Hack Your Productivity: A Time-Management Geek's 10-Minute Solution

I just had the most productive week ever. I am a bit of a time-management geek. I’ve met and interviewed some amazing entrepreneurs, CEOs, and politicians. They all have one thing in common: They achieve more in less time than the rest of us. They each follow their own system, and I’ve tried some version of every one.

But two weeks ago I tried something new. And with the early results in, it’s the clear winner. If you want to rip out of the gates in 2012 on fire, give this method a shot. It will take just 10 minutes a day.

First, let me tell you what it’s not. This is not a visioning method. In other words, this method does not imply that by envisioning an outcome—a new job, a successful fundraising meeting, winning a sale—you will realize the outcome. My first roommate, and first officemate when I joined McKinsey, was the coach of the U.S. National Rugby Team in a prior life. He shared with me that he, and many elite athletes, envision a game in minute detail before they get on the field. But just envisioning victory is not enough. You have to get on the field. This simple process stimulates both—the vision and turf, the dream and the action.

This also is not a checklist. I tried detailed checklists for a while. I brainstormed what I had to do to achieve my outcome, wrote down all the to-dos, scheduled them into my calendar, and then knocked them off one by one: work out, read the newspaper, write my dissertation. While such rigid processes can keep you on track, they also reduce your flexibility to pounce on unexpected opportunities as they appear.

And you simply cannot predict these unexpected opportunities. It reminds me of the joke that perhaps only the economists among us will laugh at. An economics professor and student are walking through campus discussing the "efficient market hypothesis." They see a $100 bill lying on the floor. The student bends down to pick it up but the professor says, "Don’t bother. If that were a real bill it wouldn’t be there." Along our paths we will come across unexpected opportunities, things we could never have planned for.

So what we need is both: the vision and the action. Here is my discovery. I put it together after a coaching session, reading a book on goal setting, and having 15 hours on a plane to think it through. It worked for me; perhaps it will work for you.

1. Take out a sheet of paper. 

2. Split it into six columns.

3. Title those columns "Initiatives," "Q1," "Q2," "Q3," "Q4," and "Dec. 31, 2012" ("Q" stands for quarter, or a three-month period).

4. Under the "Initiatives" column, list the 3 to 7 initiatives or areas you will focus on next year. I wrote "Speaking," "Consulting," "Training," "Fund," "Media," and "PhD." These are the six areas of my career.

5. Starting with the last column, "Dec. 31, 2012," fill in 1 to 3 outcomes you want to achieve for each initiative by the end of the year. Ask yourself, "What do I want to be true?" For example, for "Speaking," I wrote my target keynote speaking fee and the number of speeches I want to give in 2012. For "Media," I wrote that I want to launch my own TV show.

6. Fill in the matrix. Work backward from your year-end desired outcomes and fill in what must be true in each prior quarter. For example, if I want my speaking fee to be X, I need it to be at 80% of that the quarter before.

7. Every morning invest 10 minutes envisioning. Pull out your matrix and imagine quarter by quarter realizing your goals and see how that builds up to realizing your year-end vision. Think about what it would look and feel like to have achieved or exceeded your goals across each row. Thomas Edison supposedly did something similar, thinking about what it would feel like to have found a solution. Being attached to the feeling of victory makes you want it; wanting it makes you take the action and see the opportunities to realize it.

I created a simple strategy tracking tool, which you can find on the tools page of my website (kaihan.net).

I did this for two weeks and amazing things started happening. Because I was investing my time in the most strategically important things and ignoring the rest, I had my most productive week ever. My PhD thesis was accepted by my advisors, a key partnership to license my IP is now close to being signed, I booked two national TV appearances, the documentation for my new fund was completed and, on the personal side, I repaired our basement heating, replaced missing light bulbs, and brought my kids in for their dental checkups.

Even more important were the advances that were not on my to-do list. For example, a huge new potential partner I never contemplated appeared. And because I could recognize how this opportunity fit into my overall strategy, I could jump on it even though it was not on my "to do" list.

The daily "meditation" clears your mind, pulls you above the trees, and reconnects you with what you are building (your long-term vision). Now, imagine if you did that every day in 2012. Imagine if every week were your best week ever.

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[Image: Flickr user padraic woods]

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  • Shenoi Victor

    Time management might seem like a direct skill, but every now and then we need to assess and improve our time management to enhance our productivity. Effective time management is something that can be only mastered with practice and organization.

    Cloud-based time tracking systems are now saving us both time and cost. It helps to keep focused and manage our time more effectively. I prefer using this kind of application and recently I tried time recording software from Replicon ( http://www.replicon.com/olp/online-time-recording-software.aspx ), which I found very useful, could track all the time and tasks more efficiently. It is very helpful and increase team visibility and productivity.

  • James Charles

    Desired goals are achieved only when plans and actions are executed properly. One has to be more focused on the outcome than the method of achieving it in the time slot allotted. A new Productivity Management tool helps in planning & execution of activities to perform and keeps track of all the business goals

  • Aimee

    I've been using your technique and it's working! I started at the beginning of e year. I have not been super diligent about number 7, but do revisit the table regularly. Looking at my table today as we approach the half way point of the year, I realized that I am on track and even ahead of schedule in some areas. Thanks so much for sharing this - what a great tool!

  • Michael Martel

    I like how you combine action and vision.  I often see people doing one or the other.  All action and no vision usually means wasted effort. All vision and no action means no results at all.  Your technique seems to act as minor steering adjustments, do some work, vision a bit, make corrections, and then do some more visioning.  Like it.

  • Dmitriy Kriger

    i am trying to find that tool you were talking about and was unable to.  Can you please help to navigate to it?  Thank you

  • Devta Kidd

    There is a complexity here that Nikki hints at that I worry isn't being addressed, but could easily be added. Focusing efforts requires that we look at
    1) what is desired - which is detailed in the article above;
    2) what are potential obstacles and how can they be overcome; and
    3) what isn't in service of the goals.

    To Nikki's point about waning enthusiasm, it is helpful to give that shadow a voice. "I know that I rock it out for the first 1-2 months, then I always give up. What is happening at that 4-week point and what can I do to flip it?" Maybe I get bored and I need to switch it up with some Zumba or bring in a personal trainer. There is something about the wisdom and power of that shadow. When we shine a light on it, often a new sense of excitement and true hopefulness emerges because we know we aren't just crossing our fingers and trying the same thing over and over. So, add another column. "Potential obstacles, and strategies to try". Encourage your clients to include reaching out to others as part of their strategies.  Studies have shown that having a supportive network increases the chances of meeting goals.

    The author contends that the things not on the list "just fall away" but there are many things to which we give time for subtle (or not-so-subtle) political or social obligation. Sometimes these obligations are unconscious and emerge during the daily visioning process.  When they surface and if they aren't on the list, there can be some tension, guilt, and resentment. Once the commitment has been exposed, the next step is to determine if one is able at this time to let go of it.  If so, take steps to letting it go, but if not, as Tara Brach says in "Radical Acceptance," "invite it to tea" and put it on the list - acknowledging that it is somehow in service of one of the aforementioned goals.

  • the B

    Productivity techniques are old and proven counter-productive for me.

    tl;dr, better start being productive instead of fiddeling and trying to apply something that works for just someone.

  • Rohman

    This system I think has a similar concept in covey's 7 habits "begin with the end of your mind". You determine your nowadays action by determine first what is the end result that you wish to achieve. the "31 Dec 2012" column is the end of the mind and the "initiative",Q1,Q2,Q3,Q4 columns is a sequence of action that you need to find to make it complete. This is one of the effective habit that Mr.Covey recommend to implement, by setting the end result you are directing all of the resource in you to some thing important and will count to your life change. You do not spend your time and energy for the purpose that you do not chase.

  • Nikki Nadeau

    Couldn't this have been an extremely lucky two weeks though? I mean, I go through spurts of complete random luck where it seems like all of these things happen that are leading me to my goals. It's just like starting at the gym.  For the first 1-2 months you rock out and see results, but after a while, you go less and less and lose momentum.

    I did once meet a stranger in a bar though that told me if I want to accomplish anything, I should dedicate 10-15 minutes to it a day towards the goal.  I'd like to hear an update on this method after three months to see if it continues to work.

  • Michael Martel

    Great suggestion.  I would think that the grid might not be effective for the non-analytically minded.  The envisioning exercise you do every day will benefit everyone.  This gets the subconscious working and ends solving a lot of problems before they even happen.  Thanks.

  • Bette Boomer

    One of the Bette Boomer founders is a bit of a priority management nut, and has provided workshops on the subject in a past life.

    How you utilize your time is a reflection of your organization and planning, as well as your personal style and habits. In order to understand and apply better time management principles, you need to identify how you use your time, what challenges you routinely encounter in using it wisely, and what causes these challenges.Check-out our blog posts on this subject at www.betteboomer.com. or copy/paste this url in your browser to read them without searching: http://www.betteboomer.com/201...