“The key is not to prioritise what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” Stephen Covey
It is true that some people achieve a lot more than others. I believe that a large part of this is due to what they choose to focus their efforts on doing, rather than the practical ways that they do the tasks. Indeed there are numerous useful tools and techniques in a variety of formats (paper forms, online programmes, apps etc) that can help you with ways to project manage, schedule and do specific task more efficiently. The fact remains that however efficient you are, if the tasks you are completing are not part of your overall game plan then even if you ‘do’ a lot you may still ‘achieve’ relatively little.
So how can we be more productive?
From years of juggling the priorities and demands of family, career and personal goals here are my 10 top tips for making time for what’s important:
- Define your purpose
Be really really clear about what you want to achieve both in overall terms and for each task that you carry out:
- What is your goal?
- Why are you doing this task?
- Does it fit with your priorities?
Without clear direction it is very easy to get caught up in doing what we feel we should, what others would like us to do or what seems important because of an imposed deadline or demand. If you begin with the end in mind you are less likely to be side-tracked from your purpose.
- Develop the habit of saying no
Successful people are comfortable with saying no directly, without finding an excuse or saying they will ‘try’ when they have no intention of doing something. Developing this practise honours your priorities and prior commitments and by saying no at the outset eliminates unnecessary time in re-scheduling, cancelling or even just thinking about something that is not part of the overall game plan.
- Break down goals into manageable chunks
Most people are motivated more by short term smaller gains than longer term larger gains due to the lure of instant gratification and the buzz that gives us. As well as increasing the motivation aspect of a longer term goal, break down your overall vision, five year plan or annual plan into short term milestone goals and identify the actual specific actions that will give you instant gratification.
- Create a means of rewarding your progress
This takes the previous point a little further. By defining a reward, and when you will receive it, you will create a stronger motivation to complete that task. Suggestions include:
- Using a progress chart
- Creating a means of receiving feedback
- Scheduling celebration events – these do not have to be lavish for example, meet a friend, have a cup of tea, or frame a certificate, are great ways of celebrating
- Find someone to be accountable to
By sharing your commitments and deadlines with someone, and scheduling an accountability time to report back, you are far more likely to achieve those activities that were sufficiently important to share. If you find yourself consistently avoiding certain tasks it is worth exploring how you might be stopping your own progress – see point 9 below.
- Introduce some novelty
Our brains focus better on things that are new, so if you need to focus on something that requires a long period of attention, or is monotonous in nature, then introduce some novelty. For example, think about changing when or where you work, think of different ways of performing the task, share the task with someone else etc
- Create some healthy action habits
There are certain habits that can have an immense impact on our productivity:
- Manage distractions – schedule times to check your texts, social media, emails etc rather than allowing them to interrupt you constantly as they are received. This also applies to personal interruptions from staff and colleagues – if you wish to remain focussed schedule times when you are free to resolve issues or have discussions
- Avoid multi-tasking – being able to multi-task is a myth and whilst completing complementary tasks together may be efficient, switching between tasks is not as the brain lacks the capacity to focus effectively on two things at once with successful outcomes.
- Manage your diary – this ties into both the habits above and enables you to schedule activities and provide focussed attention time for each task
- Structure your day to suit your natural pace
We all have a natural pace that dictates how we perform activities. Those with a slow pace prefer focussed attention and longer periods of work and breaks, whereas those with a fast pace prefer shorter periods of focus or having a variety of tasks and short bursts of activity and breaks. The further you operate from your natural pace, the greater the drain on your energy and therefore, performance.
- Be aware of your preferences, patterns and beliefs
Humans are creatures of habit as well as having a core objective to survive and conserve energy. We establish patterns of behaviour and beliefs based on experience, upbringing, education etc and we will automatically adopt these patterns unless we consciously embed new ones. Consider:
- When do you work best?
- What environments stimulate or distract you? (People and places)
- What beliefs do you have that could be influencing your behaviour. Common beliefs are:
- Busyness and working long hours is a sign of success
- Not being busy is being lazy
- Focussing on what is important to you is ‘selfish’
- What fears are driving your behaviours:
- Fear of rejection and perception of others
- Fear of failure
- Fear of criticism
- Look after yourself
Listen to the needs of your body and be kind to yourself – continuing to work through fatigue may seem like the best solution but is often counter-productive with increased likelihood for mistakes, irritability and erosion of well-being. Pay attention to the following:
- Sleep routines – this is of paramount importance on so many levels – it is when your brain removes the toxins created from neuro-activity, our bodies restore and re-energise, our mood and mental state improves and the list goes on – having a good sleep routine is essential
- Schedule rest breaks – notice how long you like to focus on activities and when you start to lose concentration and schedule breaks accordingly. Ensure a rest break is real – remove yourself from your phone, emails, to do list etc and do something different such as take a walk, have a chat or read your favourite book
- Practise meditation or mindfulness – not only is this a popular exercise for the brain it can also be used to provide some me time away from your busy schedule
What is your most important goal? What habit will have the greatest impact on your success? Embed a new habit this week so that you can start to have more time for what’s important.
Here are three books that I have found really helpful to understand how to be more productive with my time with some useful ideas and techniques to put into practise:
Eat that Frog! Get More of the Important Things Done Today by Brian Tracy
This book is a great easy read with some interesting ways of getting you to attend to those really important tasks that are just not getting done.
It will give you inspiration to overcome procrastination with lots of easy to follow techniques to get you started. Follow the rules of eating frogs (where ‘frogs’ represent your biggest task that you are most likely to be procrastinating over but will give you the greatest positive impact):
Rule 1: If you have to eat two frogs, eat the ugliest one first
Rule 2: If you have to eat a live frog at all, it doesn’t pay to sit and look at it for very long
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People – Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen Covey
This book is a more in-depth guide to help you to establish habits that are modelled on the most successful people.
The style is easily accessible with lots of examples, both business and personal, that bring the habits alive as well as useful techniques and frameworks that you can incorporate into your habits for personal growth and success. Whilst the habits are all common sense, ensuring you actually embed them is life-changing. My favourite habits that have the greatest impact for me are:
- Be proactive – work out what you want and the actions that will get you there and ‘just do it’!
- Begin with the end in mind – without setting your own destination you are far more likely to end up at someone else’s or just going round in circles!
- Seek first to understand, then to be understood – taking time to understand how others see things and delivering our message appropriately saves so much time and emotion
The 12 Week Year – Get More done in 12 Weeks than others do in 12 Months by Brian P Moran and Michael Lennington
This book adapts well-used business techniques to how we are all naturally motivated to perform. It works on the principle that however great your ideas are, it is the actions that you take that yield results.
- Short-term goals are more motivating
- If you have a year you will take a year
- Actions get results
- Achieve more in less time