February 16, 2017

Real Productivity Tips for 2017

How to actually get through your to-do list this week

A lot of productivity advice sucks.

How many times have you googled “productivity tips” only to find articles suggesting you take a walk or try looking at your work from a new angle?

Not to say those things can’t help get you in a good frame of mind for getting things done — but when I want productivity tips, it’s because I have something that really needs to get done.

That’s why in today’s post, I wanted to share with you JUST strategies and tools that you can use right now to tackle the next big thing on your to-do list.

No fluff. Just tools that really work and get things done. Here they are:

Time blocking

This strategy has been a game changer for me and everyone on our Ink & Volt team. Instead of looking at your to-do list and just getting started, time blocking helps you get super tactical.

It starts with prioritization. Look at everything on your to-do list and ask: what is really important work? You should be asking yourself this question every single week — make it a habit to plan.

Not all work is equal. You want to prioritize the work that is going to make a meaningful impact for you and/or your team. Rank your to-do items in order of importance and value (check back in on your yearly goals or team goals when you’re doing this, to make sure you actually know what is really important – because sometimes what feels important in the moment isn’t actually tactically moving you closer to real goals).

Then look at your week. You’re going to literally block out time for your top priorities — get super specific about when each thing will get done every single day.

Be realistic about what you can do. This is where most of us get into trouble — we schedule more than we can realistically do, which leads to failure again and again. Really, most of us can only get 1-2 big things done every day. Don’t over-schedule your time blocks.

I think of myself as a fast writer, but actually, a blog post will usually take me a full morning to write. With time blocking, I’ll fill in the “Morning” block of my weekly planning pages in my Volt Planner with “write blog post”. In the afternoon, I tend to slow down a bit. I’ll block off 1 hour each for smaller tasks that take less energy that I need to knock off my list.

When it comes time on your schedule to go to a new task, it is time to focus on that task. No email, no distractions. Time blocking works because it allows you to comfortably focus on completing one task at a time, because everything important has a dedicated block of time. No need to be interrupted or distracted — you know everything will get done in its right time.

Adjust your time blocks as you get new information. Things change all the time. Don’t feel stuck or discouraged if something ends up taking way longer than you thought it would. Just look at your remaining time blocks prioritize: what can move? What can be shortened? Where can you make space or punt something for later?

Pomodoro timing

During your blocks of time for focused work, you might find that you can’t…well, focus.

This happens to the best of us. But instead of getting discouraged, use the Pomodoro technique to make it nearly impossible not to get things done, little by little.

In the Pomodoro technique, you set a timer for 25 minutes and work. Do whatever you can. Google a question. Write a sentence. Look up a phone number. Sketch out a design. (If you don’t have a timer you like, there are plenty of beautiful apps that can do the same thing!)

The key is to take action during this time — because 25 minutes isn’t that long. It’s not like staring at a huge project and wondering how you’re ever going to get it all done. All you have to worry about is 25 minutes. You can work for 25 minutes, easily. You can do just one thing.

Once your first 25 minutes is over, if you want, you can set your timer for a 5 minute break. After your break, set your timer for another 25 minutes.

If, by the end of your 25 minutes, though, you’ve gotten into the zone — then just keep working! Set another 25 minutes on the timer, and get back to it.

Once you start working — no matter how small the step you take is — it’s almost always easier to just keep going. The starting is the hard part! Pomodoro gets you going in bite-sized, manageable doses so that you can kickstart your productivity.

Shut off the internet

If you really need to focus and just get something done, there is nothing like leaving yourself no other option but to get it done.

I am easily distracted. If I navigate away from my task for any reason — even if it’s to look something up related to my project — I almost always end up looking at more than I need to, checking my email, popping over to a news site…

Of course, completely unplugging might seem scary or even unrealistic. After all, sometimes you *do* need to google something in order to make progress on your work. So leave your phone on! You don’t have to go extreme in order for this to be effective — in fact, it’s better to feel like you’re under realistic constraints, not impossible ones, since you’re more likely to stick to a plan that feels possible. (But maybe put your phone on silent or “do not disturb” mode, so you’re not interrupted unnecessarily).

That way, you know you have an outlet for looking things up and you’re not stressed about what you’re missing. But having your computer screen clear — completely clear — of any option for distraction will make it just a little bit harder to mindlessly drift away. And usually, one small hurdle is all you need in order to stop yourself from the passive drift towards distraction.

Write out the steps you need to take

Progress comes to a screeching halt when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Staring down a huge project can make you feel like you don’t even know where to start — and your lack of progress only makes that feeling more real.

But you do know where to start. If I were to tell you that I wanted to you to build me a television from scratch, even if you have no idea how to do that, you actually do know how to *start*.

First you might google the different parts that make up a television. You could then google where each of those parts comes from, or diagrams of how they are put together. Or you might start by asking me what size television I want, if I want it to be color or black and white, etc. Or maybe you’d look up a book about electronics to start building foundational knowledge.

The point isn’t that you have all the answers at the beginning. The point is that you start somewhere, and every step leads you closer to your goal.

The next time you are stuck, write down the super granular steps you need to take to make progress. Make them super small and achievable. You don’t even have to outline the whole project; maybe just list the steps you need to take in order to complete phase 1 or in order to be ready for your next meeting.

Set boundaries to stop interruptions

If you’re stalling out on progress because of interruptions, the problem you need to solve is how to stop the interruptions. It might feel impossible (because really, it is impossible to be completely 100% uninterrupted every single day), but you can actually do a lot to guard your time.

  • Use an email autoresponder. If you are bombarded by emails, relieve some of the pressure by letting people know you can’t get back to them right away. You can either do this on a permanent basis, or just for one project here and there as needed. Keep it short and sweet, like: “Thanks for your email! I am busy working on ____, and so I am only checking my email a couple of times a day. It may take me a little while to get back to you, but I will return your message as soon as I can. If you need to get in touch urgently, you can call me at ____.”
  • Leave your normal location. If you get interrupted a lot by people dropping by your desk, leave your desk. Go to a conference room or even a coffee shop; anyone who *really* needs to talk to you can get in touch by phone or email, and you’ll limit the distractions of people who are stopping by with non-urgent issues.

Practice focus

At the end of the day, your productivity depends on your commitment to it! The more you are willing to invest in freeing up your time and energy for the work that really matters, the more of it you will get done.

It’s not always easy, but it is possible. What do you do to get things done every day? Do you have favorite productivity strategies that you use when you’re in a crunch? Let us know on Facebook!

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