If you’re like a lot of knowledge workers, you might feel that you spend your time unproductively. You seem to “do stuff” all day long but then feel that you’ve done nothing but “stuff” at the end of the day.
How can you change this? I’ve found three things that work for me to not only stay focused and achieve my objectives, but also help me feel better about myself.
You see, although on a less focused day I might not feel very productive, it’s not that I’ve failed to achieve anything (though I might have achieved fewer of my most valuable goals). It’s that I’ve worked with an unclear mind, and later cannot remember exactly what I did during the day. This leads directly to self-doubt and self-criticism.
Solving this problem is fairly simple for me and results in terrific productivity, as well as a great sense of satisfaction and progress at the end of the day.
It’s important not only to achieve what you desire, but to feel great about it too. Marten Mickos, whose writing is always worth reading, says this about getting a good night’s sleep:
Here is what you can do so that you are able to work hard and sleep well… [In the evening] forgive yourself all your failures and weaknesses. Accept who you are and be kind to yourself and others. This helps to get reach the peace of mind a good nights sleep requires.
[Edit: here’s a comment from Rob Young on Facebook that I just had to share here. “The only thing I would add to the first tip is to at least attempt to forgive others as well. It may take time, but I try to let others’ transgressions go as soon as my heart/mind will allow. And always be kind to all in all ways.” Thanks, Rob—these are such wise words.]
With that in mind, here are the three simple steps that have made a world of difference for me.
1. Choose Tomorrow’s Priorities Tonight
At the end of the day, after supper and the kids are in bed and everyone’s going separate ways, while everything you’ve been thinking about all day long is tumbling restlessly around in your mind, take this simple, concrete step to clear your mind for a good night’s sleep and make tomorrow the best it can be.
Settle quietly and do things away from your normal daytime routine (computers, social media, and the like). Do something, even for just a few minutes, to really shift gears. Draw or play music or write in a journal.
Then find a small piece of paper. A standard Post-It note is ideal, much better than a notebook that’s full of cluttered ideas and distractions. On this piece of paper, write a TODO list of everything that comes to you. All the things that have bothered you through the day. What do you need or want to do? Write it: board meeting, update HR handbook, refactor APIs, dry cleaning. If you’ve kept a scrap of paper in your back pocket and readied this list already through the day, so much the better. Review and enlarge it if needed.
When you’re done, choose things you think you can accomplish in the morning tomorrow, and which are your most important and strategic. Either they’re time sensitive and need to be done, or they’re a huge lever for the long term.
Write these things on a new, fresh Post-It note. It should be no more than a handful of things. If you have more than 5, I think you should question whether you have your priorities right, but you might be different from me. Make your note clean and uncluttered.
Put this Post-It note inside the lid of your laptop or day planner. Put it in the way of whatever you might otherwise impulsively do first in the morning.
Many benefits result from doing this. It’s a good use of your time when you’re tired and can’t work at peak productivity, it empties your mind and lets you go to sleep peacefully, it captures things you’d otherwise forget, and most of all it sets you up for maximum productivity when you can best make use of it, as you’ll see next. All in all, I think it’s perhaps one of the best things you can possibly do with your evening time.
As a corollary, I think one of the worst times you can try to think about priorities is the morning. In the morning, your mind is empty of context. You can’t remember all the things you might want or need to factor into priority-setting. Do this in the evening.
Now close down all the windows and tabs you don’t need. Close your email and social media. Close chat and messenger programs. Close everything. In the morning you will have your Post-It note and nothing else.
Spend the rest of your evening quietly, away from computers and tablets and other harsh stimuli that will mess with your retinas and suppress sleep hormones. Go to bed at a good time and pace, and sleep well.
2. Eat A Big Breakfast
Update: I’ve found something that works even better, skipping breakfast entirely.
One of the worst things you can do in the morning is set yourself up to be hungry and irritable before lunch. Eat a breakfast that will keep food and hunger far from your mind until it is time for your next meal. This will remove a huge distraction from your morning. After all, what’s more distracting than a physical need? When you’re hungry, don’t you want to wander around restlessly, changing whatever you’re doing because your body says “do something different than what you’re doing, which is causing hunger?”
I have experimented carefully and found that fats and proteins are the best for me. Two of my favorites are:
- Scrambled eggs slow-cooked with lots of butter, and perhaps some cheese.
- Smoothies with items such as peanut butter, protein powder, avocado, and yogurt.
If I eat something carb-heavy, such as a pancake, I like to drench it with coconut oil, butter, or spread it with peanut butter or yogurt to help me digest it slowly.
People are incredibly different and we do not all run on the same engines and fuels. Find out what works for you. (That applies to this entire article, too. However, the advice in this article has proven true for many of my friends and acquaintances, so I feel comfortable giving it.)
3. Make Morning Time Sacred
I omitted part of Marten Mickos’s quote before:
When you wake up in the morning, push yourself to be dissatisfied and highly ambitious.
Maybe you are different, but most people I know agree that morning is their most productive time. With your mind newly cleared after your subconscious has dealt with stress and conflict through productive dreaming and imagery, you are at your best for several hours in the morning.
Make this time sacred. Do everything to avoid wasting it. Common wastes of time include:
- Checking social media
- Reading email, news, and the like
- Going to meetings or participating in calls
- Above all, trying to decide what you should be doing
If you’re like me, you’ll recognize that feeling of “I have a hundred things to do, but I can’t think of a single thing I should be doing! What should I do?”
This is why you take step 1 to prepare for these precious hours of maximum output. The second and third steps ensure that nothing gets in the way of this time. Once you’ve planned your goals and priorities, you want to focus ruthlessly on those things when you’re most productive. Block out time on your calendar routinely to prevent interruptions.
Think about this: what’s on your calendar? Do you schedule your work or do you schedule interruptions to your work? Is that really how you want it?
If you are physically and mentally ready to make the most efficient use of your morning, and you’ve decided what to focus on so you don’t waste a moment thinking about it, then the only thing remaining is to ensure that no one but you owns your morning time.
You need to take ownership and control of your schedule or others will do it for you.
Pick the right time of day to do the right things, and ensure you take care of your physical and mental needs so you’ll be able to devote yourself wholly to them. Good sleep and a clear mind are essential. So is a daily cycle of planning when you’re best at planning, preparing in advance for productive working time, and blocking out distractions during that time.
If you’ve taken these three steps, the only thing remaining is to actually use the time you’ve dedicated to the goals you’ve decided to prioritize.
Open your computer and remove the Post-It note from the keyboard or screen. Review briefly the few things you decided last night to focus on. Pick one, and one only. Push it to completion. Let nothing else distract you. Do not open email or other time-wasters. Close your door, work from home, whatever it takes.
I also have some specific suggestions about integrating exercise and physical wellness into your daily rhythm for maximum impact. I will share that in a later post.
If you try my suggestions, let me know how it works for you, and what other suggestions you have.