How’s your day so far? Spent all day shovelling emails, rushing from meeting to meeting, being super-busy but not getting anything significant done? Is the to-do list that you wrote three days ago gathering dust somewhere? Then this one’s for you…
You’re a creative Duracell-bunny – constant thoughts and ideas. Some you write down, many you don’t. Many just come and then go away again, like football managers. But how many of those ideas have you done anything substantive with? Any? Or have you simply been… too busy?Back in the early 1990s, Michael Dell – founder of Dell Computers – said: “Ideas are a commodity. Execution of them is not.” Rather than getting all excited about the latest B2B shiny object, selecting the right things to execute and making progress towards their completion is probably the greatest skill any marketer can develop. Those are the people everyone wants in their team, or to lead them.
What does productivity mean to you?
What would a good day look like? Here’s my definition of what productivity means to me:
“Personal productivity is completing the right actions that move you closer to accomplishing your goals in a manner that brings balance and ease into your life.”
At the core of my definition are your goals. Productivity is not the objective (that would be just ‘efficient busyness’) – it’s about achieving your goals. These may be long or short term – getting better quality rest may be as much a goal as developing leadership skills or launching a new website – but only when we have clarity on what’s important can we decide upon the right actions to move towards their achievement.
In my experience, this is where most people fall down – without establishing a small number of goals, you’ll inevitably fall into the trap of just focusing on the most urgent crises. It’s about building greater intentionality back into your day and taking back control. And with this clarity, we can now set about achieving our objectives in the most stress-free manner possible. Here are a few tips for that.
1. Capture relentlessly
Don’t try to keep ideas in your head – it only creates stress, and the brain is much better applied to more creative tasks. So write ideas and potential actions down as they arise. If you can build a habit of capturing everything that might need attention, then the process of deciding what to do becomes one of selection rather than starting with a blank sheet of paper.
However, the list rapidly becomes very long, so we need an approach to help clarify what’s on the list.
2. Clarify your lists
Take your task list and add three extra columns to the list. Label them areas of focus, energy, and time.
Area of focus – In my consulting business, I have five main areas of focus – delivering paid work for clients, selling new projects to clients, marketing my business, developing my skills and performing necessary administration tasks like raising invoices, claiming expenses or paying VAT. What would your key areas be?
Energy – This second category allows me to classify tasks according the amount of time needed to complete the tasks. These range from deep focus tasks needing full attention for an extended period, to quick five-minute tasks that are nevertheless important.
I also tend to classify some brain dead tasks that I can pull up when there’s little left in the tank. Finally, I flag tasks as ‘waiting’ if I need input from someone else before I can proceed.
Time – Some tasks have an explicit deadline, in which case I put that in this column. However, most tasks don’t have a specific due date, so categorising things under ‘this week, next week, or later’ allows me to keep them within my system, but without having to keep them in my face all the time.
Finally, I use a someday/maybe category as a bucket for those things that I’d like to do, but am not yet fully committed to.
3. Write a daily list
If you don’t already, ensure you write a task list every day – preferably the night before so your subconscious can work on it overnight.
Over recent months, I’ve become a big fan of the deceptively simple 1-3-5 rule. The rationale is that most of us naturally tend to set unrealistic expectations around what we can achieve in a day – particularly when we bear in mind our calendar commitments and actual free time available. Therefore, we set ourselves up for failure and disappointment.
Instead, I now select a maximum of nine tasks for the day (maybe less, depending on my available time). The nine are made up one big task, three medium-sized and five small things.
While it may sound too simplistic, I find it a great aid. Why? Firstly, it’s realistic and at least gives me a chance of feeling that I’ve had a successful day.
Secondly, it balances tasks of different complexity, so that I can keep moving forward on several fronts over the course of a day.
And finally, it’s flexible: sometimes I’ll have a focused 1-3-5 day on one specific project or area of focus, while other times I’ll work across multiple areas in a day.
Although I’m largely digital in my work style, I print my 1-3-5 every day so that it’s always in front of me. I also get the ludicrous satisfaction of crossing each item off as the day progresses. I’m a simple soul!
4. Manage your distractions
I’ve learned the best way for me to avoid distractions is to put barriers in their way. If things are out of sight, or better still at least 20 seconds away, I’m far less likely to get distracted by them.
That’s why when I’m really wanting to focus, I ensure that my phone is turned off – not face down, on silent, or hidden away in a bag – but off. While you’re at it, switch off all those desktop and mobile notifications – you don’t need Zuckerberg interrupting you with a new cat video when you’re trying to get something finished. A tidy desk also helps here too (I have to confess that’s a constant struggle for me).
5. Don’t live in your email inbox
Remember this, your email inbox mainly consists of things on someone else’s agenda, not yours. So go into it only a few times a day, identify what actions are in there that need to be on your master task list, and then get out of it again and get back to work. Many marketers believe they must be on email all day. That’s a myth – and for most of us it’s the greatest inhibitor to our productivity. As with any inbox, your email inbox is just a bunch of stuff that you haven’t yet decided on the appropriate course of action yet.
6. Review regularly
This final tip is actually the most important. A weekly review of your completed and planned actions is the glue that holds everything together. Without fail, skipping this step is the quickest way to descend into the chaos of ‘busyness’ without purpose. Equally, when I am spinning out of control, a weekly review is the quickest way to get back on track.
Personally, I see this as my most important meeting of the week. I tend to do it on a Friday as it makes for a good start to the weekend. When you choose to do it is not important, but it’s essential that you schedule it and stick to it.
The process is straightforward – it just takes a little discipline. My reviews tend to focus on three distinct areas:
Consolidate inboxes: Here I ensure that my email has been processed to zero and that I’ve captured any relevant actions on my task list. I then look at the calendar for the week just completed and review any meeting notes to identify any additional actions.
Review key projects: Next I check that all tasks have been sufficiently clarified (e.g. the project, energy and Timescale categories discussed earlier) and that every project has a next action defined.
Look ahead: Finally, I look at my calendar for the week ahead to check whether there is any additional preparation work required. I then specifically look at my large work items in my list for the forthcoming week and ensure I have allocated time for them in my calendar.
While it may feel like overhead, I see it more as preventative maintenance. And I guarantee you will feel better after it every time. I’ve a template on my website if you’d like to investigate my approach further.
While none of these steps are complex, replacing your current ‘busyness’ with a more intentional approach involves developing new habits – and that will take time to perfect. In fact, you’ll probably never perfect it, but you will start to notice a huge difference in how you prioritise, what you get done, and in how you feel.
8. Take our Productivity Survey
We’ve put together a quick survey that can help you get a better sense of your own approach to productivity and to suggest areas that you might wish to improve. You can take the survey directly below. The input you provide will help inform future blog posts on this topic.