“Work smarter, not harder”.
We’ve all heard that time-tested phrase before.
Ms. Brown, my 11th grade trigonometry teacher, was the first person to introduce that concept into my life. It was her catch-phrase and she would berate that message into what felt like every class, mainly for students spending too much time trying to solve equations that had easy solutions.
When it came to my consulting career, I learned the importance of this phrase the hard way. As a consultant, you’re always faced with pressing deliverables with tight deadlines that you commit to your client. The last thing that you can afford to do is waste time carrying out manual tasks, spending too much time creating a presentation, or working on the wrong thing.
At the foundation for many successful consultants and other professionals that I have worked with or studied, is their abilities to maximize their productivity throughout the day. Identifying the right things to work on, getting their tasks completed in an allotted time, choosing what meetings to attend and when to get involved, and operating strategically and seamlessly at the same time throughout their working day.
Here are 5 tips to help you increase your productivity in the workplace and to get you on track for working on the right things and making the most of your precious work time.
1. Create a daily prioritized “To-Do” list with level of effort
The tasks that you need to complete throughout the week and their level of priority are constantly in flux. So much so, that it’s easy to get lost in what you should actually be working on from a day to day basis. Other times, we know what the priorities are, but tend to avoid the more important tasks because of the amount of energy and effort required to get them completed. I think we’re all guilty of passing on a “to do” item knowing how much time it’s going to take.
To keep yourself and workdays focused, start each day by creating a “to-do” list that outlines all of the tasks that you need to complete for your given workday. Create this list with items in prioritized order so that you can put most of your energy and efforts into getting those high priority items completed first.
Leveraging tools like Trello, the Notes application on your laptop (Mac users), or even a physical small notebook (think Moleskin) can be effective for helping you to maintain a running list of tasks that you need to complete throughout the day. This is also an effective technique for getting a visual view of what you already have in motion (think Kanban production style) and what’s on the horizon.
If you’re familiar with t-shirt sizing from Agile software development (which allows you to use a t-shirt size to convey the level of effort required for completion), put a t-shirt size next to each task so that you can start to see what the level of effort will looks like for your agenda. If you have a high priority task that has a high level of effort (XL t-shirt size), make that the first thing you try to accomplish in the day. This way, you’re using top brain power for knocking out something important that may take a bulk of your concentration before your next cup of brew.
2. Plan for tomorrow and the week ahead
Setting a goal, intention, and plan for the week and for each day can be incredibly valuable when trying to keep your productivity on track.
Here are two general rules of thumb to follow.
The first is take advantage of your Sunday’s for planning for the week. Try carving our thirty minutes to an hour to set the intention for the week and goals you’re trying to set. This not only helps to create the theme of your week but also will mentally prepare you for what you’re trying to accomplish, who you’ll be engaging with, and where you’ll be contributing your time and efforts.
The second is to carve out time at the end of your working day (or a night) to plan out what your next day will look like. Take 5 to 10 minutes to carve out time slots for larger tasks in your calendar that you need to accomplish or deliverables that you’ll need to complete (think in the same manner that meetings are penciled into your calendar). By planning the night before for tomorrow, it allows you to wake up with a set plan of action and to hit the ground running with what you need to produce. Spending extra time in the morning planning out your day wastes unnecessary mental energy that could be used towards completing the more important things that should already be known when you get yourself going.
3. Time box your tasks
I took this inspiration from Tim Ferris, master of time management and productivity. While planning out your day and looking at your Google or Outlook calendar, time box how much time you will give yourself per activity and have that time reflected in your calendar (this will look a meeting in your dashboard – don’t worry, only you can see this).
If you give yourself only 30 minutes to create an executive summary deck for a meeting (meaning you will literally move on to the next thing after that timeframe), then you’ll get into the habit of putting your productivity into overdrive and getting the most of that time. When 30 minutes is up – that’s it. You move on to the next thing in your calendar or to-do list. Adhering to that allotted time will help you get into the habit of completing your tasks in your designated timeframes and with integrity to your professional commitments.
Remember to avoid the habit of overrunning your timeboxes. The more that becomes a part of your repertoire, the more acceptable it becomes to creep into your other activities that you have planned throughout the day. The integrity of timeboxing cannot be overstated. Personally, it’s been invaluable for keeping track in how much time I can commit to things throughout the day, which is especially important as an entrepreneur.
4. Avoid Meetings for Meetings
How often do you find yourself in all day meetings that aren’t relevant to your core role? Your day flies by and suddenly you haven’t gotten any work done.
Why did Alexa invite me to this meeting again?
Be diligent with where you’re spending your time. If you’re not adding value, follow a variation of Elon Musk’s rule of thumb for meeting and don’t attend (but don’t necessarily walk out of the meeting mid-way if you’re in it).
Ask yourself these questions: How can I support the team by being in this meeting? What are the opportunity costs of being in this meeting? Am I adding value? If you can’t find a way to contribute to the meeting or it being required for your day to day, then simply don’t attend. Leverage meeting minutes to find out any important information (if necessary at all). If you really felt out of the loop, do a 5 minute coffee chat with the stakeholder that led that meeting to catch up on anything important that you may have missed.
There’s nothing more anti-productive than spending your precious mental energy focusing on an hour long meeting that could have been avoided to begin with.
5. Set designated times for answering emails / needing to communicate
Try spending the first half hour of you day answering emails and then 15-20 minutes at lunch and in the afternoon. It’s inevitable that urgent emails come in throughout the day that you’ll need to respond to. However, the more you get used to this communication cadence (and the more that you communicate it to your team), the more you’ll be able to block out email notification distractions that come up throughout the day while you’re working on other tasks.
Take this a step further by communicating your email style to your team members. If they know you will only be answering emails during specific times, then they’ll best know when to reach and optimize your services, leaving you the time required to concentrate and work on your priority items for your prioritized to-do list.
Work is our never-ending classroom and those who become the best at adding value are constantly exemplifying Ms. Brown’s favorite quote. Work smarter, not harder – it’s a working lifestyle and one to always keep at top of mind.
The productivity tips above take commitment, integrity, and consistency, especially when it comes to mastering your to-do list, t-shirt sizing your tasks, time boxing, and using your evenings to plan for tomorrow. Start with one of these areas above and incrementally add the others to make them part of your daily routine. Pretty quickly, you’ll start to see some ROI as you get more completed throughout the day, increased quality of work, and more focus for working on the right things throughout the week.