Are you on a never-ending quest to optimise your time, get more work done and achieve some semblance of a work-life balance? Well here’s a tip: there is no work-life balance. It’s all life. Rather work towards being the most effective version of yourself and know that you have all the tools you need to be the best version of yourself.
If we combine effectiveness with efficiency we get productivity. Many of us feel we need more hours in a day to reach our true potential, and being more productive can help you attain that goal. If we can achieve more with less effort, productivity increases.
Think of it as playing to your own strengths and prioritising your time towards whatever end you define as success. The good news is you can learn how to optimise your productivity when it counts. Here are some tips from productivity experts and our own experience that can help you do just that.
Write things down, make to-do lists
Richard Branson is a notorious note-taker. “We could never have achieved a tenth of what we’ve achieved without systematic lists and actions,” says the Virgin founder.
It’s a great remedy for a bad memory, an ADD temperament or a perpetual multi-tasker. Make notes when someone is talking to you about something important. When a great idea strikes (almost inevitably at an inopportune time) write it down. Turn your notes later into to-do lists that you actually complete. Revise them and keep them relevant. Remove things that no longer apply. Colour code or categorise in some way that makes sense to you.
“I’m amazed when I go into meetings and am the only person taking notes. Write everything down,” says Branson.
In his article How to Publish 6 Blog Posts Every Week, Jon Westenberg also talks about the importance of taking notes and turning them into checklists and it’s well worth a read.
Do the most important thing first
This week a friend* jokingly said to me:
“Why do today what you can do tomorrow?”
I laughed. If she were talking about doing the dishes or going for a run, there was more than a hint of irony intended. But then I thought, there’s actually some hidden wisdom in that statement. If we approached every day starting out with those tasks that had to be done that day, we could be far more productive and efficient than if we put them off or started with the things that could be done tomorrow. I can tend to procrastinate and avoid tasks that are tedious or daunting, while it’s the easiest thing in the world to spend half the morning on emails that are often less important.
Hemmingway was known for his routine of waking up and writing straight away.
“When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write.”
To apply this to the everyday, start with the things that must be done today. It could be invoicing day or a project deadline, or preparation for a meeting in the afternoon. Maybe it is your great novel. Once you’ve made headway on the most important things, fit in your admin and lower priority tasks or new things that have cropped up, as they always will. And if they’re not done by the end of the workday? Do them tomorrow.
*My friend says the designer Robin Sprong originally said this to her.
Take breaks, walk, fit in exercise
Sitting is the new smoking, or so coined American conductor James Levine. In the article The Spectacular Benefits Of Non-Exercise: How Little Movements Add Up To A Healthier Day Fast Company adds to the extensive literature on the benefits of regular light exercise (over less frequent, strenuous exercise).
Taking regular breaks is not only important for health reasons like good circulation but it’s also great for clearing the mind. I make a habit of taking a 30 to 60-minute walk every day during (or instead of) a lunchbreak and it’s the best thing for zooming out from what I’ve been focusing on that morning, returning to big picture mode, and then mentally preparing for the afternoon.
Fit in walks whenever you have the opportunity by parking around the corner or taking the stairs, and you’ll find not only are you elevating your mood but also adding more thinking time to your day, both of which will make you work more productively when you return to sitting down.
There’s also nothing quite like proper exercise to help relieve stress and improve your mood and general well-being. So make a point of scheduling in your yoga classes, evening run or morning surf and treat these sessions with as much priority as the tasks on your work to-do list. You’ll be far more effective for it.
The cliche “slow and steady wins the race” exists for good reason. When we go about doing things in a rush or a panic, we inevitably make mistakes or trip up, causing us to be less productive in the long run.
Proof-read emails, double check calendar invites and check every link in your newsletter before sending. Test your products before launching. Be pedantic about quality control. This will avoid making double work and having to go back and correct things when it may be too late, and ultimately help you take that step from good to great.
Preparation is key
Brief properly, create project plans and time schedules. Not only do these serve as incredibly useful resources at a later stage of a project, but they help to organise your thoughts and ensure clear communication between you and your team or clients. Avoid making assumptions and nail down the nitty gritty early on to ensure your production and implementation stages run smoothly. But also be open to your plans changing and be flexible enough to adapt when they do.
Think of your project plan as less of a Holy Grail and more of a Darwinian evolution.
Cut meetings in half
We all know the feeling of being stuck in a three-hour meeting after lunch when the mid-afternoon slump sets in and you’re sneaking a peek at your phone or smothering a yawn. While on the one hand meetings are so important for clear communication and understanding, we tend to drag them out out far longer than necessary. Come to the meeting with an agenda and try to follow it. Set a reasonable length and time and stick to it. Not every meeting needs 30 minutes to an hour. See what you can cover in 15. Do it standing up.
Also keep in mind that rules are made to be broken, so if the meeting takes an interesting turn and your agenda and time schedule are blown out the window, allow for that by being flexible and not scheduling your most important meetings back to back.
Use technology to your advantage
In this day and age there are hundreds of apps and other tech tools that can help you optimise your productivity. For notekeeping I love Google Keep. Essentially a list app, it syncs between the mobile app and browser. It can integrate with Gmail, Drive and Google Docs. It has simple functions like colour-coding, checkboxes and archiving that make it super intuitive and useful. In fact, this blog started off as a note on Keep that I added to whenever a new idea sprung to mind. Right from Keep, you can schedule it as a reminder and it will pop up on your calendar, and you might even do it!
Other great tools include Boomerang, which lets you schedule email to send at an appropriate time (like Monday 7am rather than midnight on a Friday). You can also send email back to yourself (Boomerang, get it?) after a certain period if they remain unanswered – a great reminder that something important is pending.
Good browsers like Chrome have a ton of other useful extenstions that can streamline your workflow, from Bit.ly for link shortening on the fly to OneTab for turning your gazillion browser tabs into one page (which seriously eases up both your mental and actual bandwidth). Keep also has a Chrome extension that lets you send a web page straight to a note for dealing with later.
Toggl is another awesome web app for timekeeping, which is useful if you work on multiple projects or clients, and also to get a better idea of how you actually spend your time. I use it to help turn my work day into segments to ensure a good balance between billable work, admin, meetings, research and development, and our own company marketing like writing blogs and social media.
Make a project dashboard
Especially when you work on multiple projects that span an extended period of time, there is nothing like having everything in one place to save time. Rather than searching through emails and folders inside folders or bookmarks and handwritten notes, save key details to a project dashboard. This could be as simple as a spreadsheet with multiple tabs or a project in an app like Slack.
Include big picture information like your brief, original quote breakdown, project plan and timeline, down to finer details like important contacts, links or usernames. You could use the same space for your To Do lists and meeting notes, if they are important to refer to later. If you work in a team, store this version in the cloud using Google Sheets so everyone can contribute and refer to the dashboard wherever they are.
Know when to say no!
Whenever we choose to do something, we choose not to do something else. Commit to things that matter. That often means knowing when to say no – to an invitation, project, meeting or even a pitch to a potential client. Prioritise what’s important to you across a balance of the areas of your life that you value, and be selective before you jump to saying yes.
Try different strategies, learn from others
Ultimately we are all different – try talking a night owl into a 5am run and you’ll find that out quickly – and different productivity strategies work for different types of people. TV producer Paula Rizzo wrote in her blog 4 Common Productivity Tips That Are Actually the Worst that she hates To Do lists and always checks emails first (and she has some great points!). So learn from others (Lifehackers has a great series called How I Work, and this Manifesto of a Doer is a great and inspiring read). Try out new ways of working. Take note of what you’ve done differently and how that makes you feel, from your productivity to your energy levels, and use that to revise and optimise the way you work and live. It’s really all about making the most of the relatively short time we have in a day and in a lifetime.