Everyone wants to increase their productivity and get more done in less time. There are a slew of books, tools, programs and ideas about “how to be more productive.” If all of that information is readily available, why aren’t we all maximizing every moment of every day?
A huge part of the problem is that different productivity styles work for different people. Some people love keep electronic calendars, while others prefer pen-to-paper planners. Some folks keep a running list of to-do’s on an index card, while others use programs like Evernote.
I know many people who are devotees of systems like Getting Things Done (GTD) by David Allen and variations thereof, yet I know many others who despise it or find they must integrate it into a system that works better for them.
Whatever systems and tools you decide to use (and I invite you to share what works for you in the comments below,) I believe there are four key steps to getting into action and completing tasks. They are as follows:
Make a List
The first step toward getting anything done is to know what you are trying to accomplish. The format may look very different than your colleague’s, but it’s the creation of the list that matters. You must know what you are trying to do so that you can take the appropriate action.
A great tool I found was created by my friend, Charlie Gilkey, who spent years studying productivity systems (including GTD), but found that what worked best for him was a hybrid of many different systems. So he has created his own productivity system, and you can download his monthly planners for free here.
Be certain not to include enormous projects on your list like “finish brief.” Yes, that is the ultimate outcome you want to reach, but there are likely smaller pieces of that task that are measurable and specific. Those are the tasks that belong on your list. You must know your next logical step before you take it.
Set a Timer
One productivity tool that works great for me is a kitchen timer. I know it’s old-school and there are all sorts of new-fangled ways of having a bell/buzzer/other annoying sound ring when a predetermined amount of time has elapsed, but I like a kitchen timer. It sits on my desk all day long, and it’s my secret productivity weapon. The point of the timer is to help you focus your thoughts and energies. You set your timer (be it a kitchen timer, your cell phone alarm, etc.) and then focus your actions on one specific task during that time (pick something off the list you created in Step #1.) You decide how much time you want to focus. Some people can focus longer than others. I wouldn’t recommend focusing more than about 60 minutes, as your brain will start to fry and you’ll lose effectiveness, but anything between 25-60 minutes seems to work well.
An interesting technique I stumbled across makes this system more specific. It’s called the Pomodoro technique, and it’s basically what I described above with a bit more detail (apparently I wasn’t the first to think of this system.) For more information, check out their website. You can also download their ebook for free here.
Multi-tasking doesn’t work. This is one of the reasons the timer is so effective. You must train your brain to focus on one task at a time. So close those other windows on your computer, stop checking email every five minutes, shut the door, or do whatever else it takes to focus on the task at hand. You’ll be surprised and amazed how efficient and productive you become when your brain isn’t trying to do ten things at once.
Take a Break
Once you have focused for the amount of time you selected, be sure to take a little break. It could be even just five minutes to walk down the hall, stretch your legs, and get a drink of water. But give that hard-working mind a little rest and move your body. You’ll return to your next period of focused time renewed and ready to go (or at least a bit fresher and energized than you were.)
As I said earlier, it’s all a matter of style and personal preference. Please share what has worked for you below in the comments as we all have different styles and what worked for you might work great for someone else (because they think my system is crazy-OCD.)
But these four steps, however you choose to execute them and make them your own, will help you get more done in less time, feel better about what you got done, and feel a sense of relief powering through that long to-do list.