Last year I wrote a popular post on my personal blog about how I get things done. While there are a lot of great tips in there, over the last year I have learned a lot of new things to have changed and improved the way I work. We have created a course on getting stuff done, interviewed a bunch of productivity gurus, and with my pregnancy I had to learn to adjust my working style a bit.
The goal of this post is to update my previous productivity post and share the lessons I have learned along the way to continue making sure the work I am doing has the biggest impact possible.
All work is not created equal
The very first thing you need to realize when it comes to productivity is that there are things you can do that will have more impact than others. This can be for lots of reasons:
- You are exceptionally good at a particular task. Therefore you can do it faster or better.
- Certain projects will add more value. Nicholas Zakas talks about this in his article on a framework for thinking about work.
- You can’t force good ideas. Sometimes it helps to work on something particularly challenging and then come back to it later. By priming your mind, you can uncover great things given a bit more time.
- Different environments affect your abilities. If you are like me and are easily distracted, it is hard to work in a coffee shop or open office plan. Other people thrive in these environments. Understanding the impact of time and place on your tasks can impact your ability to get high quality work done quickly.
Thankfully a bit of self-awareness and forward planning can help you wrestle all of these things. Having this knowledge can also help with learning when and how to say an enlightened “no” to things that don’t fit with your core plans or priorities.
The key to doing the right work at the right time comes down to your ability to prioritize.
Making planning part of your process
Planning your work can’t be something you do once and a while, like at the start of a new project or a new quarter. Planning needs to happen regularly – daily, weekly, monthly and yearly. If you set aside time to reflect on where you have been, your experiences become assets over time.
In order to incorporate planning, you have to make it a habit. That means adding it to your schedule, calendar, and workflow.
For each time interval, figure out what sort of schedule and prioritization will work for you. That is the real trick – taking these lessons and actually integrating them into your life so they are a habit, and perhaps even something you look forward to.
Do you know your long term goals? Have you written them down? Have you put them in a prominent place where you can see them every day?
My yearly goals tend to be big things, and I like to think of each area of my life and have objectives. Sometimes they are concrete things like get to $1M in revenue for our business, or give birth to a healthy baby. Other areas of my life are less concrete and about how I want to feel. For example, I really want to get back in shape after having my baby and I envision myself hiking and doing yoga regularly to make that happen.
Since these are such a hodge podge of stuff, I like to do my planning with pictures instead of specifics. For my long term goals I use a vision board from images collected online, collaged with picasa, and then printed with Shutterfly.
I tend to create a monthly theme for myself and identify 3 things I really want to accomplish.
We also create a theme for our business each month (like increase email sign ups, launch Pop Star, etc.). This is easier than outlining a specific set of detailed objectives and timeline, as it allows me to be a bit more fluid with my planning each day and each week.
And since the themes change monthly, if there is something I want to tackle that doesn’t fit my month’s theme I just postpone it to next month. This gives me focus but also the ability to adapt and be flexible.
I keep track of these in my notebook and I reference back to them regularly.
At Popforms, we practice Monday Ninja Planning Sessions. The trick here is reserving regular time with yourself to reflect on what matters and what really will move the needle for you that week. For some people this means having a conversation with your manager or supervisor and really honing in on what is the most important thing to tackle.
While I don’t have the perfect system for these, I write my weekly goals and objectives in the same notebook where I track my daily work so it is quick and easy to reference the things I set out to accomplish each week.
To make the most of each day I use a technique called time blocking. This wasn’t something I needed when I was working in a corporate job, with an office and a calendar jam-packed with meetings. However, as an entrepreneur this technique has been one of the most effective tools to help me focus and make forward progress every single day.
Each night I lay out my tasks into 3 buckets: morning, afternoon, and evening. I will then plan out 1-4 things I want to work on in those buckets.
These include work things (projects, writing blog posts like this one, or conference calls) and personal things (going to the post office, working out, or visits with friends). I don’t separate the two; my life is integrated so it makes sense my task list would also be integrated.
Capturing good ideas and learning to be creative
In addition to diligent planning, the other key aspect of being productive is being able to make the most of the time that I set aside.
Capturing good ideas
Part of this is being organized. Having a system for versioning your documents. Having the resources you need when you need them (meaning that your office isn’t doesn’t look it was occupied by Pig-Pen). Logically organizing your hard drive into folders so it is easy to quickly find what you need (down with messy desktops!).
By being organized, you make is easy to sit down and be productive, and when you need something you can find it quickly – streamlining your workflow and allowing you to focus on the task at hand without distraction.
The second part of keeping your good ideas is having a place to put them. Just like being organized, everything needs its place – including ideas.
Here are some of the places I hold my ideas:
- Book notes: I like to summarize things I read (it helps me retain the information) so I have a little journal dedicated to my summaries.
- Links and articles: I use Chrome bookmarks to keep articles and links I think may be useful.
- Lists and ideas: I use Evernote to keep running notes or lists for things like blog post ideas, competitive research, or even product ideas.
- Everything else: I always carry a physical catchall notebook with me to keep notes of things that come up on the go or in conversations.
No matter where I am or what I am doing, I have a place to put my ideas. And if worse comes to worse, I will email myself the information and file it into the proper place later when I am doing my inbox zero.
The next part of being able to come up with great ideas is giving yourself the time to come up with great ideas. This means starting projects early (this can be earlier in the day for shorter projects, or it can mean earlier in the process – not waiting until the last minute) so that you can get your subconscious mind working on the problem before you absolutely need an answer.
Shelly Carson, who wrote the book Your Creative Brain, advises taking breaks so your mind can work in an “incubation period.” Just because you stop working on a task doesn’t mean that your brain has stopped working, and this is why things like interruptions or diversions (like a long walk) can actually help spark new ideas.
I also love talking about my “incubating” ideas with people. It tends to foster my creative mind and helps me uncover potential paths and opportunities I may have otherwise missed. In fact, this blog post on my notebook idea is one way I am “incubating” and ideating on that project.
In the book Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, he talks about the importance of changing your location and learning about new fields to spark ideas and inspiration. He recommends pushing your knowledge and constantly expanding the things you know about – your adjacent possible. That way you are more likely to make connections and create new ideas.
After reading that book, I started carving out a few hours every week to do research and push my knowledge to learn new things. And I use my time blocking to make sure I actually do stick with it.
Productivity starts with your body
The final part of being productive is to focus on your body. If you aren’t rested and feel icky, you just aren’t going to be operating at your optimum level.
Make time to exercise and fuel your body with healthy food. What you put into your body influences the way it works, and that includes your brain. While grabbing quick snacks can feel like you’re saving time and getting more done, you’re actually shortchanging yourself and using your energy less wisely.
To stay active, I try to combine socializing, working, and exercising. I frequently take my coffee meetings on the hiking trail or out for a walk. When I am at home on conference calls, I tend to walk and talk, even if it is just laps around my kitchen island. I try to keep moving and stay active as much as I can during the day.
Take time out and meditate. Meditation is one thing that has been scientifically proven to make you smarter and happier, so why wouldn’t you make it a priority in your life?
If you aren’t taking care of yourself, or you are shortchanging yourself on your sleep those may be the easiest changes you can make to improve your effectiveness.
Do you have other tips and ideas that help you be a productivity superstar? If so, I would love to hear them. I am always looking for ways to get more done.