5 essentials to manage for vastly increased productivity

Posted by in Productivity

The late Jim Rohn once said “Either you run the day, or the day runs you.” As far as being concise goes, it’s an excellent summary of the necessity of managing that which would otherwise manage you: here’s my slightly longer take on 5 essentials with which – and how – to begin.

1. Communication

Everyone has a love-hate relationship with communication. To achieve a manageable relationship with your phone and the Internet, you first need to experience the feeling of shutting them down for a couple of hours every now and then. If that makes you uncomfortable, you ought to take five minutes and think hard about why that is.

Second, you need to realize that keeping constantly up-to-date on communications well and truly ruins your ability to focus on the actual execution of work. Switch off all notifications, and use VIP lists on phones and rules for e-mail to be alerted of priority comms. To avoid missing something important, check your inboxes every now and then – but make sure you do it the right way.

Primarily, communication is a loosely knit bundle of potentially archivable information and executable tasks. The right way to handle it is to address every communication item once, and only once, for what you want to keep; then transfer information and tasks into their separate containers, and archive, forget or delete the initial communication.

Remember: if the house is on fire, someone will call you. Well, at least if they’re on your phone’s VIP list.

2. Time

Your calendar is comprised of two things: solo work (read: tasks), and collaborative work (read: primarily meetings). Your goal should be to partake in only meetings where your presence is a necessity or a potentially considerable benefit; otherwise, your time is best spent elsewhere.

When people ask you to participate in meetings, your default answer is yes. This happens because you have no idea how much time your solo work will take to finish on time and with sufficient quality, and because you’re conflict averse and inclusion prone (as is just about everyone else on the planet).

To change your default answer to no, first get yourself a task manager to gain awareness of your total workload by quantifying your solo work, then ruthlessly prioritize what will bring you closer to your goals. Not only will this get you where you want to go faster; it also makes short work of grumpy co-workers or bosses trying to question your decisions.

Also, you should grow a pair.

3. Tasks

Hundreds, if not thousands, of potential tasks show up on your radar every day, either through communication or in the shape of ideas. While your brain is great for creating and doing, its working memory is limited to about six items – which means even an abacus has you beat. That means you need something to help you collect, organize and prioritize everything that shows up.

A task manager acts as a universal inbox, where items are constantly vetted in order for the right items float to the top of your list. Pick the most important one, and do it – then return to the list to easily figure out the next one; rinse and repeat.

It’s also important that you pick a quality task manager from the outset, or you could end up lacking seemingly small features that make a world of difference. I recommend MyLifeOrganized for Windows users, and OmniFocus for Mac users; much as I would like to, a truly cross-platform task manager with all of the required features simply does not exist at the time of writing.

4. Information

Information arrives in two ways: either involuntarily through communication with others, or through voluntary consumption. Either way, it threatens to overwhelm us – a problem it shares with tasks. To cope, we need an information manager to collect, organize and – critically – index the desired information to make it searchable.

Whichever one you pick (Onenote and Evernote are excellent choices), the more ways there are to get information into it, the better. Clipping from web browsers, forwarding e-mails and printing are some examples; on mobile platforms, there should be broad support within other apps for sharing information to your manager of choice.

Also, never ever forget this: the fact that you can keep everything indefinitely doesn’t mean that you should.

5. Creativity

It’s a bit of a stalker, creativity. Lurking in the shadows, it shows up when you least expect it and is perhaps the most difficult resource to manage of all. Very few people complain about having too much creativity, which is hardly surprising when everyone has too much to do and too little time.

Creativity is most easily found at the intersection of an empty brain and inspiration – and there’s a reason it’s the last of the five items in this post. To empty your brain, avoid meetings like the plague and make sure you extract information and tasks from communication and your brain into trusted managers.

This will give you a clean shot at worry-free downtime – which is as close to an empty brain as you’ll get, short of joining a Buddhist monastery.

The rest is up to you.

“Creativity takes courage” -Henri Matisse