We all aspire to be productive—yet most of us struggle to reach that goal. Now that we’re moving into the back half of 2023 (wait—July is already here?!), you may find yourself wondering “where did the time go?” and feeling frustrated by your lack of progress on this year’s tasks and commitments.
Fortunately, it’s never too late to learn new strategies for increasing your productivity.
Read on to find out how you can still hit your targets by year end (and set the stage for long-term boosts to your productivity)!
The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.
“Big rocks before little rocks.”
Nearly everyone who’s gone through any kind of management training or attended productivity workshops has seen the famous video in which Stephen Covey demonstrates his “big rocks” theory in front of a live audience:
The theory holds that if you deal with the “little” stuff first, you won’t have the time and energy to address the “big” stuff. Therefore, you should prioritize the more important tasks in your life. Once you have those significant things sorted out, you’ll still have plenty of room to work on less important things and your ability to get more done will dramatically improve!
We’ve all heard some version of that advice before. And I suspect we all agree that yes, it is indeed good advice. So why do so many of us struggle to follow it?
In my experience, I’ve found that when most people (myself included) have trouble getting things done, it’s because we’re unable (or, often, unwilling) to identify and acknowledge our true priorities (the “big rocks”), because we don’t know how to keep ourselves on track, and because we sometimes feel overwhelmed by everything on our plate. Let’s tackle each of those obstacles in turn.
Identifying—and Accepting—Your Priorities
Decide what you want, decide what you are willing to exchange for it. Establish your priorities and go to work.
—H. L. Hunt
If you want to get more done, then you need to figure out what, exactly, actually needs to get done.
Think about the various items on your to-do list at work: meetings, performance reviews, brainstorming, check-ins with your staff, check-ins with your boss, project management, coaching, workshops, networking, mentoring, your own coding/writing/designing/etc., professional development, creating and giving presentations, administrative tasks (e.g., e-mail, filing, work travel arrangements) . . . the list goes on and on (and on!).
If you’re anything like me, your list is probably a mile long. And if you’re anything like me, whenever you look at your list and see the “ohhhhh, this is going to take a lot of thinking/planning/effort” items, you shift your attention and zero in on the “hey, I can take care of that in just a few minutes and tick it off my list lickety-split!” items instead.
Here’s where you have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself.
You need to recognize low-hanging fruit for what it is and reject the urge to pick it instead of dealing with stuff that is more difficult. Checking e-mail for the fourth time in one hour, for example, is so easy to do and makes you feel like you’re being productive. (You get the “I just completed a task!” endorphin rush.)
But deep down, in your heart of hearts, you know that the low-impact, time-filling tasks function more as distractions from the important stuff than as significant contributions toward “getting stuff done.” (Note: I make this statement with zero judgment. I’ve been in this situation, too. Everyone has.)
As you think about the relationship between the work you do and the results it yields, keep in mind the Pareto Principle, which holds that 20 percent of the effort yields 80 percent of the outcomes. This is ideal productivity in a nutshell: having as much impact as possible from what you put into your work. When you aren’t getting much bang for your buck, you’re probably not hitting that 80-20 ratio. And if you find that you’ve actually reversed those numbers and are getting only 20 percent of results but putting in 80 percent of effort, then you are definitely focusing too much on the “little rocks,” and it’s time to reevaluate your strategy.
When you admit to yourself that much of what you’re doing isn’t actually “productive” and embrace the need to prioritize the important stuff—that’s when you can truly start to get things done!
Staying on Track
Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.
—Paul J. Meyer
Once you’ve identified your priorities, you can start working on them. But if you can’t keep yourself on track, you can’t move forward toward your goals. The inability to hold yourself accountable is one of the most potent forms of self-sabotage—and it can derail your productivity in the blink of an eye.
Do a self-check-in at the beginning of the day:
- First thing in the morning (yes, even before checking your e-mail!), look over your priority list. Finish (or at least make good progress on) one task right away.
- Then open up your e-mail and answer only the ones that are critical. Don’t even touch the “easy” messages—just focus on the top-priority ones. These are likely to include communication from your boss, your clients, and (if their forward movement depends on a timely response from you) your team and other colleagues. (Schedule a time later in the day to deal with non-critical e-mail.)
- Go ahead and take a quick peek at your social media and news sites—but set a timer (maybe ten minutes) to ensure that you don’t fall down any rabbit holes.
- Then look at your meeting schedule. For each meeting invitation you have that day, ask yourself “Do I really need to attend this one? (Or can I get the minutes afterward from the meeting organizer or from a colleague who will be there?”) The more you can clear your plate of items that don’t directly contribute to your ability to get things done, the more resources you will have to focus on your “big rocks.”
- As you work through your to-do list, try to tackle the hardest projects first. More times than not, those are the ones that have the most meaning and add the most value to your department or organization—and the ones that, when you complete them, will have the biggest positive impact on your productivity.
At the end of the day, do another self-check-in, this time reviewing your productivity for that day. Ask yourself some hard questions (and answer them honestly!):
- Did I prioritize my “big rocks” enough?
- Did I spend too much time on the “little rocks”?
- Did I focus on easy tasks (e.g., quick wins, fillers) so much that I ended up avoiding the challenging projects on my plate?
- Was I truly productive today—or just busy?
Do similar check-ins at the start and end of each week, each month, each quarter, etc. The idea is to engage in self-reflection scalable to the various periods of time so you get a good overview of what you’re doing and how well you’re doing it—and identify any changes you need to make.
Dealing with Enormity
The secret of getting ahead is getting started.
When you were a little kid and you were told to clean your room, did you look over the sea of discarded toys, laundry, and books covering your floor and instantly feel “stuck”? Maybe at a loss for knowing where and how to begin?
When faced with the need to tackle something big (a lengthy to-do list, for example, or a task that’s huge in scope or importance), people often freeze up. This is normal. It happens to everyone. As we grow up, the settings (bedroom versus boardroom) change, and the challenges (putting stuff away versus doing your paid work) change, too, but we all find ourselves in variations of this situation throughout our lives.
In these moments, I think of a very helpful anecdote by Anne Lamott in the early pages of her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write. [It] was due the next day . . . . and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Pick a starting point—any will do—and just go. The important thing here is to just get started. As you make progress toward getting something done, you will get a clearer and clearer picture of what needs to be done (and how) to achieve your productivity goal and can then adjust your efforts accordingly.
Keep the Big Picture in Mind
Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort. —John Ruskin
Where do you spend your time? Think about the effort you put into your various projects and day-to-day activities versus their impact on the department or organization. Take a look at this chart:
Conversations about the relationship between effort and impact are omnipresent in the business world, so you’ve no doubt seen something like this before. (And if you haven’t—or if you need a refresher—take a look at my blog post on this subject.)
But have you really thought about this relationship in the context of your own work? When you take a good hard look at your own productivity, are you spending your time mired in thankless tasks that take a lot of your effort but don’t have a big impact on the organization? If so, then you’re definitely focusing on the “little rocks”—to the detriment of yourself and your team and organization.
Keep Up the Momentum!
Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.
Once you establish some good productivity habits, you’ll find that it gets easier and easier to meet your goals. You need three key elements: an awareness of how you are spending your time, the willingness to make changes needed to put your true priorities front and center, and the discipline and resolve to stick with your plan. With all three of these in place, you’ll become a “get things done” champ—and your productivity will skyrocket!
(If you have any tried-and-true strategies for improving your ability to get things done and increase your productivity, please share them in the comments!)