Productivity For Beginners

Virtually every entrepreneur or successful business leader I’ve met uses a lot of tricks to stay at peak productivity.

Here are some tips for beginners to the art of time management, and for those of us who still need a lot of extra help.

Like many other artists and entrepreneurs, procrastination is a huge part of how I work. I’m not great at sticking to schedules religiously, and deadlines seem to inhabit a parallel universe that has no effect on my own. I’ve tried to collect tricks for making sure that I got done the things that were most important, distilling the “productivity pr0n” into a small set of useful habits.

Have a Method

The first and most important advice I’ll give anyone starting out a new business is to establish a system for getting things done. Many of us started out thinking that a few “to do” lists would be enough, but as an entrepreneur your time is extremely valuable, you’ll be busier than you’ve ever been before, and your ability to think clearly through decisions is one of your most important contributions to your new company.

Personally I recommend working with David Allen’s GTD system, which stands for Getting Things Done.What I love about this method is that it’s comprehensive yet based on simple principles such as “getting everything out of your head and written down somewhere” and differences between how you plan things and how you determine your next actions at any point in time. However it’s a pretty intense system–you have to make GTD part of your lifestyle. I find GTD works best with software such as OmniFocus or Things, but it was originally designed to be used with paper. Incidentally, both of those apps are Mac-only; I haven’t found any Windows or Linux alternatives that seem as good.

Another recently popular system is the Action Method, which is primarily a suite of software and paper products built around a system aimed at creative professionals. It’s designed to focus on the actions that need to be accomplished for a project, and differentiating actions from “back burner” items and resource materials. Part of what’s different from GTD is that David Allen began as a consultant and then author, so his system was aimed at helping executives create a general system that could fit whichever software they had at their disposal. In contrast, the Action Method began life as a software system designed for visual people. That means less variety of options (it’s just one company) but all of the notebooks and apps are designed by the creators of the system.

Ultimately you need to find your own system for productivity, but just make sure you have one.

Just DO it! (Don’t obsess over productivity systems)

If you’ve never worked with a productivity system like GTD before, be forewarned: it can get addictive. In fact, tweaking your productivity system can often become an excuse to procrastinate. Remember, one of the best ways to be effective is to JUST DO IT.

Take time to THINK

The other side of the “just do it” equation is realizing that it’s useless to shoot an arrow before you’ve aimed it. Schedule time just to think about things. You’d be surprised how often you can save time just by relaxing and finding a better solution. Speaking of which…

The Working Sabbath

Kind of an oxymoron, it came from the perverse realization that I was more productive and inspired when I was on vacation than when I was supposed to be working! What I found was that by not having a schedule, all of a sudden I could just work on whatever I wanted, for as long as I wanted! No obligation to go to a meeting, to answer the phone, or to submit something by a deadline.

So I’ve found that by scheduling at least one full day of the work week where I schedule no appointments, do no email, and answer no phone calls, I can get done huge numbers of things that I otherwise can’t find the time to do. Or more importantly: I can get much further in a few important things.

This is essentially a mid-way point between time-chunking and No Schedule. Time chunking is the idea that you need to block off a minimum amount of uninterrupted time to get certain things done. You can’t block off 1/2 an hour of “writing an article” or 15 minutes of web development. To be effective, you need to block off a full amount of time.

The No Schedule is extreme: you simply never agree to make appointments or have deadlines. While I’ve tried this and found it useful to a point, personally I found that having some deadlines helped structure my work, even if I didn’t follow the deadlines very strictly. And most of us can’t avoid scheduling anything.

The Working Sabbath is a much more reasonable compromise. I find that 1-2 days like this is just perfect. The hard part can be standing firm when people insist on contacting you or trying to book you during your no-schedule days, but it’s worth it.

Morning Short-list

This is one of the most popular approaches and it works:

  1. Wake up early and have a good breakfast.
  2. Write down a short list of things you really need to get done today.
  3. Do them.

Many people emphasize having only a few items on the list, say 5 or less. I find something else more important: the number of hours. Figure out how many hours you have to work in the day, and estimate how long your To-Do items “should” take. Your To-Do list should only total about 50-60% of your working hours. If it’s any more, you won’t focus on the things that are most important. The idea is to acknowledge that interruptions and procrastination will eat away at some of the time. You want to make sure that in the time that’s left, you get the important things done.

And I’m not joking about the breakfast. I find I’m a lot more focused if I’ve eaten well.

Procrastinate Effectively

An approach advocated by a number of effective procrastinators. If you accept that you’re going to procrastinate and get distracted, at least spend your procrastination time doing important things. Usually I procrastinate most about short-term things-the things that have upcoming deadlines but aren’t hugely important in the grand scheme of things. So while I’m procrastinating on those things, I use my time to work on things that aren’t as urgent, but are much more important in the long term–planning out projects, writing a draft of a document.

It’s amazing, because often by doing this I actually prevent procrastination in future tasks. Say I procrastinate from writing an email by working on ideas for a new brochure. The great thing is that once it comes time to implement some of the new ideas, often the work is almost completely done. The hard part is usually starting with a blank page, and by working without a deadline, often the page fills up much faster.

Mad Drafts

Since it’s so much easier to come up with things when there’s less pressure to get it right immediately, a great way to procrastinate or kill time is by writing drafts. Since I carry a notebook with me everywhere, any moment that forces me to wait is time for me to work on drafts. I don’t usually share my notebooks with other people, so that sense of privacy makes it easy to spew out a quick draft.

The funny thing is, often the drafts are nearly perfect. By just chilling and writing out a few notes, often I find I’ve done 90% of the work. When it comes time, I just do an electronic version in a jiffy and overall I’ve saved myself a lot of time.

Some of the things I’ve jotted down while waiting:

  • Price revisions for existing products, with different scenarios. The math is too simple to require a spreadsheet, so paper works great.
  • Course plans for training
  • Advertising ideas (brochures, web sites, etc.)
  • Long-term planning

Say No – LOTS

Learn to relish the feeling of saying, “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to make that meeting” or “no, I’m not interested.” The biggest thing I try to say no to is any kind of obligation that doesn’t either make money or in some way contribute directly to my goals. I don’t accept a lot of obligations any more, period. It doesn’t mean I won’t help people. I just won’t commit to helping someone at a specific time or place.

Have Fun

Often we procrastinate worst when we’re not allowing ourselves to have fun. So take a fun approach to what you’re working on, or intersperse work with fun things. A trick I’ve used for writer’s block is to deliberately start off writing the worst, most offensive thing I could possibly think of. Not only did it make the process fun, but it also often revealed some great ideas that wouldn’t have come to me otherwise.

Stay True

Sounds quixotic, but make sure that you do every day at least one thing that you’re passionate about, or that is related to your long-term missions. Don’t allow days to fill up with tedious tasks while you forget the stuff that really means something to you.