Start the New Year Off Right with 7 Simple Productivity and Time Management Tips

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In a previous post, I talked about the “unmade beds” in our lives. Those messy distractions that drain our energy, keep us from focusing, and stand in the way of getting any “real work” done.

But once you’ve made the bed and sat down at your desk, where do you go from here? How do you decide how you are going to spend the next eight to ten (or more) hours of your workday?

As the management guru Peter Drucker famously put it, “Time is the scarcest resource; if it is not managed, nothing else can be.” So how are you going to manage your time .  . . while you try to manage to find the time to do all that you need to do?

There are a million time management and personal productivity tools, tips, and techniques out there. You can spend hours researching all of them. (But then you really wouldn’t get anything done, would you?) Or you can start with any of the seven simple tips I’m suggesting below.

While many of these techniques may at first glance appear to be just common sense, “Common sense is not always common practice,” as the saying goes. And it’s putting these ideas into practice to achieve results that really matters.

So here are seven of my favorite time management methods to help you get the most—and the best—out of your day, week, month, and year:

  1. The To-Do List or Checklist – So simple and obvious, and yet most people just don’t have one. You may have a collection of scraps of paper scattered about, Post-it Notes stuck to your computer, or random scribbles in a notebook, but not a single organized and detailed Master List of everything you need to do all in one place. If you do nothing else, do this. Consolidate. Life is complex enough, so anything you can do to simplify will help. It will not only help you get your life more organized, it will reduce stress and help you get your brain more organized, freeing you up to think more clearly, make better decisions, and innovate. As Atul Gawande’s bestselling book The Checklist Manifesto powerfully illustrates, a simple checklist can, literally, save lives. So why not start with your own?
  2. Time Management Matrix (aka the Eisenhower Matrix) – Popularized by Stephen Covey in his classic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, (and discussed in even greater detail in his First Things First), this simple 4-quadrant model can help you more effectively manage your time (and your to-do list) by thinking in terms of “urgency” and “importance.” The basic premise is that if we spend all our time scrambling around, dealing with the urgent (e.g., crises, interruptions, and distractions), then when and how do we ever find the time to do the big things that really matter?

time management

  1. Time-Cost-Quality Triangle – Every decision we make involves these three factors. It’s up to you to determine what matters, as there are always trade-offs involved — and a change in any one factor will impact the others. (In project management terminology, we may talk in terms of Scope, Schedule, and Budget.) Do you want it done right . . . or do you want it done right now? Usually you can’t have it both ways.timecostqualityFor example, delivering high quality tends to take more time, and often costs more. Everyone wants everything “better, faster, and cheaper,” but is that realistically possible? Even when deciding whether to walk, take the subway, or take a cab, we’re playing these three variables off each other! This simple, triangular model won’t make the decision for you, but it will help you prioritize and to make more confident decisions.
  1. SMART Goals – A big part of New Year’s resolutions is setting our goals or objectives for the year. So why do we so often fail to achieve them? Because the goals we set were most likely not “SMART”! A “SMART” goal is
    • Specific (as opposed to broad, vague, or general)
    • Measurable (that is, quantifiable—as Drucker said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”)
    • Achievable (that is, a challenge and a stretch, but realistically doable)
    • Relevant (the goal must be meaningful and significant)
    • Time-oriented (there needs to be a deadline to be met, because what you can do “anytime” will, most likely, be done at no time).

    Saying “I’d like to lose some weight this year” is a good intention; but it’s not a SMART goal that will increase your odds of getting you there. Saying (or, better yet, writing it down and saying out loud to others who will hold you accountable): “I am committed to only eating X number of calories per day, and working out five days a week, with the realistic and tangible goal of losing 2 pounds a month for the next six months” is more likely to get you closer to achieving your ultimate objective than just hoping it will somehow magically happen by itself.

  1. The Three B’s of Effective Calendaring: Bookending, Blocking, and Batching – Very simply, these three B’s are easy to remember and not that difficult to do…if you make the time and take the time to actually do them.
    • Bookending: Reserve the first and last hour of your workday (e.g., 8:00am-9:00am and 5:00pm-6:00pm, depending on your schedule) for solo, silent, undistracted planning time. You could also “bookend” your week, month, and year. Not taking the time – with yourself and for yourself — to plan and strategize is a good way to spend day after day just spinning your wheels, burning out, and never getting any of the most important things done.
    • Blocking: If you don’t control your calendar, everyone else will. Block out a few hours a week to “meet” with yourself (even if it’s just a half hour or an hour at lunchtime) so you can recharge and refresh, and/or to actually get some real work done…rather than just running from one meeting to the next.
    • Batching: Instead of stopping and starting as things pop up, group similar things together (e.g., responding to non-urgent emails and phone calls, doing paperwork, filing, bill paying, etc.) and knock them out all at one time when you can give these low-priority (but highly important) things your undivided attention.
  1. 18 Minutes – Author Peter Bregman, in his thought-provoking and highly entertaining book of the same name, recommends something similar to bookending, with an added twist: He says that you should dedicate five minutes at the start of each day for planning and five minutes at the end of the day for assessing how things went (that’s ten of the eighteen minutes. He also suggests you spend one minute of every hour in between (set the alarm on your watch or phone to go off each hour) to STOP… and ask yourself: Is what I’m doing right now what I SHOULD be spending my time on right now?
     In this day and age, it’s way too easy to go online to check Facebook “for a minute,” only to look up and realize that it’s lunchtime already and you’ve gotten absolutely nothing done. So you come back from lunch, log back in, and then go off on a “Google Field Trip” – you know…when you go online to look something up, only to find that it’s now five hours later and you can’t even remember what “that” was. And it’s now time to go home.
  2. The Two-Minute Rule – If something will take less than two minutes (or even less than five minutes) to do, just get it done right NOW. Rather than adding it to your To-Do list, or taking ten times as long to delegate it to someone else, just knock it off now and move on to the next thing. You’ll feel good about making progress as you check things off your to-do list, and, again, it will allow you to focus on the big things. This and other great tips can be found in David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is probably the most popular personal productivity book out there today.

As mentioned previously, there are tons of other related tools, tips, and techniques around, but I’ll stop there.

You’re probably thinking: I barely have time to keep up with my email and all my meetings. How am I supposed to find the time to do everything on this list? The answer is, don’t try to. Just pick one or two—the ones you think will have the biggest immediate impact—and focus on making a few small adjustments and improvements . . . one day at a time.

Doing so is an investment. And like any long-term investment, you may not see the payoff right away, but you will see the return on investment—yes—over time. You know, the whole “journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and all that.

The key is to just get started.

And now is as good a time as any.

For an additional personal productivity boost to help you start 2016 off right, you might enjoy some of my previous related posts, which will help you rethink how you are going to invest your valuable time this year:




Immediately Enhance Your Productivity with these 5 Skills

Vintage Karate Photo

Todd Cherches, CEO of consulting firm BigBlueGumball and long-time Hired Guns blogger shares his 5 best tips to enhance your productivity. Results pictured at left not typical.
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Get Your Blog On: Justin Lambert of “Words That Begin with You” Talks About Setting Goals and Avoiding Blogger Obscurity

One day, the consultant and copywriter Justin Lambert found himself thinking that he was “getting absolutely nowhere” in his blogging. Not a good place to be, and probably not an uncommon sentiment, either. But what was different was what he did next.    Read More →

The Power to Change… to Get the Power You Need

One of the main reasons we hesitate, procrastinate, or fail to take action is that we feel like we lack the power to act.

When we’re out of work or stuck in a dead-end job, or struggling to get others to buy in to our ideas, or even to return our phone calls or emails, it sometimes seems as if we have no leverage at all.

But guess what: You have a lot more power than you think!

Last month I introduced the Five Levels of Proactivity model and discussed the key reasons why we may not be as proactive as we might like to be -– and how you can go from being inactive and reactive to super-proactive. Now I’d like to show you how to give yourself the confidence boost you may need to proactively take your game — and your career — to the next level.    Read More →

Want to Be More Productive? Take a Break — and Get Moving

Taking a break for some exercise in the middle of your workday may have you getting more done. A Swedish study that was published in The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that physical exercise can improve productivity, even with a reduction in working hours.

In the study, employees at six “dental healthcare workplaces” were excused from work for 6.25% of the time (about 2.5 hours a week). One group had two mandatory exercise times, and the other group just got the reduced working time. The results? Both groups showed increased levels of productivity, even though they worked fewer hours. The exercise group also had fewer sick days on average.    Read More →

Bullet Points: No Ideas No Problem for One VC Fund’s Startups

  • The venture capital firm Y Combinator is willing to fund startups that have no idea what they’re doing — literally: “If you apply for this batch and you seem like you’d make good founders, we’ll accept you with no idea and then help you come up with one.”
  • From now through the end of April, Inc. magazine is taking submissions for its annual Inc. 500/5000 list of the fastest-growing privately held companies. To make the list, companies need to have made at least $2 million in revenue last year and at least $100,000 in revenue in 2008.
  • Scott Belsky of Behance covers “Reactionary Work” and the four other kinds of work that fill our day. As you might expect, it’s the essential but hard-to-schedule Planning Work that usually gets short shrift. [The 99 Percent]
  • And David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, has some ideas on how to fight back when technology keeps you from being as productive as you’d like to be. Spoiler: there’s no quick fix. [NYT]
  • The clothing chain Uniqlo pays its workers a lot more than its competitors, and so far that strategy has paid off in equally high profits. James Surowiecki looks at the “false economy” of scrimping on payroll. [The New Yorker]

Proactivity: Are You Getting Ahead or Just Getting Things Done?

Do you wait for things to happen . . . or do you make things happen?

Do you find yourself stalling for the “right” time to take action. . . or do you make “now” the perfect time?

Do you always find yourself one or more steps behind. . . or comfortably ahead?

Whether we’re talking about your personal life, your career, or your current job, one of the most overlooked keys to success is your degree of “proactivity,” which can help you get ahead of all the barriers, obstacles, and challenges that stand in the way of making things happen.    Read More →

Bullet Points: Just Say No

Bullet Points: Happy 2012!

  • Michael Wolf believes that 2012 will be the year of artist-entrepreneurs, who can cut out the middleman through spunk, digital knowledge, and much easier ways of getting goods to consumers.
  • It’s too late to use this advice for Christmas, but it’s not too late to use it to make your resume more winning: “What Clever Advertising Can Teach Us About Buying Gifts.” As Jordan Weissmann writes, “The trick for a good gift-giver, or good marketer, is to think like the person they’re trying to connect with. In one of the experiments, subjects told to think about the big picture when putting together a resume abandoned the more is more approach, and instead focused on a few appealing accomplishments. It worked.”
  • New York’s American Museum of Natural History has begun a fully paid Master of Arts in Teaching program for aspiring science teachers. An open house for the program will be held on Saturday, 7 January.
  • If there was one previously admired work habit that took a beating in 2011, it was the energy-sapping habit of multitasking. But even if you’ve already stopped trying to do a dozen things at a time, there’s always room for improvement in other areas: “7 Things Highly Productive People Do“. [Inc.]

And from The Hired Guns blog:

Cutting the Email Cord, One Day at a Time

No Email DayTomorrow, it turns out, isn’t just Veterans Day — it also happens to be the inaugural No Email Day.

The group’s founder, a British project manager named Paul Lancaster, encourages all of us to “stop using email completely for 24 hrs” in order to “do something more productive with the time saved.”    Read More →

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