Ten Steps Towards a More Productive Day
Whether you are a corporate go-getter or a stay-at-home parent, chances are you have more on your to-do list than you can reasonably get done in a workday. Why, then, does there always seem to be someone with a list twice as long who manages to power through it with no trouble at all? While they may have more help from others or extra time on their hands, they also likely have good habits that stop them from wasting their time and energy and help them to focus on their goals. Below are a few habits that you, too, can pick up from highly efficient people.
1. Don’t think – just do!
This one may seem obvious, but many people hold themselves back with a sedentary mentality. You may trick yourself into it in the name of planning or preparing, but if your preparation is not action-oriented you are likely just spinning your wheels. I often find myself procrastinating tasks which are unpleasant or intimidating – we all do. However, if you take the first step, you are likely to set the ball rolling for the rest of the day and overcome that sense of inertia. Do you find yourself putting off cleaning the house? Just wipe down the kitchen counters – you’ll be surprised how quickly it all goes once you get moving.
2. Take responsibility.
Of course this is good advice in regards to spiritual and personal growth – but it’s also a practical tip to increase your productivity. After all, you can only accomplish the things that you have, in fact, taken responsibility for in the first place. As Helen Keller once said, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” When you take responsibility for a task, and then accomplish it, you are also building credibility and a sense of competence in the eyes of those around you. In turn, they are likely to trust you with bigger tasks, with the confidence that you will see them through.
3. Maintain a realistic workload.
Challenge yourself, by all means, but don’t get carried away and end up spreading yourself too thin. It is better to do a few things very well than to do a lot of things poorly. To achieve this, it is important to prioritize. Identify the tasks that absolutely must be done, and the projects for which you have a genuine interest and enthusiasm. This is where you should be putting your time and energy.
For instance, if you are a college student, you absolutely must go to class and complete your coursework. If you have a passion for volleyball, you may join your school’s team as well. After a life-changing gap year spent traveling in Europe, you might also want to join the French Club with hopes of studying abroad. This is certainly, for most people, a full schedule – and joining your older sister’s sorority like the two of you had always planned might be too much of a time commitment. Rather than spreading yourself too thin, you might want to ask: Which of these is most important to me? What lights me up inside?
The hard part, for most people, comes in saying “no.” High achievers are by no means immune to the urge to people please and over-extend themselves – they’ve simply learned strategies to rely on in getting through these situations. If another mom asks me to make snickerdoodles for a bake sale, I might be tempted to agree just to keep the peace. However, I could be better off saying “I’m sorry I can’t help with that – I’ve been putting a lot of time into organizing our school’s book fair, and I just can’t fit in another commitment right now.” Most people have been there and will understand.
4. Admit when you’ve messed up.
It’s always tempting to try to cover up our failures. After all, nobody likes the feeling of letting others down. However, short term failures are not only acceptable, but also an essential stop on the road to success. There are many discoveries that can only be found through trial and error. The important thing is to recognize which of your strategies did not end up working, and to be willing to change your approach with your ultimate goal in mind. This takes a great deal of humility and self-awareness, as well as critical problem solving skills.
Embracing failure is also an exercise in perseverance. As Macklemore put it in his song Ten Thousand Hours, “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint. The greats were great cause they paint a lot.” Most successful people, in fact – including Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs – endured failure after failure before becoming the moguls we know them as today. Did they wallow in their mistakes? Did they try to forget about them and press on? No. They learned from them and built something even greater.
5. Focus, focus, focus.
It is tempting to branch out and take on a lot of small tasks that seem to be easy wins, in order to build a sense of accomplishment or appear busy and successful to others. While this is not a totally futile strategy, it is far from the best one. If you do not keep your eyes on your intended destination, you may end up somewhere else entirely, as a small player in the lives and projects of others rather than the star of your own.
Another sneaky detractor from our sense of focus is the concept of scope creep. Scope creep is the tendency of an important project to absorb other, smaller tasks, until the original objective is nearly unidentifiable. For example, you may set out to improve your company’s process for handling customer complaints, see a complaint that is worrisome, decide it must be resolved, determine that there are not enough people in the complaint department, and end up reviewing your human resource department’s hiring policies. These are all admirable goals, but the process flow chart you were assigned to complete remains untouched. Quickly, your life can turn into a living, breathing version of the children’s book If You Give A Mouse A Cookie.
Thankfully, scope creep is easily avoidable. If you set a clear project goal, stick yo your boundaries, and know the value of the work you have already committed to, it becomes easier to decline to additional tasks to an already hefty project. Instead, write down your ideas to address later – one of them may become a project goal all it’s own, for you or for someone else.
6. Stay positive!
This may seem like fluffy, feel-good advice, but it is actually very strongly backed up by scientific research. A study discussed in The Happiness Advantage proves that doctors who are put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis consistently make accurate diagnoses nearly 20% quicker than those in a neutral or negative state of mind. The same study then shifted to other professions and found that positive, cheerful salespeople outsell their negative counterparts by over 50%. According to the Harvard Business Review positive mindset increases creativity, helps you to better collaborate with others, and lessens the impact of negative events. Happiness, it seems, doesn’t just feel nice – it also makes you more powerful and productive in a concrete and measurable way.
7. Relish the small victories.
It can be easy to lose your spark when your end goal seems far away. As a common saying among mothers goes, “The days are long, but the years are short.” For this reason, it is important to celebrate even the smallest of victories. Trying to lose twenty pounds? Cheer for yourself when you get to five – or better yet, the first time you make it to the gym after a year-long hiatus! Smile with pride at the willpower you showed when you turned down that second cookie, rather than beating yourself up for having the first. When you begin to notice all of your little wins, you may end up surprising yourself with what you can do.
8. Look for shortcuts.
If it seems that super productive people have an extra hour or two in their day, that might just be because they do. Even if a shortcut seems small, the time you save is sure to add up over the course of several months. Did you find a new route that shaves ten minutes off your commute time? Congratulations – you’ve just earned yourself an extra hour and a half this week! Over a year, this totals over seventy-five hours.
Of course, this time means nothing if you do not consciously use it towards something productive. Arrive at work ten minutes earlier, stay ten minutes later, and truly make good use of that time. Connect with a colleague, complete your expense reports, and answer some emails. Use twenty minutes the next day to work towards automating a report you used to complete manually. Better yet, use your extra time to teach an intern to do it! The habit of looking out for small shortcuts will save you a surprising amount of time in the end.
9. Ask for help.
We touched on this above, but learning to delegate routine tasks will ultimately save you tons of time and energy. In addition to lightening your own workload, it helps those you delegate to by teaching them new skills and giving them valuable experience. I have a friend whose nine year old son makes a wonderful slow cooker chicken chili. This not only saves her time and effort, but also teaches him a valuable skill that his future wife is sure to appreciate, and helps to build up his self-esteem.
Another beneficial way to ask for help is to look to your superiors. They are usually glad to pass on their knowledge of the topic you are working on, and you may just find yourself a valuable mentor. Studies also suggest that asking someone for a favor increases your likeability in their eyes – and who doesn’t want their boss to like them?
10. Develop your own system!
Although these are all great suggestions (if I do say so myself), there is no blanket efficiency formula that works for everyone. Try out a new method, and if it doesn’t work for you, drop it! Knowing yourself, after all, is the key to every kind of success.