Life can be frantic.
We spend much of our working day on low value tasks — constantly checking our email, picking up our phones for every notification or call — and filling the gaps with our real work, whatever that is. Then we wonder why we're not making progress. We feel burnt out, unsuccessful and overwhelmed — never have enough time, "never get things done".
But there's a solution, and I believe that if you start applying it to your own life — by becoming more disciplined about how you structure your days — you'll be more productive, and feel like you have more time, not less.
This is how I do it. As always, we love hearing your suggestions and feedback.
Map out your day the night before
One of the greatest things I've done for my productivity is to schedule my days.
Step 1. Brain Dump
At the end of every day I spend 5-10 minutes on a brain dump. I write down absolutely everything I could possibly do the next day. Usually these are the thoughts racing through my head, but I also review my online project planners to see what I need to do next.
Step 2. Prioritise
I prioritise the tasks in my "brain dump" in order of importance, because:
• Prioritising everything is the same as prioritising nothing, and
• You can't do everything!
Next day I'll do the high priority, high value tasks first, when I'm fresh, and leave lower value tasks to the end of the day, if there's time.
Step 3. Use your calendar
Most people use their calendars only for appointments and meetings, but I believe the way to create structure and discipline is to schedule all your work for the day, even lower value tasks. By giving everything a dedicated slot I find it easier to focus, because when I get to my computer I know exactly when I'm doing a specific job. It also helps with stress and overwhelm when you can put things out of your mind until their time slot comes up.
Keep your work sessions sacred
When you set aside time for those high value tasks keep it free of distractions — email, messages, phone calls … and people! Staff at work, partners and kids etc at home.
Front load your day and work week
I like to front load my work day and week with the most important and more challenging tasks.
When I first started scheduling my time I was over ambitious. By the end of a session I'd be exhausted. So at the start be realistic about the length of your deep focus sessions and what you can accomplish in them.
Group smaller tasks in one session
If you have a bunch of small things to do, try doing them in one session to avoid jumping around between tasks all day.
Keep revisiting your priorities
What's important that will be urgent or overdue if you don't do it now? What can wait till tomorrow? Who's setting your priorities or deadlines? What could you just say no to? How much time does a task deserve?
Set times to check email and social media
If you're in a service business you obviously need to pay attention to social media, messages and email. But you can also be disciplined about when you do so. Set a specific time or times. Stop hitting refresh on your inbox, or endlessly scrolling. Edit your notifications so they're not intrusive or distracting.
Let people know what you're doing. Maybe you answer emails once a day, or once a week. Set up an auto-reply to let people know that. Maybe tell them to call or text if it's urgent. Set up text responses on your phone: "I'll call you shortly." "Sorry I can't talk now. Text me if you like."
Same with the people I mentioned. Encourage your partner, housemates, kids, workmates not to interrupt you. Even your boss might react well to your saying you'll get a lot more done if he or she respects your high priority work sessions.
Set up your workspace
Before you finish work for the day, tidy your workspace. Make sure everything is set up exactly how you want it to be the morning. This will start your day with a clear mind, with very little distraction.
I used to listen to regular music or podcasts while working, but after a while I realised that often these were distracting and I wasn't fully in tune with what I was doing. Of course this could depend on exactly what you're doing, but I wanted to reach a state of flow while working, so I started listening to binaural beats during my work sessions.
In simple terms binaural beats are a tone created in the brain when it's presented with two different frequencies, one in each ear, through headphones, which alters the brain's state and can shift the speed and intensity of your thoughts. I really have found that they help with my focus.
Schedule regular breaks
When planning your day, schedule in breaks too — these are rewards at the end of your deep focus work sessions.
Take ownership of online distractions
Everyone and everything is trying to get a piece of your attention. But to become productive you need to take charge, starting with your online distractions. Here's what I do:
• I try to avoid multi-tasking — we think we're good at it but we're not. One task at a time!
• I turn off my phone and put it on the other side of the room — easier said than done, but it works.
• I regularly move social media apps to different places on my phone — so when I go looking for them I have a moment to decide whether I really want to, or I'm I just on auto-pilot.
• I regularly manage notifications and subscriptions. I have a bit of a Marie-Kondo attitude — if they don't bring me joy, or I don't see a benefit, I get rid of them. You'll never go down those particular rabbit holes on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram again.
Good productivity and discipline about time management are skills built over time, and can work differently for each of us, but I truly believe they're important skills to master, to ease stress, feel happier and grow your business.
One final suggestion — log your time, and pay attention to where it's going. The results could be surprising, and a motivation to make some changes.
If you have your own productivity tips, please share them on our private Facebook group, the Insider. Just make sure it's in your scheduled social media time!
Thanks for reading.