I used to equate working long hours with being productive. While I’d put in the hours, I’d still feel frazzled at the end of the day. I felt as if projects weren’t being completed fast enough, and ultimately, my time, focus and energy were all over the place.
I was trapped in the hamster wheel of just trying to stay on top of my day-to-day tasks, and not dedicating enough time to creative, meaningful projects.
Reasons why I was frustrated
- There were never enough hours in the day to get everyday tasks completed.
- It was difficult to stay organized because I was so overwhelmed.
- It as a challenge to shut off my mind in a never-ending open loop of thinking about uncompleted tasks.
- I didn’t know how to dive into creative projects that aligned with high-level goals and get all the other stuff (emails, reports, administrative work) done.
- Battling interruptions, like meetings and emails.
If this sounds familiar to you, then this article is worth the read. It may be a good jumping point for you to discover in-depth ways to get more done in your day while focusing on the work that really matters to you, your business or place of employment.
These nine points are my biggest takeaways from reading books, listening to podcasts, attending seminars, conferences, and talking to mentors and colleagues. Here’s what I learned and how I put these findings into actionable steps to get more done.
1. Prioritize deep work over shallow work
This whole time I thought I was a pretty good multi-tasker, but guess what? There’s no such thing. The human brain can’t do two things at once. Have you ever tried working on your computer while watching TV? Chances are, you’ll really be watching TV or getting work done, not both. Here are some more tasks that prove humans can’t do more than one thing at a time: texting and driving, listening to the radio while trying to have a conversation with someone, and if you remember first grade, you may not have conquered rubbing your stomach with one hand while patting your head with the other.
Myth debunked: There’s no such thing as multi-tasking or time management.
I learned that there is no such thing as time management. Instead, learn how to manage your priorities more efficiently. I read a book called “Deep Work” by Cal Newport. In the book, Newport makes the distinction between deep and shallow work. Deep work relates to tasks that require critical thinking and creativity. These are the needle-moving projects that make you the extra bucks, secure the high-profile partnerships, make your brand a household name, or whatever your goals are. Newport recommends prioritizing these projects.
Another way to understand deep work vs. shallow is to ask yourself the following: “Could I outsource or train anyone else on the team to do my job in a few hours or a day?” If you can, it’s shallow work. Think back to what you were hired to do. What is the meat of your job? That’s your deep work.
Action step: Make a list of your deep work. Don’t make it too long. For my clients, I prioritized the three most important goals I was hired to achieve, and wrote them on a sticky note. This keeps the goals simple, and it provides a reminder for you, in case you get sucked into the vortex of shallow work.
2. Prioritize projects and create action steps for each task
After you list your deep work vs shallow work, move items around so that high priority projects are at the top.
Again, what were you hired to accomplish?
My list looked something like this
- Build editorial roadmap & strategy for Q3
- Streamline pitch process so any freelance editor will be able to approve pitches without my involvement
- Influencer video project
From there, I began breaking projects apart and created actionable steps, from soup to nuts (this includes other team members who are on the project), along with a deadline. Important tasks were on the top of the list, less important ones, at the bottom. I use a combination of Evernote and Trello for this, but Asana seems to be a top choice for many, and some swear by OmniFocus.
For the sake of simplicity, here is what my project list looks like, if I broke it apart.
Build editorial roadmap & strategy for Q3
- Assess data from analytics
- Content: 12 infographics, 5 interviews, 6 partner stories, 4 guest posts, 3 guides
- Write updated editorial guideline
Streamline pitch process so any freelance editor will be able to approve pitches
- Write content formula with acceptance criteria, include examples
- Write editor expectations and guidelines
- Use Loom to explain the workflow process from pitch, write, edit and publish
Influencer video project
- Create JIRA ticket for video to live on blog landing page
- Outreach for video (PR, social, other partner influencers)
- Find editor to edit video
Some productivity junkies prefer to use the mind-mapping method for projects. Remember 5th grade in writing class when your teacher handed you a blank sheet of paper and asked you to put the main idea in as a big circle in the middle, and then branch out all of the details that pertain to that main idea? It’s the exact same idea, except this time, you’re applying it to projects. DigitalTrends.com recently created a list of their top 10 favorite mind mapping tools.
Action step: Break down deep work into actionable steps and move highest priority tasks to the top.
Then, try using the mind mapping technique and break down large projects even further to figure out exactly what you need to get done.
3. Create a schedule based on when you are most productive
I don’t know about you, but waking up at the crack of dawn has been a regular part of my schedule since my 20s. I remember feeling weird (and sleepy) driving to work at 4:30 a.m., before the sun came up, before traffic, before Starbucks even opened. Even though it took some time to get adjusted, I learned to love it, and discovered I get some of my best work done in the early morning hours of 6 and 10:00 a.m.
Therefore, I dive into high cognitive tasks early in the morning when I know I am most focused and productive. Renowned Duke University professor Dan Ariely revealed that your brain is the most alert two hours after you wake up. Ariely gives the details on his Reddit AMA.
If you want to go even one step further, check out “The Power of When,” by Michael Breus, PhD.
The book explains the concept of a “master biological clock” everyone has in their brains. You take a quiz and are categorized into specific chronotypes, or animals (dolphin, bear, lion, wolf). Based on your results, Breus gives specific recommendations on when to get something done, including when you should exercise, get your best work done, and even talk to your kids.
I took the quiz and I am a bear (50 percent of the population), but after starting the book, I’m convinced I’m a hybrid of a lion and bear because lions are early risers.
If you are not a morning person, that’s okay too, but I would strongly recommend training yourself to get up earlier.
The obvious reason why morning works best to get sh*t done — you can get it out of the way and not have to worry about it for the rest of your day.
If you aren’t ready to become a morning person, or if you’re took “The Power of When” quiz and found out you’re a wolf (you thrive at night), think about your evening hours and when you are most focused.
If you’re unsure, start logging your work each day. You want to find out how much work you get done in X amount of time, or between certain hours.
Action step: Start a log on a Google Excel doc and find out when you are most productive. When you are logging, make sure to note whenever you get tasks completed. The point is to find out when you are most productive and get tasks completed so you can start scheduling important work during those times. Do this for at least two weeks.
If you already know when you are most productive, block off those times in your calendar and claim those hours as your deep work/focus time to tackle high-priority projects and tasks.
App tip: There are apps that will automatically track what you’re working on. I’ve used Toggl a few times and heard great things about RescueTime. Both apps have a free version.
4. Use the Pomodoro Method for tasks
This is an awesome way to stay focused. The Pomodoro Technique is a timed method I use to accomplish tasks and is hands down the best way I have immensely increased productivity throughout my work day. I use it for all my tasks, from checking social media to emails to getting my most creative work done.
According to Wikipedia, “The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.”
It’s so simple, but so effective. I time myself for 45 minutes. The most important part is to not let myself do anything else other than the task at hand. I can’t stress this enough.
This means I’m not jumping back into emails, checking Twitter or doing anything else that would cause an interruption.
I can certainly work longer than the allotted time, but I’ll usually stop for a five-minute break to get up and stretch, refill my coffee, or respond quickly to a Slack message.
Cool app tip: I use a free app called Tide that has a variety of white noise options to help you concentrate during this time.
I chose 45 minutes because I realized I can work for that long before I start losing focus. Some people work in much shorter sprints, like 25 minutes at a time. Whatever works for you.
Action Step: Start timing yourself for each task during your deep work time. Make sure you’re taking breaks along the way.
Tip: Slack also offers a Pomodoro timer. Type “Tomatobot” the next time you’re in Slack.
5. Build the ‘anti-distraction skill’ in your brain
Do yourself a favor and turn off all notifications for things like emails, instant messengers, social media, and general distractions. Do the same for your phone, since it’s most likely sitting on your desk next to your computer.
While it’s obvious that a notification will temporarily break your concentration, there’s a deeper, brain-based scientific explanation that illustrates why it’s absolutely crucial to turn off distractions. In order to the brain to get settled to deep, creative work, it needs time to ramp up and fire up all its synapses.
When you constantly stop to do something else, you’re cutting off brain inertia.
Mark Murphy wrote a post on Forbes about this topic: “Let’s imagine that it takes 10 minutes to really get your mind engaged on writing that report; collecting your thoughts, clearing your head, etc. And then, let’s say that you’re only able to write for 10 minutes before you get interrupted by an employee. So you stand up, deal with the issue, and then sit back down to start work again. Because you’ve lost your creative train-of-thought, you now have to go through that 10 minute ‘start up’ time before you can return to your writing.”
Another Forbes article said constantly switching tasks makes your IQ go down, more than if you were to lose a night’s sleep or smoke pot!
I’m not going to lie, this was really difficult in the beginning. At first, you will fail. Many, many times. But that’s okay because you’re practicing a new habit, and you’re telling that part of your brain — the one that constantly needs to reach for your phone, or open Facebook — to cut it out.
I noticed that any time I ran into a problem while doing work, my first reaction was to avoid it by jumping into another task I could quickly tick off my inner to do list, like checking my email or responding to someone on chat. This was a bad habit of the past that, quite frankly, I didn’t even realize I was doing, until I became more intentional with this new method of focusing on one task at a time.
Building this habit means:
1. You’ll start to become more aware of how often you’re delaying or procrastinating work because of these distractions.
2. You’ll build an “anti-distraction” muscle in your brain, and eventually become great at ignoring distractions.
Productivity experts recommend that you schedule “distraction time” into your calendar. So, rather than checking Facebook, your news feed, personal emails several times a day, schedule 30 minutes later in the day to check it.
It’s important to realize that getting better at the Pomodoro Technique, and deep work in general, is not based on will power or trying your best. It’s a skill that must be learned through repetition — just like learning how to type faster or playing basketball. You won’t make baskets on your first day on the court. But through practice, you’ll improve.
6. Batch administrative tasks
But what about all the other shallow work B.S. I have to do?
For shallow work, schedule time in your day to batch it together. This includes administrative tasks, responding to emails, etc. In order to not get carried away with doing too much of these tasks, time it so you’re limiting how much you’re working on them in your day.
I schedule roughly 30 minutes a few times a day for shallow work. It’s a good idea to schedule these for after lunch, or later in the afternoon when you’re probably more fatigued or your level of concentration is less optimal.
Take it one step further
In addition to batching these tasks, think about how you could get rid of these tasks from your work life in general. Could you get a colleague on your team to help you, or could you potentially outsource it and train a freelancer or virtual assistant to do it?
What to do before you ask your boss, director, manager, gatekeeper of funds for help
You might be thinking, “There’s no money in the budget for that.” Yes, money is an important part of the outsourcing equation, but shift your mindset from dollars and cents to how much value this would provide, then provide the reasoning of how it would help you achieve your goals faster, and present it to your director or manager. It all boils down to what your time is worth and being able to free up that time for more creative work.
Say you start with a VA who can dedicate five hours a week to helping you. Those 5 hours will give you the freedom to get a higher-level task completed, and stating this case to your manager might help sway his/her decision. All it takes is a simple spreadsheet that breaks down how this extra five hours would allow you to do things like increase revenue by X% or anything else that would move you closer to your goals and the company goals. You could present it to your manager and test it out on a trial basis and track results.
Also, while you’re logging and tracking what tasks you’re working on, note highly repetitive tasks. Create and record a training manual of these highly repetitive tasks (while you’re doing them). This will be a useful resource for the future VA or freelancer that you hire to help you tackle shallow work.
Awesome app tip: Use Loom — it’s a wonderful screencast tool that allows you to create video. The cool thing is that it generates a neat little link for you to send. It’s in Beta mode, so sometimes it crashes while you’re recording, but mostly, it’s been an invaluable tool that has saved me time when I need to explain tasks to others, such as freelancers.
There are some great screencasting tools you can use, and some are free too. Here’s a helpful post on Lifehacker about the 5 best screencasting tools.
7. Schedule time to check emails
I was first introduced to the term “email anxiety” recently from one of my favorite productivity experts Jocelyn K. Glei, author of “Unsubscribe.”
Glei says that the average person checks their email “11 times per hour, processes 122 messages a day, and spends 28 percent of their total workweek managing their inbox.” HuffPo published a story last year that claimed employees spend an average of 6 hours a day on email!
In order to stay aligned with an effective schedule, deep work and staying focused, you’re going to have to scale back on how often you check your inbox. When I made it a point to lessen my email anxiety, I started by turning off screen notifications on my laptop. I took baby steps, limiting how often I was checking emails — scaling back on the number of times I checked it per hour, then every few hours, to batching them a few times a day.
This isn’t easy to do, especially when many projects entail email communication. But mostly, emails don’t move the needle, or impact the bottom line for creative work, so I started by delaying answering them until later in the day, instead of opening it the first thing in the morning.
And guess what? No one cared that an email wasn’t answered immediately.
One way to minimize the inbox anxiety culture
I recently listened to a podcast that featured media mogul Arianna Huffington, who revealed an ingenious way to minimize emails when employees at Huffington Post go on vacation. An auto-response email is sent to let others know they are on vacation (standard protocol), but the difference is it tells the sender their email will be automatically deleted. Yes. Really.
If the email is really important, the sender will take note of who to contact, as it is usually stated in the email, but chances are it can wait. The best part of all is that the employee who returns from a relaxing vacation to Greece won’t come back to 500 emails sitting in their inbox. Awesome idea!
8. My favorite productivity apps, podcasts and books
I use Evernote to organize my to do lists and get organized. For around $35 a year, (the middle package), I can send important emails to my Evernote.
If you think I’m simply shuffling more work (emails) to a different platform… you’re right. However, I try to limit the types of emails I send to my Evernote. I mostly use it for important quick reference emails, such as anything related to traveling and tickets.
For now, it saves me the hassle of having to sift through emails or do a search, especially if I’m at a crowded airport and need to quickly access my tickets or flight information.
I’ve also tried OmniFocus, but I found it to be a bit confusing to use and not as intuitive as Evernote. For example, I couldn’t quite figure out how to attach documents to a task, so I had to Google it. If I’m Googling way too many questions, that’s when I decide maybe this isn’t the app for me. Moving on…
For work, I use Trello and Asana. I find the two to be really helpful and pretty robust, especially considering they are free programs. Trello is great with visualizing a workflow, from start to finish of a project, and you can add people, documents, and files along the way. Same goes with Asana.
My favorite books about productivity
- “The Productivity Project” by Chris Bailey
- “Getting Things Done” by David Allen
- “Manage Your Day-to-Day” by Jocelyn K. Glei
- “Deep Work” by Cal Newport
My favorite podcasts
- The Productivity Show (Getting Things Done) by Asian Efficiency
- The Art of Charm by Jordan Harbinger
- The Productivityst by Mike Vardy
My favorite productivity app
Tide – Pomodoro app that offers white noise during the timed sessions. I like it because you can also run other apps at the same time. So, if I’m listening to classical music, I can also hear the sound of rain, or whatever white noise I picked from Tide.
Inexpensive ways to read books
Update: Take advantage of Hoopla and Libby for free library audiobooks and ebooks. You’ll need a library card to rent up to 20 books on each app, per month.
I signed up for Amazon Kindle Unlimited for $9.99 a month and read a lot of books through this membership. You can rent up to 10 books at a time and it even includes magazines and sometimes has narration (although sometimes they charge extra for it.) You can also buy books on Kindle for a discount, if you have the membership. Seriously this is the best $10 I spend each month!
I also signed up for Audible and Scribd because I like filling my walks, runs, commuting time with listening to books. You get one audio book a month for each. Audible is around $15 a month, and Scribd is $9 a month.
Sometimes Kindle Unlimited books come with narration, but you’ll usually have to pay an extra $5-10 for it.
9. Eat healthier and exercise
I’m not a nutritionist, but it doesn’t take one to know that exercise and diet are crucial parts of health and brain function. My problem was that I was starving myself in the mornings because I was “too busy” to eat. Then I’d have a giant lunch and end up feeling lazy and unfocused for the rest of the afternoon.
The two biggest dietary changes I’ve made in the morning is to drink a cup of room temperature water right after I wake up (to rehydrate and boost metabolism) and I try to eat 30 minutes after waking up.
Make sure your diet contains lots of leafy greens, fruits, grains and protein. Avoid eating foods and snacks that are processed.
Go for a run two times a week and supplement a third day with yoga, stretching or strength training. Or walk for at least 30 minutes a day. Whatever kind of exercise you gravitate to, make sure you’re scheduling it in.
Figuring out how to be efficient with your priorities and how to do it can’t be mastered in a day or even a month, but with the right intentions and action steps lined up, you will improve.
You’ll marvel at how much you got done in a day, week and month. You’ll notice you have more free time to think and focus on creative work, and in turn, your goals being met or exceeded.
I’d love to hear how you get stuff done, and what’s worked for you! Comment here or find me on Twitter @clairetak.