You’ve got a to-do list four days long and 92 unanswered emails in your inbox. With a cup of something caffeinated at your side you dive into work.
You’re starving, the caffeine is long gone and you don’t know where the morning went. There are now 96 unanswered emails in your inbox even though it feels like you’ve been typing all day and the only thing you’ve managed to do with your task list is blot the coffee splotches off it.
You have no idea where the day went, you’re missing a clump of hair from the left side of your head because you did nothing but tear at it all day, you’re about to eat that one Skittle that rolled under your desk last week because you never had time to stop for lunch…
… and somehow it still feels like you got nothing accomplished.
It hardly matters how long you’ve been in business, how many books you’ve read on productivity or what tools you use, we all occasionally suffer from busyness, without the intended and pleasant side effect of actually getting something done.
When that happens it helps to pull out your bag of magic tricks and get back on track, because I hate to be the one to tell you this but being busy does not mean you are being productive. In fact, being busy is a whole lot more stressful and a whole lot less rewarding. So if you’re going to spend the day “doing stuff” and miss lunch because of it, at least make it worth your while.
Here are a few simple tricks you can use to jolt yourself out of busy and into “get that s#!t done, now!”
Eat Your Frog
I stole that one from Brian Tracy. You can read his book for the long version, but essentially this means pick the one thing you don’t want to do, the thing you dread doing, the biggest, ugliest thing on your list and do it first. Not second. Not after your coffee. Not after you check your email. First. This is the thing that you will bump to the bottom of the list every time and it’ll only continue being not done.
There are some very good reasons for taking this approach, not least of which is that if you do this dreadful thing first, it’ll simply be done. It will also improve your mood and give you the energy you need to do the stuff that doesn’t seem so bad anymore now that the frog is gone.
Think about it like eating your broccoli first. Doesn’t everything else sort of seem like dessert after that?
Next time you prepare for work in the morning, I want you to look at your task list and pick out that one thing that you really don’t want to do. Maybe it’s hard. Or boring. Or time-consuming. Whatever it is, do it. No excuses. You will feel so much better once it’s gone.
Track Your Time
As far as helpful advice goes, how lame does that sound? But stop rolling your eyes and get out your stopwatch. You can go high-tech with time-tracking software like Harvest, or you can go low-tech with a paper, pencil and clock.
Whatever your choice, next time you start a task, note the name of the task and your start time. When you’re done, note the end time.
I bet you’ll find out that you spend a lot longer on some things than you think. This happened to me recently when I started tracking how long I was spending on a particular project. It was a holy-cow amount of time and I was shocked by the numbers. But there was no longer any doubt about where my day had gone.
What you will probably find is that the quick phone call you were going to make turned into a half hour chat. Or the proposal you were going to knock out took two hours because you had to do some research.
The easier and more rote something is, the less time we think we spend on it. But just because it may be easy for you to write a proposal doesn’t mean you spend five minutes on it. It may feel like five minutes though – and that’s where time tracking comes in handy.
And if you have a 2-hour slot where you played Words With Friends, you’ll have ample evidence of time management gone awry.
The bonus of time tracking is that you have a record of time that may well be billable. If you think you spent five minutes on someone’s project and bill them for that time when in reality it took you an hour… well, your money is going to end up in the same place as your day.
Plug The Holes
The other bonus of time tracking is that you can see where distractions crop up. A distraction is anything that takes you away from the task at hand, whether it’s something frivolous or something important. A client emergency is just as much a distraction as your cat sitting on your keyboard (and she is just too cute to shoo, isn’t she?)
Distractions mess with your flow. There’s the time it takes you to stop what you’re doing and refocus on the distraction, then the time to refocus on your task, figure out where you left off and get back into the right mindset.
Often we don’t make a conscious decision to deal with distractions because they just happen, and we just react. The better you can be about noting these distractions, the more mindful you will be when they happen and the better you’ll be able to choose how to respond instead of just react.
Plus, if you’ve been tracking your time, you can see where half the morning went because you were browsing Facebook or catching up on the latest sales and you can consciously navigate those black holes.
Turn Off The Phone And Close Your Email
The phone and email are two of the worst offenders when it comes to distractions and they can create a huge time-suck even if you’re engaging with them “productively”. The problem with the phone and email is that they elicit a Pavlovian response. The minute the phone rings, we pick it up. The instant an email comes in, we check to see what it’s about.
Here’s a truth: the world will not fail to rotate if you do not respond to a phone call or email instantly, nor cease to hang in the sky if you don’t check your messages for an entire day.
That’s right, I said an entire day. Check your messages once in the morning and if nothing is on fire, close the browser, let the calls go to voicemail and get things done.
This will be painful at first. Have a cookie, it’ll help with the withdrawal symptoms. But I guarantee you that the minute you stop jumping through communication hoops, your entire day will open up like a big grassy field under the sun. You will probably even relax more, which will help you be more productive all by itself.
Set Up Email Filters
Once you stop checking email every two seconds, it’s going to start accumulating. If the idea of all those unread messages gives you a little twitch in the corner of your right eye, then it’s time to set up some filters. You can do this in Outlook and Gmail and just about every other email program you can think of.
Your filters will depend on the types of emails you get and your workflow, but here is an example of what I do.
I have one folder just for newsletters that I get from other businesses. Everything from Pier 1 to Williams Sonoma to the Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Network. Those emails bypass my inbox altogether and go neatly into a folder I designate. Some days I end up with 50 emails in that folder alone. But I’m not sifting through them along with client emergencies and other information.
I have a folder for all my Google alerts. Those come in by the hundreds every day. When I’m ready, I click through them and pick up a few interesting headlines. Sometimes they’re repetitious and I trash them. But they are not in my inbox and I can sift through them at a specific time and with a specific goal.
If you have three really important clients that you hand-hold on a daily basis, you may want a folder just for those clients, so you know that if something drops into that folder, it means “pay attention!”
If you get Twitter notifications about new followers and you’re collecting those by the dozens or hundreds per day, set up a separate folder for them, so your brain doesn’t explode when your inbox number is higher than your yearly salary.
The point is that you can organize and group email by importance and by topic so you never have to click through and waste valuable time making a decision about every. single. one.
Try The Pomodoro Technique
This is a simple way to track your time and stay focused all at once. The premise is that you set a timer – the recommendation is 25 minutes – and work on a single task. At the end of the 25 minutes you stop. Even if you’re mid-sentence on a blog post, you stop. This is a Pomodoro.
Then you take a five minute break and start again, with another 25 minutes working. After 4 Pomodoros, you can take a longer break.
While it may seem counterintuitive to stop mid-task, it’s a great way to keep your energy up and prevent yourself from getting so involved in a task that… guess what… you lose track of a whole day.
If you know you only have 25 minutes to work on something, you are naturally going to make the most out of that short time. It also gives you the comfort of knowing you’ve got an “out” if you’re doing something you don’t love.
Taking a break is underrated. It gives your brain time to regroup and reenergize. You can be more creative and more productive if you give your brain time to rest and get some perspective. And if you use those five minutes to get up and walk around the room, you’re doing yourself another huge favor.
And no, checking emails and making phone calls in between Pomodoros is not taking a break. A break is a break. No work, just time away. Then start again, refreshed and refocused and make the next time slot count.
Learn To Say No
Do you find yourself helping others out even when it interrupts what you’re doing? Time to unlearn that habit.
I’m the first to admit this is a huge problem challenge for me. As soon as someone asks for help, needs a favor or asks me if I can take care of something, I go on autopilot and say yes. I don’t even qualify it with “yes, later”.
Besides being a distraction, it’s just one more thing that wasn’t on my to-do list which, once I complete it, won’t even give me the satisfaction of crossing it off.
From now on, when someone asks you for something, I want your default position to be “no”. You’ll have some withdrawal symptoms with this one, too. Have two cookies and just say no.
At the very least, I want you to pause for a moment before shooting off a “yes” and think “no”. Then I want you to choose your response.
No, I’m sorry I won’t have time for that, I have a lot on my plate right now.
No, I can’t do that but ask Bob, he’s playing an awful lot of Words With Friends today.
No, I can’t do that right now, but I can schedule it for… (pause to check your calendar)… next Tuesday.
It’s not your job to be helpful. It’s your job to get your job done, and that other person is probably asking for your help because she can’t figure out where her day went.
Confession time: I use every one of these techniques and sometimes I still look back on a day when I’ve been absurdly busy and wonder why I didn’t get anything done. The truth is that it takes continuous effort and mindfulness to stay on track. But if you pull out one of these tricks next time you’re feeling overwhelmed and can’t seem to get anything done, I bet you’ll find a little room to breathe again.
How about you? Do you have any tricks to share that boost your productivity?