Are you productive? There is a question that brings stress to many leaders. Why is it that it seems so hard to consistently stay focused and productive? Is it the demands of your role? Is it the constant pull between your professional and personal lives? Is it technology and how easy it is for others to have access to you? It may be all of the above. After coaching business and organizational leaders for years, the one thing I know for sure is that it comes down to one skill: The ability to manage activities.
I have found that one proven method of increasing your productivity is limiting your daily to-do list to the top three most important things you want to accomplish for the day. Do this same process at the beginning of every week for the week ahead. This drastically increases your productivity because it forces you to prioritize the most significant things you want to achieve, and then causes you to have laser-like focus in getting them done. Prioritizing your top three key areas everyday will bring a renewed focus and eliminate overwhelm. In order to make this process work, it is essential that you write out these three main focus areas before cluttering your mind with “reactive” tasks such as completing a request, checking email, voicemail, or social media. It is vital to prioritize what you want to achieve before being inundated with other peoples’ needs.
I recommend doing this a soon as you get to work. Just block off the first 15 minutes of the day and identify your three key priorities. If you don’t like waiting until you get to work or are worried that you will get distracted by other demands as soon as you walk in the door, then carve out 15 minutes the night before.
It’s also a good idea to reference your calendar for the day and week to see how much time you’ll have to devote to your top tasks, and possibly shift around your meetings and commitments in order to concentrate on what really matters. After you list out your top three items to accomplish, then write down additional tasks that you need to take care of such as returning a phone call, responding to an employee’s request, or picking up a materials for the office. What’s important is that you prioritize and focus your energy on your top three items, and tackle smaller tasks as time permits from there. The goal here is keep the main things the main thing.
Leaders who get more done in less time understand that when it comes to productivity, we all face the same challenge—there are only 24 hours in a day. Since even the best ideas are worthless until they’re executed, how efficiently you use your time is as important as anything else in business. One excellent practice top productive leaders use to support executing on their top three priorities is called the block and tackle method. When they identify their top three areas of focus, they take their schedule and block uninterrupted time in their day and execute on it. By eliminating distractions and interruptions, they are able to focus extensively on their top priorities. These top performers may even go as far as shutting off email and phone notifications, closing their door, and informing staff that they are unavailable during certain time blocks. This one practice will greatly enhance productivity and personal confidence.
Here are some other key practices that my high performance leaders utilize in their day, week and month.
Eat Your Frog. To pull this off you’re going to have to eat some frogs. Brian Tracy coined the term “Eating a frog” as doing the least appetizing, most dreaded item on your to-do list. If you let your frogs sit, you waste your day dreading them. If you eat them right away, then you’re freed up to tackle other things you enjoy doing.
Redefining Urgency. Redefining urgency refers to the tendency of little things that have to be done right now to get in the way of what really matters. This creates a huge problem as urgent actions often have little impact. The key here is to delete or delegate. Otherwise, you can find yourself going days, or even weeks, without touching the important stuff. You’ll need to get good at spotting when putting out fires is getting in the way of your performance, and you’ll need to delete or delegate the things that hinder real forward momentum.
Block & Tackle Email. It is very important to check email on a schedule. Identify two or three times a day you will check and respond to email and stick to it. Set alerts for your most important vendors and best customers, and save the rest until the scheduled time. The worst thing you can do is jump on your email multiple times a day.
No Context Switching. To become productive you have to avoid context switching. It’s a real productivity killer. Context switching is when you bounce from one task or interruption to another. You may be working on a project and a fellow colleague comes and asks you to do something for them. Immediately responding causes you to switch and lose your focus and attention. The time it takes you to return to the same level of concentration before the interruption is quite substantial. Research conducted at UCLA confirms that context switching costs organizations billions of dollars every year (as a result of low productivity). The researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information or interruptions cannot pay attention, recall information or switch from one job to another as well as those who work on their tasks for a period of uninterrupted time. Personally, in all my work coaching leaders, I see this as the number one killer of productivity.
The key to finding more time in your day depends on managing your activities more effectively. Getting clear on your priorities and working those priorities using the above tips will greatly increase your productivity and performance.