Search for more Everyday Power
Whatever you do for a living, chances are you started the New Year digging out from an avalanche of email and meeting requests. And just when you think you’ve finally gotten through it all and can get some real work done, more messages pop in and you’re off to chase more rabbits down still more holes.
Email makes our workday lives much easier in many ways, but it can also sap our productivity like nothing else. Yet,it is just one of the ways our attention gets pulled in a thousand different directions every day. No wonder so many people find themselves skipping lunch and working late, yet never feel like they accomplish anything.
It is possible to work smarter, instead of harder, so you can clock out at 5 and still get everything done. It’s all about focus and discipline, and there are plenty of technologies that can help you maintain both. And, they’ll all fit into the palm of your hand.
Managing Endless Email
Email saps productivity faster than anything else. If you’re constantly responding to things that pop up in your email, you’re wasting huge amounts of time.
I know how tempting it is to check email all day long. Research has shown that your brain gets a little shot of dopamine every time you respond to an email, because you are accomplishing something and it feels good. Responding to things we’re interested in is fun, and we actually get addicted to that. But you’re not sitting at your desk to have fun; you’re there to accomplish your goals.
This is why I block off specific time periods to check email. I have calendar reminders to spend 30 minutes checking email, three times a day. I don’t touch my inbox unless it’s time to do it.
The hardest part about this system is getting started. When I decided to do it, I went out three weeks into the future and put those three blocks of time on my calendar with recurring appointments. When I got to those days, that time was already booked, so nobody could schedule an appointment over my email time. Within a couple of weeks, it had become a habit.
There’s no job description out there that says, “Keep an empty inbox,” so use those organizational tools in your email system. I keep an elaborate folder structure in Outlook to organize things that matter in my world. I have folders for departments as well as projects. If an item needs action, it stays in the inbox, and results in time on my calendar to address the need. If it needs a response, I respond to it. If it’s not helping me achieve one of my goals, it’s filed away where I can find it if I need it later.
Turn off email notifications if you have to, and turn on reminders for your scheduled email time, so you won’t feel compelled to check email all day long. Resist temptation by remembering that your bosses want you to tackle your goals more than they want you to respond to their emails within five minutes.
Saying “Yes” and “No”
Email aside, I’ve come to believe that the big key to productivity lies in deciding ahead of time what you’re going to pay attention to, and what isn’t really worth your very precious time. This clarity of focus comes from figuring out what your priorities are, and only working on things that achieve that goal.
Even more important than deciding what you are going to focus on, is weeding out all the things you aren’t. If it doesn’t help you achieve one of your personal or organizational goals, just say “No.” Or, at least, “No, not right now.”
Time is your biggest asset, so take advantage of technology to help you make the most of it.
It’s too easy to go off track and meet, talk about, and focus on things that aren’t my priorities. APQC hired me, though, to achieve key priorities (or goals), so I’ve developed a routine and system to take control of my time for maximum productivity.
For me, my calendar is the key. I live and die by my calendar. If it doesn’t make it to my calendar, it doesn’t get done. And one major entry point into my calendar is my smartphone. I always tell people that I show up when and where my phone tells me to show up.
How do I prioritize what goes on my calendar? I integrate it with my to-do list and project management tool. This allows me to look ahead at milestones over the next couple of months, which gives me a roadmap for what I need to work on at any given time.
I use Asana to maintain my project plans, milestones, and to-do lists, and I draw from that to populate my calendar with things I need to do. Asana allows for collaboration and lets me get my thoughts down in a way that’s prioritized and structured, but it’s not so complex that I get bogged down in details. It’s just a way to document a planned approach and phases of work, so it’s all in place when I’m ready to work on a project. It provides clarity of purpose, so I know what to say no to, and what to say yes to.
Every day, I populate the next day’s calendar from my running to-do list. I move projects over, and set aside specific blocks of time to work on them. When my phone or smart watch pings, I know what I need to work on.
Build in Flexibility
No matter how busy I am, I always leave some space in my schedule. Two days from now, you can find a free hour or two on my calendar. Tomorrow, you can find a couple of 30-minute blocks. If something comes up and my day gets shot, I can move some tasks forward into those open spots without it having a major impact on the flow of my work.
And what happens if there is an emergency? It does happen, there’s no way around it. When you’re part of an organization, blocking off every minute of every day is an exercise in futility. You have to collaborate, have meetings, and yes, put out fires. This is another good reason to work on a rolling calendar about 36-48 hours out, and leave time for whatever may pop up.If you need me right this minute, walk over and talk to me, or send me an instant message, and if it’s really urgent, I can usually rearrange my priorities for the day.
Leaving a little wiggle room also allows you to ward off deadline panic. If something comes up that requires four hours of work, but you let it get down to the wire and it has to be done in two hours, your only option is to have someone else jump in to help you. This is how “hero cultures” are created: There’s always someone who has to be called away from his or her own (well-planned) work at the last minute to rescue someone else’s project. Planning ahead and building a little unstructured time into your calendar over the next several days reduces your risk of needing to call in a hero.
When I need to, I use an old-fashioned, analog trick that helps me focus on my hottest priorities. If I’m sitting in a meeting and something urgent comes up that needs my immediate attention, I pull out my trusty pen and write it on my the top of my hand between my thumb and first finger. Every time I reach for the keyboard or my water, I see it and remember what I need to do. It’s not a system I have to use often, but when I need it, it’s effective.
At the end of every day, I do a recap of what I accomplished that day, take stock of new things that came in, and reprioritize what I need to work on in the next one to two days.
And, I always schedule time for life balance. Too many people have their nose to the grindstone all day, then look up at the clock and it’s 7:30 p.m. and they haven’t eaten in hours. It’s hard to stay productive for long without exercise, meals, and downtime, so block off time for them on your calendar.
I schedule blocks of time for fitness before work,a morning and afternoon snack, and a lunch hour with enough time to leave the building and return refreshed.With few exceptions, I am out the door at five. Yes, really. By focusing my work on tasks that achieve organizational goals – and by not wasting time doing things outside that scope – I have plenty of time for both productivity and downtime, without needing to work late into the night.
Fit It Into the Flow
While this is the system that works for me and my job, you’ll need to develop a system that works for you and yours. Whatever technology you use, be sure that it fits into the flow of your work and helps you create a routine that works for your responsibilities.
Of course, all the technology and systems in the world won’t help you if you don’t have the discipline to focus only on your priorities. If it’s not going to help you achieve a personal or organizational goal, remember: Just say no.