Maximizing your productivity should be simple. And in theory, it is. You have a certain number of tasks you would like to achieve in a day and a certain amount of hours to fulfill them. As you’re not a masochist, your tasks probably don’t require superhuman levels of work or more hours than one day can ever provide.
If it seems like they do, you either are a masochist or you’re just not making effective use of your time. Don’t worry; it’s a problem we’re all struggling with.
If you’re like most people, you probably end more days than you like wondering how the hours slipped away from you, with only a few items checked off your to-do list. The problem is that what works in theory rarely works in reality. You’re not a robot that powers through your task list, without taking breaks to eat or scroll through Twitter or, well, do nothing in particular. If you were, you wouldn’t need to read articles like this.
We’re all engaged in daily battles against the negative affects of procrastination. No matter how successful you are or how hard you work, you likely have a habit of procrastination you need to get under control before you can start really achieving the things you want.
There are just so many distractions. If it’s not checking your email, it’s checking Twitter, Facebook or the plethora of other social media sites. Visiting your favorite websites for updates on your industry or refreshing Google analytics to see how your latest article is faring also swallows time. Most of your procrastination tasks look like work without providing any of the benefits of actually doing work.
So, how do you finally get your procrastination under control and start being productive?
It starts with understanding the different categories all tasks fall into and then focusing on the ones with the highest reward.
Organizing Your Tasks
President Dwight D. Eisenhower is famous for his productivity and is often quoted as saying, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” Now most of us aren’t aiming to be the next president of the United States, but we can learn something from someone who achieved that position and went on to live one of the most productive lives in history.
First, put that quote where you can see it. Think of it as the new motto for your work life. Obviously, you’re going to need more than an encouraging quote – no matter how true – to make real changes to your habits. Luckily, there’s something called the Eisenhower Matrix to give you practical direction on organizing your tasks.
According to the Eisenhower Matrix, everything you could possibly want to do is separated into four categories:
- Urgent and Important
- Important but not Urgent
- Urgent but not Important
- Neither Urgent nor Important
By understanding what category every one of your tasks falls into, you know how to proceed. Wouldn’t life be so much simpler if you didn’t have to spend more than a few seconds in deciding how to deal with a responsibility?
Everyday and unexpected tasks alike will be streamlined into a system that allows you to focus on getting the most out of your time.
Here’s the required action for each category of tasks:
- Do Immediately
- Schedule to do at a later time
- Delegate away
- Eliminate completely
Deciding where every one of your tasks falls will depend on your own unique goals and the position you play in your organization. What’s important to remember is that you want to focus on the tasks that contribute to your long-term goals and ensure that you’re constantly moving towards achieving them. Anything else needs to be delegated or eliminated.
Similarly to how most of us aren’t aware of how much we’re eating until we start keeping a food journal, many of us aren’t aware of just how much time we’re wasting until we organize all our tasks by the Eisenhower Matrix. The need to feel constantly busy tricks us into thinking we’re being productive when in reality we’re wasting time.
Here’s how tasks might be organized:
- Do Immediately
- Write articles
- Respond to time-sensitive emails
- Schedule to do at a later time
- Research articles
- Respond to certain emails
- Delegate away
- Manage social media
- Book appointments
- Arrange flights and accommodations
- Moderate and respond to comments
- Eliminate completely
- Check social media
- Mindlessly watching television
Again, these categorizations are going to be dependent on you. You have to ask yourself, “What are my goals?” and “What is the best use of my time?”
You can only handle some aspects of your business, but the vast majority can probably be delegated to another qualified person. The Eisenhower Matrix can be used to shape your day-to-day schedule as well as helping to establish how you organize your life in general.
Creating a Productive Mindset
So, we have established how the different categories work but what may not be immediately clear is what kind of tasks you should be spending most of your time on.
Can you guess? It’s not category one.
Even though those tasks are things you should address immediately, you don’t want to get in the position where you are constantly delaying on starting a task that it becomes both urgent and important. This is when you start having days that are high-stress and overwhelming. Occasionally, something unexpected may come up that needs your immediate attention, but on the vast majority of days, you want to be attending to tasks that you previously scheduled.
Successful people spend most of their time on the tasks that fall into the second category: important but not urgent.
When you find yourself in this position, it means that you are on top of your time management and are no longer procrastinating excessively. When you schedule your time in this way, you can also know that everything you’re focusing on is important; you don’t have to worry that you’re engaging in busy work that isn’t bring your closer to your overall goals.
The trick to having the time to focus on important but not urgent tasks is creating systems in advance that help you quickly organize all your responsibilities.
How to Maximize Your Time
Here’s how to start applying the Eisenhower Matrix to your life:
Make a List of All Your Tasks and Organize Them
Start by listing every single task that you typically do in a day, that is required to keep your business moving, and that you anticipate having to do in the future. This is where you get honest about how you’re spending your time. Don’t write what you would ideally be doing each day; list what you actually do. If you spend a few hours a day checking Twitter, write that. If you find yourself constantly coming up with new errands to run, write those down, too.
Next, put a number next to each task to indicate whether it falls into category 1,2,3, or 4 of the Eisenhower Matrix.
Then, list a time estimate next to each task. Try to estimate exactly how long a task takes – we’ll discuss how you can figure out the actual work time later.
Finally, write your ideal task daily task list. This includes tasks that fit into your long-term goals and match your skill set, as well as tasks that you enjoy doing. (Note: the tasks you enjoy doing have to also be productive.)
You may find that the time estimates of each task and your own ideal daily task list causes you to change the categorization of some tasks. For example, say it takes 4-5 hours to research a new article, even though that’s an important and urgent task, can you feasibly fit it into your daily schedule? You may find that you need to outsource some of the initial research and then write the article from those notes. Or you may find that it’s integral that you do the research yourself, which means either dedicating a certain day of the week to it or outsourcing some of the tasks that make it impossible for you to dedicate the time.
In the end, you should have a list of all possible tasks and which category they fall into, as well as a guideline for the tasks that will be included in your daily schedule.
You should keep both of these documents on hand as they can help you easily decide on the course of action for all future and current tasks.
Outsource all Urgent But Not Important Tasks
This is when you hire a virtual assistant to handle all the things that need to be done but don’t need to be done by you. As you have already organized all tasks according to the Eisenhower Matrix, you know what responsibilities you need to outsource as well as what doesn’t need attention at all.
This is important, as the most successful virtual assistant relationships require a clear outline of the tasks in advance. You won’t waste your time or you assistant’s time by figuring out what needs to be done as you go. You’re also more likely to hire the right person when you know exactly the kind of skill set they need to possess.
Create a Daily Schedule
Your daily schedule is going to change depending on the day, but you still want to make sure that the vast majority of tasks fall into the “important but not urgent” category. This is going to require some prior planning.
One of the best habits to get into is to create your schedule for the next day the night before. At the end of the day, you have a good idea of what you need to complete the following day, and it will help you start your day with a clear idea of what you need to achieve. You won’t have to waste time checking email, scrolling through the web, or trying to get yourself into work mode. Instead, you can begin immediately with the first task on your list.
Everything you do in a day should be scheduled with it’s own time slot and estimated time of completion.
Social media management and engagement almost always falls into category 3 or 4, so it should no longer take up any time on your schedule. However, email may not be something you can or want to completely delegate. This still doesn’t mean that you should stop what you’re doing to respond to every incoming email or spend your day in and out of your inbox. Instead, dedicate certain times throughout the day for checking your email and another for responding.
Very few emails require your immediate reaction, although many email senders may make it seem that way. Set up two to three times to check your email (perhaps morning, afternoon, and evening) and quickly categorize those emails according to the response required. Then, set up a time each day when you respond to emails. You can experiment with this, but either respond to only a certain number of emails a day or give yourself a certain time limit. This way your whole day won’t be swallowed up by other people’s requests.
In the beginning, you may also want to track your time. Using a free app like Toggl you can see how much time a task actually takes and also see where you’re wasting time. This will help you get a clear idea of where exactly your time is being spent throughout the day, and may cause you to adjust the number of tasks you assign yourself.
Productivity Requires A Perspective Shift
While applying the Eisenhower Matrix to your life is going to help you increase your productivity, you will only be successful if you truly start to see the value of your time. Every minute spent doing something not productive is another minute that you’re not getting any closer to your goals. The key thing to ask yourself is whether the thing you’re doing falls into the “important but not urgent” category, and if not, either delegate or eliminate it. If you do, you’ll find that you end your days feeling useful and productive.