Category Archives: Productivity

Doing the Essential

Yesterday I posted an article about identifying the essential tasks in your life on a day to day basis to ensure your focus lies on the important tasks in your life that when completed will provide real value to your life.

While identifying these tasks is a great first step, it should not be forgotten that they still need to get done. After all, it defeats the purpose if you identify the same essential task every day because you don’t actually do that task!

So how do you ensure the essential tasks get done?

Do them in the morning

I always try to do the tasks I’ve identified as essential as my first tasks of the morning. The main reason I do this is because I find it sets up my day. If I’ve completed the critical work early in the day I get into a productive mode where I feel like I can do any task that comes my way. It also allows me to stop worrying about what I should be doing and allows me to finish smaller tasks with a guilt free conscience.

Another important reason to do these tasks in the morning is because generally you have more energy at the start of the day rather than after lunch. As the day goes on, more and more items will be thrown onto your to-do list and the likelihood of you doing the essential tasks decreases by the minute.

Work distraction free

You should always try to work distraction free, at all times if possible. This is pretty unrealistic, but if you can schedule a small window of time to work distraction free you increase the chances of you making progress on your essential tasks.

To work distraction free, make sure you close your email, put your phone on silent so you don’t get notifications, close any IM applications, shut down your social media outlets and focus on your task. You may feel some initial resistance and an urge to open them back up, but let those feeling pass. After a minute or two you’ll start to fall into a state of flow where you’ll make some real progress.

Set a timer

This is definitely one of my favorite ways to ensure I get my essential tasks done. When I start work in the morning, I’ll look at my list of essential tasks and pick one out that I’m going to get started on. But instead of just slugging away at it, I’ll set a countdown timer for as short amount of time as I think it’s possible to get the task done. I promise myself that the amount set on the timer is the total amount of time I plan on spending on this task today.

What this does is make me focus on doing the essential pieces of this task and worry less about smaller details that will make no difference to the overall outcome. When possible, I try to make these firm deadlines so that I don’t think in the back of my mind that “I can always go over the time limit.” Treat the timer as the drop dead time for you to finish this task.

There will be times where you will have underestimated the time necessary and you need to continue on. In cases like these, make sure you reset your timer and treat this like an absolute deadline.

The key point is to not let a task go on for an indefinite amount of time, otherwise it’ll swell in complexity and time required to actually finish it.

I can promise you from personal experience that if you start focusing on identifying and doing your essential tasks your going to see amazing results in your life. You’ll start to feel your life getting under control and you’ll start making progress in areas of your life that may have been stagnant.

So starting tonight, make a promise to yourself that you’re going to identify 1-2 essential tasks you need to complete and make sure you follow up tomorrow to get these done. Repeat this process day after day and you’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

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If you found this post helpful, you may be interested in my free eBook Boost Your Productivity Instantly.

Identifying the Essential

This article is part of a 2-part series. Part 2 of the series can be found here: Doing the Essential

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I’m a big advocate of identifying the essential tasks in my life to ensure that I’m making progress on the important tasks and not just checking off non-important tasks to make myself feel like I’m busy.

This process requires a bit of extra work as you need to determine what tasks are important and which aren’t. Typically this comes easy for me, but occasionally I struggle.

In these instances where I struggle, I think back to a great exercise I learned from Tim Ferriss’ book “The Four Hour Workweek.” Say what you will about the book and it’s premise, but it’s chapter of elimination was quite eye opening for me.

The chapter on elimination provided a question and action section whereby Tim asks the reader to imagine a doctor has given you a strict warning that to preserve your health you were to only work two hours per day. The task was then to identify what you would do in those two hours to make the most of your day. The tasks that you identified should be the tasks that you focus on day to day.

After reading this, I did try to put this into practice when I would come into work each morning. While this worked great for a few days, what I found was that I would eventually start to slip back into opening my email before doing this thinking in the morning. This lead me to start more days firefighting items that came into my email than focusing on the big tasks that I had previously identified.

Eventually I changed my approach and started spending a few minutes before I went to bed each night thinking about what I wanted to accomplish the next day. The results were eye opening.

When I would wake up in the morning, I already had a clear sense of how I was going to spend my day. My brain would be actively preparing to tackle the key tasks I had identified the night before. Sure, I would still have to open my email and respond to urgent requests, but I no longer started any day without having a clear picture in my mind of what needed to be done.

Develop a nightly routine

Do make this process work for you, what I would suggest is to start making it a nightly ritual to spend 10 minutes of time by yourself to think about and list what you want to accomplish. Try to do this thinking in a quiet place so you’re not distracted by kids/TVs/spouses/etc.

Think about the ongoing projects that you have that you want to get moving forward. Think about what tasks you could do to get the ball rolling on these projects.

The important tasks should eventually bubble to the surface. Once you have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish, make sure you write them down so they’re made concrete.

Your subconscious will start working on these immediately, looking for solutions to help you get these tasks done.

When you wake up in the morning, you’ll be primed with an action list in hand as you get ready to take on the day.

What about the rest?

Obviously you will also have some day to day tasks that you will need to complete as well. I’m not suggesting that you ignore those tasks and not do them at all.

What I’m trying to get you to avoid is having your day revolve around accomplishing these more trivial tasks while putting off your more essential tasks.

For example, you may have some items that need to be mailed or you need to pick up some groceries. These tasks still need to get done, but don’t view your day as a success based on whether or not you accomplish these tasks. They’re not going to move your life/career/relationships/business forward.

Focus your day around your essential tasks and at the day be honest with yourself on whether or not you can call your day successful. If you can’t say it was successful, well there’s still some time left in the day to complete them.

If you end the day looking back on more successes than failures, then you’re going to see some giant leaps forward in your life.

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If you found this post helpful, you may be interested in my free eBook Boost Your Productivity Instantly.

How to Just Start

One of my favorite articles on productivity was written by Leo Baubauta on his ZenHabits.net site.  The title of the post was “Best Procrastination Tip Ever.”  While the title of the post seems more than a little aimed at getting some search engine love for people searching for anti-procrastination tips, the message of the post resonated deeply with me.

The essence of the post was that getting started is difficult, but by just focusing on getting started on the first piece of work you can overcome the initial resistance and build some momentum towards getting some serious work done on an important project.

Leo is much more eloquent in his delivery of the message and I encourage you to read his article, but I just want to add my own thoughts on this subject.

If you’ve been an avid reader of productivity articles on the internet, I’m sure you’ve read about the state of flow.  It’s that critical point in your work where time seems to slip away as you’re solely focused on the task at hand.  You may not always be aware of it, but think of times when you’ve been at your desk and you glance at the clock, notice that it’s 4:15pm and you wonder where the day went.  Chances are you were in a state of flow all afternoon when you were churning through your work.

Flow is really the state in which you get most of your work done.

Doing the work when you’re in a state of flow is easy.  The key is figuring out a way to consistently get yourself into a state of flow.

This is why Leo’s tip of “just starting” is brilliant.  He encourages you to just get started for 30 seconds or a minute, just to get things moving.

It’s like a snowball that starts going downhill.  Initially you have to start rolling a snowball down a hill.  But it quickly starts picking up momentum, becoming bigger and bigger and moving faster as it continues to roll downhill.

If we look at an example, consider a report you may have to write.  When you’re getting started, you look at that report as a monster that’s going to take copious amounts of work and use up your precious time to get done.  Getting started on this type of project is a challenge because you really fear the amount of work it will take.  So often you will put starting on this project off until a later time, much closer to the deadline.

If you were to just start however, maybe you could look at opening your computer and saying that you’re just going to open your favorite word processing software and create the file that will be your report.

So you’ve named your file and you’re looking at a blank screen.  From here you might think, “well it wouldn’t be too painful to maybe write an introduction.”  So you type for a few minutes and the introduction is drafted.  It didn’t take too long.  So then you decide to outline some topic ideas for the various sections that may require some additional research.  And you proceed from there.

Do you see how this works?

Most often, the hardest part about work is getting started.

You can really use this in almost any area of your life where you find yourself having trouble getting started.

The key is to remember to focus on just the first step you can take towards moving your task forward.  Identify the smallest element of that task and focus on doing that smallest piece.  If you feel a desire to move away from that task, acknowledge that desire but don’t let it consume you.  It’ll pass shortly and you can re-focus on completing your first task.

Do this consistently when getting started on tasks and you’ll be much more likely to spend more time in the state of flow

How Much Are You Really Working?

If I were to ask you how much time you spend working each week, do you think your estimate would be higher or lower than the actual amount of time you spent working?  I’m talking about actual work that you do to move your tasks or projects closer to completion, not about the amount of time you spend at your workplace or at school.

I would be more than willing to bet you will always overstate the time you spend working.  I’m very confident on that fact.

In reality we waste so much time in the run of a day, that only a fraction of our time is used to do work to move your projects ahead.  Time wasted may be in the form of reading the news, watching videos online, browsing social media, talking to colleagues, and taking breaks.  The problem is that we may do bits and pieces of work in between these activities which causes the time to blur and leads us to feel like we’ve been working longer than we really have.

This was a common problem for me early in my working career.  My love of professional sports would lead me to read article after article from various columnists on ESPN, CNNSI, and other blogs.  Often it would seem like my workday wouldn’t begin until 10:30am despite the fact that I had been in the office since 8:30am.

Introducing Time Logs

What lead me to change my ways and realize the amount of time I had been wasting was that I began tracking how I spent my day.  For every activity I completed in the run of my work day, I would enter it into a spreadsheet.

I would track the activity, the start time, and the end time and I would be sure to include every distinct action.  This would even include time I would spend going to the bathroom, going on lunch, talking with co-workers, or browsing the web.

Over the course of the first day it felt like a waste of time to track this info, but at the end of the day I reviewed my log and I was shocked.  At the end of an 8 hour day, I had barely worked 2.5 hours!

I chalked the day’s results up to just a distraction filled day and vowed that the rest of the days in the week would show just how much I truly worked each day.  While I wasn’t expecting to see 7 or 8 hours of solid work each day, I figured I was at least logging 5 or 6 good hours.

At the end of the week I was shocked to find that the first day wasn’t an anomaly.  I was working on average about 3 hours a day.  THREE HOURS!  I felt like I was robbing the company I was working for and felt disappointed in myself.  How was I ever going to advance in my career if I was only working 3 hours a day.

I thought about my results over the weekend that followed and decided I was going to be more conscientious about my day.  I was going to continue keeping these time logs, but I felt a change in my mindset.  I didn’t want to look back on week 2 and see the same results and end up feeling bad about my work habits again.  This lead to a staggering change.

When Monday rolled around I continued the practice of tracking my time, but I kept reminding myself that I didn’t want to see too many “breaks” or “surfing the webs” in my log.  So I did as best as I could to remain focus on productive work.  At the end of the day, I tallied up my working time and was overjoyed to see 5.5 hours logged doing real work.

At the end of the week, I noticed a similar pattern, having average over 5 hours work each day.

Not only did I feel better about myself, but it actually felt like I had completed twice the amount of work that I had done the week before.

I continue to use these time logs regularly even today as it puts me in the right mindset to know that my time is being tracked and that I really don’t want to look back at the end of the week and see that I wasted so much time.

To get started using time logs yourself, start a file in Excel, Google Spreadsheet or go old school and just use a pen and paper.  Make sure you log the activity, the start time and the time at which you move to a different activity.

Also make sure you try to be honest with yourself.  You’re not submitting this to anyone so don’t cheat yourself (although promising to share your log with a loved one might add some additional motivation).

At the end of the day, look back at how you really spent your day.  This reality check should provide you with a baseline to improve your productivity as well as provide you with some additional motivation when you truly see where the minutes of your day (and your life!) are going.