In my personal quest for productivity, I’ve tried many tips, tools, strategies and apps. Some have stuck but most have not.
For example, anything that requires me to be online 100% of the time just doesn’t work since I travel so much. If I can’t use it on the plane, it’s not much use.
The good news is that I’ve found a few that have stood the test of time.
In the spirit of sharing what I know to help you be your best, here are three strategies that are helping me most. Maybe they’re worth exploring for you, too.
Productivity Strategy 1: Planning Ahead
One of my issues, or shall I say “opportunities”, is that I like being busy. I just like doing things. Crossing off items from my “to do” list, whether or not they’re relevant. I’ve even written down completed tasks on my “to do” list just so that I could cross them off.
Getting tasks done feels hugely satisfying in the moment – sort of like being a short-order cook who’s able to keep up with the breakfast rush. But I often ended the day disappointed that I hadn’t done some of things that I really wanted (or needed) to do.
That’s why I’ve adopted the strategy of planning ahead. And I’m doing it in two ways.
On a macro or overarching basis, I’ve been planning out my longer-term goals and then working back to what that means in terms of medium-term milestones and near-term actions.
This means I’m able to focus on doing the right things instead of whatever popped up in my inbox most recently or whoever shouts loudest.
The tool I’ve chosen to use is the Self Journal from Best Self Co. This paper journal has become part of my daily routine. It’s forced me to write down my priorities for the day as well as what I want to accomplish during the quarter and create linkages between the two.
The Self Journal also encourages me to start and end each day by writing down what I’m grateful for. Since it’s impossible to be grateful and stressed at the same time, writing down my gratitude automatically starts my day off right.
While the macro planning is about what I do, micro planning is about how I do it. This means setting an intention for each activity before taking action so I can execute more efficiently.
Here’s how it works. I take out a 3 x 5 index card and write the name of the project at the top. Then I write down my intention for that task, which for me is usually “get to done”. As a perfectionist, the most important thing for me is simply to finish the task at hand without getting caught up in endlessly revising and doing extra research.
Depending on your tendencies and tasks, you might set a completely different intention, like “focus on the strategic aspects” or “create a win-win outcome”. And if you’re using this on an activity that relates to spending time with family, an intention might be something like, “create a joyful birthday experience for Jane”.
After setting my intention for the activity, I write down the action steps to take. This part is essential to the planning process. It’s where you do the pre-thinking, which saves time later because you can then simply execute.
Here’s an example of one of my index cards:
The key is to write down every single action step no matter how small. That way, there’s no room for debate or hesitation later on. And if you get interrupted, no big deal. You just pick up at the action step where you left off. All the thinking has been done already.
Productivity Strategy 2: Batching Tasks
One of my other tendencies is to do things right away. My sense of urgency is on overdrive, and I seem to apply it whether or not it’s needed.
Even a small suggestion like “I’m going to need to bring that towel with me tomorrow” during a dinner conversation will send me rushing off to the laundry room. Yes, even when there’s plenty of time to do the wash after the meal. While my immediate action means I won’t forget later, it ruins the mood of dinner – a much more important consideration.
What my team members have taught me is that it’s much more efficient to batch your tasks. This means grouping similar activities together. Like doing all your errands at the same time rather than making separate trips to the pharmacy, the supermarket and the dry cleaners. Or doing all your admin tasks together and your creative activities at a different time.
Batching works well because there’s set up time for just about everything. And set up time is both physical and mental. It’s the time it takes to set yourself up to complete a task physically, as well as switching gears mentally.
Take email for example. I used to constantly be checking email at all times of the day (and night!). I didn’t even get to a clean inbox, but it sure sucked a lot of time out of my day.
Now that I batch email activity into 3 or 4 bursts each day, I find that there’s much less distraction and less time wasted on switching tasks. And I can keep my email turned off for most of the day until I’m ready to incur the time to set myself up to be online. That leaves me with a much clearer mind and more time to think and do what’s important.
Productivity Strategy 3: Going Paperless
I love taking notes. Writing things down helps me process ideas and clarify my thinking in a way that typing something into a computer simply does not. (By the way, I was relieved to learn that different parts of your brain light up when you’re writing things down by hand versus typing. I wasn’t just imagining things!)
But the problem with taking notes is that it’s hard to find the relevant piece of paper when you need it, and it means carrying heavy files which is a nightmare for travel. Plus, walking around the office with stacks of paper makes you look more junior and less leaderlike.
This is where Evernote has really saved me. I still get to write notes by hand. Then I just scan them into Evernote where I tag and file so I can find them later within seconds. I can even search for and find text that’s embedded in a picture or PDF.
Plus, everything is in one place so I only have to carry my smartphone, iPad or laptop. And I can access the Evernote App whether or not I have Wi-Fi and then sync across all my devices when I’m back online.
Thanks to Evernote, gone are the days of having to check my luggage so I could use my carry-on allowance for the rolling suitcase that held my paper files (they weighed a ton!). And I’ve got any note or file at my fingertips when a client calls or I need to recall an idea.
When I first downloaded the Evernote app years ago, l couldn’t figure out why people loved it. But that’s because I didn't understand how to use it and didn’t bother to “read the manual”. That all changed last year when I met Evernote Guru, Charles Byrd.
As a 15-year veteran of Silicon Valley and a seasoned project management professional, Charles has worked with thousands of people to save time, simplify their systems, and increase their productivity. Charles showed me how to harness this powerful tool and use it to substantially improve my productivity and bring greater calm into my life.
I’m grateful for what I learned from Charles and hope he can help you too.
More time for more important activities
With these three productivity strategies, I’ve carved out (or more accurately, clawed back) hours of time each week that I can use for more important activities. Like spending time with family, thinking strategically about my business, and reading.
So go ahead and try them out: planning ahead (both macro and micro), batching your tasks, and going paperless. I hope you find them as liberating as I do.
Now, I'd love to hear from you.
What’s your favorite productivity strategy or tool and how do you stay productive?
Leave a comment and let me know – I can always use the gift of time!