Efficiency and productivity are perennial topics of interest for anyone who wants to be as effective as possible in their work and avoid burning out. There are countless available resources offering suggestions to increase productivity and decrease stress and overwhelm. After working with thousands of clients and personally experimenting with many of these options ourselves, we’ve come to some pretty solid conclusions about the non-negotiables of high level productivity.
Create A Productivity Management System
We believe anyone who wants to be highly effective in their work and life needs a personal productivity management system that is reliable, that meets your needs, and that you use consistently.
Exactly what this system looks like and how it functions is different for everyone. What works for someone else may not be totally applicable to your life conditions, and ultimately it’s up to you to design a system that fits you like a custom tailored suit. That being said, there are some key principles that seem to be more or less universal.
Clarify Your Priorities and Commitments
We live in a world of constant overstimulation. We are forced to process an overwhelming amount of information and make rapid decisions that have complex consequences. We need a way to filter out what’s most important and then focus on it.
Use Stephen Covey’s 2×2 matrix from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People as a starting point to assess what’s currently on your plate and get a sense for how you’re spending the majority of your time. Start thinking about how you can spend more of your time focusing on Q2 (Important/Not Urgent), and less of your time on everything else.
Eat The Frog
Brian Tracy’s book makes the case for doing your most important task first, every day. Before you go to sleep at night, identify the one task that, once completed, will set a positive and productive tone for the rest of your day tomorrow.
We also recommend choosing at most 3 tasks to complete during the whole day. Make sure they are the most important ones, and check in with yourself to see whether you will feel fulfilled at the end of the day having completed them.
Manage Your Inbox
Most of our clients spend too much time and energy processing an incessant stream of emails. This pulls their attention all over the place, keeping them stuck in Q3 (Urgent/Not Important) and preventing them from shifting into Q2.
Practice “relentless discernment” with your emails. Learn about Inbox Zero. Check emails only at scheduled times of day (not more than a few times a day). Turn off “push” notifications on your phone. If you notice that you’re experiencing fear of missing out, take a deep breath and consult your priorities matrix to get clear on which quadrant you’re in.
Use Productivity Tools
Nothing can substitute for doing your own research and experimenting to see what works for you, but here is a short list of a few tools that we’ve used and have found valuable:
- David Allen’s Getting Things Done method is one of the most widely recognized and highly valued productivity management systems we’ve come across, and it’s definitely worth being familiar with at least the basics.
- Nirvana is a web-based app (there’s also a mobile app) that was designed to support the Getting Things Done process
- Evernote is a very popular digital tool that has a wide range of functionality and can be used for capturing, organizing, and sharing notes, to-do lists, and more.
- Asana is a project management tool that is particularly great for collaboration in teams.
If you use a calendar, make it sacred. Don’t add anything that does not need to be there, and be impeccable with your commitments to whatever is there.
Get in the habit of doing a weekly review, where you ask yourself:
- What worked well?
- Where did I get stuck?
- What can I do differently to more effectively reach my goals?
- What are my most important tasks (frogs) for the next week?
This review will help you reflect on your priorities, evaluate your own effectiveness, integrate your learning into new behaviors, and stay on track with your goals.
Contrary to what our mainstream cultural values would have you believe, multitasking is terrible for both your productivity and for the long-term health of your brain. Studies show that productivity drops up to 40% when multitasking. To enter into the “flow” state and reap the benefits of what Georgetown professor Cal newport calls “deep work”, you need to cultivate your ability to…
Harness the Power of Your Attention
So you’ve set up a system to collect and organize your tasks, and you’re clear on your priorities. This is where the next obstacle shows up: distraction. Whether it’s external (email, social media, phone calls) or internal (anxiety, boredom, procrastination), we all get distracted from time to time. The key is to be able to return our attention to the task at hand quickly and reliably.
In our experience, the best practice to train this ability is concentration meditation. Directing your attention back to the object of your choice is like using a steering wheel to stay on the road. You are constantly monitoring your own awareness, and making real-time adjustments to stay on course. By practicing concentration you develop your mind’s ability to become quiet, clear, and focused.
You can also begin a regular mindfulness practice. As you move through your day, continually check in with yourself to notice the objects and quality of your attention. Becoming aware of what you are aware of is a critical step in harnessing the power of your mind.
Work in Cycles
Like all of nature, human beings operate in cycles. We have a finite amount of resources at our disposal, and when they get depleted they need time and nourishment to regenerate. We did not evolve to exert energy continuously for 8+ hours per day on a regular basis.
The prefrontal cortex is primarily responsible for “executive functions” like focus, short-term memory, abstract problem solving, and willpower. When we ignore the natural limits of the resources available for these functions, our productivity, creativity, and mood suffer.
Schedule your day to allow for 90-minute cycles of highly focused work followed by brief (10-20 minutes) recovery periods. This will align your behavior with the natural rhythms of your body and mind, which will improve both your performance during activity and the overall balance of your stress and recovery levels.
Cultivate A Resilient Lifestyle
Taking a mindful approach to increasing your productivity through reliable systems and working in alignment with your natural rhythms will contribute significantly to a more resilient lifestyle. There are many other lifestyle factors that also contribute to your ability to be focused and efficient.
On the physical level your productivity depends on how you fuel your body and mind. Developing your emotional intelligence will allow you to fully experience and completely process challenging emotions and interactions. Rather than wasting energy being emotionally “triggered” or being distracted by continually thinking about a challenging situation, you can do what you need to do to get back to center and move on. Mentally, we’ve already discussed the importance of cultivating the capacity for concentration. And spiritually, staying connected to your sense of purpose will help you get clear on your priorities and will inspire you to keep moving towards your goal.
Take Your Productivity to the Next Level
Do you sense a gap between your current reality and your future potential? Do you want to increase your ability to close that gap? Do you want to accomplish that by working smarter rather than harder?
Click here for our Efficiency Challenge and achieve a new level of productivity and fulfillment.