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15 Feb, 2017

Guru Guidance Mentor Topic: Four Productivity Tips for the New Year

Falynn Schmidt

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Read time: 5 minutes, 50 seconds

Four Productivity Tips for the New Year

I constantly look for ways to be more effective and efficient at work, and at life in general. I’ve tried all kinds of day planners and iPhone apps, read lots of books on getting things done, and taken classes on how to do what I do better, faster, and more efficiently. To save you time, I will synthesize the best of what I’ve learned. If you have a tip, please leave your comments below. We can all benefit.

1. Write it down, make it happen.

There is actually a book called Write it Down, Make it Happen [i]. It is about 200 pages, but I can boil down the gist for you. Spoiler alert - the premise of the book is if you write it down, you are more likely to make it happen. Here’s how I recommend doing it.

Buy yourself a good old fashioned one-page-per-day planner. You may be thinking, “But I need more than one day for my to-do list." Maybe. But it is unlikely you will get all of that done in one day, so be nice to yourself, and be realistic.

Make a list of what you need to get done. Check things off as you go (crossing them off feels even better). If you did it, you deserve to put a big slash through it. I use a highlighter so I can see what it was (in case I need to reference it when I do my time sheet or just to show myself how productive I’ve been).

The next day, look back at what you accomplished the day before. Give yourself a pat on the back. It’s always good to celebrate your wins. Then start a new list. Feel free to reprioritize. Rewrite everything you didn’t accomplish the day before. This is not to berate yourself (which is why you celebrated just a minute ago). This is because making a list reinforces what you need to do and actually makes it more likely to get done.

At the back of your planner there are probably extra pages for notes. This is where you can make lists of the long-term things you want to accomplish. Maybe it is your month’s goals, or maybe your year’s. It doesn’t matter how far out your goal is: my own non-scientific research shows that if you write it down, you are more likely to make it happen. Also, the book says so.

At the end of the year, you can look back at your accomplishments. Or look back whenever you need a pick-me-up, inspiration for what to do next, or proof of why you deserve a promotion/raise.

2. Never check email in the morning.

Guess what? There is actually a book called Never Check Email in the Morning [ii]. Guess what it is about? Spoiler alert: it is about not checking your email in the morning. By now you’re thinking, “I am never watching a movie with her!”

I actually haven’t read this book, but here is why I try not to check email in the morning. Picture this scenario. You want to be responsive. You want to be helpful. You sit down at your desk in the morning; you look at your to-do list from the day before. You congratulate yourself on how productive you were. You make a new list for the new day. Then you open Outlook to start getting things done, you see an email from someone important, and you think, “I want to be responsive. I want to be helpful.” You spend the next hour researching the information the sender needs. You check with someone else in your office to see if she knows anything else that will be helpful. You Google a few images to include in your response. It’s now noon, and you haven’t crossed a single thing off of your to-do list.

You’re not feeling very productive. Why? Because you let someone else control your day. Sure, things come up that will take priority over everything else on your list, but before you allow your morning to be given over to a new emergency, make sure the other fires on your list can wait. Could you tell the sender of the email that you will get to it later? Can you say you’ll add it to your list? Can you even go to her and say, “This is what is on my list today. What do you think should be the first priority?”

The other scenario is that you don’t really get any extremely important emails, but you receive a bunch to just go through and read. Either way, it’s noon before you settle in to your to-do list, and half your day is gone. Emails feel very important, but often they are not. They make you feel like you are accomplishing something because as you click each one, it feels like you are checking something off of your list. But actually most of them are just a time suck.

If you’re not convinced, next time you are checking email, ask yourself, “To whom should I be billing my time spent on this email?” Even if you are 100% overhead and don’t bill your time, play the game. To whom should you be billing your time spent on that email? To your supervisor? To a project pursuit? To yourself? Would you be willing to pay for it? Because that is what you are doing: you are paying for it with your own time. It is worth it? If not, reprioritize that email to the end of your list.

3. Eat the Frog First.

Mark Twain said that if you eat the frog first, you can get the worst part of your day over with and move on to all the other things you want to do. Brian Tracy, professional coach, describes how to do this in his book, Eat That Frog [iii]. He says your “frog” is your most important task, and also the thing you are most likely to procrastinate. If you put it at the top of your list and get it done first, then you can cross that one off knowing you have accomplished something you set out to do. That way, even if an emergency email derails your day, you can say you got the most important thing done.

4. Take a Day Off

This idea also comes from a book: the Bible [iv]. But you don’t need to be religious to practice self-care. Stephen Covey calls it “sharpening the saw.”[v] For those who know me, you may know that I take 24 hours off every week. I turn off all technology: no phone, no computer, no television, nothing electronic. I don’t drive. I don’t spend money. These are the modern “restrictions” of observing the ancient sabbath. For me, they are not restrictions at all. One day a week of no email, no bills, no din of a television or glare of a screen. Don’t get me wrong - as soon as the bell rings, I am back on my phone, but for 24 glorious, quiet hours, I am on a break. It helps me go back into my week refreshed. It gives me time to think. People know not to call me because I won’t answer. In the almost 20 years I have been doing this, there has never been an emergency that couldn’t wait until my day of rest was over.

You may worry that you would be bored without your device(s). Fear not: scientists are now seeing that we don’t spend enough time being bored.[vi] It’s ok to be bored: it lets your brain rest and replenish. When you sleep, you actually wash your brain cells so they are “clean” again for the next beating they are sure to take.[vii]

If 24 hours phone-free makes you anxious, then all the more reason to try it. But if you really can’t, try this: how about no devices during dinner every night? How about just one night a week? How about just giving up one device? See if you can limit your input. I have a feeling it will help you increase your output.

Try it out, and if you live to tell the tale, let me know how it went.

Falynn Schmidt, CPSM
Business Development Leader
DLR Group

[i] Write it Down, Make it Happen, Henriette Anne Klauser, Touchstone, 2002.

[ii] Never Check Email in the Morning, Julie Morgenstern, Fireside, 2005.

[iii] Eat that Frog, Brian Tracy, 2001.

[iv] The Bible, Genesis, all editions, page one.

[v] Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey, Simon and Schuster, 2004, page 287.

[vi] “In a constantly pluggin-in world, it’s not all bad to be bored,” New York Times, Alina Tugend, 11/30/2012

[vii] “One more reason to get a good night’s sleep,” TED Talk, Jeff Litt, 9/2014.