At any moment in a given day, we have push notifications, text messages, email alerts, phone calls, tweets, and even real humans vying for our attention. Not only are we busy in the present, but also our minds are often consumed with the future and all of the decisions we have to make.
While your to-do list is more likely to grow longer than disappear, the key to reducing exhaustion is to spend the time you do have productively.
Before we share some tips that will help, let’s first look at some of the things that get in the way of your productivity:
Most people aren’t great at establishing strong boundaries around their time, and they’re even worse at observing them. It’s important when you’ve scheduled time to do something to actually do it. Resisting answering phone calls, checking social media, or agreeing to have coffee when a friend stops by can be difficult, but also worthwhile.
Distractions happen for one of two main reasons: Either we fail to limit our exposure to them or they are an indication that we need a break. You need to learn to notice the difference, enforce those boundaries we just mentioned, and allow time to rest and rejuvenate when necessary.
We have many responsibilities and multiple roles in life and work. One of the biggest drains on productivity is that we take on more than we are capable of accomplishing.
It can be hard to relinquish control, but doing so gives us the opportunity to work on what matters most while allowing someone else to handle the rest. In addition to delegating, what sorts of things can you automate or, at the very least, create a streamlined process to handle?
Set yourself up for success by creating and sticking to your boundaries, minimizing distractions, and getting over the idea that you’re the only one who can do what must be done. If you only apply these three principles without adding in any of the tips listed below, you will see a definite increase in your productivity.
If you want even more productivity, though, here’s how to get it:
How long can you stay focused on a task or project? Whether it’s 20 minutes or two hours, break your day into chunks of time and schedule tasks that can be completed in those chunks. Take short breaks between each chunk.
Project mapping is a great time management technique in which you plug tasks from a project into the available time slots on your calendar, just as if you were scheduling an appointment with a client. We get so overwhelmed when we have a massive project and a looming deadline. By mapping the project tasks out on our calendar, we set aside specific time to work on them so they get done.
The Pareto principle, or the "80/20 rule" as it’s commonly referred to, says that 20% of whatever you are talking about is vital and 80% is trivial. Apply this to your task list: 20% of what you do will yield 80% of your progress. Out of all the tasks that must be done, can you pick out the 20% that will move you closer toward your goals?
On a sheet of paper, create a to-do list. Make this list as inclusive as possible. Divide a separate sheet of paper into four quadrants. In Quadrant 1, write down all of the tasks from your list that make you money. In Quadrant 2, write down the tasks on your list that make it possible for you to make money, like marketing activities. Quadrant 3 should include tasks that don’t make money but most be done. These are your business operations like email administration, managing the team and meetings, paying bills, etc. In Quadrant 4, list all of the activities from your list that are truly tasks that could be delegated to someone else or simply deleted from your to-do list altogether. Always challenge yourself to put at least 5 items in Quadrants 1 and 4, and spend your time focusing on doing the tasks in Quadrants 1 and 2 as much as possible.
You are likely more productive at certain times of the day than others. Schedule your hardest and most important tasks during your most efficient times of day, and save your easier/less important activities for your low-energy periods.
If you notice that certain tasks on your list never seem to get done, it’s time to question whether it’s worth doing at all. Can you move these tasks to Quadrant 4?
Maximize your time by grouping together tasks that are similar. For instance, if you have client meetings, plan to run errands while you’re out. Then schedule multiple tasks you can do on your computer for another part of the day or a different day.
Planning impacts your productivity in so many ways. Set yourself up for success by taking time to prepare for the next day. Study the time you have between appointments and deadlines and make a plan the night before for the tasks you will accomplish.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, taking a break is actually a very effective way to be more productive. Take a shower. Go for a walk. Get lost on Instagram for 15 minutes. You’ll be refreshed when you return to your work.
When you’re overwhelmed with to-dos and need to get back on track, sometimes it helps to focus all your energy on the tasks you have to complete. This means letting go of some things you normally do to maintain life as usual. Housework, your favorite TV shows, or your weekly night out with friends might be a worthwhile sacrifice for the short term to allow you to focus all your energy and be more productive.
No matter how fast you knock things off your list, use your precious time on the things that matter most and you will feel more productive.
—Lara Galloway and Erin Baebler are the authors of Moms Mean Business: A Guide to Creating a Successful Company and Happy Life as a Mom Entrepreneur (Career Press, Oct 2014). Both are available for comment. They are both certified coaches, mothers, and entrepreneurs.