand up desk to change my working environment quickly and easily without actually moving locations. I find that changing position in this way, every hour or so, resets my focus, and makes me much more productive over the course of a day.
Do go try some different environments and setups, to see what works best for you.
4. The 5 Minute Rule
This is a really simple one. If you get a new task, if it will take less than 5 mins, do it now!
For example, an email arrives asking for a copy of an invoice. This will take less than 5 minutes so find it and send it now. Otherwise, you end up adding loads of tiny tasks to your task lists and it looks overwhelming. It’s also in the back of your mind taking up headspace.
However, if an email comes in to quote for a complex job it may take half a day so add it to your task list or diary. Otherwise, you won’t get everything done you’ve actually planned to that day. How many of us get to the end of the day and realise we’ve not done any of the things we’ve planned to? This is one reason why.
Also, do you actually need to deal with all these tasks personally? Can someone else deal with it? If someone emails asking for a meeting, does this actually need you to arrange it? Emails could go back and forth over a few days, so you could actually spend a long time (and a lot of distractions) doing it. Could you ask an assistant to arrange this for you instead?
Even if you don’t have or use an assistant, can a tool improve things? If you need to arrange a meeting with multiple people. Rather than going back and forth with a date/time between you all, use a tool like Doodle. This allows you to add a handful of dates/times and people say which they can do. It then works out which is the best date/time for everyone. Another great scheduling tool is Calendly which basically allows you to add your availability and then people choose their own dates/times to suit.
So when something new comes in; remember the 5 minute rule, and ask yourself if this needs you to deal with it personally.
5. Make decisions quickly
All decisions we make take up headspace. There’s actually research out there that suggests we can only make so many decisions per day. And whether or not they are big or small doesn’t matter. It’s one of the reasons that people like Steve Jobs wore the same thing every day, to minimise unimportant decisions.
Also, rarely does a decision you agonise over for days, actually change from your initial thought. I’m not saying to make snap decisions without any thought though. I’m saying get all the facts, assess the situation, and go with your gut feel. Your gut feel is rarely wrong, so make a decision, take action, and move on. Don’t worry if it’s actually the right decision and play out all the “what if” scenarios in your head. How many times do we get all worried about a situation and everything turns out just fine? Then afterwards we wonder why we were so worried. Almost every time! The worrying doesn’t serve any useful purpose, and stops us progressing with everything else we should be doing and concentrating on. So stop worrying, and make decisions quickly.
So to summarise, my top tips for increasing your productivity are as follows.
1. Use your diary properly
2. Have some daily rituals
3. Avoid distractions
4. Use the 5 Minute rule
5. Make decisions quickly
Hopefully at least some of the above will prove useful, and I’d love to hear how you get on if trying them for yourself. Also feel free to comment with any of your own tips.