If you’re like me, you’re constantly frustrated by not getting all the things done that are on your To Do list. Figuring out what to do is the easy part for us, and we simply assume that putting it on that list is all it takes to ensure completion. Bzzzzz! Wrong answer!
Alas, our To Do lists are the fly paper of business; they’re so sticky they indiscriminately attract all kinds of things, and once something’s stuck there it’s hard to come off. Peeling them off is so elusive, tons of productivity gurus have written books on how to get things done.
One of the most insightful I’ve found is a book by Steven Covey called “First Things First”. In my class on Prospecting for New Business, I talk about perhaps the most illuminating part of the book, the Four Quadrants. (For more info on this see my earlier blog post). The idea is to force yourself to schedule things that are important, but not necessarily time-sensitive.
Not All Hours Are Created Equal
However, as helpful as that is, some tasks require different amounts of creativity, energy, intelligence, etc. than others, and unfortunately our levels of those traits vary greatly throughout the day. Some people are sluggish in the morning and are at their productive peak in the afternoon; for others it’s the reverse. The key is knowing your own rhythms and scheduling your tasks to best suit them.
Schedule your most important, complex, and creative tasks (proposals, blog posts, client meetings, etc.) for when you are the most energized and clear-headed. Move the monotonous yet simple tasks (data entry, basic bookkeeping, expense reports, etc.) to your sluggish periods.
For another example, in her class on Catering Creativity, Stella Ballarini suggests that if you’re hitting a creative wall when it comes to menu planning, shift gears and focus on drink options instead, which are invariably much simpler.
Avoid ‘Switching Time’
An interesting article by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy in the Harvard Business Review called “Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time” identifies a number of tactical suggestions for productivity improvements, and after tracking them through a group of loan officers at Wachovia, found that the group that implemented their methods improved performance by over 20% vs. the control group.
One of their suggestions is to avoid distractions. They found that “a temporary shift in attention from one task to another—stopping to answer an e-mail or take a phone call, for instance—increases the amount of time necessary to finish the primary task by as much as 25%, a phenomenon known as “switching time.” It’s far more efficient to fully focus for 90 to 120 minutes, take a true break, and then fully focus on the next activity.”
I’ll take this a step further, and suggest that once you get your head into a creative mode, for example, you stay there and bang out as many things requiring creative input as you can. It takes a while to shift gears, so why not knock out a second blog post while you’re still in a creative writing mood, for instance?
Replenish Productive Energy Levels
You can also replenish your energy level during the day as well. Simply taking a break to walk around the block without making calls or checking emails can renew your productive energy significantly. It may seem paradoxical that you can be more productive by cutting out 20 minutes of work time to clear your head, but it’s true.
If you take one thing away from this post, it should be to move away from the concept of managing your time during the day as a uniform commodity. All your working hours are not equal, and by simply understanding that you have some parts of the day where you’re more productive than others, and then matching those hours to tasks requiring similar energy levels, you’ll both accomplish more, and feel better about it in the process.