What do you do at the beginning of your workday?
- Immediately check email?
- Dive back into the project you left off on the day before?
- Call a meeting?
These seem like natural decisions to make when you want to start your day off in a productive manner. We teach ourselves that this is a good way to do things. The thinking is: “I want to be productive so I should do productive things and concentrate on just those tasks”.
But…this is counterintuitive because it starts your day off with chaos. Here’s why:
Note: You can download a Day Map worksheet here to step you through the process.
When you begin your day with an immediate work task (like checking email), you are starting your day off in a reactionary mode. You may check an email where a client is asking for information on a subject. You react to this by finding the information and sending it to them. You may call a meeting to listen to what your team has planned for the day. A team member needs help with a task, you react by providing them support. Next thing that you know, it is 5 p.m. and you have been productive for everyone else, but yourself.
This is a cycle that I have seen happen to myself as well as my clients, peers and various businesses I have worked with in the past. Important tasks are put aside constantly.
- A new web design is put off for years as it is trumped by client tasks.
- Hiring an assistant is delayed because you are too busy, even though a new hire would help your efficiency.
- Your blog, which was thriving when you first launched it, has not had a new article in a long time.
- A once weekly email newsletter has transitioned to monthly one, and then again to a quarterly one.
These are all examples of just how productivity debt can get out of hand and prevent your business from moving forward.
The good news is that there is a simple fix which you can begin immediately. It’s not difficult. It hardly takes any time out of your schedule and it is something that has helped me immensely over time.
My process includes simple organization techniques starting with a short mental planning session. This planning session results in a 6 item list that you use to guide your day. Then, throughout your day, you use focus sessions to work on the tasks efficiently.
Mapping Your Day
Take 10 minutes each morning to think about what you need to do and make a list. Be ready for tasks to change throughout the day. Your map should be flexible and only as strict as you need it to be. It is unrealistic to think that you won’t run into obstacles. You can always get back on course tomorrow.
This is a fairly self-explanatory process. But, there are some things to watch out for and take notice of. For example, I’m not a fan of getting into routines, I like my day to be filled with variety. When I first started doing these every day at the same time, I would get bored with them after a week. I would convince myself that they had helped but I don’t need to do them every day. It’s easy to fall back into old habits. Especially ones you have been using since you stepped into the workforce.
The key is consistency. As you let the process slide you will notice that your work day slides back into an overwhelming cycle. To combat routine, I will make periodic adjustments to keep everything fresh.
- Change the time that I have a focus session.
- Have the focus session geared towards a specific outcome. For example, “work with more people throughout the day”.
- Add a non-work event to the task list.
A day full of variety is better than a day dreading the routine. It doesn’t matter when I do the focus session, as long as it is done. Mornings do tend to have the best outcome for myself, so I try hard to maintain that schedule. I encourage you to adapt this to your own strengths and weaknesses. Make tweaks to your process and make it your own so that you get the most out of it.
This is what a focus session entails:
Turn everything off. If you want to write something down on your computer, then close everything except for your writing program. The key to this is to be distraction free for 5-10 minutes. I work best off the computer with a whiteboard.
Don’t write anything down at first. Just sit and think about the day ahead of you. If a task runs through your mind, then let it pass and move on to the next one. For 3-5 minutes, just think about the day. You are going to have urges to jump into the work, you are going to panic as you think “oh man, I forgot about that !”. But, 5 minutes isn’t going to change anything. This is a trick I have learned from meditation. Let your thoughts pass through your mind. Focus your thoughts on your day, and sit there without doing anything. After a week of this process, you get quicker as your thoughts become more organized.
Write down everything you can think of that you need to do. This could be a list of 20 items which you will be narrowing down. Let the tasks that you were just thinking about flow out of you onto this list. Sometimes we keep so many tasks in our head that we don’t even realize how much they are stressing us out. Writing these tasks down helps you expunge your brain of all these thoughts. This is a mental clearing exercise.
Don’t give in to looking at your computer or phone. As you are trying to figure out your tasks for the day, you are going to want to check your email or look up where you left off on a blog article or unfinished task in a project. With your morning session, don’t worry about the details. Leave the details for when you actually work on a task. Keep these general.
The Six-Item List
Take the long list you just created and pick the top 6 things you need to do today. Keep this limited to 6. Sometimes my list is even shorter than 6 if there are larger tasks that I need to focus on. Some people use a 4 item list. It will depend on what works best for you. The point is to limit yourself. Be realistic with what you can do in a day and then keep even simpler than that. I always overestimate. Give variety to your list and organize your client’s/customer’s needs with your own needs. A balanced list will make you feel more productive at the end of the day.
Use this list as your checklist for the day. For me, checking tasks off a list feels great and makes me feel more productive. This is why I use a whiteboard or pen and paper. The physical activity of crossing an item off a list is much more rewarding than digitally clicking a task item on a todo list. When you start your day off without a clear, simple goal in mind then you are working in a reactive and chaotic way. It’s much more rewarding to work under an organized micro-strategy.
You may not be able to get to everything on your list complete. You might get everything done quicker than expected. This is a roadmap, not a strict guideline. If there is something you can’t get to on the list today, then keep it on your list for tomorrow. If you finish all your tasks, then great!. You can either take the rest of the day off or pick up another task from your longer list.
A focus session is an uninterrupted period of the day that you devote to the tasks on your list. Close as many tabs and shut down as many programs as possible to perform the task. Set a timer and only work on that item. I set a 25 minute timer for most tasks. Then I check my email, reddit, facebook and other social media for 5 minutes between tasks. The point is to consciously put yourself in a mental state of focus for short bursts of time. These are more manageable than long uninterrupted time periods and you give yourself breaks to catch up with other tasks.
Note: I just spent 25 minutes writing this blog post and have gotten to this point. I will now take a 5 minute break and then finish it up in my next focus session.
This may not be for everyone, but I enjoy listening to music while I work. But, there is some music that works better for me than others. Music with lyrics can be distracting when performing tasks like writing a blog article or coding. So, I veer my listening towards instrumental music like ambient, noise, jazz or classical music. Anything that I can push into the back of my mind but still helps me focus and even motivates me to finish the task at hand.
With these focus sessions, it’s also important to schedule the time to be unfocused. This is especially useful when you find yourself getting frustrated, or there is a project you are working on that requires deep focus. The quickest way to burnout is to not give your brain time to relax.
This process has helped me immensely over the past year. I am constantly refining it and making adjustments. The more active I am with the routine, the more effective it is.
For example, a few months ago I wanted to get into podcasting but had no idea how to go about doing that. It takes some time to learn about equipment and software to use, come up with content ideas and edit the podcasts. The problem was that my day was stacked full of other items I needed to take care of, things that actually paid the bills. To correct this, I made sure that every Tuesday I would put “podcast” as #6 on my list. Flash forward to 6 months later and I have 10 podcast episodes complete, a process down for developing content and am already working towards growing the audience. In the moment, the time it takes seems tedious and long, but looking back over 6 months it feels like not much time at all. Remember this when planning your next project.
One last final note. This process works for more than just your workday. I keep a work list and a personal list. My personal list is made up of fun things like reading books, trying out new video games and playing music. I mix these in with the errands I need to run like getting groceries, paying bills and getting an oil change. By adapting the focus sessions and lists to what I need I feel like I am a much more productive and organized person.
I am no longer reacting to the chaos of the day and feel more creative and engaged with the tasks at hand.