While there are hundreds of time management and productivity techniques available, most of them can be categorized under five core principles. Once you understand these principles, it is much easier to choose how to apply them in a meaningful way to your work and life.
Here are the Five Core Principles for Productivity
1. Know your 20%
Most people are familiar with the 80/20 rule. In time management terms, it essentially boils down to the idea that 20% of what is on your to-do list will yield 80% of your results. The challenge is in identifying what that 20% is so you can prioritize effectively.
In order to identify your true top 20%, you need to clearly understand the core purpose of your role. But this isn’t always obvious. For example, if you lead the accounting department, you may assume your core purpose is to complete the monthly financial reporting accurately and on time. But if you have a team reporting to you, your actual core purpose is to develop a strong team that is capable of and engaged with completing the reports accurately and on time. When you think of your purpose as a function versus as a leader, you will choose completely different priorities.
When you wear multiple hats, as most of us do, you have to rise above your daily activity and ask yourself what purpose your work serves. If you’re an entrepreneur, your core objective is to build a business that serves the mission of your organization. That will include developing your team, as well as putting the right systems and processes in place to support team productivity. This is why the mantra, “work on your business, not in it” is preached by business coaches – to keep you focused on what will actually take you to the next level.
To identify your top 20% right now, try the following quick exercise:
- Write a short phrase that states the core purpose of your work*
- Then, write a quick list of your regular tasks
- Finally, rank them based on how each one of them will impact your core purpose. The ones that rank highest are your top 20%
This doesn’t mean you ignore the rest of your to-do list. But if you make sure that you are addressing that top 20% as a priority every day, you’ll find yourself immediately noticing productivity improvements.
Note: *If you aren’t clear on your core purpose right away, do this: Ask yourself what the two or three most important things are that you want to accomplish by the end of today. If you dig into those core things and make some progress on them, you’ll immediately feel more productive, while also buying yourself some time to get more clarity on your overall purpose.
2. Work with Complete Focus
When you work with complete focus, you can get three to five times as much done in the same amount of time as when you are tired or distracted. Countless studies support this, yet most work environments today are designed to support collaboration. While this is a great philosophy, with collaboration often comes open space, open door policies, and constant interruptions and distractions.
If you work in an interrupt-driven work environment, the best thing you can do is find a way to block off a couple of hours each day to do quiet work with no interruptions, either at home before or after work, or by reserving a quiet room or office on a regular basis for a few hours at a time.
There are many productivity techniques that are designed to help you focus. These range from the Pomodoro technique — where you set a timer for 25 minutes of complete focus and then take a 5 minute break — to turning off all notifications and communication applications for a period of time, to “no-meeting” days, or quiet rooms that help teams alternate focus time with collaboration time.
All these techniques are designed to do one thing: give you the time and space to focus completely on your work for a period of time. This is because during focused time you’ll get the most efficient and highest quality work done.
For many people, it’s not so much the work environment that makes it hard to focus, but an inner mental restlessness where thoughts, ideas, or emotions make it hard to sit still and pay attention to one thing at a time.
This is why multi-tasking can be addictive. But, that euphoric feeling of getting a lot done is really an illusion. Studies show that multi-tasking lowers the quality of our decisions, reduces strategic thinking, and significantly increases errors.
If you’re having a hard time focusing due to internal forces, there are proven tools to help you relax and focus. Regular exercise, meditation, getting enough sleep and focusing in very short bursts of time can be helpful, as well as containing everything that is on your mind in a trusted list or time-management system, so it doesn’t worry you while you are trying to concentrate.
Again, all the techniques are designed to do one thing – help you immerse yourself completely in what you’re doing, because that’s when you will get the highest quality work done in the least amount of time.
3. Manage Inflow
No matter what productivity techniques you use, there’s always an infinite amount of new work to do! These tasks might come from other people or through your own ideas. One major way to truly give yourself space to think and focus, is to get control over what you take on. Saying “no” to new work is easier said than done, especially when most of your work comes from other people.
Here are three techniques that can help you filter your inflow:
a. Practice clarifying what you want to take on and what you don’t want to take on. Most people say yes to new work automatically, without thinking about whether or not it makes sense. By practicing daily awareness of your purpose and the 20% of tasks that count most, you’ll prevent unnecessary activity from cluttering up your calendar.
b. Write a script you can use and modify to help you say “no” to people you are vulnerable to. For instance, if your boss is an idea person and starts you on three new projects each week, you’ll waste a lot of time keeping up with the mounting projects and jumping into action mode. Instead, use a standard response like, “That’s an exciting idea and I’d love to help you with it. However, I want to be clear on the projects we discussed last week as well. Here’s my status on them. Which ones should we back-burner for now so I can focus on these new projects?”
c. Keep an “idea book” if you are the idea person. Write down the ideas you are excited about, so you don’t forget them. Ideas are usually exciting at first, but then get boring as soon as you get to the difficult, repetitive work that’s required to bring them to life. Depending on the idea, it could take months or years to make it happen. Unless you have unlimited resources, you’re only going to have the bandwidth to push one important idea through at a time. The good news is that you won’t lose the ideas if you have them written down. And some ideas merge and connect with each other over time.
4. Systemize Anything that Repeats
Anything you do more than once offers you an opportunity to save time and energy, simply by developing a way to do it automatically. This way you don’t waste valuable energy deciding how to do it each time it comes up. Your brain has a limited amount of energy each day, and you’ll be most productive when that energy is devoted to important thinking or creative work. Many people resist systemizing, because they believe it will take too much time, or stifle them with too much structure. But the opposite is true! If you create and use a system or a “way” to do something, it frees you up to be even more creative and flexible.
Here are a few examples:
a. If you know your exercise routine by heart, you walk through it mostly on autopilot as you listen to podcasts or think through a presentation or conversation happening later in the day.
b. If you have a system for how you run meetings, you’ll cut down on the prep time – sometimes bringing it to zero.
c. If you have a good system for staying on top of e-mail, you won’t have the drain of that huge inbox, or the worry not knowing if you missed an important message.
To keep systemizing simple, choose one thing you are doing today that repeats and decide how you want to do it on an ongoing basis. You can write down the steps so you don’t forget, if that’s easier. It’s best to do it at the same time of day and connect it to routines you already have in place. Don’t get caught up in doing it perfectly because you’ll always improve your systems. But the more good habits you can work into your day, the more you’ll get done without thinking. And the more you get done without thinking, the more energy and attention your brain will have left to engage with your real priorities.
5. A Place for Everything
How much time do you waste each day looking for things? Organizing your physical space can take minutes of time away from every activity you do. It also gives you the peace of mind and confidence to show up differently when you interact with people – getting more done simply by operating with a more calm and commanding presence.
I once did an experiment where I took a full week off to work with a professional organizer and get my entire office and home organized. Then I paid attention to the difference in my overall effectiveness. It turns out that this simple and seemingly unrelated activity lead to me tripling my revenue in the following months!
I attributed this higher productivity on the revenue side to the overall calm, confidence, and clarity that having everything organized gave me. I knew no balls were going to be dropped and I had all my ducks in a row. This made it much easier for me to focus on business development activities and interact confidently with new prospects.
Having an organized electronic space is just as important. For example, a simple online folder system makes it easy to find documents and e-mails. Having one place for all your notes, a folder dedicated to things you are “waiting on,” or one master calendar that you can see on all your devices are other tried and true ideas. Task reminders on your phone can replace keeping commitments in your head and give you additional mental space as well.
You can use any of these techniques to develop an organizational system that works for you. The bottom line is getting to the point where you never have to waste time finding something or waste mental energy remembering something. The average time lost per day due to lack of organization is at least 1-2 hours per person, if not more. Just think what you could be doing with that extra time!
Getting started on intentionally improving your productivity can seem daunting with all the methodologies available to try. But if you boil your productivity efforts down to these 5 principles: knowing your 20%; improving your focus; managing your inflow, systemizing everything that repeats; and organizing yourself so that there is a place for everything – you’ll have tackled the most important keys to productivity. These principles are the ones that will most quickly make the greatest difference in your life!
In our group coaching program, we include tools, classes, and coaching services, all aimed to help you become more productive. We help you break the concepts down into manageable actions, so you can implement the most important techniques – even when you’re busier than usual.
If you’d like to learn more about the tools we use here at Nahid Coaching and Mentoring around productivity and time management, please contact us for a free consultation. We’d love to hear from you!