Productivity is About Choices

I’m often asked what the secret to productivity is. In my experience the secret is the ability to make, and stick to, choices about how you spend your time.

Making choices about how you spend your time enables you to spend more time on the things that are most important. However, lots of people get stuck in the trap of dealing with things that are urgent or not important, and often things that are both of these things.

Productivity is very important to me. Not only does it help me keep focussed on where I want to go and what I want to achieve but being productive enables me to achieve more in a shorter space of time. This frees up time for my family caring responsibilities. Here are the things I do;

  • Provide caring for two family members — generally around 40 hours per week (daytime hours)
  • Board member for public sector organisation requiring attendance at regular meetings and lots of work/research inbetween
  • Run my own business doing project managment and freelance work
  • Work for holiday company taking 4–5 overseas trips per year of approx 2 weeks each
  • Run website and online marketing for recovery vehicle business
  • President of local Toastmasters public speaking group

Combining all these things each week means I need to make the most of the time I have to work, to be the most productive I can be. Just for clarity I don’t work past 7pm at night and I don’t work before 7am in the morning. Here are some of the things I do to ensure I’m as productive as possible;

  • Schedule in quiet focussed single tasking time as often as possible first thing in the morning
  • Minimise distractions
  • Ensure my working area is set up for working and I know my most important tasks
  • Take a long break during the day and walk the dogs for 45 minutes
  • Eat and drink regularly throughout the day
  • Schedule reading and researching activities for the afternoon
  • Avoid meetings whenever possible
  • Link my day to day activity to my goals

Let me take you through each of the above in a bit more detail so you can see what I do to make them work.

Schedule in quiet focussed single tasking time as often as possible first thing in the morning

Despite previously being a bit of a night owl I realised that the time I actually get most done is first thing in the morning. Whilst getting out of bed can sometimes still be a struggle the feeling of flying through my work is addictive enough that I can push past the love of my bed and get up. I schedule in focussed working time as often as I can in the morning. I generally work from 7.30am to 11.30am with a couple of breaks for breakfast and exercise inbetween. I’ve been able to build up to longer spells of single tasking over time. I’m still surprised by how quickly tasks are completed when working in this way.

Minimise distractions

Working from home meant that family were often the number one distraction. They often popped round or rang up. New rules mean they aren’t allowed around the house until after 11.30am, unless it’s urgent of course. My phone is on do not disturb (except for family members) until that time. I don’t check my emails and I don’t have any notifications on my computer about emails arriving, social media etc.

Ensure my working area is set up for working and I know my most important tasks

My working is kept clear. The night before I am going to be working I tidy my workspace and put out just the things I need for my most important tasks the next day. This is another way to prevent distraction. I know my most important tasks because I allocate one or two to each focussed working session. I work on these first and complete them before doing anything else.

Take a long break during the day and walk the dogs for 45 minutes

This has been the hardest step for me to make stick. However, now I miss not going for a walk so it’s much easier to do regularly. This time is great for reflecting on things, appreciating the day and getting exercise everyday also helps me sleep better which also makes me more productive.

Eat and drink regularly throughout the day

In the past I often worked so much I forgot to eat and drink, only when I was starting to feel faint would I remember that I hadn’t had anything and by that time I would be so hungry I would eat more than I needed. Eating regularly through the day helps me stabilise my energy levels and avoid the mid afternoon dip I previously experienced. Now I think of food as fuel that I need to perform effectively, this also helps me make better choices about what I eat and drink.

Schedule reading and researching activities for the afternoon

From experience I know that my energy levels are different in the afternoon. Reading and researching is easier then than focussed complex work. I also use this time for lighter work such as administration. Previously I didn’t schedule in time for reading and research and used to try and do this in the evenings, however I found it difficult to absorb information to the same degree.

Avoid meetings whenever possible

There’s a great joke that says if you are sick of work go to a meeting. I’m sure we can all recall meetings that didn’t achieve very much and feeling like we wasted our time. Meetings account for the 2nd biggest demand on our time, after emails, and it’s easy to spend all our time at meetings but not achieve very much at all. I’m pretty ruthless about meetings — I won’t go unless I have a clear understanding of what we are trying to achieve (and that’s important to me). I avoid meetings that are based on “catching up” as I can do that another way. I won’t attend meetings without a proper agenda, because they aren’t meetings, they are just chats. I will use the phone and online as ways to avoid meetings. I have to say I’m a bit of the odd one out at present. Meetings make us feel busy and involved, but they can also be huge time drainers.

Link my day to day activity to my goals

For me the motivation that keeps me focussed is knowing that I am making progress on my goals. At the beginning of the year I break down my goals for the year into steps, firstly into quarters and then into months. Each month I take these steps and allocate them to focussed working time slots. I don’t have to worry about the big goals because I know I have the steps covered to get there, all I need to focus on is the step I am doing that day or that week. This keeps my motivation high. Knowing what I am working towards also helps me to say no to things more easily — things that don’t fit with the direction I am headed in for example.

Choices Are Tough

Making choices can be difficult. Working on my goals has required me to make choices about not doing some things I really enjoy. However, the payoff is that by not doing those things now when I achieve my goals I can do them much more — short term pain for long term gain.

Making choices also requires energy. We have enough decisions to make already so it can seem daunting to make more choices about how we are going to spend our time, our energy and our focus. Whilst this is harder initially it then becomes much easier as you become more connected with your goals. You’ll be amazed at how easily you can say no to all sorts of things!

Making choices involves making decisions and in my experience it’s this that people often avoid. A previous colleague of mine struggled with saying no as he felt he was letting people down. As a result he said yes to everything and then became completely overwhelmed. He then couldn’t cope with everything he had said yes to and had to say no to things at the last minute.

Becoming more productive is a skill. It requires learning, development, practice and application.

What choices are you going to make about your productivity?