How productive are you?

What I mean is how much stuff do you get done, is it the right stuff, and how much time and energy does it take (or give you)?

If I were to grade myself on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest, then I’ve been as low as 2-3 and as high as 8-9 when it comes to productivity. Sometimes in the same day!

Getting the Right Stuff Done

I’ve always been best at the first part: getting things done. Give me a task, and I can grind it out and get to a result or produce a finished product that’s at a high standard. It might even be perfect.

But in my case, it’s not always the right stuff that gets done.

That’s because I find it hard to resist the latest fire to fight. I like challenge, racing the clock, and getting things accomplished. Then going “ta-da!” as I unveil my finished opus and get a pat on the head. All of which makes it harder for me to be discerning about what I take on, and not just do what pops up in front of me.

In fact, for most of my career, I was so immersed in the battle of the moment that I didn’t come up for air to think about whether it made sense for me to spend that extra 3 hours at the office, much less whether someone else could do it better or whether it needed to be done at all. And that’s the case even though I always tried to be the best I could be.

Related to that, the amount of time and effort I was willing to devote was pretty much infinite. It was about getting the thing done and done “right”, whatever the cost. You know that “point of diminishing returns”? Well, let’s just say that’s a space I know well!

It’s like being in battle when the commander says, “take that hill,” and I’m off sprinting to get it done whatever the cost. I would have made a great foot soldier.

The Low End of Productivity

When I’m doing things that matter and using my special strengths, I can easily get to an 8 or 9. But by the same token, you can see how easy it is to dip down to a 2 or 3.

The thing is, the more time you spend at that low end of the productivity scale, the more likely you are to stay there.

Regularly redoubling your efforts to do things that don’t move the needle uses up your valuable time and energy. It creates a vicious cycle that’s exhausting. And that won’t lead to a satisfying life or career.

Be Intentional

Instead, what I’ve learned the hard way is that you need to stop and be intentional about what you choose to do, how you choose to do it, and how to improve.

How about you? How are you going to be better next week? Next month? Next year?

It won’t happen by accident. It’s all about being on purpose. That’s the basis for creating productive habits that work for you and not against you.

Productivity Strategies that Work

What works for one person may be different from what works for another. The key is to find the productivity strategies and tools that will work for you.

Even with the most rigorous research-based advice, it’s about translating that into your daily life and implementing and improvising.

You have to try different things and see what works for you.

With that caveat, here are four categories of things I’ve done that have helped me to be more productive.

To manage my energy

  • Take a break and go outside. Whenever things got a bit overwhelming and my energy was flagging, it worked wonders for me to go for a walk outside and breathe some fresh air, feel the wind and sun on my face. Go for your 20 minutes in the sun. It’s better than having more caffeine.
  • Exercise. This was essential once I hit the age of 40. Before I started exercising, I had all sorts of back and neck problems. But once I built 20-30 minutes of exercise into my day, my body and mind both felt better. For me, it was optimal to do it in the morning before work before the day got away from me. Or sometimes I fit it in at lunchtime by taking a run outside. Remember, doing something is better than doing nothing.

To beat procrastination and just get started

  • Do just 5 minutes. When our kids had piano lessons and didn’t want to practice, we’d tell them to practice for just 5 minutes and then they could go out and play. Once they sat down for 5 minutes, they usually kept going for another 10-15 minutes because they got engrossed. Turns out that worked for me at the office too. So if there’s something you’ve been putting off until you have more time, get started by doing “just 5 minutes”.
  • Break it into smaller tasks. That made projects seem less monolithic and I could more easily fit the tasks into smaller chunks of time. And sometimes it would be more efficient as parts of the bigger task could require different activities and use different parts of my brain. For example, conceptualizing the outline versus doing the research. It also made it easier for me to delegate pieces rather than hold onto the whole project and block the team’s progress.
  • Use time slivers. Related to breaking things into smaller tasks, I learned from my father that it can boost productivity significantly if you use those “in between” times. Sometimes these slivers of time are expected, like the time between meetings or when you’re waiting in the dentist’s office. Other times they’re not, like being stuck in traffic in the back of a taxi. But you can be prepared. Whether it’s a book to read, a pad and pen to jot thoughts, or a document to edit, I always liked to have something with me just in case.

To get out of my own way

  • The Mantra. One of the biggest obstacles to my productivity was what went on in my head. You know, negative self-talk. Worry. Fear. Perfectionism. Procrastination. The whole lot. Putting together a mantra – a set of sentences to say to myself – and saying it regularly to myself throughout the day helped me become more confident and no longer consumed by doubt.
  • Write it down. It helped me to write down everything I was worried about. Getting it out from my mind and onto paper made it less daunting and took a lot of the power out of the things I feared. Then I could move forward and be productive.
  • Talk it through with someone. I think better when I’m working with others. So if I needed to figure out the best option out of the many ideas bubbling in my mind, I would stroll down to a colleague or team member’s office for a brainstorming session.

To concentrate and focus

  • Hide away. When I needed to concentrate, it often helped me to have a change of scenery and go to a place where I was not going to be interrupted. That meant working in a conference room away from my phone and desk, which forced me to concentrate. When you do this, make sure your assistant or boss knows how to reach you, but make sure he or she only contacts you in an emergency.
  • Clear the desk. Being easily distracted, I found it hard to work when there was a swamp of papers on my desk. I needed a clean, clear surface to work on and would start with that. As a caveat, this worked well for making me productive in the moment, but it wasn’t a long-term solution since I ended up moving everything into piles elsewhere in my office, which I’ll get to in a minute.
  • Do something physical. I found that doing a short, sharp burst of physical activity really reset my brain so I could concentrate. For me, it could be jumping jacks, push ups, dancing to music, sprinting down a stretch of sidewalk, bouncing on a Swiss Ball. Anything that got my blood pumping and oxygen flowing. It may be a different version for you, and as they say, “consult your doctor before engaging in any physical activity”!

What Doesn't Work (at least for me…)

Equally important to finding things that work for you is to know what doesn't (at least not yet) so you can stop beating yourself up about it.

Two things I tried but haven’t yet worked for me have been:

  • Eliminating interruptions. I’ve always been easily distracted and frankly welcome distractions as a form of procrastination. It’s amazing that I consistently seem to need another cup of tea, to go to the bathroom, take a walk to get fresh air (that one’s okay). In the end, I stopped fighting this and allowed myself to use those opportunities to take breaks, which has been proven to help productivity.
  • Keeping my office tidy. What can I say? I like to “dump and run”, filing is not my thing, and I don’t trust others to do it for me. But I haven’t given up. Here’s my current attempt: I’ve got someone who’s a great organizer and who I trust (my daughter) and she is helping me get my office space set up for greater productivity. So, stay tuned!

Work Smarter, Not Harder

If you want to be more productive and work smarter, collaborate smarter, and lead smarter, then join the Work Smarter Summit.

The Work Smarter Summit is a free virtual event on how to do more great work, make more money, and enjoy more of your life. I’ll be sharing my advice alongside 40 thought leaders who are the best in the world of leadership, management, teamwork, and personal productivity.

Each speaker will share powerful strategies that helped them excel in their career, and proven tactics that you can apply to find similar success. The insights on this summit can change how you work for the better.

My interview airs on Wednesday, February 22nd – you won’t want to miss it!

Register for the free Work Smarter Summit here

(Note: If you can't make each session of the Summit, but want the benefits of all this knowledge, then get the All Access Pass. You'll be able to watch and study all of the powerful sessions on your own time. Just make sure to get the All Access Pass right away to get the best value since the price goes up on Monday February 20th.)

What productivity strategies and tools work for you? Leave a comment below and let me know.