I was always amazed by top performers. I asked myself what those people do and how they are much better than others. Then I started to research more and talk directly to some of them. I finally managed to get some top performers as my mentors and, in the end, became one of them. I learned that they are not better than others, but they use some techniques that help them achieve more.
Here are some productivity techniques you can use daily to achieve 10x more than you imagined.
Focus on ONE thing
A primary differentiator between top performers and others is that top performers don’t multitask. It is scientifically proven that our brain cannot multitask, and even if we try to do that, we lose a significant amount of time to concentrate on another task.
We can achieve this by blocking our time in the calendar early in the day when we have the most energy to do something and try to keep the focus on it. Try not to manage your time; manage your energy. Enable yourself to have at least 2-3h of in-depth work sessions because you need 20-30mins to get in the flow state (4h is the max you can do in a day). Set one goal for each work block and break it into actionable tasks. Focus on only one task at a time. Leave the afternoon for meetings or some other repetitive or administrative tasks. Batch similar tasks and tackle them collectively. When you finish a job, reward yourself with an activity you like (and yes, put this into the calendar too).
This single-tasking approach not only leads to better-quality work and enhanced problem-solving but also reduces stress and mental fatigue, promoting a sense of accomplishment and motivation to maintain productivity throughout the day.
Prioritize tasks by using Eisenhower Matrix
We need to understand first that urgent is different from necessary!
Urgent tasks require immediate attention, and essential tasks mean that those activities have an outcome that leads to us achieving goals. What is necessary here is to make a difference between "urgent" and "important" tasks.
To do this, you can use The Eisenhower Matrix. It is a simple decision-making tool that helps you distinguish between important, unimportant, and not urgent tasks. It splits duties into four boxes that rank which studies you should focus on first and which you should delegate or delete.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States and a five-star commander during World War II, first proposed the Eisenhower Matrix when he said, “I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”
Eisenhower's statements inspired Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, to create the now-famous task management system known as the Covey Time Management Matrix. It brings many benefits, such as increased productivity, clear habits, and better work-life balance.
When you get a task, you put it in one of the four quadrants:
Important & Urgent (Do): this task requires immediate attention, which means "do it now" (e.g., something you can too below 2mins). It could be: responding to necessary e-mails, finishing a client project, escalating in a team, illness, etc.
Important & Not Urgent (Schedule): these tasks do not have fixed deadlines but bring you to your long-term goals. You should spend the most time here. Rank and schedule them. These activities are usually: strategic planning, education, and exercise.
Not Important & Urgent (Delegate): these tasks must be done but usually drain your energy. Try to delegate them since they are not important. Examples of such activities are: responding to non-important e-mails, meal preparation, lengthy phone calls, or meetings with no apparent purpose.
Not Important & Not Urgent (Delete): these activities only distract you from your goals and do not add anything to your value, e.g., watching TV, checking Facebook, and similar. Try to limit them.
So, the trick is to focus on the right tasks by prioritizing essential tasks and saying NO to non-important and non-urgent ones.
Another framework you can use here is the Impact-Effort Matrix. Here you prioritize your tasks based on their potential impact and the effort required to implement them. The ability of a course of action to accomplish a specific project aim is often used to assess its impact. The time, money, or other resources necessary to act are measured. The relative result and effort of various acts can be compared using an impact effort matrix to determine which ones are most likely to be successful. When we create a matrix, we want to focus on things with high impact and low effort, while we don’t want to do something with increased effort and low impact.
Other prioritization methods exist, such as RICE, ABCDE, MoSCoW prioritization, and more.
Stay organized by using the GTD method.
We all need help with what we should do next and what to prioritize. So here comes the Getting Things Done (GTD) framework to help. David Allen developed it in the 1990s. The main idea behind GTD is that by getting your tasks and commitments out of your head and into a trusted system, you can reduce stress, increase productivity, and free up mental space to focus on more important things.
Here are the critical components of the GTD system:
Capture: This is the process of collecting all things that have your attention. It can be anything from emails, thoughts, ideas, tasks, or projects. The idea is to write it all down in a "trusted system" outside your head to reduce cognitive load.
Clarify: In this step, you process what you've captured. This involves deciding whether the item is actionable or not. If it's not actionable, you can discard it, incubate it for potential future action, or file it as a reference. If it's actionable and can be done in less than two minutes, you do it immediately. Otherwise, you delegate it or defer it.
Organize: Once you've determined what you need to do, you organize those tasks. This might involve assigning them to specific projects, scheduling them in your calendar, or placing them on a "next actions" list.
Reflect: This involves regularly reviewing your system to ensure it remains up-to-date and aligned with your commitments and goals. Allen suggests a weekly review to clean up, update, and revise your lists.
Engage: This is the actual doing of the tasks. With a well-organized and updated system, you can confidently choose what to do at any given moment.
In addition, David Allen emphasizes using context-based lists for your tasks. For instance, some tasks may be done only at your computer, while others may be done when traveling. By grouping tasks based on context, you can tackle them more efficiently.
So, how it works in practice or by using a tool is to have the following lists:
In - Here, we put all ideas we have as they occur. Write down every task, vision, or commitment that comes to mind, whether small or insignificant. When you add items here, please feel free to ask yourself if this is actionable. If the answer is NO, you should remove it or add it to the Someday/maybe list. If it's actionable in the physical and visible sense, you can move it to the Next Actions list.
Next Actions - The most crucial section, here we have everything you can choose to do at any moment. When determining the next action, consider if it takes less than two minutes. If this is the case, do it immediately (2-minute rule). If an effort needs less than two minutes, it gives us overhead to track compared to how long it takes. If you need more than 2 minutes, delegate it if possible and put it in the Waiting for a list or your Next actions list if not.
Here you can use the Eisenhower matrix to help you understand what you should do immediately, what to delegate, and what to delete.
Waiting for - This is the list where you put stuff you delegated to others, or you're waiting to reply to, or some issue blocks it.
Projects - This is where we put stuff that needs more than one action, so a grouping for activities. It is a simple list of projects with two or more steps. And be sure that there is at least one action from a project in the Next actions list.
Someday/maybe - This is where you put your ideas without concrete actions, which you would like to pursue in the future, but now you need more time.
You can use any TODO app for this method, such as Todoist, Microsoft To-Do, etc.
How to deal with Parkinson’s Law?
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time available for completion. Unfortunately, this means that we usually tend to procrastinate about what we need to do to fill our day and even to work overtime. So, in the end, we do less than we could.
To fight it, we can use the Pomodoro Technique. It is a simple and effective way to increase productivity and focus by breaking down work into intervals of 25 minutes, separated by short breaks.
There are the steps to use the Pomodoro Technique:
Choose a task to work on, prioritize your tasks for the day, and select the first. Then, try to “eat the frog,” i.e., tackle the most challenging task in the morning.
Set a timer for 25 minutes and start working on the task.
Work on the task until the timer goes off. Then, focus on the task at hand until the timer goes off. Avoid distractions during this time, such as checking your phone or browsing the internet.
Take a short break. When the timer goes off, take a short break for 5 minutes. Use this time to stretch, grab a snack, or do something else that is not work-related.
Repeat. After the break, set the timer for another 25 minutes and continue working on the task. Repeat this cycle until you have completed four 25-minute intervals, then take a more extended break of 15-30 minutes.
We can also use some tools to help us here, such as Mariana Timer or Pomello.
How to beat Procrastination?
Whatever we want to do, there is always something more substantial. We put it in our TODO list, sometimes with a reminder, and then when it alerts us, we postpone it to another day until we forget it. So, it goes in this direction, a direction of procrastination. Yes, we want to do something about this, but we need to understand better what is happening here and what we can do.
Jim Rohn introduced this term and further expanded on by John Maxwell and others. It's called the Law of Diminishing Intent, which says: "𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘰𝘯𝘨𝘦𝘳 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘸𝘢𝘪𝘵 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘢𝘬𝘦 𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘭𝘦𝘴𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦𝘭𝘺 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘢𝘬𝘦 𝘢𝘤𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯.” And this law is the reason why we procrastinate.
So, what are the strategies that we can do to fight it:
Take action immediately if possible. This is important if something you need to do is small. Why do we need to do it immediately? Because over time, your intention and motivation for taking action will diminish. Sometimes we are scared or do not know what should be the next step. Take your time to clarify and make a plan; if you cannot, take the next step; other steps could emerge independently.
Do something small about it today. Take your time and invest something in your goals because the effort you invest in a task compounds over time (the law of compounding effort). So choose a job you want to complete, find the little meaningful peace of work, and do it today.
Why is this also important? When you start to do something, your brain will work on this subconsciously while walking, sleeping, etc. This is why we have "aha" moments when we expect it. It also motivates us because we have a sense of progress and are less likely to quit once we invest our time.
Do your most important work first. If we have many things to do and don't know what to focus on, we can use the Ivy Lee method, a great productivity technique. It works in a way that we select 5-6 tasks to be done and rank them to work on them tomorrow. Then, only work on the first thing until it's finished, then go to another one, etc. At the end of each day, plan for the next day. If we need help with rank, we can use the Eisenhower matrix.
Do weekly reviews
We have yearly, monthly, weekly, and even daily goals if we are well organized. We managed to transfer some plans to daily habits, which was the game-changer. Yet, some goals are not worth pursuing, and we are focused on more minor and unimportant tasks or fulfilled with our actions.
The remediation for this is to have weekly adjustments in our work by reusing the Weekly Reviews approach. With Weekly Reviews, we can stop, pause, think about where we are headed, and take control of our TODO list.
A study from Harvard Business School shows that we learn better if we reflect on what we did already done. And it is like achieving our goals. By meditating, we move forward faster. With Weekly Reviews, we learn more about ourselves (e.g., at which time of the day you have more energy) and continually improve (we measure and track progress).
There are several ways how you can do Weekly Reviews, and this is the one I prefer:
Do Weekly Reviews on Sunday evening - I usually spend around 20-30mins, and now, I can reflect on a preceding week and plan for the next one. You can choose Friday afternoon or any other time you'd like.
Go through my checklist - I ask myself different questions, such as: what are my five accomplishments, what did I do well, what do I need to improve, and how can I be better next week? For example, can I reorganize my calendar better (e.g., to work in batches)?
What is essential here is to be objective as much as possible (try to be unbiased and honest) and be kind to yourself. For example, if you missed doing something, don't think bad about yourself; reflect on what went wrong and plan a more productive week.
Start planning the following week - I check my goals for the next week. What are my top 3 priorities I want to achieve? Is everything I'm doing helping me reach my goals? What are potential roadblocks, and what can I do about them (if there is a blocker, it is a go)? I reuse the GTD method to continue with my plan.
As an extra step you can do, I can recommend journaling. You can do it every day at some fixed time, which will help you discover possibilities, thoughts, and ideas the next time you do Weekly Reviews.
Some additional considerations
Along with the suggestions above, there are a few more that could be helpful to everyone:
Revise the daily schedule the night before or immediately in the morning. Here I rank my list and select the one big task I want to achieve tomorrow. Of course, there could be more tasks, but the fewer you have, the better.
Don’t just think too. We often think about things and do nothing. We need to do things as this is the thing that only counts. Always focus on 20% of things that matter (Pareto principle).
Say NO to everything by default, especially to meetings - Yes, it's hard for large corporations with meeting cultures. Try to mark your sessions as worth it and then decide if you should go to the next one. And also, make no default for everything that doesn't bring value to your life.
Automate everything you can. Try to use different tools to automate everything you can, especially repetitive tasks.
Timeboxing. If TODO lists or GTD don’t work for you, try timeboxing. It is a calendar-based system. If you have something to do, take some time, e.g., four h, and put it on the calendar.
Try Time-blocking. Try to divide your calendar by specific tasks, which enable you to be more intentional and avoid distractions. This means you can have fixed or flexible, as well as ad-hoc tasks inside.
Use a note-taking system like Second Brain to make you more organized. You can put stuff you need to remember and easily find it later there.
Take good sleep and exercise. Last but not least. This is the thing that can affect productivity the most. Usually, it needs 7-8h of sleep to maintain physical and mental health. Also, try to eat healthily and to have some physical activities. For example, regular walks can do wonders, as scientific research shows.
Do something relaxing. Try one of the techniques for mindfulness, such as meditation. It will help you to enter a flow state easier and understand yourself better.
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There is this book called "The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth About Extraordinary Results" and it goes into details about improving productivity. Would recommend reading it