Houston, We Have a Problem
We are living in a crazy world. And it just gets more and more crazy all the time. The amount of tasks we are confronted with at any given point in time is crazy. The number of interruptions we have in a single hour is crazy. The number of communication channels we use is crazy. Really, we are crazy people!
For example, I checked the number of unread notifications that I had at some point in time, and here are the results (this is just a partial list, of course):
- Missed Calls – 7
- Twitter Notifications – 11
- Slack Messages – 42
- LinkedIn Notifications – 51
- WhatsApp Messages – 93
- Facebook Notifications – 136
- Unread Emails – 12,815 (I’m not kidding)
This is just an example at some arbitrary point in time. All of these notifications are supposedly waiting for me to act upon. All 13,155 of them!
It’s very hard to be productive with all of that noise all the time. This is why I have been studying about productivity in the past year. I created a system that works pretty well for me, and I would like to share it with you. I don’t know if it’s the right system for you. Maybe some parts will work for you, and some other won’t. You need to try it for yourself.
All the productivity tips and methods I’m describing here are provided as is, with no warranty… (add the usual legal stuff here)
If It’s not in the Calendar, It doesn’t Exist
The first thing you need to do is to find a reliable and easy-to-use system where you can write all the things you need to do. All of them. Whether it’s writing a detailed design document for a customer or replacing a bulb in the kids room. It has to be written somewhere, and it has to be outside of your head. Because if you keep it in your head, two things will happen.
The first is that you will simply forget to replace that bulb. It might take a year before you do it (trust me, I know what I’m talking about). The second thing that will happen is that the detailed design document will occupy a part of your mind, and it won’t let you focus on other tasks. So when you prepare a proposal, for example, instead of being focused on that task, you keep thinking “when will I work on that design document? how will I finish on time?”.
If you want to learn more about why and how to do it, then you should read the book Getting Things Done by David Allen. I’m actually reading it right now.
There are all kinds of tools and methods for storing your tasks outside of your head. I use the calendar. For me, everything is in the calendar. If it’s not there, it simply won’t happen. I can access my calendar quickly from any device, so it’s pretty easy to check my calendar or to update it whenever I need to.
Here is a screenshot of my calendar from a specific week. In this case – November 05-11, 2017.
It might look messy at first. Let me explain…
A Single Calendar with Multiple Colors
I used to have a business calendar and a personal calendar. It was a nightmare. I had to remember to always check both calendars and make sure they don’t overlap. And then I would forget to do things, because I looked at the wrong calendar, and so on.
Today I use a single calendar for everything. I put there my business meetings, my personal meetings, birthdays, holidays – everything! In order to easily distinguish between business and personal meetings, I use colors. Business is blue, and personal is green. Purple is for meetings that are not mine, but I should be aware of. For example: tennis lesson for my son. So, for example, a green and a purple meeting can overlap, but two blue meetings at the same time – doesn’t make sense.
Now I can easily see how my day looks like.
Meetings with My Other Self
The next tip I’m going to share is the most important one. It has proved to increase my productivity more than anything else.
Whenever I need to do something, if it’s less than 5 minutes, I will do it immediately. If it’s more than 5 minutes, I will schedule a meeting with myself to do it. I will allocate the proper amount of time for the meeting. Remember that detailed design document I mentioned earlier? Let’s say I think I need 3 hours for that. So I will create a meeting somewhere in my calendar (let’s say – next Wednesday) with a duration of 3 hours and a clear title: “Write a Detailed Design Document for Customer X”. And then I will forget about it until the meeting. I know that I will come back to this task at some point in the future, because it’s in my calendar. So I can free up my head to deal with other things.
I treat those meetings with myself very seriously. I treat myself like I treat an important customer. This means I must start the meeting on time, end it on time, and ignore all other communication channels except for the task at hand. During the meeting, I don’t answer the phone, I don’t read any WhatsApp messages, and I don’t check my Facebook feed. I just work on whatever the title of the meeting is. This is the most difficult part, but it’s worth it. And don’t worry – you won’t miss a thing. Everything will wait for you – the missed calls, the unread emails, the notifications – everything. But after 3 hours of focused work, you will feel super productive, and you will have that detailed design document ready.
Timing is Everything
It’s important to allocate the right amount of time for meetings. Let’s say you want to learn about the effectiveness of advertising on Facebook. The first step is to do some online research and read what others have to say about it. So you schedule a meeting with yourself for next week with the title: “Perform Online Research about Advertising on Facebook”. At this point you need to estimate how much time you are going to need in order to complete the research. Let’s say you decided to allocate 2 hours for the meeting.
Now, if you don’t allocate the proper amount of time, then one of two things can happen. First, if you actually need 3 hours for the research, then you won’t be able to complete the task on time. You might be tempted to continue the research beyond the allocated time, but this would be disrespectful towards your other self, who has other important things to do. You might forget to schedule another meeting in your calendar to continue what you started, and then you might find yourself in the same position several months later, without any progress. Even if you stop the meeting on time and schedule another meeting, you will waste a lot of time in the next meeting in order to remind yourself what you have already done in the previous one.
On the other hand, if you actually need only one hour for the research, then according to Parkinson’s law, you are going to use the entire 2 hours anyway. This is a real waste of precious time. If you had allocated one hour for the meeting, then you would have still completed the research, and save one hour to do other things.
Continuing that last point about Parkinson’s law, here is a tip that I read somewhere a long time ago. When we schedule a meeting with someone else, we usually default to one hour meetings. Unless we have a good reason to think otherwise. We usually schedule one hour meetings, not because we think we need exactly one hour for the meeting. We just use one hour as a default meeting duration. At some point, I changed my default to 45 minutes. I started scheduling 45-min meetings with other people instead of one hour meetings. Surprisingly (or not), I managed to accomplish the same level of efficiency in the meetings.
By just doing that, you can save yourself a lot of time. If you have 20 “default”meetings in a month, you can save 5 hours. Just think about what you can do with 5 hours…
What about the time between meetings? I used to schedule meetings one after the other, without any space between them. This necessarily means that I’m either going to have to finish the first meeting earlier, or I’m going to be late to the second meeting. Either way, I’m being disrespectful to the other people in the meetings. But even more important, I don’t have time to summarize, and I don’t have time to plan.
This is very important, so pay attention. If you want a meeting to be successful and provide the best value for the time you invested in it, then you need to plan and summarize. Before the meeting, spend a few minutes (or more, depending on the meeting subject) in order to prepare for the meeting. Ask yourself what you would like to achieve from the meeting and how you plan to do that. Those few minutes can make a big difference.
And right after the meeting, spend a few more minutes to summarize the meeting – write a meeting summary, generate a list of action items, schedule a followup meeting if necessary, and so on. Again, these few minutes are precious. You can spend 2 hours in a meeting, but if you don’t take the time to reflect and summarize the meeting, then you have just wasted 2 hours of your time.
So now that we agree how important it is to spend some time before and after every meeting, you have to allocate that time in your calendar. After I realized that two consecutive meetings are bad, I created a new rule – always leave at least 15 minutes between meetings. The effect on my productivity was amazing. After a while I realized that even 15 minutes are not enough. Remember that I shut down all communication channels during meetings? Well, I need some time after the meeting to connect to the world, return phone calls, etc. So I have recently changed the rule – always leave at least 30 minutes between meetings. It works great for me.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. I have other tips and rules for managing time and increasing productivity. It’s a work in progress. I constantly evaluate my methods and try to improve. I also read and learn a lot about productivity. There are so many resources you can learn from. I’ll give you 2 of them that I recommend:
- Tim Ferris has a great blog and also a great podcast with lots of tips and resources about productivity.
- Trello has a blog with excellent productivity tips. They also have a great tool that can help boost your productivity, but that’s a topic for another blog post…
But why is it so important to increase productivity? It might sound like a stupid question. But let’s say you did well, and you managed to save 10 hours every week. What are you going to do with those 10 hours? More work? More sleep? More time with your kids? If you don’t plan it, most chances are that those 10 hours will be wasted somehow, and you won’t appreciate all the hard work you have put in order to be more productive.
For me, the goal is to achieve life balance. Or at least – improve the balance in my life. I’m talking about balance between work, family, friends, exercise, sleep, etc. Today, for example, I work too much, and as a result, I don’t have enough exercise, and I also don’t get enough sleep.
I don’t really measure my working time, but I think it’s around 60 hours in a week on average. That’s a lot. My goal for 2018 is to reduce my average weekly working time to 40 hours. Wish me luck.