Purpose and Priority – Getting Clear to Get Productive

My tagline for a long time has been “sleep is for the weak,” but the truth is, I love to sleep. I have to make myself get up and get rolling every morning, and I have to fight the urge every night to call it a day and turn in early. There’s nothing I love more than sleeping till noon on a Saturday. Of course, those Saturdays are few and far between, and the fact is, I’ve just got too much to get done to be able spend a third of my life unconscious every week.

Regardless of how much sleep you need, there are a lot of things you can do to maximize the waking hours you do have, so I thought today I’d share a few of my more immediate tips for getting lots of things done in a finite amount of time.

Big Tip #1: Purpose — Know What You’re Trying to Accomplish

I know a lot of people who get lost in their task list, or their inbox, or both. They come to work, sit down, and then just start….doing stuff. That’s a recipe for drift and busy-work filling up your day.

Start every week with a plan — what do you want to accomplish that week, and what do you need to do in order to accomplish that? Write it down.

If you know what you’re trying to get done, then you know what you need to focus on — the things that move you towards those accomplishments.

Big Tip #2: Priority — Say “No” to a Lot of Things

Getting a lot done is primarily about what you don’t do. There are an infinite number of “good” ways to spend your time. There are only a finite set of things that move you towards what you’re trying to accomplish. Say “no,” or at a minimum, “not now” to those other things.

Keep a running list of everything that comes up that you need to get to “later” that’s not part of your targets for the week. Use that list to decide how to fill any spare time you find during the week, and as a source of planning for the subsequent week.

Moving Things Along

Those two principles — Purpose and Priority — are the two big drivers (for me at least) of getting a lot accomplished in any given week. The weeks I start off without my regular planning rhythm are the weeks that feel really busy but where I look back and think “what’d I get done this week, exactly?”

I usually do my weekly plan on Sunday evening, when I’m the most refreshed from the weekend, and when I have access to everything I need — personal and work-related — to make a good, informed plan for the week.

In addition to those two principles, I have a number of supporting themes that help me out. Your themes might vary significantly from mine, but these are the things that personally help me out and give me back time in my day:

  • Keep a clean inbox, and get it to “empty” at least once a week. Your inbox is not your to-do list, and it’s not your notebook, and it’s not your library. It’s your inbox. By definition, it’s the place for the things that have come in to your work stream that you haven’t inspected yet. That’s what you should use it for. I have three inboxes — work email, personal email, and a physical inbox on my home desk. I try to “clear” my inboxes at least once a day, but sometimes I just can’t get all the way there, and I make a conscious decision to put it off for a day, or only hit the high notes real quick.
  • Separate your action list from your reference material. Your reference materials could be emails, documents, web sites, wiki pages, or anything else you need to refer to for information to get something done. Your action list should be just that — the list of the things you need to do. A lot of people use their reference materials as “triggers” to remind them about what they need to do. (Especially email). Don’t do that. You can get a deep URL link to any email in your inbox and stick it in your task list. Instead of trying to “work” out of your inbox, work off your action list — and link back to your email (or whatever else you need to get that thing done) as needed. Confusing your action list and your reference material makes you keep the connection between the two in your head, where it’s always bothering you and slowing you down.
  • Write everything down. Digital, ink, post-it notes, whatever you have to do — don’t trust your memory. Write down your plan for the week, write down what you’re going to do, write down what other people are going to do for you. Make it durable. Besides just having a durable list to work off of, the act of writing down your action list helps you figure out if you really know what you need to do.
  • Keep your calendar accurate.Your calendar should be about the places you HAVE to be. Your calendar defines the “hard edges” of your day. Set up your calendar as part of your weekly plan, and then stick to it. Don’t miss meetings. Don’t be late. If you’re busy, mark it “busy”. If you’re NOT going to something, take it off your calendar. If you can’t trust your calendar 100%, then you have to keep checking it and trying to remember whether you should go somewhere or not.
  • Don’t be on call to the world. It’s ok to “go dark” for a while to get things done. Let the voicemail pick up the call. Let some things batch up in your inbox. Let the Slack notifications go by. Twitter will be there when you get back. Facebook….well, you shouldn’t be on Facebook while you’re working, anyway. Mobile devices, and always-connected, push-notification-based social systems have done more harm to productivity than we will ever measure, because they create an environment of constant interruption. Don’t get sucked in. Learn to be okay with saying to all your information queues, “I will get to you when I choose, not when you ask.”

These are a few ideas that have been effective for me. I probably need to do another, more in-depth, write up at some point on my specific approach to managing email, because that’s probably where 75% of my “things I have to do” start from — an email in from somebody else is usually what sparks me needing to take action on something, so I spend a lot of time there – and there’s definitely more to it than Gmail’s fancy “Split inbox” thing or starring “important” messages, I think!