After studying the Lean Methodology in undergrad, which emphasizes reducing waste to focus on value-adding activities, I decided that the same principles could be applied to one’s time. Why not eliminate non-value adding activities so we can get more done in less time and complete the important things faster to allow for more time to spend on things we enjoy?
Being efficient or productive is harder than it seems, whether you are in a busy office environment with lots of external interruptions or you interrupt yourself and task switch or multi-task frequently. I’ve been working to increase my discipline and productivity using the six habits below, and have seen amazing results from them.
Concentrate. Research continues to show the inefficiency of multitasking because our brains are not designed to multi-task. Instead, when we try to work against our nature, we expend more time and energy “switching” between tasks rather than focusing on one thing at a time. Research on the behaviors of white collar office workers in 2006 shows that people spent three minutes and five seconds on one thing before switching to another task by their own choosing or being interrupted by someone or something else. Further, when they stopped one task in favor of another, regardless of the reason, it took them 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to what we were doing before the interruption. These interruptions can be external - like an unexpected phone call or an urgent email, or internal - like a quick social media break. While well-timed breaks are beneficial to productivity, longer periods of focus and concentration are important for creativity, accuracy, and efficiency in completing the important, but often not urgent, things on our to-do lists.
Wake Up Earlier. While I have always been a morning person and enjoy the solitude early mornings bring, I know this is not the case for many people. That said, there is value in waking up before everyone else -- it gives you extra time to get a jump-start on your day which can help your entire day run smoother. Whether it’s getting a workout in, eating breakfast, reading, meditating, or tidying up before you go to work, getting up 30 to 60 minutes earlier can help you feel calmer in the morning which can carry over to your entire day. When you start the day off with a smooth routine and are ahead of schedule rather than running late, it sets a positive tone for the rest of your day. I’ve started getting up an extra 30 minutes earlier in the morning so I have time to work out, get ready, and get a few things done around the house before my son wakes up (and chaos inevitably ensues).
Create Self-Imposed Deadlines. Giving yourself a deadline is part of beginning with the end in mind. If you know where you are going and when you need to get there, your effort will be concentrated toward specific, concrete, and measurable goals. I started doing this with projects or initiatives that I was working on, and soon started using it with everyday tasks to keep myself focused. For example, I’ve set a timer while I write this article. When the timer goes off, I have to stop. This keeps my brain focused on writing and limits my tendency to overthink or over-edit a first draft. I’ll schedule time and a deadline for editing. Time is the most finite resource we have, but we can treat it like an infinite resource and waste it away rather than using time to our benefit.
Answer Emails Twice a Day. If you are in the camp of people who receive constant email notifications on your phone and computer, and respond to all your emails immediately, you probably think this is crazy. Hear me out. Emails are often non-urgent, non-important correspondence we need to act on or reply to. Rather than interrupting important work in favor of responding to an email, why not batch email replies and focus on knocking them out twice a day? Block off two times a day, every day, to sit and reply to emails. All other times are dedicated to meetings, projects, conversations, and other important work. You’ll still reply to people quickly, but you will avoid losing time and focus toggling between email and other activities.
Limit Screen Time. If you are investing in yourself this year, one of the best ways to free up time is to limit screen time. While I have made a concerted effort to limit my screen time over the past 18 months, I was still shocked to see my first weekly screen time report on my iPhone a few months ago. I use this weekly report as a barometer from which to lower my screen time every week and free up more time for work, hobbies, goals, and spending time with family and friends. Screens have an addictive trait to them, and when we use them, thirty minutes feels like five minutes.
Plan Ahead. I’ve seen advice on productivity over the years, and one common suggestion is to start the day with a daily task list. While the intent of a daily list is good, I have found that starting the day by creating a list already makes me feel behind, especially if my day starts with an early meeting. Instead, I plan ahead on a weekly basis every Thursday. I look at my calendar for the next month to see what major meetings, presentations, and deadlines are coming up, and I back into task lists for the week from there. After that, I assign specific tasks to each day based on when things have to get done and how much “production” time I have compared to meeting time. I also account for meeting follow ups and actions here. Within the list, I prioritize no more than three things each day. These are three things that must get done, no matter what. At the end of every day, I go through my list for that day and the next one and adjust it, as necessary. Then, when I start my day, I already know what I need to work on first rather than spend 15 minutes brainstorming.
Create Routines. Everyone has a list of mundane things to do every week - things like laundry, grocery shopping, taking out the trash, and cleaning. As my free time has decreased, I have created weekly and daily routines to automate these mundane tasks, where certain tasks always occur on a specific day of the week. These tasks are captured on a weekly planning template that I print off every week to reference and customize. This frees my brain from wondering when I’ll have time to pick up groceries or remembering that the trash and recycling get picked up on Wednesdays. It’s all part of a routine, and it’s all written down to free up space in my brain for more complex ideas.
What do you think - ready to try some of these ideas? What are other ways that you have increased your productivity? Comment below - I’m always looking for more good ideas.