When feeling overwhelmed by an ever-expanding to-do list, many of us make the mistake of trying to plough through as much as we can, without pausing to think about how best to use our time.
Rather than simply firefighting, it’s worth taking time out to consider what is preventing you from being at your most productive and developing a strategy to overcome these obstacles.
Are the distractions human or technological? Is the part of the day when your concentration levels are highest regularly spent sitting in a meeting, leaving you struggling to complete higher-priority tasks during an afternoon energy slump?
Get planning. Setting aside time to plan your week around your own goals and priorities (rather than those dictated by your email inbox) is an essential investment, says Hayley Watts, a trainer with Think Productive. Create a structure for your week, month, and quarter, especially for repeating tasks. Identify the times in the day when you are most able to focus, block them out in your calendar, and defend them so you have that time to tackle things that need your full concentration. The more mundane, administrative work can be accomplished at your less focused times of the day.
Three “must dos”. Before you open your email each morning, identify the three most important tasks that you really want to accomplish that day. From there, match tasks to your energy levels through the day. Batching similar tasks together to do in one session – such as a series of phone calls or pieces of research – can also help you retain focus and concentration. Similarly, if you are going to be spending time travelling that week, keep a list of jobs you can get done that don’t depend on things like internet access or having a second screen.
Don’t overlook the long term. Set out time in the weekly plan to chip away at medium- and long-term projects as well as tasks with closer deadlines. Even 40- or 60-minute sessions on a big project will make a difference. Be ruthless about what tasks and deadlines you choose to commit to, Watts advises. Weigh the impact each project or task would make towards your overarching goals. Being at our most productive involves choosing where to deploy our available capacity and energy to get the best results.
Shut down distractions. Protect your most productive times of the day by eliminating the most common sources of disruption. Turn off email notifications, sign out of instant messenger, and switch off your phone’s ringer. Watts suggests setting particular times to check email, such as five minutes at the top of each hour, or a few 20-minute sessions per day, then closing the inbox, or at least shutting off the notifications. During your dedicated email time, if the response to an email, or the task required, will take two minutes or less, complete it straight away.
Splendid isolation. It’s important to strike the right balance between being available to your team and your colleagues and having the opportunity to focus and meet your own work commitments. Set some expectations about when you will be available, whether in person or on instant messenger, and when you would rather not be disturbed. If non-urgent interruptions or the noise of an open-plan office hinder your concentration, try a new base for part of the day. This could be a break-out area, your home, or a café. Watts also suggests trying to swap desks with a colleague from another floor for a few hours.
Review your progress. Review your progress at the end of each day, and take a moment at the end of the week to see what you have achieved, as well as what you are falling behind on. Unlike a to-do list, looking at a list of things you have accomplished during the week is quite motivating. Arrange to swap your “done” list with a trusted colleague so you can provide each other with encouragement or peer pressure, as needed.
Take a break. If you have ground to a halt or are having trouble getting started first thing in the morning, try working in 25-minute bursts, followed by five-minute breaks. Use the opportunity to take a break from your screen, move around, and stretch, Watts suggests. Spending longer and longer in the office in an attempt to get stuff done can offer diminishing returns, Watts says. Wellbeing is an important factor in productivity. To maintain attention and concentration through the week, we need the right nutrition, hydration, fresh air, exercise, sleep, and time dedicated to a hobby or activity that recharges us.
This article originally appeared in CGMA Magazine with the headline "Productivity techniques to conquer your to-do list"