Pay attention over the next few days to how people respond when you ask, “How are you?” or “How have you been?” Notice how many of them include “busy” in their response. In our fast-paced American society, many people wear busy like a badge of honor. It’s true that many of us are "busy, busy, busy," but are we really being productive? I believe the litmus test is to examine results. Are we getting the results we want? If not, then we might not be busy on the right things.
Here are a few ideas to help you turn your busy into productive and ensure you’re spending time on the activities that will yield results.
Know Your Objectives and Deliverables
Take a look at your job description if you have one that’s up to date. Take a look at your annual performance goals. What results are you responsible for producing in your firm? What objectives do you hope to achieve? What is important to you (and your boss)?
When you are unclear on your destination, it’s difficult to determine the right direction or the path that will get you there. We can waste a lot of time spinning our wheels down the wrong road when we don’t know where we’re going.
I was recently reminded of a funny line from the 1991 movie “City Slickers” where one of the characters says to another, “We’re lost, but we’re making really good time.” Case in point.
Prioritize Your Tasks
Have a to-do list or task that’s 10 pages long? No wonder you’re so busy! It’s time to take a second and prioritize. Start small and pick the top three tasks you feel are of greatest priority for that day and focus your efforts on those. It is important to remember that when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
Pareto’s Principle tells us that we get 80 percent of our results from 20 percent of our activities. What are the 20 percent of tasks you can accomplish that will yield the highest results?
I like to suggest to clients that they take 10 minutes at the end of each day to plan for the next. Review your calendar so you know what appointments you have and review your task list so you can identify your priorities. By identifying your top priority for the following day, you can position yourself to hit the ground running.
Do First Things First
How do you start your day? Do you hop on email and then never get off? Many people do and then at 5 p.m. wonder where the day has gone. They fall into what I call reactive mode (reacting all day to emails, the phone, other people’s interruptions and requests, etc.) and don’t have time left to be proactive.
What’s important to you? What can you do first, to jumpstart your day? To pave the path to maximized productivity?
I love to exercise in the morning. Let me clarify — I don’t love to exercise, but I love to do it in the morning because I love the results. There’s the long-term health benefits, of course, but for me there’s also the "I did it" feeling and the natural adrenaline rush I get right afterwards. This fires me up for the day and I’m ready to go. I know those days that I exercise in the morning, I’m much more productive. When I get into a rut and don’t get up to run or go to the gym for a number of days (or weeks) in a row, my energy level is negatively affected. This affects my productivity.
Another way to jumpstart your day is to get the most important thing you need to do all day done first. Steven Covey calls this "first things first" and suggests that successful people make this a habit. I concur. What if, even before you get on email, you tackled the number one priority for the day? Accomplish, or make significant progress on, the one task that will make the biggest difference in your personal or professional life. Imagine the feeling you’ll have when you get that done and there’s still much of the day in front of you! This strategy can give your day amazing momentum.
I also know myself well. I know that if I leave these things (exercise and a high priority task) until later in the day, I will likely not do them at all. I may procrastinate, fill my time with lower priority tasks or come up with excuses as to why not to exercise or tackle that important thing until later (which never comes). Getting these things done first thing in the morning helps ensure that they happen, that they are out of the way and I can move on. Author and speaker Brian Tracy calls this strategy "eat a frog for breakfast" and even wrote a book on the concept. His idea is that if you had to eat a big, ugly frog on any given day, wouldn’t you prefer to eat it in the morning for breakfast and get it out of the way, rather than having it stare at you all day?
Wondering what to do with the other 80 percent of your tasks? Challenge yourself to see which ones could be done by someone else. When you delegate those things on your list that someone else could do for you, you free up your time to do the high value, important tasks that only you can do.
There are two primary reasons people don’t delegate more. One is that they believe it would be faster to just do it themselves. While there is an initial time investment made when you teach someone else to complete a task or process, the return is realized each time they do that task (instead of you).
The other reason people don’t delegate involves a control issue. Have you ever heard someone say, If I want it done right, I better do it myself”? To relinquish control and feel good about it, take the following steps when you delegate:
- Consider the skills needed to accomplish the task and find the right person for the job
- Be clear with the individual or individuals you are delegating to in regard to the task and your expectations
- Give the person an opportunity to ask questions or clarify details
- Be specific about any deadlines involved and ask for updates on progress
- Check in periodically without micromanaging, and make yourself available to answer questions, especially the first time around
- Give feedback
Just Say No
Take a look at your task list and see what low value tasks you can eliminate altogether. Be thoughtful when you add something new to the list.
Ensure that you consider what is already on your list before you say yes to new requests for your time or talents. Is the request in line with your priorities? Keep in mind that every time we say yes to something, we’re saying no to something else.
For example, saying yes to that additional committee may mean saying no to making it home to dinner with your family. Saying yes to an additional project may mean saying no to something else on your plate. If the new request is coming from your boss and you feel it will overload you, ask him or her to help you prioritize the new task or project in relation to your current or ongoing projects.
Stop multitasking. It doesn’t work as well as you think it does.
Most people believe they can save time by trying to do two or three things at once. Typical multitasking examples include: sending emails while on the phone, listening to a colleague while sorting mail or making an unrelated list during a meeting. While most people think they are being more productive, growing research shows that multitasking actually makes you less efficient and reduces brainpower to perform each task.
The Journal of Experimental Psychology published a study showing that those who multitask are less effective than those who focus on one project at a time. More and more studies are coming out with evidence that multitasking is problematic. According to CNN.com, heavy multitaskers did worse on attention tests than non-multitaskers, and the multitaskers were more easily distracted by irrelevant information.
Some additional effects linked to mulitasking include short-term memory loss; a stress response which, when prolonged, can damage cells that form new memory; changing your ability to concentrate or increasing gaps in your attentiveness; and increased chance of mistakes.
The primary skill we need to overcome multitasking is the ability to focus. We also need to be able to handle interruptions and eliminate distractions.
Focus on one task at a time. This means doing something and thinking about what you’re doing at the same time. Periodically during the day ask yourself, “What am I doing right now?” The task that you are working on right now should be the only thing that has your attention. Eliminate distraction by silencing your phone, turning off email notifications, putting a do-not-disturb sign on your door, etc. It is also important to have a clutter-free workspace to minimize shiny object distraction, which in turn will allow you to be more productive.
By employing these strategies, the next time someone inquires, “How are you?” you’ll be able to respond, “Great!" knowing that you’re busy getting the important things done.
Here’s to your productivity!
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About the Author
Debbie Rosemont is a certified professional organizer and productivity consultant. She started Simply Placed in 2003 to help clients increase productivity, maximize efficiency and bring balance and control into their work, and lives.
The associates at Simply Placed work with individuals and businesses to create effective organizational systems, clear clutter, successfully manage time, focus on priorities and achieve goals. They help people work smarter, not harder, to increase their bottom line and peace of mind through consulting, hands-on organizing and group training. Contact them at 206-579-5743 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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