How I keep myself productive
I’m always interested in improving myself. I’m particularly interested in everything that affects my productivity. For that reason I pay attention to what I do, how I do it and I try to find little nuggets that will get me to a better position.
In the past few weeks, I found myself explaining how I plan my days and how I make sure I keep them productive to several different persons. These conversations are always a great checkpoint for me. They keep me on my toes. I have to explain it to someone else, so it does have to make sense. And, as with almost everything, once you have to explain it, you understand it much better and find points of improvements.
In one of those conversations, when I was explaining “my process”, a friend challenged me to put it into writing and share it.
Well, challenge accepted.
Why I plan my day
To begin with, it’s important to understand how I got to this point.
We all have many things to do and we all live in a balance between importance and urgency. We’re easily drawn into urgent issues at the cost of important ones. Sometimes we’re pulled by issues that look like urgent (or even important) and that we find out are none!
So I found it of paramount importance to have it very clear in my head:
- What are the important goals I want to accomplish?
- Which are the tasks I have to perform to accomplish those goals?
- What’s the priorities of the issues I have to do?
Above all is important to understand that most of these hacks are a way of overcoming my shortcomings. I’m flawed and defectuous. I procrastinate if I allow myself to. I confuse important things with urgent things.
So, more than creating a way to be perfect, I longed for a process to be fairly productive. I’m also stuborn and some pighead determination got me to a better position. That’s what I’ll share with you.
Why I plan for work and personal issues
One other thing I realised as I thought more and more about how to organise myself and how to be more efficient, was the fact that I only live one life. This means that throughout my day I do things which are related with my work, but I also have to do personal stuff and familiar things.
My day, my 24 hours, are the same. Whether I use them to work, for leisure or any other interests I might have. That’s why I plan my day including everything I want to do: whether those are personal or work issues.
Did it ever happen to you to set an appointment for something personnal and then forgetting about it when you’re thinking about your calendar for professional issues?
It used to happen frequently to me. One day I was setting a business dinner and someone asked:
“Are you available Thursday?”
“Sure”, I replied.
Thing is, I had arranged with my mother, less than an hour before to have dinner with her, on that same Thursday! However, in my mind those were two different calendars. One for personal appointments another for professional ones. And when I was thinking about one of the aspects, I totally forgot the other. If some friend were to invite me to dinner for that Thursday I would not confuse myself and would quickly reply that I was not available. But as it was a business situation, I forgot about the arrangement with my mom.
The biggest problem was, I didn’t keep all my personal appointments on my calendar. So when I checked my agenda to confirm if I was available it didn’t show me the time slot was already taken.
These kind of situations, where I confused personal and professional appointments and forgot about some when setting up the others, happened more than once. I forgot medical appointments when setting meetings, or parent meetings at the kids’ school.
I don’t have that problem anymore. I set up calender appointments for everything, whether it’s personal or professional. Going to my daughter ballet presentation? Set it on my calendar. Lunch with my mother? On my calendar. Saturday morning sales presentation with the team? Well, you got the idea.
In the beggining there was nothing
There are two important ideas about planning my days.
- Every morning, I define what I want to do during that day.
- Every evening, I analyse what I did and register it down on a timesheet.
It sounds more complicated than what it actually is. In fact, this takes me 10 minutes in the morning and 10 minutes in the afternoon to actually accomplish this. And believe me, the results are just too valuable not to do it.
Plan the day
I plan my day. Everyday.
The first thing I do in the morning is to prepare what I want to do for that day. There are some places I check for this:
- My calendar, to understand what I have on the schedule for the day;
- My Trello board with all my lists: I’ll explain all those lists in a bit;
- My email inbox to see what came up during the night.
Once I have reviewed these, I mentally prepare my day. I make sure everything I want to do today goes to my “Now” list on Trello. Once I put something on the “Now” list, I also include an estimate of how long I think it will take. Usually the issues will take 1 or 2 hours. Some are minor and might take 0,5h or 0,25h. The total number of hours on the “Now” list for the day has to be less than my available hours for the day.
By doing this prioritization, I save myself the trouble to decide, as the day goes by, what should I do next. In reality, it’s more than this. There are all sorts of things that the “rational guy” within me knows will be necessary to do. But the “procrastinator” in me would postpone those tasks and substitute them with others he would deem more “interesting”. By prioritizing as the “rational guy” I’m taking that decision out of the “procrastinator” way.
Is that me disciplining myself? Yes.
Does it work 100% of the time? No.
Sometimes I skip one task and do something else that was not on the list. But in the afternoon when I come back to what I actually did, I’ll have time to “punish myself”.
If something comes up during the day that will take me non-planned time (and it happens everyday) I’ll consider if I really have to deal with it then, and if it is more important do complete that task today (instead of one of the tasks I had planned).
This process to plan my day takes me 5–15 minutes everyday, including the process of going through the emails. This is a very small toll to pay to improve the productivity everyday and making sure you do what you really think it’s important to do.
Review what you did
I keep a timesheet, to check that what I did matched my priorities. I don’t micro-manage what I did, but I categorize it. In the beginning of the year I established the main areas where I want to focus my attention and everyday, before calling the day, I divide the hours I was working through those categories.
- Business as Usual
- Internal People
- Other issues (related with my company)
- Issues related with my previous position
I have considered the importance of all these categories and so I’ve established the target for each of them, and from time to time I analyse how am I going and how that translates into my priorities for the future.
This analisys is also important to understand which important tasks I did not complete and why. That’s when I usually understand how I allowed the “procrastinator” take the best of me and postponing something that would be important to be done. It’s also, the moment I’m preparing the planning for the next day:
“This are the things I did not do today that I must complete tomorrow!”
It’s more difficult to relapse when you have to think about your faults by the end of the day. And even if you do it once, it’s less likely to happen again tomorrow if you are aware of it.
I have a Trello board with my to-dos
- I have a Trello Board with several lists. It’s my personal board.
- The main lists, where I look for to-dos, are:
Then I have some other lists:
- Follow up: this is the list where I go everyday to look at things that are to be reviewed by me or that I should confirm are going on (but which I don’t have to act on directly)
- Inbox: is the list to where I send emails I can’t deal with right now. This list is not prioritized and only has items sent from the email. (more on this later)
- To-do (for sometime): this is a list where I put things that I might or might not do. It is what I call “Issues that time might solve”. If one day I have some spare time (as if it ever happens…), I’ll pick issues from this list. Otherwise, I won’t.
- To see: this is the list where I have things I want to see later (namely videos, talks or shows). For this list I use a very simple algorithm: if sometime has passed and I haven’t yet seen or paid attention to the issue I just delete it or I move it to the now or next list. The logic is simple: If I haven’t seen this yet, it means that it either is nor important (for me) or that it is but I haven’t have any time for it. If it is important, I’ll have to find some time anytime soon (and it goes to the now or next list). If it isn’t I’ll just forget about it.
I also create some other ad-hoc lists for issues that temporarily are on my mind, and that I want to keep track of.
For instance, as I write this I have a list called “Recruitment” because I have a lot on my mind about this right now. We are very actively hiring people to Near Partner and I want to follow that issue very closely. When this matter becomes less important, I’ll just archive this list and move on with it. Nonetheless, the issues I want to act upon, even if they are related with recruitment have to be created on one of the To-do lists (“Now”, “Next” or “Later”).
Deal with email: Touch it once
Email is a bitch. It can be a major problem to deal with and it might be a huge problem in your productivity.
I’m pretty happy with the way I deal with emails nowadays. But it wasn’t always like this. I used to read any given email at least 3 times. First to know what it was. The second time deciding if that was something I wanted to do right away or could reply immediately. And usually a third time, when I would really deal with it and do whatever I had to do in order to “resolve it”.
Now I have one rule: thouch it once!
The process is more or less as follows:
- I check my email 3–5 times during the day
- On those moments I allow myself to spend some time going through it and answering (15 mins top)
- If I can, I reply immediately or do whatever I have to do to make sure it can be archived; If I can’t, I’ll send the email to my Trello Board to be dealt with later.
- When I finish this, I’ll have my “Inbox” list on Trello with several issues. I’ll go through it and decide immediately to which lists those issues should be moved. If they are very important and have to be dealt with today, I’ll move it to the “Now” list. Otherwise, I’ll move them to the “Next” or “Later”. As I’m sure I’ll go through these lists every morning I don’t have to worry to much about them. Tomorrow, when I’m planning my day, I’ll look into these again.
This takes me more or less one hour during the day going through the emails. Which is good given what it used to take me before I had this process in place.
My main thought through all of this is: I want to make sure I do important things, not urgent.
Everyday, when I’m doing my planning, I go through all the lists. I move issues around. I archive some issues “time solved” and which don’t need my attention anymore or are now obsolete.
When planning my day I consider both personal and professional issues. My time is the same, so if I’m doing one thing, no matter the “category” I won’t be able to do another.
There are other issues that muddle in the way of your productivity. Interruptions are probably the most important.
I usually have my notifications turned off. To me that’s very important. I’m someone who is easily pulled to something if I see a notification. To avoid this I only check messages, emails or slack when I’m moving from one issue to the other. This way I minimize the “context change cost”.
However, the truth is many things I do during my days demand a great deal of interaction with others. How, when and why that happens is very important. Communication is a very important topic and its relevant to manage it. But that’s an issue for a different post.
My productivity hacks are always “Work in Progress”. There are always changes and some tweaks that will improve this process. However, I’m happy with the way I deal with my issues and priorities. I guess this must be true for almost everyone. Give it a try. Let me know how it went.