It's not about how much you can get done in a day. It's about how you can become more engaged in what you are doing.
When I'm more focused on simply getting things done, I find myself feeling overwhelmed, scattered, and exhausted. And no matter how many things I'm able to cross off my to-do list, more to-do's keep cropping up like bunnies. So I'm never released from the anxiety of unfinished business.
However, when you are engaged in what you are doing, while you are doing it, you are naturally productive. You are focused on the task at hand with full attention, and you are relieved (at least temporarily) of the stress and pressure of checking things off the list.
Focusing on the task at hand, however, is not always so easy. Our monkey minds want to distract us, our eyes want to dart to our list, our ears hear the ding of texts and the blip of an email coming in.
Simply the noises, the things we see in our peripheral vision, the creeping thoughts of projects awaiting us, is enough to tighten our chests and fill us with low-level anxiety. And of course, these feelings make us less focused, less engaged, and less productive.
If we are perfectly honest with ourselves, we know that most of the pressure we put on ourselves to “get it all done” is self-created. Will the world fall apart if we don't get everything done today? Will we be lazy and weak people if we accomplish less than we set out to? Will we really lose clients or get fired if we finish the project tomorrow instead of today?
I'm not suggesting we blow off our important tasks or procrastinate. But I am suggesting we get comfortable with the idea of doing less each day, but with more intentionality and engagement.
Not only will this make us more productive (because we aren't distracted or anxious), but also we can actually savor and enjoy what we are doing. And when we enjoy what we are doing, we do it more efficiently and thoroughly. We produce higher quality work. We are fully present. We are open to creativity and insight. So how can we foster this “engaged productivity” in our lives in the face of our monkey minds, our distractions, and our low-level urgency anxiety?
Here are five simple things you can do to make your day more productive.
1. Set 3-5 daily goals
Don't write a long list of 101 things to get done before noon. Set 3-5 non-negotiable goals for the day. That doesn't mean you may not get more done. But take the pressure off to cram in as much as possible. If your goals involve many steps and a longer time (ie: working on a marketing plan, creating a budget, writing a blog post), then just give yourself 3 tasks. If they are smaller and require less time (replying to emails, doing some research, etc.), then allow yourself five.
2. Budget time
Decide how much time you need or want to spend on each goal. Be realistic in what you can achieve if you are deeply focused on the tasks involved. Then pad the time with an extra 30-60 minutes. You may not need it, but you won't feel rushed and pressured. Set a time when you begin working on the goal. If you aren't finished, decide if you want to move on to the next goal or if completing the one you are working on is more important.
3. Remove distractions
Before you begin your first task, clear your desk, shut down all extraneous browsers on your computer, turn off your phone, and close your door. Don't tempt yourself with anything that will catch your eye or ear or pull your thoughts away from what you are doing. This is hard to do, but it is the most important step in this list.
Distractions will kill productivity. Look at all of the distractions on my desk this morning. I had to clear it completely before I began writing this post.
4. Allow breaks and rewards
If you have a hard time focusing in general, even without distractions, break down your goal or task into 15-minute intervals. Set a timer and work steadily for 15 minutes, then take a 5-minute break and reward yourself with something that won't pull you away from the task (no emails, phone calls, texts, etc.). Stand up and stretch. Close your eyes and breathe. Look out the window. Jog in place. Use the restroom (without stopping to talk).
Between each of your daily goals, give yourself bigger breaks where you can grab a bite to eat, check emails, reply to calls, etc. But set a timer for these as well. You can use the extra time at the end of the day to finish them.
5. Close the day strong
After you finish the final task, review the work you have done on each of them. If you had to stop short on one of them, go back and continue the work so you feel confident and complete with what you focused on today. If there's remaining time in the day, pick one more priority task and follow the same steps above. Keep adding priority tasks until you are ready to be done for the day. By choosing fewer goals each day and focusing on them intently, you will find you are far more productive and successful with your work and life. You'll feel more in control of your time, your priorities, and your state of mind.