Since launching The Spark Notebook, I’ve been having tons of conversations with smart people about productivity.
And one thing I have heard over and over again is that it seems like almost all of us are in a rut where, at the end of the week, we are looking at a long list of things we thought we’d get done this week — that we never even got close to starting.
So what is going on? Why don’t we get more done?
It turns out that it’s not just that people are procrastinating or not completing tasks as efficiently as possible. A lot of missed targets happen because it is actually just really hard to plan your day effectively when you’re living in the real world.
In the real world, there are always distractions and emergencies that pull us away from the things we know we need to get done. As much as we might try to plan our time to avoid them, they always happen because we just can’t control the future or the people around us. People need help, problems come up, and sometimes it’s just your job to step away from what you’re doing and make sure work can keep moving for everyone.
So if you can’t stop the distractions, how can you get more done every day? Is the only answer working longer hours?
No. There is a better way.
How to plan a day where you get more done
One of the most effective tools for getting more done every day is planning.
I know, I know — you’re already planning your days and you’re still falling behind on stuff. But that’s because you’re not planning your days in the right way.
Too many of us are too idealistic when it comes to plotting out our weeks. We conveniently forget how rare it is to get a free 2-hour chunk to work on something without interruption. We assume that if we “work really hard”, we can get way more done in an hour than we usually do.
So how can you plan your day like a superstar, and start getting more done without adding more hours to your day? Try these steps:
Do a ninja planning session every week
Every week, I do a Monday Ninja Planning Session where I look at my week as a whole and determine where I should be spending my time.
Priorities change all the time (especially at work), and so by looking big picture once a week, you can make sure you are still working towards the most important, most current goals.
It’s also helpful for beginning to plan your week, day-to-day. You can make a note of any appointments and begin to generally plan your days around the non-negotiables.
It’s great to regularly touch base with big goals and get a sense of how you’ll be spending your week, so that you can communicate your plans with your manager and your team. That way, expectations are set and you can get feedback and make sure your plans make sense for everybody else.
Stop going day-by-day (or hour-by-hour!)
It’s almost always more useful to pull back once or twice a week and make sure you are still moving towards big picture goals, than to try to plan your days down to the hour.
When you’re going day-by-day, your view can sometimes be too narrow to include the most important or newest things on your list. Priorities change all the time and goals are always moving targets. If you’re only looking at yesterday to determine what you’re doing today, you’re not looking at enough data.
Instead, it’s better to look at big picture goals and then choose daily tasks that align with and move your team closer to those goals (rather than just working on goals that were important yesterday).
And to plan out those tasks? It’s most efficient to use…
Time blocking is a way of planning your day that allows for interruptions and shifts that always occur, without completely knocking you off your schedule.
Sure, it’s nice to block off two hours for sketching our product designs. But if you get interrupted from that, and now all of a sudden it’s 4 o’clock, and your schedule says you’re now supposed to be drafting a client email — well, are you going to get your sketching done or are you going to do that email? Now all of a sudden, you are either skipping or delaying things that you had previously committed yourself to doing.
With time blocking, you look at your time more realistically.
Every day, I pick 2-3 big things that I need to get done. I usually plan to do 1-2 in the morning (when I have the most energy) and I plan to do the remaining thing in the afternoon.
That way, if I get interrupted, I am not thrown off for the rest of the day. I just go back to what I had planned. If something takes longer than expected, I adjust my remaining time blocks — which is easy, since there’s usually only 1-2 blocks to move or push back.
As you pick the tasks you plan to get done every day, don’t forget to be realistic about how much you can get done.
It’s easy to get idealistic when you’re filling out your planner while you’re lying in bed on Sunday night; it’s harder to follow through on superhero-levels of productivity when you’re actually at your desk Monday morning.
Be realistic about your energy levels and work speeds. Don’t set yourself up to fail with unrealistic expectations. You’ll only frustrate yourself, and let other people down by setting deadlines you won’t be able to meet.
Create a “do this next” list
One thing that is great about time-blocking is that it creates lots of little moments where you’ve gotten something done and you are free to work on the next most important thing. (Yay!)
And the beauty of this free time is that, instead of being pre-scheduled, you can determine right then what the next most important thing to work on is.
It allows you to set goals based on current information, rather than predictions or hopes.
The only challenge with it is that sometimes it can be hard to know what the next best priority is. To combat this, once a week you should create a “do this next” list.
You want to make sure that all the work you do is having a valuable impact, so making a list of less-urgent priorities to work on when you have free time is the best way to make sure that your time is well spent.
You should never be wondering what to work on next — in the moment, more often than not, you won’t pick the right, most impactful thing. It’s better to lay out, in order, things that are good for you to work on in advance, so that in the moment all you have to do is consult your list and then get to work.
Take advantage of 15-minute chunks with bonus productivity
We lose so much time to the lag periods in between meetings, after lunch, or even commuting. It’s easy to think, “Gosh, I only have 15 minutes before my next meeting. I can’t get something done in that time, so I’ll just check Twitter or go over my notes until the meeting starts.”
But while 15 minutes isn’t usually enough time to get something done, it is plenty of time to make progress on something.
Just because you can’t necessarily complete a task in 15 minutes doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make that time productive.
(And don’t spend your 15 minutes just checking up on email. Email almost always adds to your to-do list, and it puts you on someone else’s schedule or dealing with someone else’s priorities. Use your free time for your own priorities, not adding other people’s to your list.)
Get a jumpstart on work that you’d otherwise have to take from start to finish later, by working in small chunks when you get a chance.
There’s no need to add extra hours on to the beginning or end of your day to get more done; just take advantage of the time you’ve already got, and start using all of it!
This time adds up every day — especially if you’re someone who spends a lot of time in meetings or going from place to place, you may accumulate hours’ worth of 15-minute chunks each day.
Don’t waste them.
How will you maximize the upcoming week?
We created the Spark Notebook to make this weekly planning process streamlined, simple, and beautiful.
Consistent planning and a realistic approach to your energy and efforts is the best way to get more done every day. Make it easy for yourself to make the right choice and to get more done.
What are your best tips for staying productive? How do you make sure you get more done every day?