Regardless of what type of job we have, most of us find ourselves caught between taking care of daily business (administrative work, emails, and minor but essential to-dos) and devoting our time to the “real” work—the stuff that requires our unique talent, including long-term projects and creative planning. Our skill for the latter is what got us hired—and what (hopefully) gets us up in the morning—but it’s those daily tasks that interrupt our flow and ultimately chew up our workday.
We often try to mitigate this occurrence by creating a to-do list at the beginning of every day. The thinking goes, if we’re just more organized about everything, we’ll get more done. Although somewhat true, most of us have experienced the let down of somehow not accomplishing each task on our to-do list despite our best intentions.
As it turns out, the problem isn’t with our self-motivation or abilities. Rather, it may lie with the way we plan our days (and weeks and months). Jocelyn Glei, productivity guru and author of Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done, points out that most of us don’t account for the additional to-dos that accompany checking emails and attending meetings. When we fail to account for the time it really takes to go through our inbox and knock off miscellaneous tasks, we’re continually setting ourselves up to accomplish the big tasks in far less time than we need:
“You’re constantly planning to be productive on borrowed time—trying to shoehorn your most important tasks into time that’s already spoken for,” Glei says. To get an accurate sense of what you’re up against, Glei suggests writing out your regular to-do list while also noting meetings and daily administrative work. Next, jot down the time you imagine it would take to accomplish everything. Are you suddenly looking at a 16-hour workday?
If so, this is an indication that it’s time to rethink your workday, especially if you want to successfully devote time to the part of your job that you love (which is also the part that could land you a raise or promotion and generally advance your career). It may not be possible to make an immediate change if the next few weeks are already crowded with due dates and meetings, so challenge yourself to plan ahead.
First, just like you would book a meeting with a client or team members, book time with yourself to work on your long-term goals. Productivity expert Stephen Covey calls these items “Big Rocks.” We want to make sure our higher-order tasks are prioritized and honored so they don’t get crowded out by the little things that break up our attention (a.k.a. “pebbles”)—“Put the Big Rocks in first, and fill in the pebbles and sand around them.” These Big-Rock sessions should be 45-90 minutes.
Next, make a habit of scheduling two or three 30-45 minute email blocks. Allow this time to be devoted simply to email and/or calls. Don’t pressure yourself to multitask during an email block. Perhaps more importantly, avoid “nibbling” at email for the course of the entire day. Researchers have found that people who set aside time to check email, rather than checking it as it comes in, are happier, more productive, and less stressed. (If it helps, turn off any sound notification for incoming emails. I did this, and I promise I’ve never missed an important email. Plus, those little “dings” were giving me anxiety!) Remember that truly urgent matters will likely be brought to your attention via phone call, text, or in-person visit.
Finally, always try to be honest with yourself about your time limits. While challenging yourself to get more done may help build your workday endurance, no one wants to end every workday with half a to-do list left unaccomplished, so try to find a balance. You’ll be more successful at managing your time and staying positive about the effort if you’re realistic, not overly ambitious, Glei explains.
What are your tips for increasing your productivity (without increasing your workload)?
More tips for rocking your workday: How to Create Daily Rituals For Productivity
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