6 Steps to Higher Productivity
By Anne Elder-Knight
I have an embarrassing secret. I find books on time management and productivity almost like professional porn and generally much better written than ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’! What’s more, it’s a legitimate pastime. Every book offers the promise of a better, more organised and more productive future and invariably whispers of greater health, wealth and happiness.
In a bid to assuage my guilt I thought I’d make my knowledge useful by providing a simple guide to six consistent messages from the numerous books I’ve read.
Step One: Figure Out Your Area of Greatest Impact
Being productive starts with self-awareness. Those who are most productive understand what they have to offer and focus on that thing above and beyond everything else. Jim Collins, author of ‘Good to Great’ and numerous other business books, famously tracks his time so that he can ensure he is spending fifty percent of it on the activities which matter most to him – research and writing.
So before you get distracted looking for the perfect paper planner or the best ever guide to using Outlook stop and think about this: what is the one thing you do that adds the most value to your organisation or business? This is your Area of Greatest Impact (AOGI) to paraphrase Dennis Crosby. Your answer will reflect your strengths and your own and others’ assessment of where you add the most value.
Career-wise you owe it to yourself to figure out your strengths. Marcus Buckingham wisely advises that the person best positioned to figure this out is you. This is because you are the only one that knows what activities you’re good at and enjoy. These are the ones where you lose track of time when you’re doing them and the ones that make you feel strong and competent.
Step Two: Know What Success Looks Like
The most obvious way to do this is to set annual goals or objectives but I’ve also seen people do it successfully using vision boards to define their personal or professional mission statement or a single Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Whatever your approach you need to know what success looks like so you are able to track your progress towards it and learn from any deviations.
In a work context your goals and objectives need to reflect your AOGI – otherwise your talents are likely to be squandered. If that’s the case think about renegotiating your objectives or looking for work more aligned with your strengths.
Once you’re clear about the bigger picture I find it helpful to break yearly goals into smaller goals, possibly monthly, that reflect steps along the way. This way I know when I’m making progress and can adapt my approach to achieving my goals to take into account changes in my circumstances. As most goal setters will advise – set your goals in concrete but the path to achieving them in water so you can flow with the tide.
Finally, most experts advise having your goals written down and posted somewhere where you can see them regularly. Otherwise it’s too easy to get caught up in the tyranny of the urgent and lose track of what you’ve committed to achieve. I’ve got mine written up on yellow legal paper and taped to my windowsill. They are the first thing I see in the morning and make for interesting conversations when anyone comes wandering into my office.
Step Three: Learn to Focus
This is a skill with which many of us struggle. Learning to focus is about honouring what we have to offer the world.
Contrary to popular myth nobody multi-tasks well. Research by Gloria Mark, an ‘interruption scientist’, suggests it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task once you’ve been interrupted. And if you thought that news was bad, try this: half the time we interrupt ourselves!
So how do we get better at focusing? Limit as many external interruptions as possible – turn off email or email alerts, phones and put a note on the door explaining you’re busy. In terms of interrupting ourselves it’s a bit like meditation. We simply have to keep gently but firmly bringing our attention back to the task at hand.
Some suggest using a stopwatch to give yourself an uninterrupted space of time – 30 to 60 minutes – to focus on a task. This can be repeated as many times as necessary through the day although there can be merit in doing focused work at the same time each day. As William Faulkner quipped:
“I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately I am inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.”
Step Four: Say ‘No’ More Often
Another obvious point but if you are going to focus on your AOGI and get your Most Important Tasks (MITs) done then you simply have to carve out time for yourself which invariably means making your work, not that of others, a priority. Learning to say “no” firmly and graciously becomes an even more important skill unless you can simply disappear and find somewhere where you won’t get interrupted (this works but ultimately may be career limiting!).
Learning to say no effectively and gracefully is not always an easy lesson. It’s important to get the tone right so that the recipient doesn’t feel they are being dismissed. One of the best pieces of advice I was given was never to explain. I saw this done with aplomb just this week. One of the participants at a team coaching retreat was unable to join us for dinner. Rather than give a reason or an excuse she just graciously said “Sorry not tonight”. End of story.
Step Five: Identify Your Most Important Tasks Each Day and Do Them First
You’ve no doubt heard this before: identify your three most important tasks (MITs) for the day (in the context of steps one and two above) and then complete them before doing anything else. Ideally, have no more than three MITs daily and better still decide on them the night before. This is supposedly so your subconscious can begin to work on them overnight …although I’m not sure I believe this.
Whether completing your MITs is about ‘eating frogs’ or ‘slaying dragons’ doesn’t matter. Completing those things that will make the greatest impact preferably before doing anything else will, I wager, have the greatest impact on your productivity. That said, doing so isn’t easy because it requires that most elusive of qualities: self-discipline! But before you give up right here consider this – you are already incredibly disciplined at many, many things or you wouldn’t be able to do what you do and juggle what you juggle. Think of this particular discipline as something you do for you, so that you can have the kind of impact you’re capable of.
My trick for doing this is to review my online list of tasks at the beginning of each day, decide on my 3 MITs and then move them to the top of my task list and re-prioritise them A1, A2 and A3. They sit there looking at me reproachfully in big bold letters until I’ve done the task and can cross them off!
Step Six: Develop a Morning Ritual
This recommendation is gaining such traction that there have been at least two books published on the subject in the last year. The key idea is that it both sets you up for success and also creates a sense of control. Apart from the usual ablutions and child care activities, activities that make up your morning routine may include meditation, exercise, journaling, reviewing your goals or choosing your three MITs, in fact anything that helps you start the day in a calm and focused manner.
The bad news? Unlike the widespread urban myth that it takes 21 days to form a new routine, the latest research indicates that it takes anywhere from 66 to 84 days depending on how complex the routine is. So this is another case of consistency and persistence winning out. The good news is that activities you once considered painful like getting out of bed early to go to the gym become less so with repetition.
In Summary …
As I write I realise I should take more of my own advice. I also know that knowing this stuff will not stop me, and some of you, trawling the pages of Amazon in search of the ultimate productivity solution. To that end here is a short list of the best books I’ve ever read on Time Management and Productivity.
- First things First by Stephen Covey. Especially read Chapter 4 which summarises, step by step, his process for putting first things first.
- Time Management from the Inside Out by Julia Morgenstern, this is particularly insightful about how to estimate time and choose the right planner.
- The Power of Less by Leo Babauta. This is the shortest, simplest and most powerful book on being more productive I’ve read.
- All Topics
- Begin with success
- Self-insight for success
- Build for success
- Successful working mothers
- Lead with success
Self Awareness – A Must-Have Ingredient for Career Success
An Introduction to Emotional Intelligence
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