Do you feel like you’re doing too much? Working 7 days a week, and still scrambling to catch up? Finding it difficult to cope with the multiple things you’re doing, while maintaining a semblance of work-life balance?
Over the last two years, I’ve been doing a lot of things – running my startup, doing a few experiments on the side, etc. It’s not been easy, of course. But the worst is when some of the things you’re doing are time-sensitive, and others are open-ended. It’s very difficult, when faced with a barrage of urgent tasks, to look at other important tasks before they become urgent.
The result – Earliest Deadline First scheduling, which will start like this:
But soon become this:
Let’s face it – I’m sure there are better ways to journey through life.
Here are seven things that have worked for me. Start doing them today, to supercharge your productivity. (OK, that’s a little aggressive. But I’m sure they’ll help). My plan was to discuss all of them here, but then the post would become too long and dampen your productivity! So I’ve discussed three of them below, and will cover the rest in a separate post.
1. Lose your TV. And your TV Shows.
Essentially, minimize distractions. Whatever’s your poison – be it television, Facebook, Twitter or Cricinfo (see point 3 below). This is especially important if you work from home, like I occasionally do. I don’t have a TV at home. I also don’t watch TV shows – I love movies and I know there’s a lot of very good TV programming out there, but I don’t want to watch one episode of Breaking Bad and commit myself to watching 5 seasons. That’s way too much of a time sink that you’d lock yourself into right at the beginning.
Of course, there’s a downside to this. Whenever I go to my parents’ house and the TV is on, I’m like this. Even during ads.
2. Create a schedule, and stick to it
This is obvious at one level – I’m sure you keep a to-do list (if you don’t, start now!) or compile one every morning. Of course it’s incredibly useful to see what needs to be done when you get to work, but it’s only half the story. Personally, I’ve found it far more useful to schedule the tasks as well, i.e., put a time to them. Every day at the end of my workday, I take 15 minutes to review my tasks for the next day, and schedule them – I block time slots on my calendar for specific tasks through the day.
This way, you don’t come in to work in the morning wondering what to do, and then make a list. Scheduling your workday is a cognitively intensive task – trust me, you’ll want to check Facebook after that! The other advantage of this approach is that when you complete one task, you don’t spend time choosing what to do next – you already know what to do! Studies have shown that will power is a finite resource and any decision making drains it – reduce the no. of decisions you have to make on your schedule, and the more will power you can devote to getting your tasks done!
There are many task manager tools out there for organizing your schedule. I’ve tried a bunch of them, and I’ve found Todoist very useful – the free version is nearly full-feature, and they have apps for everything so you’re synced on all your devices.
A couple of other things you should do:
- Every evening, while planning the next day, jot down the three high-priority tasks you absolutely NEED to complete the next day – that’s your definition of victory. Thus, even when some task takes longer than anticipated and your schedule is thrown off, you know what tasks you cannot postpone – another decision saved (and another earned).
- Another important thing is to stick to the schedule, but reduce scope if required. Let’s say you plan to exercise in the evening from 7-8 pm, but a meeting runs to 7:30 pm. Now, you have two choices: (i) cancel the exercise plan; and (ii) do a shorter stint at the gym. It’s always better to stick to plan and start your task – even if you can’t complete it and have to revisit it the next day. You don’t want perfect to be the enemy of good.
3. Establish a routine
Apart from planning your day, try to establish a daily routine. Man is a creature of habit – if you do something at a certain time every day, then you don’t waste any precious brain cycles in making decisions.
Yes, I know. Your job / business / startup is way too unpredictable, and you don’t know where you’ll be during the day. And yes, that’s why it’s all the more important that you bring some predictability in, especially in more mundane tasks.
Mark Zuckerberg has, of course, taken this to another level, with a wardrobe of only grey T-shirts, so he can concentrate on running Facebook (brilliantly parodied by Scott Adams in this series of strips). But the more fashion-conscious of us (and those who don’t run Facebook) can do a little of this too.
For example, I have been experimenting with a new routine since Diwali (about 3 months). I get up at 5 every day, and do my best to maintain a fixed schedule – read for an hour in the morning, do a few remote tasks, then a little exercise. So when I get to work at 9am, I’ve already done at least 1 of my high-priority tasks for the day (see point 2). I also try and check my email only at a few pre-determined slots in the day – much easier than forcing myself to react every time there’s a ping on my phone. I’m now trying to do the same with phone calls – let’s see how it goes.
An important part of being able to stick to a routine is to have something to look forward to. Reading some articles / a book in the peace and quiet of the wee hours is something I genuinely look forward to, and, as I’m sure you agree, every small motivation helps in getting out of bed, especially in the winter months!
That’s it for now – I was planning to talk about all 7 of the productivity themes that have worked for me, but then this post would become too long. So, now to just add ‘Part 1’ in the title.
Would love your thoughts on the above – have any other things worked for you? Please comment / tweet at me (@jithamithra) / email me at [email protected]. And yes, do sign up for email updates – you’ll get a new blog post approximately once a week.
Update: Part 2 of this post is now up, here.
PS. I just signed up for an email course on ‘How to Become a Morning Person’. I’m already pretty much a morning person (can’t wake up much earlier than 5!), but seems like it’ll be useful to see the process that has worked for others as well. Expect a post on that soon!