We spend so many of our waking hours at work that you would think we get a lot of important things accomplished. Yet, according to Franklin Covey’s survey of over 350,000 workers, respondents admit to spending a whopping 40% of their time on unimportant things! Putting this in perspective, in a normal 40-hour workweek, two full workdays are spent doing “stuff” that’s not considered high value. Why is that? When I ask professional services managers what their biggest productivity challenge is, I almost always hear the same refrains,
“I’m back-to-back on calls so I have to do my ‘real work’ after hours.”
“I get so many emails I can’t keep up.”
“I’m scattered and have trouble trying to focus
and just get one thing done.”
“I’m so busy, I move from one thing to the next.”
While it’s comforting to know we are not alone in managing our workday, it’s important to recognize that the constant flow of work will always be there. It’s easy to knock out the small stuff. It’s the big stuff that takes discipline, motivation, and the strength to say no (or not now) to other things. The truth is that we want to do the important work, but it’s hard. So, it’s up to us to create strategies to execute on the things that are truly important each day.
Here are a few of my favorite strategies to help you move the meter on the things that are most important to you to accomplish:
- Start your day by tackling an item that’s most important to you. Many of us don’t proactively plan our days and what we want to achieve. This opens the door for other people’s priorities to become our own. Start with a shortlist of items that are most important to you to accomplish – keep it to the top one, two, or three things. Begin your day working on one of those items. With this approach, you’ll have the satisfaction of having completed something important to you regardless of how the rest of the day unfolds. Bonus: Your brain is most fresh in the morning – take advantage of it!
- Take ownership of your days by calendaring your most important activities. Once when I was heading out on a business trip, I debated making space in my luggage for my running shoes. My husband said, “Well, if you don’t pack them, then you are guaranteeing you won’t work out.” He was right – I was taking any chance of exercising off the table. The same is true in calendaring our most important activities: focused time at work, exercise, time with friends and family. While there is still the risk that something else may take priority, by putting it on our calendar we are exponentially more likely to claim the time and follow-through. If it doesn’t go on the calendar in the first place we aren’t giving ourselves a fighting chance of following through – as others will steal our time. As Nir Eyal states in his book Indistractable, “If we don’t plan our days, someone else will.”
- Get comfortable saying no (or not now). We all want to be liked and it’s great to have a reputation among our colleagues for getting things done. Having said that, we can’t be all things and expect to make time for the important work that requires focus for creative problem-solving or new thinking. We have to get comfortable with saying no to the things that are not as important. A colleague of mine, Melanie, suggested that I think in terms of in service of what; this simple phrase goes a long way in helping me prioritize. I can more easily tell Brian that I’m not available for a small, interesting project in service of being able to complete my preparation for an upcoming training program. In the end, I have to make a choice, and keeping the idea that it’s in service of completing a greater good helps me do that.
- Embrace mono-tasking, focusing on an activity to completion. Honestly, mono-tasking is life-changing. The ability to stop, completely focus on a specific effort (yes, distraction-free), and complete it, is rewarding and frankly, how work should be done. Break down bigger efforts into smaller chunks so it’s practical for you to complete a section in one sitting. Work in an uninterrupted manner (in the time you previously calendared!) in order to deliver high-quality output in the shortest amount of time. I won’t go on about this, suffice to say that developing the discipline and boundaries to mono-task amp up your productivity and sense of accomplishment like nothing else.
- Minimize distractions. Of course, mono-tasking isn’t possible if you allow yourself to be distracted. Remember that you are made of stern stuff and turn off social media, email, notifications, phone calls and the like. Clear your physical workspace so you don’t get sidetracked. Don’t let these distractions steal your focus, but rather use them as rewards after a concentrated effort. If you need some help use an app such as Freedom or Forest to give you a boost.
- Stop checking and repeatedly rechecking emails throughout the day. When we do this, we are giving our attention over to our inbox – much of which is not that important – and derailing our day in the process. Schedule times during the day to check email and respond. Put into place tools to help you manage your inbox such as David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology.
- Use music to cue your brain. My high school Spanish teacher, Senior Cannon, was ahead of his time when he made us listen to classical music before taking his quizzes and tests. He knew music had the power to help his students improve their focus. Spotify has loads of mood music just for working, studying, and focusing. Select a playlist (preferably instrumental only) that tells your brain it’s time to work.
- Pause. Just pause. If needed, schedule your pause on your calendar. Give yourself 3-5 minutes to stop and just breathe. My friend Teri Reuter has a five-minute guided meditation focused on breathing that’s a perfect afternoon break (terireuter.com). Get out of autopilot mode and think about how your day is going. Refocus so you ensure you are present for what the rest of the day holds.
- Live in the present moment. Borrowing from Joshua Seth’s book Finding Focus in a Changing World, “Resolve to give as much value as possible to the task at hand or the person in front of you.” If you give your full self to the task at hand, it will be done better and faster. If you give your full self to the person in front of you, they will feel it. You strengthen your relationships through each individual encounter and being fully-present is the cornerstone.
Choose one or two of these habits to commit to trying for 21 days. Keep a visual reminder nearby to help reinforce your commitment to embracing this new habit. Get to what’s important to you by creating the boundaries you need to help you do great things!
About The Author:
Denise’s work focuses on helping organizations develop their people. Clients look to her to provide them with the training, tools, and support to unleash the potential of their workforce – especially in the areas of owning their careers, building strong relationships, and finding focus to do what matters most. She uses a results-oriented approach by tapping her extensive experience in talent and learning, combined with a client-centric mentality. In recent years, her consulting work has centered in the areas of creating leadership and career development programs. She designs and delivers learning in a close partnership with her clients and enjoys all aspects of program support. Denise has facilitated and led numerous training programs for leaders at all levels; participants cite her leadership style, high energy, and passion as keys to why her programs are impactful and engaging.