The word “secret” suggests that there is knowledge available to others that is somehow unavailable to you. There are no secrets when it comes to productivity. Instead, there are principles and disciplines not widely taught or consistently followed. The principles are available to those who would choose to study them, and the disciplines are kept by those who are willing to change their behavior. If you want to triple your productivity, here’s one principle and discipline that will make an immediate difference: Plan your work.
If you want to improve your productivity, an excellent place to start is planning the work you are going to do and when you are going to do it. I routinely have hundreds of tasks and dozens of projects in my task manager. I spend a good part of Sunday reviewing them to determine what I am going to do during the week, blocking it on my calendar (Not really on my calendar, but on my task manager. I transfer my work to my physical planner to separate it from what I am intentionally ignoring).
If you start each day by reviewing the projects and potential tasks you might attempt to complete during that day, it might take you 30 to 45 minutes to decide what to do. That is time that might have been invested in some project, some task, or some critical outcome.
When you don’t know what you need to do, you spend time reviewing all your tasks, identifying your priorities, and deciding what you need to do that day. Because you have not done the work to plan your week and your days, you will give up hours that could have been spent completing those tasks. If you know what you need to do each day, you can eliminate the time spent identifying what jobs you need to complete. You can get straight to work.
When you don’t plan your work ahead of time, you live in reactive mode, doing what is now urgent and important because you didn’t do something when it was only important. A task becomes urgent when you postpone completing it and shorten your timeline.
Planning your work eliminates the time it takes to start working. Not planning your work reduces the time you need to complete what is important because you are running from one deadline to the next. You get to choose which of these two ways you eliminate time.
When you don’t know what you need to do and when you need to do it, you can easily fall prey to the infinite distractions vying for your time and attention.
- Email: If you are like most people, you will start your day by opening your email inbox to look for things you need to do. Opening the inbox first is putting other people’s priorities above your own and abdicating your responsibility to your real priorities (which are also something you do to benefit others, often with a more significant and more important commitment). There will never be a shortage of emails from your company, your peers, your clients, and people you don’t know who want your time, your attention, and your money.
- Social: The social channels provide another source of distractions. A quick catchup on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or any of the other popular platforms is a way to avoid having to decide what you need to do, and it also feels like a respite from doing what is essential. These channels have been optimized to steal your attention and keep you on the platform as long as possible. You will find none of your priorities on the social channels.
Time Waits for No One
If your inbox steals 30 minutes, and social steals 38 minutes, and it takes you 20 minutes to decide what to do, you will have given up roughly 90 minutes, or something close to twenty percent of your day. That is twenty percent that would easily be put to better use doing almost anything on your task list, but most certainly should have been used on your highest priority.
If you waste ninety minutes a day, you will have given up 330 hours in the course of a year. The root cause of your complaints about not having enough time is not a lack of time, but rather the absence of priorities, poor habits, and a lack of planning to put your priorities first.
If You Want Control and Results
A sense of control starts and ends with self-control.
When you have control of your projects and your tasks, you gain a sense of certainty, that you know where things are and when they are due. When you have control over the decisions you make, the plan you make provides a sense of control—even when you are surprised by urgencies and emergencies. It’s easier to adjust a plan to deal with surprises than it is to work without a plan at all, going from one thing to the next and getting yourself caught up in “the drift.”
The best practice is to plan your week before it starts. By planning your work and blocking time on your calendar, you eliminate the time it takes to figure out what you need to do each day. It also eliminates the possibility of getting mired down in other people’s priorities and the limitless distractions available to you on the small screen. Instead of opening your inbox or your browser, you get straight to work on what’s important.
When you start work, knowing how you are going to spend the first ninety minutes and on what priority will ensure that you get more done in a day than most. Planning three ninety-minute blocks per day (roughly half the day), will make you one of the most productive people you know. If you want to triple your output, start by planning your weeks and days.