Isn’t January supposed to be the slow month? Because it sure hasn’t been for me. I can already see that this year is shaping up to be a BIG one at work for me and I couldn’t be more excited [and nervous!] about what’s to come.
And with all my upcoming projects at work and on the side, it’s going to be really important that I stay focused if I want to do everything.
Being productive all the time isn’t something I learned overnight. It took years for me to figure out my working style and what I needed to do to stay on top of things. And while I’m definitely still learning, there are a few tricks I’ve discovered along the way that have been game changers for me.
Planning = Success
One of the best things I did for myself when I started my career was get a planner. Seriously, my planner is my lifeline. I feel completely lost without it. Every Monday morning the first thing I do when I get to work is review and update my planner to set my priorities, create to-do lists, and make sure all the meetings I have that week have been penciled in so I don’t miss anything important.
As the week goes on, I’ll update my planner to include any new items that have come up and to cross off the items I no longer need to worry about. Sometimes I’ll even create daily to-do lists just to make sure I’m not forgetting anything.
What’s interesting is that my daily planning habit has begun to influence how I approach projects as well. Rather then jumping in blindly, I tend to break the project down into pieces. This allows me to really think things through and figure out what I want the end result to look like, the steps needed to get there, who else might need to be involved, and what deadlines I might need to set for myself.
I know this sounds dramatic, but getting a planner really has changed my life. And I’ve realized the reason my past projects have failed is because I didn’t take the time up front to establish my goals/priorities and create a [somewhat] detailed plan as to how I would get there.
Break It Down
Have you ever found yourself faced with a task that makes you feel so overwhelmed you just want to go take a nap?
Spoiler alert: when you wake up, that job will still be there.
When I find myself procrastinating or feeling overwhelmed by a project, the first thing I do is break that project down into smaller steps. Then I just focus on the first one and forget about the others. Sometimes the first step is as simple as creating the title page for my next blog post. Suddenly starting my next post doesn’t seem so overwhelming because all I have to do is complete step one.
The best part about this approach? Once I get over the initial hump of starting a project, I almost always want to keep going. Maybe I’ll add in the headings of the topics I want to cover. Or maybe I’ll upload all of the photos I took of the cookies I want to share. Maybe I’ll even start writing.
But whether I only complete step one, or end up writing and publishing an entire post in one sitting, the important thing is that by breaking it down and taking that first step, I’ll have sparked the motivation to continue [and finish] the project.
Say No To Multitasking
I think we all know that multitasking never works. I know it might seem like you’re being a superstar by [attempting to] accomplish all the things at once, but research has shown over and over again that our brains are not nearly as good at multitasking as we think they are. In fact, some researchers suggest that multitasking can actually reduce productivity by as much as 40%.
Personally, I find trying to do a million things at once leaves me feeling overwhelmed and frazzled. And more often then not, if I’m not focused I end up going back and re-doing a lot of my work because I’m unhappy with the quality of it.
So instead of multitasking, every day I pick one job that I feel is my biggest priority and focus solely on that. Obviously sometimes other things come up and I have to change my focus. But overall I’ve found that this approach has really helped me be much more productive.
[While I was researching for this post I came across this video which does a great job of expanding on this approach.]
Utilize Your Productivity Window
One of my self-proclaimed super powers is that I’m a morning person. I LOVE mornings. They are the perfect opportunity to get a head start on all the things I want to accomplish that day.
But the downside to being a morning person [at least for me] is that by 2pm, I start to lose focus. On the flip side, I have friends who get more done in that last hour of the day then during all the hours prior.
Recognizing these windows of productivity and utilizing them has been a game changer for me. Since going home and taking a nap is not an option, I’ve learned to focus on my big priorities first thing in the morning. The easier jobs, like checking my emails or returning phone calls, will wait until the end of the day. So instead of burning out mid-afternoon, I’m able to maintain a constant level of productivity throughout the entire day.
Set Aside Time to Check Your Email
A few months ago I was taking a leadership course through work and one of the biggest takeaways for me was how answering emails can be one of the biggest time sinks. Think about it, every time you answer an email you feel a small sense of accomplishment. Like you’ve crossed something off your to-do list. So you answer another one, and another one. Before you know it several hours have passed and all you’ve done is answer emails [some of which could have waited a day or two for a response].
Since then I’ve made a point of setting aside time specifically to respond to emails. Often right before lunch and again at the end of the day. Other times I’ll just shut my email off for an hour or two and come back to it later. Not only has the world not ended because I didn’t respond to an email right away, the hours I spend working on my priorities are much more productive.
Turn Off Your Phone
In addition to being mindful about my email, I’ve learned it’s even more important to be mindful about when I check my phone.
So often I’ll find myself picking up my phone to do one little thing [like updating my grocery list] and before I know it 15 minutes has gone by and I’m either texting, browsing Instagram, checking my email, or reading a new blog post and I’ve completely forgotten about what I was supposed to be working on.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t take mini breaks now and then [personally, I find that they help me stay focused], but I would suggest being more mindful about when and how long you are on your phone. Sometimes that means forcing myself to finish a task before I look at my phone so I don’t lose focus. Other times it means turning my phone on silent or shutting it off entirely.
Recognize When You Need A Break
This morning I came across this tidbit from FYI: For Your Improvement – Competencies Development Guide:
Research has shown that short naps improve the vigilance and judgement of air traffic controllers. Getting a full night’s sleep improves memory. Staying unplugged on vacation decreases the likelihood that you’ll leave your company. Stepping away, switching off, relaxing, and protecting your workout time all contribute to higher productivity and better job performance. While wishing for more hours in your day is futile, wishing for more energy during your day is achievable.
Two years ago I learned very quickly that a go, go, go approach to work leads to burnout very quickly. While I don’t regret how hard I worked during that time, I have been much better at honoring my lunch breaks [aka my workout time] and being mindful about the amount of overtime I’m working.
I’m not saying you should never go the extra mile, I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t, but I do believe that a healthy work life balance is the biggest reason why I love my job so much [and why I am more than willing to put in extra time when needed].
Have Someone Hold You Accountable
Sometimes no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to make any progress on a project. You might have the best intentions, but other things come up and you can’t find the time to start. Or maybe you put it off because there is no immediate reason to get started. Or maybe you REALLY don’t know where to begin.
We’ve all been there. [In fact, I can already think of one thing on my to-do list that I’ve been putting off]. And in those situations, you might just need someone else to hold you accountable. Ask a close friend who understands your situation to check in on your progress periodically. Sometimes the guilt of having to fess up that you haven’t made any progress is all the motivation you need to get started.