September 26, 2017

10 Real Productivity Tips for Busy People

How to finally catch up and get everything on your to-do list done

Do you have 1,000 things to get done every day?

Do you feel like you will never catch up with the tasks that need your attention every week? Are you constantly feeling like you just barely got through the day?

Everyone has a lot on their plate, but some people (maybe you) are truly, overwhelmingly busy every single day. If it seems like you can never put in enough hours in a day to get everything done, then it is time to find some ways to relieve that pressure.

If you always feel like you’re falling behind, then you probably are. And that is no way to succeed.

Luckily, there are ways to streamline your days and get more done — without sacrificing work quality or giving up the things that are important to you.

1. Create systems and spaces that set you up for success

Your physical environment has a huge impact on your ability to get things done. If everything has a place, you never have to waste time looking for things. If you have nice pens and paper at the ready, you will always be ready to record important information as it comes in.

This goes for your digital world too. Does your email inbox have 10,000 messages that you have to scan through every time you need to look something up, or do you have folders organized by topic?

The time you spend looking for things every day adds up, and is time that you could otherwise be getting things done. An hour invested here today could save you many more hours in wasted time over the next several months.

2. Set your priorities every week

Your weekly to-do list should be just that: a guide to the most important things you need to do or work on that week. Your priorities shift and change all the time, because teams and information are constantly changing too.

Take time every Sunday night (or whenever you can) to hone in on what is most important for you to accomplish this week. Then plot those items on a daily schedule. Studies have shown that when you actually write down when and where you’ll get something done, you are far more likely to achieve it.

For other goals and priorities — things you want to accomplish by the end of this year, for example — take those off your to-do list. So many people transfer big picture items from week to week in their planners, never making progress on them.

If you do this, you should either:

  • Break that big goal into small steps you can achieve every week, and start incorporating a couple of those steps into your weekly to-do/priority list
  • Create a “this year” to-do list where you store bigger picture ideas — you can also create lists for this month, this quarter, etc depending on how granular you want to get. You can even create a “someday” list for big ideas you have but that don’t make sense to work on yet.

Your weekly schedule is your guide to getting things done. Don’t clutter it with things that are never going to happen this week. Don’t be optimistic. Be realistic.

Take your weekly schedule seriously by only plotting out the most important things that you will get done, and you’ll be much more likely to achieve everything that you want/need to this week.

3. Block off your time on public calendars

Everyone has things they need to get done. And if they need your help to do it, they will ask.

To you, this feels like an interruption. But to them, it is simply the next step they need to complete in order to accomplish their goal. So you do you balance that? How do you help people get things done without sacrificing your productive time or living in constant anxiety that your flow is about to be interrupted?

The best way to claim your important time is to let people know really clearly when you are not available to be interrupted. Blocking off parts of your day for serious, focused work (or even just a quiet lunch break to yourself where you can recharge) on a public calendar is the fastest, most effective way to let people know you are not free to help them.

If it is truly an emergency, they will find a way to get in touch with you. You do not actually need to be available all day “just in case”.

It’s almost never actually an emergency. When people see you’re not available at a certain time, they will try you at a different time when you are available. You have the power to control your time; you just have to be clear about it.

(Another strategy you can try is the reverse of this: block off times on your calendar where you specifically want people to come ask you questions. Think of it like “office hours” at school. If you tell people exactly when you want them to come interrupt you, they won’t choose a random other time throughout the day when you might be focused working on something else.)

4. Set up an email-checking schedule

If you think about it, email is almost always a request from someone else that is asking you to get on their schedule. Whether they want your help, your input, or even just your reply, the simple fact that their email has appeared means suddenly you are on a timeline.

We all know that guilty feeling from avoiding an email we feel we should open — even if we know it isn’t truly urgent or that what we are working on right now is more important. Our brains can’t help but wonder what’s in there and want to react to it.

The best way to stop this distraction (which doesn’t serve you) is to eliminate it. We suggest only checking email once or twice a day — morning, noon, and before you leave for the day.

If you can’t imagine not checking constantly, you can work up to that. Start by only checking every hour, and then slowly add longer and longer increments. People will get used to your timeline (especially if you set up an auto-responder), and if something is truly urgent, they will find a way to get in touch with you.

5. Only attend meetings that require your attendance

One of the biggest time-wasters at work is meetings. Not all meetings are created equal, and not every meeting requires your attendance.

Instead of simply accepting every meeting request, take a moment to consider: do I really need to be at this meeting?

You might not need to be at a meeting if:

  • You could get the same value from reading someone else’s meeting notes
  • You have nothing new/important to contribute
  • Your contributions won’t move the rest of the meeting attendees forward (ie. you are not a decision-maker in this area)
  • You aren’t a key stakeholder on this project/team
  • Another person from your team could just as easily take your place (and if they are junior, perhaps learn something or grow their skills by attending)
  • You don’t have any questions that couldn’t be answered faster in an email to one person
  • You are being invited just because you’ve attended a previous meeting

Of course, there are always exceptions and sometimes it is important to be in a meeting simply to be there and get facetime with certain people. However, this is rarely the case.

If you feel like you don’t need to be at a meeting, try replying with a simple email. Here is an example:

Hi ___,

Thanks for the invite to the upcoming meeting for ___. I wondered if there were something specific you wanted me to contribute to this session, or if I could simply catch up on the meeting notes afterwards?

Thanks,

___

You can alter that template to fit your specific situation; for example, you can ask about sending your manager or other member of your team in your place.

You can also always ask for more information about:

  • the meeting topic
  • what is expected from attendees
  • what decisions will be made in the meeting

When you get answers to those questions, it can help inform you about whether or not you need to be there — and also give you stronger reasons for turning down the invitation.

6. Give junior people an opportunity to contribute

If you are a manager, much of your day is taken up with interruptions from people who need your help. And while helping the people on your team succeed is one of the most important parts of your job, it does not always have to be you who jumps in to save the day.

In fact, giving other people on your team an opportunity to shine is one of the best ways to be a truly great manager. People can never grow their skills if they aren’t given an opportunity to step up.

Next time someone on your team asks for your help with something, think first about if there is someone else who could help them. Maybe last week you helped your team member Anna solve a problem with a software tool; now Mark is having the same problem with that tool. Instead of helping Mark yourself, suggest that he find a time to work with Anna, who has the knowledge that he needs.

This gives Anna an opportunity to take the lead and help a team member, and keeps you from duplicating work that doesn’t need to be done by you again.

7. Try to delegate at least one task from your to-do list this week

Delegating is hard. If you’re really busy, it’s because there are a lot of things that are your responsibility, and giving up control of those tasks is tricky.

However, with a little bit of practice, it gets easier to do. If you never delegate, look for one item on your to-do list this week that you can ask someone else to do. Maybe it is having a member of your team attend a meeting and take notes for you, or maybe it’s asking your babysitter to pick up some groceries during her shift so you can come straight home after work.

While delegating does take some prep work to get the other person ready to help effectively, it saves so much time in the long run. Try it once — you just might like it.

8. Make the most of 5-15 minute chunks of time

There are so many tiny moments every day where you’re waiting around for something to start, where you could be getting things done.

Instead of refreshing your inbox or checking social media when you’re waiting 10 minutes in between meetings, try knocking one small item off your to-do list.

This works best when you actually have a list on hand of the things you can accomplish in 10 minutes when you have the opportunity. This includes things like making one quick phone call, typing up meeting notes, writing a thank you note, signing a document, etc.

Every time you squeeze in one of these tiny projects when you would otherwise just be sitting around, you are freeing up valuable productive time later for more important things. (And ensuring the little things don’t fall through the cracks!)

9. Use productivity techniques that maximize time and focus

Our best work usually happens in small bursts; it takes time to get into the state where good ideas are happening, but once you are there, the good stuff usually happens pretty quickly.

When you don’t have several hours to devote to a project, but you need to make progress, try leveraging a technique that will help you work in smaller productive chunks.

One of these techniques is the Pomodoro technique. It’s easy to do — just set a timer for 25 minutes and work until it goes off. After that, you take a 5 minute break, and then set another 25 minute timer. You can do this once or multiple times; repeat until you finish the project or until you have to move on to something else.

It is a great way to build momentum if you’re having trouble getting started, or to maximize small chunks of time in your day for getting things done.

10. Think about the “why”

This last tip might seem less strategic and useful, but it is actually one of the most important things you can do to streamline your life.

Ask yourself why. Why do you work? Why do you say yes to the projects that you say yes to? What are you working towards and what does it mean to you?

When you understand what motivates you — and most importantly, when you keep that “why” at the front of your mind — you will make better choices about how to spend your time.

It will suddenly become easier to say “no” to things that don’t move you closer to that “why”. You won’t feel as much guilt of “I should be doing ___…” because if that thing doesn’t move you closer to your “why”, then it isn’t really important.

Your why could be anything. It could be supporting your family, or it could be achieving your goal of becoming an executive before you are 30. Different “whys” have different paths, which is why it is so important to understand what yours is.

You can only make smart choices when you know what they are for.

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