There are countless methods, books, and applications out there dedicated to helping you improve your productivity. There are list makers, timers, focus helpers, and even games to motivate you to develop good work habits. Just type “productivity” into your preferred application store, and the list goes on seemingly forever. But what really helps?
I have discovered that the first thing you need to know is what your typical (or current) work mode is: Are you trying to complete a task or project that requires focus, such as a design, report, presentation, or maybe a blog post (Maker Mode)? Or are you simply trying to manage a lot of small tasks to clear your Inbox (Manager Mode)? Well, it turns out that what productivity method will work best for you is determined by which of those two modes you are in.
If you are working on a task or project that requires time and focused thought, the key is to use a method of alternating periods of work and rest. Some proclaim that 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of rest is ideal. However, with our ever-decreasing attention spans, many people find it difficult to focus for 52 minutes and be productive.
Enter the Pomodoro Technique, a system developed by Francesco Cirillo when he realized that setting his 25-minute, tomato-shaped kitchen timer (probably used for the 25-minute simmer time required for pomodoro sauce) provided him just the right amount of time to stay focused on his work. This method recommends iterations of a 25-minute work period followed by a five-minute rest period. Each 30-minute work-rest iteration is called a pomodoro. After four pomodoros, a longer, 20-minute break should be taken before starting another four pomodoros. This method claims to provide just the right amount of rejuvenation to allow for high productivity throughout the day.
Whichever work-rest time combination you think will work best for you, there are countless mobile and desktop timer applications available. (Or you can get one of the tomato-shaped timers I linked above.) Ultimately, the key is to make sure you are taking breaks between the intervals of focused work.
If your days are filled with a barrage of email messages, tasks, and short meetings that don’t, individually, require a lot of time or focused thought, then you need to operate in manager mode. Lists, organizers, and calendars are your best friends, and there is certainly a plethora of applications and methods out there to help you be more efficient and effective.
For most of my career I have primarily operated in manager mode, and the absolutely best, overall method I have discovered is David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I own and have read his book by the same name, and I strongly encourage anyone who operates in manager mode to read it. The Getting Things Done method is profoundly simple and effective with its five steps: capture, clarify, organize, reflect, and engage.
The first thing you need to do is establish a place (or places) to capture all of the tasks that come your way. An email or physical Inbox (or both) is likely where most of the tasks will land, but some might come by way of a phone call, a face-to-face encounter, or a meeting. You will need to set up another place to collect these tasks (such as a task list application) or simply jot them down on paper for your physical Inbox or send an email message to yourself. Ideally one place to capture all tasks is best, but if that is not feasible then try to limit your places to just two or three.
Periodically (once or twice a day), you will need to go through your Inbox (preferably in reverse chronological order) and determine what to do with each item. Quickly decide whether it requires an action. If not, you should delete it, save it to read later, or file it for reference. If the item does require an action, then you need to either do it right then (if it takes two minutes or less), delegate it to someone else, or defer it for later.
Once you have decided what to do with the actionable items, you need to place them on lists, in email folders, or on your calendar. Do you need to follow up on the two-minute tasks that you simply took care of in the previous step? If so, set a reminder on your calendar or tag the email for follow-up. You should also set follow-up reminders (or tag the email messages) for all tasks that you delegated to someone else. For items that you chose to defer, place them on lists based on context or category, or create reminders or calendar events, as appropriate.
You should review your lists (or email folders/tags) frequently to decide what actionable item you can take care of next. If you create a list of phone calls to make you can take advantage of the time you spend waiting for an appointment to make a quick call. If you keep a separate list of tasks for each Client you can have it handy when a particular Client happens to call to follow-up on something he or she asked you to do. And periodically (usually once a week), you should review your lists and update them as needed.
As you get used to the system, you can refine your lists and reminders to best suit your situation or workflow. Eventually, the steps will become almost automatic, you will knock out the simple tasks quickly, and you will discover that you have more time to focus on the more important
strategic activities or projects. (And then you can try out one of the productivity strategies for the Maker Mode above.)
What do you do to stay focused? Share your favorite tips or tricks with us on Twitter! You’ll find us at @thirdside.