We are all familiar with the days where it seems like time just flies by and we have very little to show for it. If you are self-employed or run your own business, it’s likely that you have experienced the struggle of being productive vs being busy at least a few times. This article aims to outline some of the best tools and techniques that I have learned in the past few years that have helped me to dramatically increase my productivity at crucial times.
1: Get your priorities straight.
Very often we have a to do list of task that we know need doing, but we don’t always do them in an order the produces the best outcomes. It’s easy to start giving tasks a high priority because we tell ourselves they are urgent, when in actual fact they are just the easiest ones to complete so we do all of these first and are often left with all of the tasks that take the most effort and attention at the end of the day. These tasks then get put off until tomorrow because we feel like we don’t have the energy or concentration to complete them and so the cycle continues.
In his book “The productivity ninja” Graham Allcott proposes that there are 3 types of attention; Proactive attention, active attention and inactive attention. Proactive being the most important and inactive referring to a very minimal level of attention used for basic tasks. Allcott suggest that we should give our tasks a priority based on the level of attention they are likely to require rather than how important you perceive them to be (assuming all of the tasks on the list are fairly high priority and need to be completed in the near future).
It may not always be the best idea to complete the “high attention” tasks first though, I have found that a better approach is to delegate tasks to specific times throughout the day when you have the most focus and energy. This can be worked out by using a journal to track times of the day where you feel the most productive, for example, the least productive for most of us is generally after lunch when we have a mid afternoon slump.
The second way to ensure you are working on tasks that produce the desired results is to use the 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto principle. This rule states that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts and is one that if you don’t have prior knowledge of, you have probably experienced at some point in your life. Although I was already aware of this rule before reading the four hour work week, I think Tim Ferriss adds some important questions to accompany this principle. Ferris says that when looking at your most important tasks you should ask yourself “If this was the only thing I accomplished today, would I be happy?” as well as “Will moving this forward make all the other to-do’s unimportant or easier to knock off later?”. These may seem simple ideas but have actually completely changed the way I look at my priorities and the way I work throughout a typical day.
“If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any” – Jim Collins
If you are used to having to do lists that are 2 pages long, the thought of only having three might seem pretty daunting. However by asking these questions and finding the 20% of to do’s that are going to give you 80% of your results, it forces your brain to think differently about your tasks and in turn will create a new way of looking at things.
A technique that I often find very useful to combine with the 80/20 rule is one that Tony Robbins refers to as “chunking”. This is where we group our to do’s in to more general categories, giving us less detail to focus on and more of the end goal. We could have groups such as “Finance”, “design”, “website” and within those groups could be specific tasks. This prevents us from feeling stressed and overwhelmed as the human mind can only concentrate on a certain number of things at once. As soon as you start trying to focus on more than one or two things, this is when you start to feel stressed.
2: Automate or delegate – can you get someone else to do it?
What is the difference between the most successful people in the world who lead some of the most influential companies and the people who work 12 hour days and still don’t get the results they want? Well obviously there are a few, but in the context of productivity the main thing that differentiates the two groups of people is that the former have a team of people working for them who believe in what they do and execute tasks effectively and efficiently and the later try to do everything themselves and get burned out.
You may be familiar with outsourcing and you may have already tried it or think it is a waste of time, but for those of you who haven’t and maybe just think it is only for big companies or high-powered CEOs, I want to share this process with you and show you how you can be as productive as some of the most successful people in the world. The concept is quite simple; either delegate or automate the tasks that you don’t enjoy doing or that are repetitive and can be done easily by someone else. The first part is about creating a process for as many things as possible that recur in your day-to-day activities so that they require much less of our input. Some examples of this could be checking emails, sending invoices and organising documents. The more repetitive the task, the easier it will be to create a process and a system which ensures they take up the minimal amount of our time. The second part is about giving tasks to other people. This might seem like a big move at first and you may be hesitant to entrust other people with important jobs but rest assured, with the right amount of research and a few Skype calls it’s easy to find a team of virtual assistance that handle these things with ease on a daily basis.
By doing this, you will find you have more time to be creative and focus on the things that fulfil and motivate you and less time getting stressed or caught up in remedial tasks. Most of these tasks are essential if you want to build a lifestyle doing the work you love, but by implementing the tools and techniques I am discussing in this article, you won’t be stressing out about them anymore. Here is a diagram which illustrates the process of eliminating and delegating task:
If you want to find out more about this process and using contractors and virtual workers, 2 books I would highly recommend are The four hour work week by Tim Ferriss and Virtual Freedom by Chris Ducker. It takes a while to get used to the fact that your staff are potentially in another country and timezone and like any recruitment process it has its risks, but by following some simple guidelines you can make your life a whole lot easier, less stressful and more productive.
3: Procrastinate wisely.
Lets be honest, we often find ourselves procrastinating at some point during the day. It is something that I believe to be an essential part of being productive as we can’t be working constantly for 8 hours of the day, we aren’t robots. However it comes down to when and how you procrastinate that will affect how much you achieve. There has been lots of books written about productivity and how to not get distracted but my favourite philosophy is from the Four Hour Workweek (again). Ferris talks about the concept of being busy for the sake of busy and convincing yourself you are making progress just because you are doing things. When you are feeling busy, what is it you are actually achieving? Are you moving exponentially closer to your goal or are you finding things that are easy and pleasurable to do in order to avoid the more important things?
I believe we must not beat ourselves up over procrastination and distractions and we must tell ourselves it is ok to procrastinate. However, the crucial factor revolves around how and when you procrastinate. If you are aware you are procrastinating and you allow yourself time to do it, that is fine. However if you are using being busy as a reason to not do the important things then this is where we fall into the trap of being busy to feel productive. It’s not necessarily a lack of resources or time that stop us from being productive, it is a lack of attention. We have a limited amount of decisions that we can make throughout the day before we feel tired and burned out. I’m sure you are familiar with the situation that arises where you feel as if you have a million things to do but can’t decide which one to focus on, you end up not doing much because you spend all of your time making decisions about each one and how important they are. In behavioural psychology this is often referred to as decision fatigue and there are many theories that support the theory that we have a limited amount of choices throughout the day before our brain gets tired and starts making bad ones. You can read more about it in this white paper if you are interested.
4: Create a plan and go back to school.
This brings me nicely to my next point which is about planning. Being artistically creative often lends itself to being quite disorganised and a dislike for routine, I often hate planning my day and deciding what I am going to do in advance as it feels restricting, which is sort of the opposite to being creative. However this is because I was looking at it in the wrong way and wasn’t scheduling in time specifically for creativity or relaxation as well as looking at the time as a habit rather than a ritual. Being productive is about creating a balance between getting things done and focusing on specific tasks as well as having time to relax, create and play. If I’m not productive or particularly creative in these time periods then that’s fine, they are more like breaks or “free time” like in college where you can essentially do what you want. In order to avoid the pitfalls of decision fatigue, I often have a good idea of what I want to work on in that time before I start, otherwise we just go back to not deciding what to choose and then before I know it its time to move on to something else.
The object of the game is not to be productive, its to give me the contrast from the rigid structure that is present throughout the rest of the day. This means I still have a good balance of creativity and don’t feel frustrated or restricted. It is a bit of a generalisation to say that creative people are disorganised but I think it is fair to say that being self-employed or running a business means that you have to make much more effort to be organised than someone in full-time work who often gets their daily tasks predetermined for them.
My favourite app for scheduling my day is 30/30 which allows you to colour code and give symbols to each activity as well as having a countdown timer. It’s quite primary but that’s what I love about it and I often try to give the task a color depending on the feeling or the overall outcome will produce. This is one of the best techniques I have discovered as it ensures you don’t get bogged down in the details and you keep your motivation levels up throughout the day. The reason this is so effective in helping you achieve specific tasks is that it utilises the power of Parkinson’s Law which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” which basically means if you give a task a set time period, you will do it with in that time period even if it should have taken more or less time.
5: Give meaning to your tasks and focus on the bigger picture
Why are you doing this? What do you want to achieve?
Last but not least, one of the best ways to get through the grit and make those gruelling tasks more enjoyable is to keep the bigger picture in mind. Ask yourself “what do I want to achieve with this task?, what is the overall outcome that I am moving towards?” you are forcing yourself to look at the bigger picture and associate the task with a reward or goal and ultimately and emotion. By doing this it actually makes the whole process much easier. I’m sure you were familiar with this concept as a child but maybe weren’t aware of it. How many times did your parents manage to get you do to something by associating it with a pleasurable reward or task? If you get an A in your maths exam we can go to Disney land! All of a sudden maths seemed more bearable. I will be the first to admit this isn’t exactly an innovative method but it is however something we don’t do often enough. Our own incentives are great but often the gap between the incentive and the goal is so big it almost feels irrelevant. It is important to make sure that what we are doing in our day-to-day activities are closely linked to a goal which we can visualise and actually see results in the near future, not just our bigger goals. Not only does this help us to stay focused and motivated, it ensures that the tasks we are doing are relevant and are moving us towards, not away from where we want to be.
I’m sure you have heard of SMART goals (Specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time bound) but how often do you look at your goals in the context of this acronym? Are your goals actually specific or are they quite general? Can you measure the progress of them rather than just being able to tick them off a list when they are done? Are they achievable in a reasonable time frame? If we have too many tasks where the end goal is months down the line its far too easy to lose motivation. Are they relevant? This comes back to the 80/20 rule again. Are these goals moving you closer to your dream or towards the lifestyle you want to live? Or are they just goals that you have put there because someone has told you its important or you are using them to distract yourself? Finally is the goal time bound? Does it have a specific deadline? If you don’t give yourself a deadline in the near future that your brain can contemplate, you will not take action towards this goal until it is much closer to the time. Use Parkinson’s law to your advantage!
There is a lot to think about in this article but it doesn’t mean you have to try every method at once, some may work for you and some may not, the important thing is that you think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Don’t just write down things that come into your head, make a list and start from the top. Think about the 80/20 rule, plan your day and give meaning to your tasks, keep your goals at hand so you can refer to them and remember why you are doing them, but most importantly make sure they are SMART.
Hopefully these points have given you some food for thought and saved you several hours of reading and extracting this information for yourselves. I know there are lots of people out there who are interested in productivity and I would love to hear some of the tools and techniques you use so please share your thoughts and advice in the comments below.