Do you have a never-ending to do list?
Are you constantly busy and feel like there is always more that you just need to do?
For most of us working in technology, there is always more to do. We could always work harder and get our work done faster. We could take on extra projects to build new skills and accumulate some brownie points. You could post to social media or read up on news in your field. It is endless.
I understand. I have had a lot of changes in my life in the last year, and on top of that, I try to keep up this blog and do things outside of my job like speak at conferences and build my professional network (via online tools like social media and offline events like coffee meetings, conferences, or other gatherings).
Ever since I had a baby in 2014 I feel like I have had a lot less time.
And yet, I feel like I have accomplished a lot in the last 12 months; for example:
- Launched a Kickstarter for the Spark Notebook (then the website and printed a second run of books!)
- My little guy turned 1!
- Sold my company, Popforms
- Started a new job working at a branding agency part-time
- Taught my all-day Management Essentials workshop, 5 different times!
- Gave 2 keynote speeches
- Launched a new Kickstarter for the Spark Planner (which you should definitely check out!)
- Read 10 books
I feel like I have never been busier. And the hard part is juggling everything. Over the last year I have learned to develop strategies that help me get more done in a limited amount of time. Since I know this is something other people struggle with, too, I have listed some of my strategies below to give you some ideas on how to make more out of your busy days.
- Planning. I know this is going to sound obvious, but the most important part of getting more out of your day is to have a plan.
I use time blocking to plan out my days early in the week. I have lists of my monthly and weekly goals and I refer back to them at least every week. I use inbox zero to manage my email. This helps me to keep on eye on what is important, and follow-up with anything I missed.
My friend Kate Stull once told me that the secret to time management is knowing what to do with a spare 15 minutes, and I think it is true. When you can make the most of the time between meetings, and get to work right away (without pondering what to do next) you save a lot of time. And when that work is work that matters? Well then you not just save time but you make critical progress.
- Prioritization. In addition to having a plan, the next step is establishing clear priorities. One of the problems a lot of people have (especially teams working on projects together) is that everything is #1. However, you can’t do everything at once, so when push comes to shove you have to pick something to go first.
When I prioritize my work I use the following system:
- Collect all of my tasks and work items into one place.
- Classify items as urgent (as in this needs to get done right away or else), and note deadlines for anything with a firm due date.
- Assess value. Of everything on my list I try to decide which is going to have the highest impact to my work and life. You can examine your work based on how important it will be to your organization, the number of people it will impact, or how high the stakes are for that item.
- Sort items by effort. Then for all the items on my list I will go through them and put them in order based on how much time it will take me to complete the work. Faster work generally comes first.
By having a system to set the priorities of your work it forces you to both plan, and prioritize – that way whatever you tackle next you can feel confident it is something that will move the needle.
- Be on time. One of my pet peeves is when people show up late. Not only is it disrespectful (when you are late you are effectively telling people that your time is worth more than theirs – and is that really a message you want to send?), but also it wastes precious time you could use for other things.
Just think about it: if you are like me and have a lot of meetings (say 4-6 per day) and every meeting starts 5 minutes late – then you are wasting 20-30 minutes of your time everyday. The same thing applies to running long or inefficient meetings (and if you don’t need 30 minutes, just schedule 15 minutes). Creating a culture of being on time can save your whole company a lot of wasted hours.
- Be present and focus. When you multitask it can hurt your productivity (and I think it can also hurt the quality of the work). When I have to do focused work I make an effort to eliminate distractions (you won’t find email notifications or social alerts enabled on my computer).
The other side of this is in my personal life – when I am spending time with my son I try to give him 100% of my attention. I try not to look at my phone, or get distracted on something in my life. Instead I try to make the time together count doing the things he wants to do. It is truly quality time (since I am working during the day and he doesn’t have a large quantity of time with me).
And another part about being focused is also learning how you work. I do my best work in the morning when I start my day. I get way more done and the quality of my writing and thinking just seems better. As a result I try to tailor my days to allow me to do my focused tasks (like writing this article) in the morning when I am better at that type of work.
- Keep track of everything in one place. One thing that always drives me nuts is when I have an employee that has several notebooks they are using for different purposes. I have found they never have the notes when they need them most – it is always in their other notebook somewhere else.
When you have too many systems it is hard to have any one that is convenient. As a result it is better to consolidate everything in one place, then use that one list/system/book to keep track of all the things on your plate. Some people like to use an app, I like to use a pen and paper, but whatever you choose to use make sure it is a convenient for you – that way you will always have your notes and lists when you need them.
- Change the way you think. I found that one thing that always held me back or resulted in procrastination is when I would face something really challenging. If I didn’t know how to do something I would freeze up and not make any progress. Now I think about hard stuff differently. Instead of focusing on the unknown and being paralyzed by it, I start with the one thing I can do in 5-10 minutes – like a search on Google, or an email to someone to ask their opinion – and then add that to my to do list instead.
I read a book called A Beautiful Constraint and while it was more about seeing limitations and obstacles as opportunities, one of the things it made me think about was how constraints can force us to be more creative (and productive). One thing they talk about is adopting a can-if mindset: instead of thinking, “we can’t because …” to say, instead, “we can if …”. This is empowering and creates progress instead of roadblocks.
- Set deadlines and establish timelines. I was once told that “work will expand to fill the time allotted” and I think that is true for many people. If you are given a week it will take a week.
Just think, if I called you today and said that I would take you on an all expenses paid trip for a week to Hawaii, but we had to leave tomorrow – I bet you would be super productive in the next 24 hours so you could go. Now ask yourself, why can’t you be that productive every day? Well you can. It involves discipline and setting deadlines.
Next time you are given a project, really assess how long you think it should take and work to your own deadline instead of an external deadline. Managers love it when you finish your work ahead of schedule.
I hope these strategies give you some ideas on how to get more done with a limited amount of time. And if you have other ideas or suggestions go ahead and leave them in the comments. I am always looking for other ways to get more out of my days.
Thanks for reading!