Learning how to be productive is one of the most rewarding things you can do for yourself. It’s also one of the most challenging, and it’s something we come back to again and again here at The ONE Thing.
In this post, we wrote a whole lot about the lies surrounding productivity. These are cultural beliefs and personal biases that masquerade as productivity help. Identifying where those lies are at work in your life is an important step in achieving real productivity.
Once you’ve identified your ONE Thing, and tackled the productivity myths, there are three strategies that will help you learn how to be productive. Let’s get straight into them, so you can get started as soon as possible.
Time Block Your Work and Play
Time blocking is the system of dividing your day into chunks and allocating specific periods of time to specific tasks or activities. This should include your most important tasks at work, as well as your workout, time with family, reading and anything else that needs to happen on a particular day.
Since Parkinson’s Law says that work will expand to fill the time allotted to it, this is a very important habit to get into when we’re learning how to be productive.
If you put aside five hours to work on a difficult task, you can bet it’s going to take the full five hours. But if you only allocate three hours to that same task, it’s most likely going to get done in three hours.
If you’re still recovering from Productivity Lie #2 — Multitasking — then it might take a while to work out how long a specific task will take when that’s all you focus on, but as a rule of thumb, allocate an hour or two less than you think you need. You’ll be surprised how much time frees up in your day.
Block in specific periods of time to cover everything that’s important to you and has to get done — if it’s on the plan, you’ll do it. If it’s not on the plan, it gets squeezed out by all the other demands on your time.
To get started with time blocking, you can start with blocks of just 15 minutes. Get a few wins under your belt, working consistently on your most important things. Then you can gradually expand those time blocks up to an hour or more as you get more focused over time. Regardless of how long your work blocks are, make sure your most important thing every day happens first thing in the morning. Your most important task needs your undivided attention, and we’re most focused at the start of the day.
If you can wake up early and get your first work block in before everyone is up, even better. Waking up early is the best way to create an opportunity for that golden focus. Later in the day, when everyone is awake and getting started on their most important things, you’re far more likely to have distractions and interruptions, so consider setting your alarm clock to an earlier time if you want to kickstart your productivity.
Build your time blocks on Friday afternoon or over the weekend, so that you can start every week immediately. You can hit your most important tasks hard every morning, without wasting time working out what you should be focused on.
Protect Your Time and Priorities
Every time you get on an airplane, you hear the same announcement:
“In case of emergency, please put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others.”
Putting on your own mask helps keep you alive and conscious. It really helps to be alive and conscious if you want to help everyone else! It just requires overcoming the cultural impulse to always put other people first.
All of us want to be helpful humans. We believe that it’s right to be generous with our time and resources. We want people to like us, and we want to avoid disappointing others.
But the truth is that you can only be really effective for other people when you take care of yourself first. This is true in every part of life — not just in emergency situations. It’s true at work, it’s true at home, and it’s true in our relationships.
If you are not taking care of the things that are most important to you, you can’t help other people effectively. Protecting your time and priorities is critical to being productive.
Look at it this way:
If your ONE Thing for the day isn’t done yet, and someone asks for your help on another task, you’re going to be distracted and resentful during the time you’re helping them. They don’t get the benefit of your full attention, you feel bad, and everyone gets behind.
If you haven’t gotten to the gym in weeks because other people haven’t prioritized their time and work effectively, you’re going to end up unhealthy and unhappy. This reduces your productivity and damages your ability to help them in the long run.
Learning to say no is a critical skill here.
You need to be able to say no to everything that tries to get your attention and distract you from your most important tasks.
The easiest way to do this is to block in specific chunks of time just to deal with the stuff other people want from you, and to let people know that you’ll handle their requests at that specific time. This might include replying to emails, giving feedback on other projects, having meetings and so on.
If you can control the times when these little things have to happen, you can make sure your big things take priority every day — without alienating the people around you.
Protecting your time to rest and relax is also critical. It’s easy to fill nights and weekends with a stream of activities, but our long-term productivity suffers when we don’t rest enough. Make sure you carve out time just to relax and say no to other commitments that come up in those slots. Whether you sleep, read, take walks, meditate, pray or just think — keep some time for yourself to recharge.
Commit to Communication
The ability to communicate your priorities to the people around you can make or break your productivity habit. It’s what allows you to protect your time and priorities once you’ve got your time blocked out.
If your partner calls you halfway through your first Work Block for the day, and wants to chat about who’s picking up the groceries, you need to be able to communicate that the groceries are not your priority right now.
You want to communicate that this time is precious, and that focusing on this task (instead of the groceries) will have a positive long-term outcome for both of you — without causing a spat that sends you both off into rest of the day under a dark cloud.
Ideally, your priorities for the morning should be communicated well in advance — and set the expectation that in the mornings you work, and that you’re not to be disturbed with trivial things.
It’s the same at work. You need to be able to communicate that during your Work Blocks, people should not come up to chat with you.
You want to let people know that you’re focusing on the things that will most benefit the whole team, and you want to help them — at the right time.
A great framework for communicating like this is Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication (see a summary here). This method focuses on observing people’s behavior, addressing their feelings, acknowledging their needs, and making requests accordingly without turning the request into a demand.
If you get resistance from people, don’t give up — sometimes the cycle needs to be repeated a few times before people will understand that you do really empathize with their needs, and that they can trust you to help them in good time.
Learning how to be productive is an iterative process. It’s not a natural thing for anyone — we all have to go through a learning curve to become highly productive. It takes practice and focus, but with these three strategies you’ll be able to speed up the process significantly. Research has found that it takes 66 days to form a new habit and fully shift into the new behaviour, so to help you get started, download the 66-Day Calendar on this resource page.