How to Jumpstart Your Productivity in 7 Easy Steps
Proven strategies to get things done.
“And for those of you without kids, the amount of free time you have is scandalous.” My wife and I smiled in response to the speaker. The topic was spiritual disciplines, and like any new habit, progress occurs by putting in the time. So naturally, a few words on time management came up.
Two kids later, I don’t recall the spiritual disciplines, but that one line has stuck with (haunted) me ever since.
My time is far from ‘scandalous’ now.
When it was, going to the gym was a 2-hour afternoon at LA Fitness. Now, it’s a 40-minute trip to the basement. Home repair used to be an afternoon of YouTube videos, a visit to Lowes, and a cautious repair. Now, it’s 15 minutes and 3 quotes from contractors on Kijiji. I’ve found faster ways of completing tasks and removed many of them off my list.
This new life stage has made me a student of productivity, gratefully consuming new strategies, and gradually implementing them. The following are the key ones that continue to be instrumental in staying on top of my tasks.
1. Prioritize Tasks
Start with figuring out what matters to you. What do you value? What are your goals? If you’ve got many goals, rank them, because if you’re going to be productive, you’re going to have to eliminate most of them.
I like Dereck Siver’s rule for figuring what matters and what doesn’t.
If you’re not saying “HELL YEAH!” about something, say “No”.
Saying NO to most things frees us to engage in things that really matter.
2. Eliminate Tasks
Having dialled in on what matters, let’s ask some questions to pare down our task list further.
“Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.” — Peter Drucker
Am I the best person for this task?
I’m the first person that comes to mind for all my tasks. And, it makes sense when it’s my area of expertise or when circumstances, such as budget, require me to complete the task.
However, working on tasks better done by others robs me of time and energy that could be spent on tasks better done by me. Peter Drucker’s advice to executives applies to me as well.
Do what you do best and outsource the rest.
We’re reluctant to outsource our efforts because of the financial cost; however, we don’t consider the opportunity cost of taking on the task.
My gas fireplace stopped working last year. My father came from a budget-constrained time and fixed everything himself. A lot of that DIY is still ingrained in me. So, between YouTube and the local hardware store, I figured I could get it working.
I spent 4 hours learning, attempting repair and finally failing. The contractor I hired fixed it in 1 hour for $100.
Though I learned a few things, would my time have been better spent engaging in activities that held greater value for me?
If you’ve got enough money to solve the problem, you don’t have the problem. ~Dan Sullivan
It makes sense, sometimes, to work on tasks when it’s not your expertise. Consider whether it can be delegated so you can remove tasks from your list.
Don’t work harder than necessary to complete a task.
Am I benefiting by putting further effort into this task?
“There is no substitute for hard work.”
“Nothing worth having comes easy.”
“Put in the work.”
All sage advice to reach your goals, except when you’re working harder than necessary to complete a task.
We work harder than necessary when the effort put in doesn’t bring us much closer to our goal and would have been better invested elsewhere. We need to consider the law of diminishing returns when working on tasks.
Reading your draft post a tenth time might reveal something new; however, what else might have you accomplished in that time?
Perfect is the enemy of good. ~Voltaire
Work hard, but evaluate whether the effort produces the outcome you desire. It’s another opportunity to knock a task off your list.
Don’t start tasks earlier than necessary.
Do I need to work on this now? Things might yet change.
“The early bird gets the worm.” This aphorism teaches us that success can be achieved by starting early or before others.
Starting early may be the right thing to do, except when the passing of time changes things. If buying a TV next month instead of today makes no difference, wait until next month because there might yet be a sale.
If there’s no cost for doing something now versus later, delaying the task can save us effort if new information changes the circumstances.
I like to keep my inbox clear and tend to reply to most emails immediately. In some cases, after I’ve drafted a well-written response, another email will come in, adding new information, and making my draft irrelevant.
Responding the next morning would have made no difference to the sender. As such, there was no need to respond immediately. By starting early, I ended up working unnecessarily.
How many tasks, with good intentions, do we start early, only to find a little passing of time changes things leaving our efforts in vain?
Some tasks need to start early; however, if we can delay without penalty, we should, because we lose nothing and gain the advantage of basing our actions on the latest information. Plus, it’s another task off your list.
3. Shallow Tasks & Deep Tasks
By now, you’ve eliminated many of your tasks. Let’s look at maximizing your efforts on them.
In the book Deep Work, Cal Newport explores the impact of distraction on our lives and the benefits of “deep work.”
Shallow work is mentally undemanding tasks that can be completed in a semi-distracted state. They include administrative tasks such as answering emails, checking messages and running errands.
Deep work is mentally involved tasks that require concentration and extended periods to complete. They include creative tasks such as writing a book or proposal. Deep work has many benefits, including making you better at what you do and being fulfilling. Accomplishing deep work requires making distraction-free blocks of time available to focus on essential tasks.
Separate the shallow tasks from deep tasks and then allocate time to focus on deep tasks.
4. Getting Started With Tasks
To get good work done, we need time and focus. But, planning blocks of hours can seem daunting.
The Pomodoro technique, a method for time management and focus, offers a simple way to get started.
It involves setting a timer for 25 minutes and then working exclusively on the task and then taking a short break. The 25 minutes is small enough that it’s not intimidating but large enough to get into a groove.
5. When To Work On A Task
In the book When, author Daniel Pink shows how your attention and cognitive ability are biologically programmed to rise and fall according to your circadian rhythm. When you wake up, your attention and cognitive ability peak, trough, and rebound.
The peak occurs after you wake-up and is the ideal time for logical work.
The trough occurs roughly after lunch, and it’s best to do the least important or straightforward tasks in this period. Do not use this period for your deep work.
The rebound occurs a few hours before sleep and is the ideal time for creative work.
Plan your deep work in the morning or evening and definitely not after lunch.
6. Schedule Distractions
Regular communication is a reality of modern life, so schedule a time for it. Set a time for checking emails or phone messages, and then close your inbox and put your phone away. Even if you’re not responding to messages, it’s important not to see each one come in.
Don’t attempt to multitask. There are mental penalties for task switching, and you end up less efficient at both. Or, in the case of work and pleasure, you take longer at your work and ruin your pleasure.
If a task has made it this far, it’s significant, so be fully present with it. Let everything else — emails, messages and other tasks wait their turn.
7. Be Unproductive
In our quest for productivity, it’s easy to forget that giving yourself a break from productivity is a part of being productive. We need rest and leisure.
Those times when we have nothing pressing to attend to grant us clarity on what matters to us. Tim Kreider expresses this clearly in his book We Learn Nothing:
Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence, or a vice: It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.
These strategies have helped me move from squandering my time to getting things done and feeling fulfilled in the process.
- Prioritize tasks.
- Eliminate unnecessary tasks.
- Separate shallow work from deep work and set aside time for deep work.
- Start small and work for 25 minutes.
- Complete important tasks during peak energy periods.
- Schedule time for messages and distractions.
- Giving your brain a rest from productivity can be a source of productivity.
Put another way — don’t shift between unimportant & unnecessary, shallow & deep tasks, right after lunch while taking social media breaks in between.
Realistically, as much as we learn and determine to apply, we tend to revert to old habits of taking on too many tasks, distractions, multitasking, and so on.
It’s okay. It’s part of the process. So be patient with yourself.
My reality is I love novelty and am easily distracted. I’ve got to gently guide myself back to what matters.
So, start small. Sit down. Start a timer. Get started. Let that be your goal and build from there.