The last 12 months of my life have been pretty full-on. From completing a Diploma in Executive Coaching to building up nearly 100 hours in 1–1 Coaching Sessions, starting a new role in the day job, and Creating, Producing and Hosting 50 shows of a Podcast in my ‘spare’ time. I’ve even started to get a bit more frequent with article writing (hence you’re reading this). As I put this piece together, I found myself looking at my whiteboard where I have my key 2017 goals listed out and see that I have just one left to complete, which will get done before 31st December! It’s been a busy but amazingly productive year.
From time to time, in interactions with Friends or Colleagues, I’ve been asked ‘how do I get so much done?’. My usual reply is that I’m not married nor have I kids. My ‘baby’ for 2017 has been the podcast, with a lot of other personal stuff, going on hold.
But there was something in this question that made me reflect on what are the key practices or methods that I use to get stuff done. Over a period of a few weeks, I took some time to brain dump a list of these on the whiteboard. Then reflect on the ones I think make the most impact. I recently released a podcast about the top 11 (EP42 here). I promised that I’d put out a written version too with some links and examples for those that might not have heard the episode or forgot to write the key ones down when listening.
Before diving into the 11 tips, a little on Discipline and Habits. Across the 40+ podcast guests I’ve recorded with, productivity comes up a lot. I’ve learned a lot from the answers. It re-enforced some things for me; a Productivity Hack isn’t real, with a shortcut to success being somewhat mythical. For you to win by increasing your productivity, you need discipline. This is needed for all of the tips below. By applying discipline regularly, you’ll end up creating good habits. Discipline itself could be considered a Habit.
So here it is! My only ask in return for sharing is that you let me know which you like, dislike and if there are others you practice that make a big difference for your own productivity! Get a pen and paper out and let’s go!
Setting a clear target is key. If you haven’t heard of SMART as an approach before, great. As you’ll really find it useful. If you have, be sure to keep using it. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound! Let’s use an example. I aimed to release four episodes of my podcast on the launch weekend of 10th March 2017. This was SMART in the following way:
a. Specific — The Podcast Launch
b. Measurable — Four episodes
c. Achievable — I was in control of this (mostly)
d. Realistic — It seemed realistic as I was setting this about three months in advance
e. Time-bound — March 10th 2017 was the date
My habit of goal setting started out way before I become a Project Manager. We all set goals, yet probably not aware of it all the time. I recall that I started setting yearly goals one Christmas in the early 2000s. I was bored out of my mind and decided to set a few big goals for the year ahead. They say creativity can arise out of boredom. That was the case and that time of year to reflect back and look forward. Write them down!
2. Make a Plan
Now you have the goal. The easy part is done. It’s the ‘how’ you get there is the challenging part. This is all about breaking it down into tasks and creating a timeline to do it. For me, this is where the Project Management background helped. It’s using some common sense, plotting out all the steps to get there, putting a level of effort/time on each one, which needs to happen first, dependencies, and lining it all up. Keep it simple. You’re already doing it in lots of ways in everyday life without consciously seeing it as project management. If you have run a marathon, completed a degree or diploma, or built a house, it’s highly likely you’ve planned it out. You can use this planning approach for anything. The goal can be daunting, but break it down. Mini-goals along the way. I’d highly recommend doing some form of Project Management training. These are great life skills to have.
Quick note here. You might have set a goal but when you do the planning, the A, R, or T in the SMART might seem unlikely. That’s ok. Revisit the goal and adjust the date, or aim to still hit the same date with less of the measures (e.g. Podcast launch with two episodes instead of four).
Tools you can use? So many to recommend. Microsoft Excel can be used for building a timeline. An online tool like www.basecamp.com comes highly recommended too. For business, MS Project is good. Test ones out with free trials. If you’re really interested in the Project Management world, email me directly and I’d be happy to discuss other training options.
3. Time to BE! ** WARING — DISCIPLINE & PATIENCE ESSENTIAL **
Since you’ve started reading this article, you’ve probably already looked at your phone at least once and checked your email. And that’s just in the last five minutes. Meditation and Mindfulness can help with that as your focus and concentration will improve. For those that know me or have heard some of the podcast episodes, you’ll know I’m a big advocate of mindfulness. I started properly practicing about two years ago and I’m seeing improvements and benefits in so many ways since then. It takes patience, practice, and testing out what works for you through experimentation. And even with all that, it still might need more digging until it starts to feel like change is happening. What I have found is that others will notice a change in you before you do. Subtle differences. You need to commit to the practice for five-to-six weeks. Commit to it. There is a big Return on Investment. Taking the time to meditate, can calm the mind, give you greater focus and allow you to get more done! There is a great quote, an old Zen Saying that says ‘you should sit in meditation twenty minutes every day unless you’re too busy, then you should sit for an hour!’.
I have a piece I published on the blog that goes deeper into benefits with some useful links to books and guided meditations online. Again, feel free to email if you want to get more specifics. No bad can come out of giving yourself just some time to BE!
4. Deep Work Experimentation
About this time last year, I read a great book called Deep Work by Cal Newport. In it, he talks about Four different time chunks that work well to get real work done. These range from locking yourself away from the world for weeks or months, to four-hour blocks, to shorter stints like thirty minutes. Earlier this year, I was writing a number of assignments. So, I experimented. I found that the four-hour blocks of time worked great for me. It usually took me fifteen minutes to get sucked into the work. Then, I’d find a flow state for a period. Knowing I had this solid block of time squared away was great and allowed me to really focus.
For the more tactical work, that I deal with day-to-day in my work, I use the fifteen to thirty-minute blocks. I’ll touch more on an approach for this further down. Finding out which chunk works best for you by testing it out is the key! And, the improved concentration of number three above helps.
5. Lists, Lists, Everywhere!
I know, you’re awestruck again with this ground-breaking tip! But lists are so powerful for me. Back in 2005 (I remember as I still have the spreadsheet I started out with), I was getting much busier in my work. By becoming a Manager for the first time, my workload increased, and I was finding it hard to keep track of everything. So, I created a rudimentary spreadsheet broken out for the week with a column for each day. I developed a habit, over time, of putting everything that I needed to do in this for that week, or the following week. As the weeks past, the list structure evolved. I included weekends and broke out tasks into work versus personal. As time went by, and I applied some discipline, it became my system. And it increased my productivity massively.
I continued with the trusty old spreadsheet until about 2015. I had tried a few other tools online but never really found one that was an improvement on what I had. Until I found the tool Trello. This quickly replaced the spreadsheet as it allowed me to track the lists easily on any device. The Usability of it is great. Very simple. What’s great is that when I get an idea or remember something I must do, I just add it to the trello board on the fly and then prioritize it later. This is a huge one for me in enabling me to get more done! To bring my list taking even a little bit further, I recently invested in a dry erase whiteboard that I applied to the wall in my home-office. This is great. I can scribble on the wall when new stuff comes up, wipe it out when done, and just helps to get the stuff out of my head. Decluttering the mind is key and ties into the Meditation point above for sure.
6. The Not To-Do List!
I noticed a few years back that my TDLs (To-Do-Lists) kept getting longer (even more so after finding trello with access on the go). It became overwhelming and it felt like there was always too much to do. I was heaping things on my already full plate. I needed a new way to get clearer on what I needed to stop doing. I’m not certain where I found the idea, I’m definitely not claiming it was my own, but I started to play with moving items from my To-Do to a new list, that I initially called my Stop Doing List. The word ‘Stop’ has a powerful impact. So, I started to comb my lists, spending a few minutes each day (developing the habit) to look at activities that I was doing, or spending time on that were of little or zero value. I used my intuition, a gut check, and experience here to help me decide. Now the habit been embedded, I often find myself in the middle of a task or piece of work and realize it wasn’t worth doing, so I stop. A lot of the time, we tend to keep doing the stuff that’s easy or we are comfortable with. It’s hard to stop but you need to have discipline!
I’ve always liked researching where certain words and phrases originated. When I heard of the Pomodoro Technique, I wanted to know more. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique, developed in the 1980s. The Wiki link is in the header above explains all. Using this so simple yet cool approach, I set myself twenty-five minutes to work on a task (PS — I’m using it right now). As I reflect on this one, it brings in a few of my previous tips above. Focus, Deep Work, Time-bound, Specific, Goal focused (albeit micro-goals). It also requires accountability on my side. After the Twenty-five minutes are up, you break for five minutes. And go again.
I’ve been using it more and more. You can download an app for it, or add it to your browser. I’m getting a lot done with this. Be strict with yourself. Stop after twenty-five minutes. You’ll notice your distractions during that time lessen as the practice develops. I love this one.
8. Sweat it out.
I’ve nearly always been semi-addicted to exercise and sport. In whatever form. The days that I don’t exercise are days I feel a bit off, maybe more mentally than physically. Over the last few years, Exercise and Wellness have become even more crucial after I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes in 2012. This was a bit of shell shocker at first. But it has had a positive impact on my wellbeing. From the perspective that I now really have to run, exercise, and keep active to maintain good blood control. For me, it’s a blessing in disguise. Four-to-five times per week, in the gym, out in the fresh air, whatever you can do to get going is all it takes. Besides it being a physical necessity, it’s a productivity one too. I just get more done, have more focus and more energy after getting a sweat on! There is more than enough information out there about Exercise so I’ll keep it to a minimum but it is definitely in my top eleven.
9. The ZEDs!
Ok, so I know this isn’t what you might call a productivity practice. But if you don’t practice sleeping and enough of it, you will not get stuff done. I’m just turned Forty (eek) and in the last few years, I’ve started to value and prioritize sleep almost above all else. If I get too little, I’m ok for a couple of days, but then start getting very edgy, and productivity sinks. I could get away with this in my Twenties and for some of the Thirties. But no longer. If you want to keep high on the output, I’d say for about 90% of us, sleep and the eight hours mark are essential.
Just another interesting learning on sleep I’ve noticed. I keep a journal most days. Normally writing it at night to unload the thoughts rolling around in my skull. I’ve got into the habit of scoring my day out of Ten. Just giving it a gut feel score. I also track the number of hours I sleep each night. It’s interesting to see that the days that score lower correlate with the nights where fewer hours sleep were in line. It’s an interesting observation for me. It might be just coincidence. Test it out for yourself.
10. Circadian Rhythm & Night Owl v Early Bird!
I first heard about the Circadian Rhythm on a podcast a few years back and did some research. It’s a very interesting topic and, for me, it reinforced my lean towards being an Early Bird! Answering this question for me was another big move forward on my getting stuff done continuum. As I said in my podcast on this, up to a couple of years ago, my habit was typically hopping on the couch at around 9 pm most evenings after a long day working. I’d flick through the channels, maybe stumble across a Friends re-run and, before realizing it, I’m three episodes in, all ones I’ve seen over ten times in the past, and it’s 11 pm. It was also around this time that I was trying to get into meditation but couldn’t find the time in the morning. When I managed to get up from slumber, the twenty minutes I had earmarked for mindful breathing had gone! Not only had that nice quiet time I had planned been missed, it meant I was on the back foot for the day and I’d give myself a hard time for not sticking to my plan. Great started to the day, eh? The Busy Mind was only fuelled to be busier. Great start! Sound Familiar.
So, I came up with a two-pronged approach to see if I could beat this. Both very unique! One — go to bed earlier. Two — get up earlier. Both worked great. I sometimes get two+ hours work done before leaving the house (that’s four Pomodoro’s J) and I’m on fire after that.
Find your AM or PM window. And make it your time to do your deep work.
11. Deciding to Decide!
I couldn’t decide whether or not to include this one!! Ha, I tease!
For some, making decisions is easy. For others, it can be painful. It depends on many factors and, I believe, some of that is genetic. But, your approach can be trained to become faster at making the call. If you’re to get more done, learn from mistakes, and grow, then deciding fast can be a game changer.
Taken from the Personality profiler originated by Carl Jung called Insight Discover (check out this free test here), I tend to fall into the Green Zone! A mix of Intuition & Introversion. One that likes to weigh up the options and is slow(er) to make the call. The longer I delay, the harder it gets. It’s true! I can easily think of a number of decisions that I’ve made that I dragged out way too long! But when I commit, I’m all in. So that’s the trade-off. I’m living proof that you can be one personality type by nature, but it can be adjusted with nurture. Through heightened self-awareness, a better understanding of my preferences, and giving myself a deadline, I make the call sooner, with the gut having a big say. I’m right more than I’m wrong and learning faster too.
So that’s my One-to-Eleven! Actually putting the time into writing this, helped me a lot. All of these feel more right for me now than they did when I recorded the podcast on this. That’s reassuring. As I said earlier, I kept this to eleven. I have probably another eleven that I could talkwrite about. Since the podcast came out, I’ve heard back from some listeners about ones they use. I love when I get that response. I’d love to hear more so I can include them in a follow-up episode and post. Keep the feedback coming in.
You can hear the podcast or any of my other episodes on www.robofthegreen.ie/episodes/
If you like this article, I’d be grateful if you shared it with others also.
Thanks so much & have a very productive day!