Back in 1989, Steven Covey published the seminal work, “The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People”. Working in corporate America at the time, we were all sent to Covey training in order to embrace the 7 habits. Having suffered from being a workaholic my entire career, to be honest, the only thing I remember from that class was the quote, “no one on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time in the office”. Well, that just made me feel bad about myself so I blocked out most of the rest of the class.
It has taken me a long time to recognize the value of really taking a close look at how I spend my time. I still work way too much, but I do feel productive most of the time. So today, I thought I’d offer some productivity tips I’ve learned. The value is, of course, that the better we manage our time, the more time we have to focus on growing our business, enjoying our families, and maintaining our sanity. What I’ve learned over the years about personal productivity is that there is no one size fits all. We each have our own best times of the day to focus our attention, and our own balance of how long we can do strategic thoughtful work, and when we need to take a break.
Last week I spoke about simplifying your processes. Today, I’d like to give you some tools & tips to simplify your day, and hopefully get some of your life back. While we all must develop our own system, here are some of the elements that I use personally. Some are long-standing principles, and others are newer tools I’m pretty excited about.
First, let’s start with technology. Apologies to all of you Microsoft and Android fans, but I’m an Apple and Google girl, so my technology begins with using connected devices and applications that support my efficiency. I have a MacBook Pro, an iPad Pro, and an iPhone. They all run a compatible OS so I can use applications across all three, and when I enter information on one device, it shows up in the other. I can also copy/paste links and content from one device to another. So here are some of the apps I use for productivity. And yes, for you non-Mac users, they have versions for you too.
My inbox gets pretty crazy, so I use an app called Chuck. It sits on top of either Gmail or Outlook and allows you to do a quick inbox cleanup before you dive in. When I say quick, I mean that if your inbox has grown to over 1000 messages, you can clean it up in under an hour. It comes with filters that allow you to automatically view emails sent from a mailing list, and quickly unsubscribe if you’re not interested. You can filter by messages not addressed to you, in case you’re copied on too many emails that you don’t find important. You can filter by social media notifications and quickly clear them out. And, you can categorize by sender and delete everything in your inbox from them. It’s a quick and easy way to clear out notifications from your favorite retailer when you’re not ready to buy, but don’t want to unsubscribe in case they send an amazing deal. It also allows you to drop your emails into a folder more efficiently than your native email software. I have an email folder with items for my assistant to action, so I can quickly drop emails into that folder for her. I also have folders for my own non-urgent and urgent follow-ups, so as I’m doing my quick sweep, I drop them in there so I can pop into my actual Gmail afterward and quickly add them to my to-do list.
And speaking of my to-do list, I use an app called Todoist. I have categories for the top 3 things I need to accomplish that day, as well as a folder with items I reassign to my assistant to help with, and another folder of less urgent items that I also have her monitor in the event she has an idea to jump in and help me. I also connected my Gmail to Todoist so I can create tasks for myself or my assistant directly from my inbox and never need to deal with something twice, which is a huge time saver. My company uses a more robust project management tool but when we have thousands of tasks in flight, it’s easier to forward my top daily tasks to my own personal to-do list to prioritize and keep track.
My next favorite productivity app is Notability on my iPad. With this time-saver, I have finally put my trusty notebook and sticky notes to rest! I write notes just the way I would in a notebook, and can use a highlighter or colored underlines to emphasize certain points. But now I can name and categorize the notes so I can search for them later. I’m a very visual person so I tend to picture what I have written, but flipping through a notebook to find something I wanted to remember about a meeting clearly was not that efficient. Instead, now at the end of a meeting, I write down the action items and email the pdf to my team directly from the app so they can create tasks in our project management system.
The next productivity app I use to complement this efficiency trifecta is Focus Keeper. It’s a simple timer I use to encourage myself to not be distracted for 25 minutes at a time while I dive in and get work done. It automatically prompts me for breaks in between. It’s based on the Pomodoro method and there are multiple similar apps on the market.
Of course, technology alone won’t turn you into an efficient machine, you also need your system to include principles for how you will and won’t spend your time. Here are some of the principles I use:
- At the end of each day, I use the Chuck app to organize my emails and assign my action items, and those of my team, for the next day. It’s a mindless task I can easily do while watching TV in the evening, but one that will get the early birds on my team focused when they start their day.
- I only schedule meetings for 30 minutes rather than an hour. A 1-hour meeting should really be the exception.
- I use Notability to take notes from each meeting, including action items, and email them off as I close out the meeting. That way my team can handle the action items and I won’t find myself trying to remember everything I committed to at the end of my day.
- I group my meetings, ideally during the least productive part of my day, when I have 3 or 4 of these 30-minute meetings back to back. That will force me to keep on time and avoid the typically unproductive small blocks of time that happen when I only have 20 to 30 minutes between meetings, leaving me inclined to just mindlessly scan my emails.
- I try to block the most productive 2 hours of my day for my creative or strategic work and guard that time with my life. OK maybe not with my life, but I block it in my calendar and mark it as “out of the office” so my calendar will automatically decline any meetings someone tries to drop in there.
- I color code my calendar to be more aware of how I’m spending my time. I use different colors for internal meetings, client meetings, networking and sales, and personal appointments. If I don’t have enough client, networking, and sales colors in my week then I may reprioritize until I do.
- At the end of each day, I review my calendar for the next couple of days. Did someone drop a meeting in there that isn’t truly important for me to attend? Is something scheduled for an hour that could be 30 minutes? Is a 30-minute meeting really a 15-minute quick check-in? I decline, move, and reassign anything that doesn’t make sense.
- Before I accept a meeting, I ask myself if I would still accept if the meeting was happening today. If my answer is no, then it probably isn’t the best use of my time.
My personal efficiency system has evolved over the years, and it’s kind of a hobby of mine to find new ways to improve. I’ll probably add some tweaks next week, next year, and ten years from now. I read and listen to a lot of successful entrepreneurs about their systems to improve their focus. It’s a nut I’ll probably never completely crack, but I figure that the better I can focus my time, the more time I’ll have to make the right strategic moves to grow my company. And maybe, I can even carve out a little more time for myself.
After all these years I have recovered enough from my Covey training PTSD to share one of his wise quotes, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage–pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically, to say “no” to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger “yes” burning inside.”
This week, I encourage you to reflect on your “yes” and do one thing differently to refine your own personal efficiency system.