Keeping up with the flow of information and communication in our 24/7 wired world is a bit like drinking water from a fire hose. Thanks to a little thing called the recession and a trend called globalization, we have to work harder than ever to grow our businesses. At the same time, we seem to spend more and more time managing our communications. Instant access to so much information comes at a price: it takes a toll on our productivity. We are endlessly busy, but often nothing gets done. The keys to productivity in the information age are organization and self-restraint. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you try to stay productive.
Do You Prioritize Your To-Do List?
It is easy to make too many commitments without realizing it. To avoid this pitfall, the first step is to decide what your goals are. Every 90 days, write down your top five goals. Break them into action steps, and add due dates to each step. This provides a road map for the quarter. Second, create a to-do list. Make sure that the action steps from your goals are incorporated into the to-do list, along with all of your other commitments. Third, prioritize your list every day, which provides you with a road map for the day.
As new commitments arise, add them to the list, but prioritize them against everything else on your list. This keeps you focused on what is important and prevents you from simply reacting to new events, such as an email from a client with a question, or a voicemail from an employee who needs your approval on a project. Spend 10 to 15 minutes each day reviewing your commitments and comparing them to your to-do list. If you’re a morning person, review and prioritize over your morning coffee. If you’re a night person, do it before you go to sleep.
Do You Get too Many Emails?
Email is both the greatest boon to productivity and the greatest bane. You can spend all of your time reading and answering email without making any progress on your most important tasks. The solution is to switch from simply reading email to processing email. Keep your email program closed except for specific times during the day. For example, try logging into your email four times a day: at the beginning of your workday, before you eat lunch, after lunch, and before you go home for the day. Set aside half an hour each time. Read and respond, delete emails you don’t need to keep, and file away those you do need into subject folders. Try to keep your inbox empty. Any emails still in your inbox should be those that still need a response or an action.
Do You Spend too Much Time in Meetings?
Remember what it was like before the advent of meeting scheduling software? Because it was difficult to coordinate multiple people’s schedules, meetings were infrequent and only included those who really needed to be there. Today, it is as easy as clicking “invite” for others to control how we spend our days. It’s an unfortunately common occurrence to spend the whole day running from meeting to meeting, often double- or triple-booked, and feeling that your time would be best spent elsewhere.
First, integrate your calendar with your to-do list. When you review your road map for the day, look at the commitments already on your calendar. Are they more important than the top three items on your to-do list? If not, then reschedule the meetings. Second, block out time in your calendar to get your highest priority items done. Essentially, make an appointment with yourself to accomplish what is most important to you.
Third, turn down meetings at which you don’t need to be present. If you receive a meeting request whose purpose is unclear or for which you suspect your presence is not needed, call the meeting organizer and ask for the agenda. If you are only needed to give some background information or provide one small piece of information, offer to send out that information to the attendees in advance of the meeting. Then you can skip the meeting and use that time more productively.
Are You Continually Being Interrupted?
Even when you get time alone at your desk to make tracks on achieving your most important tasks, there’s no guarantee that there won’t be distractions: a ringing phone, drop-in visitors, warring priorities. According to the report “The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity,” unnecessary interruptions eat up a whopping 28% of the average knowledge worker’s day (the average American spends 29% of their day sleeping).
First, ignore the phone. If you have no one to answer your phone for you, set it up to go directly to voicemail. Decide in advance at what interval you will check your messages (e.g., every 30 minutes). Don’t think that you can just check the caller ID and make answering decisions on the fly. Your concentration will be interrupted every time you hear the phone ring and you’ll be less productive.
Second, if someone drops by and asks, “Got a minute?,” respond with, “No, I don’t,” and set up a time to meet later. Don’t let someone else’s priorities supplant yours. If the question is urgent and can’t wait, walk over to the doorway and answer the question standing up. This will allow you to keep control of the situation and prevent it from turning into a sit-down meeting that will drag on longer than necessary.
Third, don’t multitask. Every time you switch tasks, your brain has to close out one task and boot up the other, resulting in lost time. Trying to do two things at once ultimately takes you longer and will produce substandard results. Instead, use your prioritized task list to guide your activities, and work on one thing at a time.