Steps to achieving greater productivity
What did the programme consist in? Over a period of 28 days, each member received a newsletter with a task, while a discussion was continued on the blog. By the end of the day, every participant had to fill in a report that presented his or her reflections on the application of a specific technique, and also showed what progress he or she had achieved in the programme.
Here are the techniques that were rated highest upon completion of the programme:
1. Select the 3 most important things
Very often we get involved in our work without first posing ourselves a fundamental question: “is this really important?”, “is this actually significant?”. We take an irrelevant phone call from the bank and spend 15 minutes talking with a customer service rep, while later we do not have these every 15 minutes to call an important person – our grandmother, children, a friend. The days tend to fly by, and in the evening – tired and head bowed – we ask ourselves: “what did I do today that was actually important?”. But our dejection is unwarranted!
From the first day of the programme we asked ourselves the following question:
What are the three most important things that I want to achieve today?
Every weekend we posed one question more:
What are the three most important things that I want to achieve next week?
As Jim Collins wrote in his book “Good to great” – “Making ourselves aware of what is significant and what is not brings a sense of relief and simplifies a great many matters”.
After the programme had come to an end, one of the participants wrote:
It is now much easier for me to give up things that in actual fact did not bring me any benefit, but to which I devoted a great deal of my time. I can now focus on what is most interesting for me.
When I help people and companies on the topic of productivity, we usually start with these four questions:
- What are the three most important things that you want to achieve today, next week?
- What are the three most important things that you want to achieve in the next quarter, year?
- What are the three most important things for your team this week?
- What are the three most important things related to the meeting to which you are going?
I am continuously surprised by how simple this technique is, by the number of benefits it brings, and by the fact that it is used by so few people.
2. Plan your day, week, quarter, year
When you drive a car to a set destination, amazing things happen: you look in front of you, and from time to time you throw a glance at the rear-view mirrors, but above all – thanks to your skills and habits – you drive. I am convinced that it is much the same in life.
Just as you can’t drive forward safely while looking constantly into your rear-view mirrors, you can’t journey through life peering too intently into your past, reliving it again and again. For although it is important to recapitulate the past and draw conclusions, it is even more so to look ahead of you. Where are you heading? Will the road that you are traveling take you there?
The second most useful technique for increasing your productivity, in fact very closely connected with that previously described, consists in combining the most significant daily objectives with weekly goals, and thereafter with those for the quarter or the year. Each day is a step on the path to a greater goal. But do we not sometimes wander in circles?
If one of the most important things in the week for me is to paint my apartment, then in all probability the most important thing in one of the days of that week will be to buy paint or actually paint one of the rooms, and this will require giving up certain other activities. This is a crucial step, which gives you a sense of progress and a feeling that individual days are combining into a larger whole.
As Stephen Covey wrote in “7 habits of effective action”:
We have to decide what is most important for us, and then stump up the courage to say “no” – kindly, with a smile, and without apologizing – to other matters. To be able to do so, you have to have a greater “yes” burning inside you. “Good” is frequently the enemy of “best”.
3. The method of small steps
and breaking down your projects into segments
Very often, people’s to-do lists contain tasks that they simply cannot set about doing. In situations like this, it proved most useful to break down larger activities into smaller steps, at the same time ensuring that you set yourself a first – simple – step.
During a recent workshop, one of the participants wrote down the following task: “hang a bicycle hook”. A task that had been put off for months. I asked – “what is the first step?”. A good question! – To buy a hook!
And what is the first step in “buying a hook”? A good question! … Look through hooks available on the internet, or perhaps … go to a bicycle shop and ask the assistant? But do you know which shop to go to? Yes, there’s one that’s reliable.
And so we modified “hang a bicycle hook” into “go to a bicycle shop and choose a hook”. Such a task stands a considerably greater chance of being performed since it is relatively small and easily understood.
The method of small, tangible steps can work miracles – an hourly jog starts off with “get dressed and put on your running shoes”, learning words commences with “take a book and open it”, cleaning the garage with “go down to the garage and take out the rubbish”, while organising a birthday party – with “write down a list of guests”.
This is what participants of the programme wrote:
The method of small steps worked fantastically well – each day I performed a small activity, and after some time everything became clear and organized in my head.
These small changes helped me see that I can cope better with larger problems.
Have you set the first step for your most important activities?
And is this step simple and motivating?
4. What is important, and what is urgent?
Do the words “important” and “urgent” mean the same, or do they actually refer to different things?
Can something be urgent, and yet not important?
Or can something be important but not urgent?
And how are we to tell whether something is important or urgent?
Normally in the course of training, we devote an hour or more to this topic, for the distinction in question gives us a great many answers to questions concerning how we should plan our time. It seems banal, but the proper comprehension of this issue has brought about an enormous positive change in many people’s lives.
xQ surveys show that the average person spends 23% of his or her free time on activities that are urgent but in no way important. The main problem lies in the fact that our brain reacts much more vividly and makes a far greater effort when things become urgent, however without attempting to determine whether they are at all important. Will you pick up the phone when the bank calls? Will you react to each and every vibration (or any other signal) of your phone? Indeed, even task list management applications usually sort activities according to their urgency (i.e. deadline for completion) – not their importance (of which they are unaware)!
We want to fill our lives with things that are important (or to put it precisely – singularly important!), but not necessarily urgent. This consideration has given many people relief, and it is now easier for them to say “no” to tasks that are not priorities, even though their deadlines would suggest that they must be tackled immediately.
Look through your list of tasks for today. How urgent is each task? And how important?
5. The “2 minutes” rule
During one of the discussions on the programme blog we touched upon the topic of procrastination, that is a constant deferral of action. Sometimes we put off not only the activity itself but also providing an answer to a most fundamental question: “what is it that I really want to achieve?”.
There is a simple technique (which you can easily turn into a habit) that helps cope with certain tasks without procrastinating – the “2 minutes” rule, namely:
If something takes you 2 minutes or less to do, then do it at once.
Obviously, we are not talking about 120 seconds exactly, but about some pre-arranged and very short period for “doing”. “Do the laundry” may remain on my list for a length of time, but if I determine that this task can be completed in 2 or 3 minutes, I’ll just get up and do it at once. After all, you only have to sort your clothes by color, pour in some powder and fabric softener, and select the programme – that’s it!
In the course of training we learned how to take care of such small matters at once, instead of allowing them to litter our minds – or the list of tasks. What is more, completion of such a task brings a smile to your face and gives you an immense feeling of relief. “Phew! I’ve finally got the laundry out of the way.”
Do you have any tasks that would take two or three minutes to do, but you keep putting them of?
6. Planning your leisure time
For many, the weekend is a time for catching one’s breath, sleeping off the week, doing the cleaning, going shopping, spending time with their family, or simply relaxing. For others, it is a time of catching up and, in general, nervous bustle. More and more often, however, we seem to lose the basic ability to rest and enjoy the moment!
Each Saturday I would write in the newsletter: “Today you should recharge your batteries, eat a tasty meal – slowly and enjoying every morsel, savoring the taste, and give yourself time to catch your breath.”
You work hard throughout the week, but you should devote at least one day out of the seven to real rest, free of tasks, the internet, and nervous tension. Surprisingly, some of the participants had this to write in the recap:
But first and foremost I would like to thank you, Piotr, for making me aware of the fact that I am not a robot and that I too am entitled to some rest.
I also learned that life is simply too short to do everything and that lazing about is an indispensable element of planning.
How do you recharge your batteries? Do you still know how to rest freely, without feeling any guilt or nervousness?
7. Avoiding distractions
When setting about some lengthier task, how much time do you need to get into the swing and attain complete concentration?
And if you do achieve full concentration, but someone or something interrupts you and you become distracted, how much time do you require to regain your focus?
Some people get distracted so often that they pass through the whole day, from morning till evening, without ever once being properly concentrated! How can they be efficient and at the same time get any joy from what they do?
Thus, many people install plug-ins that block certain websites (such as stayFocusd for Chrome), arrange “silent hours” in the office, or use the Pomodoro technique, which consists in applying short (25 minutes long) sessions during which they switch off all potential sources of distraction (telephones included!). Aiming to prevent diversions and disturbances, one of the teams with which I worked jointly decided not to bring up any political topics before 2:00 p.m. I myself switch off my laptop’s wireless card when writing articles or the newsletter – just in case.
And what do you do? What distracts you the most? What makes you unable to attain 100% concentration? How should you react to such factors?
This is a very important element of our analysis of how to increase productivity.
8. Weekly recaps
The last technique that had the most significant positive results for people concerned making regular recaps. Sometimes it is enough to devote 20-30 minutes per week to reflection in order to change your life for the better, step by little step.
On each Sunday of the programme, we recapped what had gone on in the previous week and thought about the next.
What had the week been like?
How do you feel when you think about it?
Did you manage to achieve the three most important things that you selected last Sunday, and did the most important meetings go as planned?
While preparing such a recap it is necessary to block your feelings of guilt or embarrassment, or – if they appear – to utilize them constructively, by answering the question: what do I want to do differently next week, so that the new week will be at least a bit better than the previous?
In life, we proceed in small steps, and so if we make our recaps regularly, week after week, we have an opportunity to make 50 wise (and small) changes to our lives. The most important thing is to keep stepping forward – regularly. After one such analysis, I installed the stayFocusd plug-in for Chrome, and also set myself a daily limit for Facebook.
What do you think about reserving some 30 minutes on Friday, towards the end of your working day, or on Sunday?