21 Rules of Productivity

Jul 30, 2012

“Once you have mastered time, you will understand how true it is that most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year – and underestimate what they can achieve in a decade.”

Tony Robbins

I’m a living productivity lab. One of the cool things about balancing a corporate sales job, a board position for a non-profit, my writing/coaching business and my family life (wife/2 kids) is that productivity is crucial to my success. I have no choice than to be as efficient and effective as possible.

Working “hard” used to be a source of pride. You should still work hard, but working smarter and more effectively is the key.

Really, it comes down to hacking your productivity. To figuring out what works for you to get you to the performance you want. What may take someone four hours to accomplish could take you two hours. It’s the result that counts.

I get asked all the time how I find time to do everything. I hear this a lot – “I’m so busy and there’s no way I could find time to do all that.” Busy doesn’t mean effective. We’re all busy. It’s imperative, especially in today’s 24/7 information world, to manage your day(s) appropriately. You have 168 hours every week – check out my friend Laura’s book for a great read on this topic. You have no excuse to not be productive.

Here are 21 keys to my balancing act and effectiveness:

  1. Plan your work, work your plan – I’m not going to tell you what system or method to use, but if you’re not planning what you’re going to do, there’s no way you’re going to be effective. The day will own you. The day will OWN you (are you listening?). Meetings will own you. Lists, a calendar, whatever it is, find a system that works for you. Plan, then execute.
  2. Food as fuel – Eating is a huge part of productivity and performance. Look at elite athletes – most feed their bodies with the proper nutrition and supplements. Eat smaller, consistent meals throughout the day. You’ll see your energy (and performance) take a big turn in a positive direction.
  3. Take breaks – Tony Schwartz, co-author of Power of Full Engagement, talks about our capacity to do 90 minutes of “work” at a time. After that, we become fatigued. I think it’s different for everyone, but the key is to take a break. I like to work in 60 minute chunks, then I get up from my desk. Whether it’s taking my dog for a walk or just going to grab some water. It’s a good refresher. This gets harder as the day goes on and longer breaks are often needed.
  4. Switch between associative and sequential tasks/projects – Frank Sopper, at Open Book Learning, has a great test to see what type of worker you are (it does cost money to take and get the analysis). Most fall in between (I’m about 50/50). Sequential tasks are those somewhat widget cranking tasks that don’t take a lot of thought. Your list tasks that you can bang out. Associative tasks are your more creative, hard-thinking tasks. I suggest you give yourself bigger chunks of time for these.
  5. Manage your energy over your time – Time management is a myth. It’s all about energy management (see #2 above – Food as fuel).
  6. Find your peak energy times – What works for you? Observe this. Track your energy on a scale of 1-10 and write it down a scrap sheet of paper throughout the day. I’m a 9 or 10 in the morning. Afternoons I drop to a 5/6 at times and have to really work on getting back up. This is when taking breaks and hacking your productivity is key. Leave more sequential tasks for the low energy times. A lot of people reach peak energy early in the morning or late at night. It’s not a coincidence that interruptions go down in those off-peak hours. All the more reason to manage your distractions at the peak hours of the day.
  7. Keep meetings to a minimum – This is a big one. Ask yourself how important a meeting is. Can the outcome be accomplished without a meeting? Tim Ferriss talks about not having any meetings over 30 minutes. I couldn’t agree more. Stay on task and state the desired outcome at the start of the meeting. I set most of my meetings for 15 minutes. It forces the meeting to “get to the point”. Try it.
  8. Figure out your areas of focus and spend chunks of time on those – Mine are Sales, Account Management (client follow up, misc. projects), Admin (expenses), Phone calls (proactive and return), Learning/Knowledge, Writing, Reading, Processing (emails/in box), Personal Management (bills, home projects, errands). Schedule 1-2 hours at a time (at least) for each area of focus. Read Paul Graham’s article on the Maker’s vs Manager’s Schedule. Very insightful and just may be what you need to be more productive.
  9. Weekly Review – I learned this via GTD (Getting Things Done). You have to back up and look at your productivity from a high level. What’s working? What’s not working? Look at your goals, projects and actions. I like to call this down-leveling. Start with your goals, then move down to projects that align, then set your actions (on a list). Although the GTD weekly review is pretty concrete, find what works for you. When are you comfortable with what you’re doing….and, what you’re NOT doing. Only then will have the ability to get into true “Flow” and really produce great things.
  10. In’s to zero as much as possible – Both emails and any other inbox you keep. The more you can get here (at least every other day), the better off you’ll be. Block a chunk of time and set a timer. You can whip through a lot of emails in 20 minutes.
  11. Track your time – Peter Drucker’s writing talks about this a lot. Read “The Effective Executive”. It’s a great read and talks about tracking time as a must for any productive person. If you don’t know where you spend your time, you’ll have no idea how to improve. How much time do you spend in meetings? How much time do you spend on social media, checking emails, being creative, etc, etc. Write everything down for a day. You’ll be surprised. **Side note – I will be launching some tools in the near future on tracking time
  12. Limit distractions – Social media, internet time suck, meetings (insert X). You have to limit these as much as possible. Don’t underestimate how long it takes finish something. Block those chunks of time and focus.
  13. Use a timer – A great way to manage your blocks. The pomodoro method is based on 20 minute increments. I use Chronology for my Iphone and Cool Timer on my laptop. If you’re struggling, set a timer for 10 minutes, and just dive in. It’s like running for me. Once I get to 3 miles, I’m in the flow. The first 3 miles usually suck.
  14. Think and produce like an athlete – Work in spurts. Oscillate (another term from The Power of Full Engagement) – essentially working in intervals (productivity, then breaks). A lot of times, I work in rounds (like a boxing match). Round 1 – 60 minutes of sales-based activities. Break for 10 minutes. Round 2 – Processing email. You get the picture. Write this down…it becomes somewhat of a game. Athletes know how to focus. You need to do the same.
  15. Hot list – I use a hot list each day. Yes, I have an overall list of projects and action items. I also have a hot list of 3-7 things I’m working on that either have to be done on that day or are crucial to my performance. A great way to do this is simply writing for 2-3 minutes at the start of your day what’s on your mind. Narrow your focus. If you write down 20 things, pick the top three and hit those first.
  16. Embrace difficult conversations – Running away from tough conversations kills productivity. Subconsciously, you will be pulled down by any fear you have. Almost always, the end result of a difficult conversation a positive. Even if it’s not, it’s off your chest. The relief you’ll feel is key to moving on.
  17. Experiment – What works for someone else doesn’t mean it has to work for you. Don’t be afraid to toy around with different methods. I use a hybrid approach. A lot of GTD influence with my own spin on some things that fit into my work/life.
  18. Work out – The psychological benefits of working out greatly outweigh the physical for me. After playing soccer all my life and in college (pretty much six days a week), I had to find an outlet and a way to get those endorphins. If you’re not working out 3-4 days a week at least, you’re productivity will not be where it could or should be.
  19. Don’t be so hard on yourself – You’re never going to be perfect. Days are microcosms of life. Failure is inevitable, even if it’s small. Don’t let it bring you down. Get back up. Keep driving forward.
  20. Limit emails to quick communication – Get on the phone and talk live more. You will solve problems faster and get a faster response.
  21. Focus on Results – The utmost key to productivity and execution. In today’s world, it’s all about results. I don’t care if you work 2 hours a day or 20. It’s about the result, not about the “hard” work you put in. I don’t believe anyone who says they work 12 hours plus a day and say they’re productive the whole day. I know if I get after it first thing in the morning, I can accomplish more in 2-3 hours than I can once distractions/meetings/emails/calls start to flood in.

Find what works for you. Test out your methods. Build habits. Plan your work. Don’t be too hard on yourself. Willpower is a limited resource. Use it wisely.

Please leave a comment and tell us what works for you. What are your 3 keys to productivity and performance?

Additional Reading:

The Corporate Athlete – A Simple Process to Get Results

7 Ways Crossfit helps you Crush your Workday

The Secret to Successfully Taming the Email Dragon

Don’t forget to connect with me on twitter or like The Catalyst Project on Facebook


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