I wrote an earlier post called “Improving Your Emotional Intelligence,” which introduced the topic of soft skills and practical advice on how to incorporate those skills into your life in measurable ways. In this second installment of soft-skills topics, we’ll explore some practical, high-level productivity techniques including the methodologies from “Getting Things Done,” “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and “Measure What Matters.”
With an initial investment in organization and goal setting, you can then focus on small periodic routines that help you improve daily productivity. This approach has worked wonders for me, I hope it can for you too!
Setup and Capturing
The single action that I could look back and say “that was where it all started,” was when I took to heart the concept of capturing everything that has my attention and to get it out of my head.
Use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them. You want to be adding value as you think about projects and people, not simply reminding yourself they exist.David Allen, Getting Things Done
With a bit of time setting up Evernote for long-term notes and Todoist for managing tasks, I now have a quick and easy way to offload things that catch my attention. I’m able to mentally let these thoughts and tasks go safely in the knowledge that they’re in a place where I won’t forget about them, freeing me to focus on the task at hand. There are many note and task tools out there, including good old pen and paper, the ones you choose should fit your organization style and be as easy to use as possible. Any friction in this process will make it difficult to keep it up.
In order to maintain the momentum and trust in the system I created, I perform a weekly review following the Getting Things Done (GTD) mantra of “get clear, get current, and get creative.” This podcast is a great overview of the GTD Weekly Review, setting aside some time every week to clear all inboxes, thoroughly review all outstanding tasks, and take a bit of time getting creative with new ideas. This weekly review strengthens my resolve to keep it up and reminds me that I can truly mentally let go of tasks once I’ve captured them.
Personal Mission Statement
I find it’s a lot easier to find the motivation to be productive when I have a plan, beginning with the end in mind as Stephen Covey would say, and the best way to have a plan is to develop a personal mission statement. This is your long-term personal philosophy, what you want to be and to do and on the values or principles upon which being and doing are based. With this personal mission, you have the essence of your own proactivity.
A personal mission statement focuses on what you want to be and to do and on the values or principles upon which being and doing are based.Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits
It’s well worth the effort to really think this through, there’s no right or wrong way to write your mission statement. A blank page can be pretty daunting, I found the Mission Statement Builder asked some thought-provoking questions and the examples here were very helpful in seeing how others were organized.
With a method to stay organized and a deeper understanding of your guiding principles, you have a solid foundation for setting long-term goals. Make these big long-term goals; goals that really stretch you. And make sure they’re your goals, not the goals that you think you should have. They should be goals that get you excited about the future, goals that you can remind yourself of when you’re feeling your motivation starts to wane.
From these goals, identify a small handful of specific goals that are achievable within the next five years. Be sure to be as specific and laser-focused as possible, using present tense and deadline dates. Remember, “Vague goals produce vague results.”
Now that you’ve identified your personal mission and specific long-term goals, it’s time to start planning for the week ahead with these goals in mind. To put first things first, start by identifying all your roles for the upcoming week. You have roles as an individual, a spouse, a parent, manager, developer, etc. These roles aren’t set in stone, just consider the week ahead.
With your roles defined and your long-term goals in mind, think of one or two important results you feel you should accomplish in each role during the next seven days. These are your goals for the week. For example one of my goals for this week in my Bounteous Resource role was to finish this blog post today. This relates to one of my specific goals to contribute as a resource to Bounteous with at least four blog posts and/or presentations this year. Which is a more specific goal based on one of my personal missions to “Be helpful and productive, a resource in more than just coding.”
Let’s Get to Work!
Alright! You’ve got a plan for the week and a cleared mind ready to get to it – now what? More often than not, the bigger items on our to-do lists require a good deal of focus. For knowledge workers like us, that’s especially true. Getting and maintaining focus can be extremely difficult, I’d say without a doubt that’s the hardest thing I struggle with daily. Here are some tips to help get yourself into that state of focus.
Listen to your body. When do you feel like you’re able to focus more easily? Strive to fit the focus tasks into these times and save the rest for more shallow concerns.
Understand that focus is painful at first. “To get into a focused mode, you have to push through the initial pain of contorting your mind to a single task.” – Soft Skills book
Control focus-busting impulses. Identify bad habits by reflecting on parts of your day you feel guilty about. Identify the cue that triggers it, the activity, and the reward. Next, try to figure out if there’s some other routine you can substitute for the one you’re currently doing for that habit. If possible, try to find something that you can do that will carry a similar reward or even the same type of reward. For example, I had recently identified that I would fire up Twitter when I’d start a code build on a larger project that I knew would take a few minutes to run, but many times I’d spend much longer than those few minutes catching up on new content. So my cue was starting a code build, the activity was opening Twitter, and the reward was the temporary reprieve of watching the build progress. Lately, I’ve replaced the activity with checking email. I usually have a very small number of messages built up so it doesn’t take more than a few minutes and I’m able to get something reasonably productive done rather than peeking at social media.
When you lose momentum, try a change of context. Like pausing on writing code to go take care of some code reviews. Get up and stretch your legs, go for a walk, and just get away from the screen for a bit. Set a very small goal and a time limit to complete, sometimes that setting and completing a to-do quickly can build your momentum back up. If nothing seems to be working, honestly assess your current situation and state of mind. Are you preoccupied with something else going on? Did you not get enough rest? Are you feeling overworked? This honest assessment can help you identify an underlying issue that needs to be dealt with. This tip led me to realize that I was trying to push myself too much in the evenings, I wasn’t allowing myself to rest enough to be fresh the next day. I honestly still struggle with this.
Avoid Burnout. Most commonly you’re hitting a wall, starting out with high interest that quickly wanes. Motivation starts low but rises as you make progress, but the slow pace of results wears at motivation until both interest and motivation are gone. Pushing past the wall is difficult but extremely rewarding. Set a schedule and hold yourself accountable.
Overworking is real, it’s horrible, and it should be avoided. Luckily at Bounteous, I’ve seen far less of it than any other company, places where people would brag about the number of hours they put in last week. Know your warning signs and have the personal integrity to back off a bit and let yourself rest.
For the TL;DR crowd, we’ve outlined three core principles that can open you up to more purposeful productivity:
- Getting Started: Offload tasks and long-term notes to a trusted system and free your mind to think about things, rather than think of them.
- Setting Goals: Create a personal mission statement that will inform your long-term goals; use these to come up with short-term goals that are then split into actionable items.
- Get to work:With your upcoming week’s goals clearly defined, there’s nothing left to do but get started! Be mindful of momentum, and focus and listen to your body for the ideal times to get the most out of your day.
If you’re looking to add to your reading list, I recommend the following books:
For the web-friendly, bookmarkable article, here are a few options:
- Effective Approaches for Working Deeply and Getting the Most Out of Each Day by Owen Berry
- Leveling up from Nerd to Geek and Fast-Tracking Your Career by Brett Birschbach
- Craft the Life You Want by Brett McKay
- Staying Motivated by Kevin Cornell