Our guide to getting a lot more done in a lot less time
In business, as in almost every aspect of life, the most productive people are also usually the most successful ones. After all, by getting on top of your workload, you’ll free yourself up to think more about the bigger picture when it comes to growing your business. So, if you’re struggling to get as much done as you’d like, here are 13 ways to become more productive.
1. Plan ahead
“Failing to plan is planning to fail,” the saying goes. So before you get started on your productivity drive, the first step is always to work out what you need to do and what you’d like to get done. Then write it down. Repeat this process every month, every week, and even every day. Better still, to really stay ahead, plan your day’s work the night before so that you give your mind the time to turn everything over and hit the ground running the next morning.
There’s a big difference between being busy and being productive. And working without prioritising is likely to leave you busy and unproductive. So once you know what needs to be done, the next step is to work out what you need to do when. The Getting Things Done® (GTD®) productivity technique recommends that the most powerful way to prioritise is to look at every task and ask, ‘is it actionable’? If not, deprioritise it and move on to other tasks. If it is, you should immediately decide the very next action required. This whole process should take less than two minutes.
3. Set a routine
Studies show that we're better equipped to perform different tasks at different times of the day and, if there's one thing the human mind likes, it's a good pattern1. So there's a lot to be said for completing the same work at the same time every day. For instance, most people's brain functions best in the late morning, while we're often at our creative best when we're just a little bit fatigued. Try completing the most challenging work – or the work you want to do least – first thing every day. As Mark Twain put it: "Eat a live frog first thing every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you all day."
4. Do one thing at a time
Many people pride themselves on their ability to do many things at once. But, really, the human mind isn’t set up for multitasking. In fact, research shows that multitasking kills performance2 and that people who multitask are actually slower at switching from one task to the next. Instead, the key to productivity is to give one task your complete attention; finish it; then move onto the next. To be even more productive, you can even try “batching” or grouping similar tasks together and then completing them in one hit. This is especially true of email or social media, where constant checking can keep our mind from focusing on the task at hand.
Once you have a good sense of how much work you’ll need to get through, you should ask which tasks really need to be done by you. If there’s a task that you simply don’t need to be involved in, delegate it. If you're worried about the time it will take to brief someone else or even train them to do it the right way, don’t be. Investing a little time upfront can bring about a big lift in productivity over time. That’s because you’ll be freeing yourself up to work on more important tasks, while creating the opportunity for far higher output.
6. Set deadlines
Almost everyone is more motivated when they’re working to a deadline, so even when a project is open-ended, it pays to set your own. Research shows3 that we can become more productive by 'tricking' our mind into believing a deadline is real.
7. Cut distractions
No one’s productive when they’re constantly being interrupted. ‘The telephone and visitors are the work destroyers,’ Hemingway said. These days it’s more likely to be email, social media, the internet. After all, while it’s vital that we stay up to date with what’s going on in the industry, constantly breaking from our work to read the latest financial service-related email or social media post will have a substantial impact on our productivity. Whatever keeps interrupting your thought processes, it’s time to cut it out and then assign it to a discrete period or periods each day. If you need help resisting temptation, why not use an app to help you, such as RescueTime.
8. Start saying no
It’s human nature to try to please others but if you keep agreeing to take on every task or attend every meeting that comes your way, you’re letting others dictate your schedule. One of the keys to being productive is staying in control of the way you spend your day. That means saying no to unnecessary invitations or tasks that take you away from the main prize.