As both a mildly obsessive organizer and someone who has spent most of my adult life trying to unlearn the overachiever instincts that get me stretched too thin, I find myself drawn to articles about “how to do more in less time” or “how to be more productive every day”, and I inevitably find myself disappointed. The suggestions are so often either so involved that they would require implementing some elaborate organizational system (that would require time that none of us have, especially if we’re trying to be more efficient), or they’re so specific that if you don’t work in a particular way doing particular tasks, they’re just not relevant. In the spirit of writing the things I’d want to read (and that hopefully others find interesting or helpful), and inspired by a recent conversation about how I organize my time when working at home, I offer a few productivity tips that are easy to implement and don’t require any elaborate spreadsheets or downloading seven apps to every device you own.
Avoid jumping between projects
It takes time for you to shift gears from one project to the next, both on an organizational level of closing one set of files or putting away one set of supplies and getting the next set of things ready and in the sense that your brain has to wind down one set of skills and information and rev back up into another, so try to organize your day or week to do all of a project, or at least a significant chunk in one shot, whenever possible. With very large projects, you’ll probably need to split it into specific tasks, but the more you can complete one task straight through without starting and stopping, the less total time the project will take you.
Don’t be afraid to be unavailable periodically
Unless you’re expecting an important call or email any minute, you can close your email, put your phone on silent, and let things go to voice mail for an hour or two of uninterrupted work. The lack of interruptions will allow you to really hit your stride on whatever you’re working on and take advantage of your brain’s ability to intensely focus, and I promise the world will not grind to a screeching halt. If you’re concerned about the lack of availability, include a note in your outgoing voice mail greeting that tells people who they contact if they need to talk to someone absolutely immediately, like an assistant, your second in command, or someone else in your department, and set a reasonable expectation for response time. Unless you’ve told someone that you’ll be available at a specific time, no reasonable person should be excessively put out if you take a few hours to return their email or phone call.
Control your to-do lists, don’t let them control you
Your to-do lists and calendar are a tool, they’re designed to streamline things for you and to save you time and keep you organized, but if you look at them so many times a day and spend so much time tweaking them and adjusting them and managing them, at a point they’re not actually a net gain. A fairly straight forward to-do list, that you look at at the beginning and end of the day and maybe a few times throughout the day as you shift between tasks or projects, and a standard calendar like Google Calendar, iCal, or Outlook, should be all you need to keep yourself on track.
Notifications on your mobile devices or your computer are helpful if they do things like cut down on how often you pull up your email to check and see if something you’re waiting on has come on, but they’re not helpful if they distract you a hundred times a day with non-critical things. As much as possible, limit notifications by turning them off completely on apps that aren’t necessary, turning off reminders on calendar events that don’t need them, and turning off general notifications on your email inbox and setting it to just a certain priority sender list or similar. If there are too many notifications you eventually stop paying attention to them in general because of the signal to noise ratio, so you really want to limit things to the notifications that are legitimately important and add to your ability to stay informed and get things done.
Take ten minutes at the beginning and end of the day to organize yourself
Dedicate a few minutes, really about ten or fifteen at most, at the beginning and end of your day to look through and organize your email and respond to anything that just needs a quick reply, look through your to-do list, and make a quick plan for your day. Don’t get caught up in scheduling out your tasks too carefully, because things will always come up that will need you to be flexible, but have enough of a plan that if you didn’t get distracted by anything unexpected, you could go through your day knowing what your next task would be.
The key to most of these is to have enough of a plan that you can focus and get as much work done without having to constantly stop and regroup, but not to have things so minutely organized and planned out that the inevitable unexpected project or meeting or phone call derails the entire process. Less is more, yet again! I’m sure some of our readers have some great productivity tips of their own, so please share in the comments!