What is the difference between being busy and being productive? The ability to stay focused, prioritized, and organized.
Easier said than done in the land of a million distractions, a place called work.
To help ease the burden, I tapped several productivity coaches for their favorite tips and tools for staying on task. I also included a few of my personal favorites from the distraction-addled trenches of digital marketing. Here we go.
1. Nail down your weekly calendar
Live week by week. “Weekly planning is vital for me to be productive and feel accomplished,” says Lori Vande Krol, a productivity expert and consultant. “If I don’t do this, I start to feel overwhelmed and my stress increases.” Do this with Outlook, Google Calendar, iCal, or the scheduling app of your choice.
She also recommends using a paper planner in tandem with digital tools. Jotting notes by hand increases cognitive processing, and there is a certain catharsis that comes with crossing an item off a calendar once it is completed.
Plus, a moleskine planner says you mean business.
2. Schedule time for solo work
Filling your calendar with meetings and appointments is obvious. Setting aside time to get actual work done is not.
“If you haven’t committed time to it, is it really going to happen?” asks Clare Kumar, a professional organizer and executive coach. “Be sure to include solo working sessions in your calendar, it’s your road map for getting things done.”
Now open up Outlook and schedule a bunch of meetings with yourself.
3. Avoid wasted time in meetings
Dedicating time for solo work helps manage your availability. Further this by making the meetings you attend the most efficient use of your time possible.
“Make sure meetings you attend have a written agenda with times assigned to each topic so time is not wasted,” says Shirley Fine Lee, a management consultant and author of RARA! A Meeting Wizard’s Approach.
Meetings will flow faster with a written agenda, and participants know what to prepare and present. It also provides a template for easy note-taking and recording action items.
4. Friday plan & scan
It’s Friday, and the last thing you want to think about is Monday. For Laura Vanderkam, this is the best time to make next week’s plan. “Every Friday I make a priority list for the next week for what I would like to accomplish at work, but also with my family and in my personal life too,” she says.
Setting aside a regular time for planning and prioritization is the key here. “Create a ritual to review and redesign your upcoming week,” adds Clare Kumar. These are things that turn actions into habits, and that’s what you want.
5. Ditch your digital to-do list
Every productivity expert emphasizes the importance of the daily to-do list. Just like the weekly schedule, there are a gazillion apps to manage the things you have to remember to do. I have several; Todoist, Google Keep, Wunderlist ping reminders at me all day, every day. David Allen, the godfather of productivity authors, says I would be better off with pen and paper. It comes back to the cognitive connection of hand-writing notes, and it forces smarter prioritization.
I will admit that tapping a completed digital to-do item with a stylus is hardly as rewarding as scratching it off with a pen.
6. Eat that frog
Lori Vande Krol is a fan of Twain’s famous approach. “My mind is opened up for increased productivity throughout the rest of the day,” she says after getting that one big task out of the way.
There is science behind this wisdom. The two hours after you become fully awake is your most productive time of the day, according to behavioral scientist Dan Arielly. “Spend your most productive, energized, mentally effective time on the challenge that will give you the most meaningful results,” Clare Kumar says. “That’s likely not responding to e-mail.”
7. Use a knife if you have to
Large tasks can be daunting; changing the way we think helps tackle them. “Break projects into several small tasks so you are working towards meeting milestones,” Shirley Fine Lee says. This is a popular project management approach, but it can be used on anything that takes more than a couple of hours. Goal minder apps like Beeminder and Stickk might help you along the way or add to the noise, depending on your personality.
8. Step away and meditate
Navy SEALs learn meditation in combat training; these lessons certainly apply to the front lines of your workplace. “Taking breaks and finding time for creative thinking and mindfulness is also important to productivity,” Vande Krol says. “Not only does this increase my focus and output throughout the day, but the time when I step away from my desk or refocus my energy is also when my best ideas are formulated.”
Proper meditation is still on my to-do list, but my former colleague, Tim Cigelske, inspires me to get going with this great article on learning meditation by podcast.
9. Assign a deadline for the smallest tasks
Without a deadline, my tendency is to do nothing. Well, nothing productive that is. I counter this by assigning a time limit to every task.
This is the essence of the Pomodoro Technique—a 25-minute pledge to yourself that you will not be distracted from the task at hand. After 25 minutes, take 5 minutes to walk around, refill coffee or water, do some pushups, whatever.
Think of tasks in units of Pomodoro. For example, the first draft of this article will take four Pomodoros, and I will spend another two Pomodoros on revisions, and one more posting it. It helps me best utilize my solo time, breaks things down into realistic chunks, and allots room to let my focus breathe.
Here’s an inexpensive tomato timer to get your started.
10. Self-regulate Internet time traps
The Internet is a hurricane of distraction and I use it to make a living. I have to stay in the eye of the storm to avoid getting blown into tangents unknown. App blockers like StayFocused (Chrome) and SelfControl (OSX) help keep time spent on time sucking sites to a set minimum. I used these more before discovering Pomodoro, but still I deploy them from time to time.
Sometimes you might not know where exactly the time is going. That’s where a tool like Time Doctor might assist you. It can be configured to track your own computer usage, or from the management side, lets you conduct time tracking of employee workflow. It helps with the billing of clients, or monitoring the efficiency of your creative workforce by tracking which sites and applications use the most company time.
11. Know how and when to say no
Several experts that I had hoped to engage for this article could not oblige my request. One in particular sent back a polite e-mail declining the interview. I was bummed at first, but there is lesson here. Identifying what you can and cannot do—or will or will not do—is important. So thanks anyway, Craig Jarrow the Time Management Ninja, for demonstrating how to say no gracefully.
Are you still here? Get back to work! Take these tips, tools, and techniques to stay focused and be more productive with you.