Part of being a human is the desire to continually improve ourselves, to pack more into every waking hour. If anyone thinks the topic of productivity isn’t popular, take a trip to a bookstore or even better, search the internet on topics relating to the subject. In my search, “how to be more productive,” returned 4.4 million hits. A lot of people and companies make a nice living by teaching people how to be more productive. Another, probably equal number, make a good living on teaching people how to de-stress their lives.
Trying to be more productive generally leads to over-committing. Then, trying to accomplish all that we have committed to do has a lot of negative consequences:
- You don’t get anything done well.
- You are always behind the to-do list.
- You feel frustrated because you cannot get caught up.
- You don’t know where to start.
- You may become depressed.
- You don’t sleep well.
- Shall I continue?
American workers are already among the most productive in the world and work some of the longest hours. According to an article at 20somethingfinancial.com, 85.8% of males and 70% of females work more than 40 hours per week. We also outstrip Japan, Britain, and France in the number of hours worked each year. American productivity has increased 400% since 1950! A remarkable statistic. The standard of living, on the other hand, is not 400% higher.
How to reduce stress and live better
So, what is the solution? What if I told you that project management apps and techniques could help you alleviate stress and get more done? Don’t run off just yet; there are plenty of task management and project management apps that don’t require a Ph.D. to master.
Before we go any further, let’s talk about the rest of the article. The tips and hints provided will work with any time, task, to do list, or project management software you might decide to try. There are references to Bubbles Planner, the tool your author uses, but I repeat, these tips can work for whatever you decide to use.
How do we define productivity today?
Productivity is commonly associated with working, but we can be productive in our personal lives as well. It doesn’t get the same attention and yet, may be more important in the long run, especially as related to health.
We’ve all heard the old saying, “work smarter, not harder.” It is so overused; it borders on being trite. Automation has enabled people to work smarter and do a lot more in the same amount of time. It has become “work smarter, and harder,” for many people.
What does it mean to “be productive” in the world today? Time for a definition. Searching for “definition of productivity,” returned 125,000,000 hits! I suppose that indicates the definition depends on who you ask. According to Merriam-Webster, productivity can be defined as:
We can leave biomass out of this definition. What we are looking at is the labor productivity which is output volume/units of labor input. The more “things you produce in an hour, the higher your productivity. Naturally, companies strive for increased productivity to drive more profits to the bottom line. Which is why they are in business in the first place.
It’s a matter of balance and prioritization
But what does it mean to be more productive? Your employer might set productivity goals that include, numbers of widgets produced, sales made, customer calls answered, etc. Absent a specific goal; the company might say, “We all need to be more productive!” How does that happen? Could it be working harder? Working extra hours, perhaps? If you produce more that way, bottom line productivity for the company increases, but you aren’t benefitting unless you are paid by the hour.
Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to become more productive. These steps can be applied to both your work and personal life. The number one step to take is prioritizing the tasks you commit to performing. Part and parcel of this is balancing those priorities between work and personal needs.
1. Know your goals
Take time to write out what you want to accomplish in the coming year. For work, that is probably done for you. The company will set goals that people are expected to meet. Performance appraisals and raises are based on performance against goals and goals are supposed to reflect the priorities of the company. Your employer may provide goal or task tracking software to help employees stay on target. They may have dashboards showing performance against key performance indicators.
Tip: When being presented with goals at work, ask for a listing by importance. If you cannot get that, ask which ones will impact your performance appraisal.
On the personal side, it can be trickier. Don’t come at this like you are creating a “New Year’s Resolution.” Spend some time and put down what you want to accomplish and in order of importance. There will be some mundane things like cooking and yardwork but put in family- and passion-oriented things you want to achieve. Family dinner once a week. Coach the Little League team. Train for a half marathon. Take a cruise. List them in order of importance.
Now you have the basis for viewing every task based on, “What goal does this task help achieve?” If it doesn’t help any, don’t do it. Of course, things change throughout the year, and you may have to shift goals. When you do, adjust your list accordingly.
Tip: Make these goals date specific and put the list where you can see it every day. Now you have your goals for personal time. You can have it as a to-do list, a wish list, store it in an app or print it out and post it on the fridge.
Important: Make sure everything is realistic, and there is a legitimate chance of them happening; otherwise it becomes an additional frustration. For example, being the first in your family to climb Mt. Everest by the end of June may be a stretch unless you have the requisite experience.
2. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize
Not everything can be the top priority. It is impossible and nonsensical. Any employer that says everything is a priority is sending a flag to start looking for greener pastures. The same applies in your personal life. Sometimes goals and priorities can seem to be the same, but one is a desired outcome (goal) and the other is a methodology (prioritization) of focusing energy on things that help reach a goal.
Let’s look at an example. At work, you want to get a raise. In order to have the best chance at a raise, you will need to beat your objectives as defined by the company. That means you must give priority attention to those tasks that will help you meet or beat your objectives. Weigh commitments to new responsibilities and duties against impacting your ability to reach your goal.
Tip: An essential skill is being able to separate the wheat from the chaff. A lot of things are done on a, “Just because we’ve always done it that way,” basis. I give you an example of this below.
Here’s an excellent example from personal experience. In a new management role at a Fortune 100 company, my secretary comes in with a print out about ¾” thick. It contained a list of reports my position was receiving and had to approve.
She then handed me a single page with about six reports and said, “These are the only ones anyone cares about. I just file the others in case someone asks.”
The lesson? Think about what will happen if you stop doing something. If no one is likely to notice or care, file it away in case someone asks. You have gained some free time.
Goals help you focus. At work, the motivation may be to get a raise, earn recognition, get a promotion, and so forth. At home, it can be creating memories as a family or fulfilling a life-long fantasy. Motivation is good. Distraction is bad. Hum, as I wrote that, I mentally imagined Mungo from “Blazing Saddles” saying it in his caveman lingo.
Distractions are inevitable but also manageable. Managing distractions is easier when you have your priorities and related tasks written down or entered into a priority/task management application.
Here are some tips and techniques for dealing with distractions. Spoiler, if your job is dealing with distractions, i.e., interacting with customers, these may not apply, especially the first.
- Make and receive calls and emails at specific times, preferably first thing in the morning and at the end of the day. Let people know this is how you work. Let them know how to get you if it is urgent.
- Avoid getting roped into too many committees. Committees mean meetings, meetings are the black holes of productive time, too many meetings mean missed goals or extra hours catching up.
- Set a limit on how long you are willing to work each day. Special circumstance excepted. Why? You need to allocate time for your personal goals.
- Plan your work and work your plan. Yes, another truism, but an important one. Products like Bubbles Planner provide a powerful visual tool for managing your workday.
- Write down what you accomplished at the end of the day. Did it contribute to your goals? Reports to your boss are an excellent way to gauge progress.
Similar techniques apply at home. Tips here include:
- Beware of making too many commitments.
- Plan and set aside time for the goals on your list. If running a half marathon requires running 10 miles a day, set the time aside. But it on a calendar app with reminders.
- Consider using tools like Bubbles Planner for reaching personal goals. The concepts are the same, and it keeps both work and personal data in a convenient location.
- Track your progress against your goals and report it to someone who agrees to hold you accountable.
4. Learn to say “no,” nicely and professionally
It seems to be another facet of human nature; most people want to be helpful and feel valued. As a result, it is hard to say no when asked to do something. Extremely hard. There may be professional or personal pressure to say yes. If you always say yes, your focus and priorities are thrown into a shamble.
Here are some tips to saying no at work.
- What do I stop doing to take this on?
- I will need someone to take over XYZ if I do this.
- How long will this last?
- When do you need it?
- How much time is required?
- I am fully committed already.
- Delegate to a subordinate if you are able.
Here are some for personal commitments. They are eerily like those used at work.
- I have too many other commitments.
- Someone will need to take this other task over if I do that for you.
- How long will this last?
- When do you need it?
- What time commitment (daily, weekly, etc.) do you expect?
Sometimes you have no choice, especially when it involves the job or family. Make those decisions as they arise and drop something off your list. Otherwise, you will become overloaded again.
Hint: It can be a powerful tool in helping you gracefully decline if you have your tasks, responsibilities, and other commitments at your fingertips so you can show the person asking for your time what your days look like. A handwritten calendar or a calendar app can help here.
5. Manage your goals
The best way to become and remain productive is having a reliable method of planning and scheduling tasks and due dates. Everything is going to have a due date of some type. Is it this week? Next week? Next month? Sometime in the future? You need to have a reliable process for keeping track of tasks and when things are due
The obvious answer is a calendar. But what works best for you? Paper or electronic? Paper has the benefit of being tangible and not susceptible to erasure due to system malfunctions. On the other hand, electronic tools are brimming with handy notification features to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
With modern technology and smartphones, electronic makes a lot of sense. Whatever method you choose, do not have more than one calendar, except to the degree that you keep personal and work tasks separated for privacy reasons.
Important: Multiple calendars are a recipe for disaster. You will inevitably miss something important because it was on the wrong schedule.
Another benefit of an electronic solution is that it can automate any number of functions. Set and forget dates, for example. A task is due 60 days from now. Enter it with a notification to address the job at a specific point and let the system handle notification.
Tip: Make a habit of starting each day looking at the tasks that are on your plate. Put them in order of importance and significance to your goals. Work those first. Those you do not get accomplished roll over to another day. This is a basic project or task management process that works extremely well.
Tip: Schedule time for the most critical tasks on your calendar. Set aside that time to focus on that task to the exclusion of all else. Naturally, responding to fire alarms and unplanned emergencies is an acceptable reason for shifting focus.
6. Be flexible
Face it, the best plan rarely survives first contact with the enemy, or real life, in this situation. Be willing to adapt when necessary but also be willing to fight to maintain your goals and priorities. Constantly changing to meet someone else’s priority will defeat the purpose of your planning efforts and put you back in the frustrated, overworked, and unhappy mode.
Important: The key point just made is when you commit to something, you are changing your priorities to meet those of another person. Don’t let your priorities be trampled by another’s without a good reason.
Planning takes time and discipline, both to develop and execute. It needs to become “muscle memory,” something you do instinctively. Once you reach that level, the time commitment seems to lessen. The best part is that you are in control and have the tools and skills to manage your work and personal life more effectively. Tools like Bubbles Planner, task managers, to do list, calendar apps, and so forth offer sophisticated yet intuitive methods of planning and managing the plan to compl>