With a limited supply of willpower, you can only accomplish so much in a day no matter how well-tested your productivity system is. If you've hit a wall, chances are you're being held back by the belief that choosing the right method will help you accomplish 10 times the work of your peers. No productivity method is effective without a realistic perspective on what it can do for you. That's what we're going to discuss in this post.
Stop Planning to Do Everything
You have many things you want to accomplish and a finite amount of time. You can't do everything, but you're going to try. That inevitably leads to feeling overwhelmed a frustrating lack progress.
You can avoid this by simply prioritising your time. Decide what you can do now and what you can save for later so you have less on your plate. This smaller set of tasks can help you feel like you're making more progress without doing any additional work.
In a perfect world, setting priorities would be simple. In reality, it's hard to pick and choose what's most important and what you have to give up. All work comes with a set of advantages and disadvantages, and when you compare it all in a logical manner it can be difficult to prioritise. Video blogger Ze Frank offers one simple solution, which is discussed briefly in the video to your right. He suggests making a list of all the things you want to accomplish and then reading it back to yourself. As you read each item, consider how it makes you feel. If it feels important, keep it. If you have any doubts, cross it off. When you're done, you'll be left with the tasks that matter the most to you. Do those first, and save the rest for the future.
Additionally, remember your limitations. If you plan to accomplish a lot in a day, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. It's better to give yourself a goal that's almost too simple so you never feel like you're falling short. In most cases, you'll exceed those expectations and feel like you're getting more done.
Forget Multitasking And Keep A Singular Focus
Humans aren't built for multitasking, but it makes us feel good, so we often do it anyway. This can mean interrupting our work every five minutes to answer an email or a phone call, or watching reading a blog while sitting through a meeting. Multitasking fragments our focus and makes us less effective at getting things done, as Joanne Cantor explains in a Psychology Today post:
One reason multitasking (or task-switching) is so hard is that it calls upon working memory — a brain resource that's extremely limited. Every time you switch to the other task, it's hard to hold that first task in memory so it's there when you come back. If it's not there, you lose your train of thought. Constantly answering the question, "now where was I?" is a big waste of time and energy.
Ideally you would stop multitasking entirely, but realistically you'll be in situations that seem to require it. Whether you're always expected to be available or your workflow is filled with constant, minor tasks that are flowing in throughout the day, the urge to multitask is hard to avoid.
If you can't stop entirely, enact a compromise. Depending on the needs of your workflow, give yourself 15 to 30 minutes to focus on an individual task without interruption. When that time is up, look at your remaining work and choose which task deserves your focus most urgently. Give that task a 15-30 minute block of time, and then consult the list again. You might choose to devote the next interval to the task you're already working on. The important thing is that your focus remains singular and you don't permit interruptions. This approach will prevent you from multitasking but also allow you to shift gears if necessary.
Choose And Implement Your Productivity Hacks Wisely
Many productivity hacks promise to make you a better, more efficient worker, but not a single one can deliver on that promise if you don't solve the problems discussed above. Even if you have, you still need to ensure that you're using the system for the right reasons. Last week, software developer Vivek Haldar suggested that if you care about something deeply you'll just do it and that productivity systems are really only useful for work that you don't enjoy:
If you really deeply care about something, you will do it. You will do it without needing a list or a system or a reminder. No, your brain will not feel cluttered by the burden of having to remember it. If it happens to be a complex task with many steps, you'll make a list, without thinking "oh look I'm doing GTD." So what do you need a system for? You need it for chores. The stuff you don't want to do, but you need to. The stuff which is easy put off but will hurt in due time. Stuff like paying bills and calling customer service.
This is absolutely true: productivity systems are best suited to solve simple problems and help you accomplish minor tasks that you don't want to do. That said, consider this situation: you finish work every day and you're tired. You want to relax and take a break, but hours pass by and you've lost your motivation to do that important task you wanted (or needed) to do. You've forgotten to make the time. While Vivek is right to say that you will do something you deeply care about, when you have exhausted 90 per cent of your motivation it can be difficult to put that last 10 per cent into action. This is where a productivity system can help, so long as you remember it's not a magic bullet.
For example, take Jerry Seinfeld's 'don't break the chain' method, in which simply adding a checkmark to a calendar daily keeps you dedicated to working toward a goal. I use this method to get things done on a regular basis. It works for me, but only because I modified the system to suit my needs. I gave myself very simple goals each day that were trivial to accomplish. I scaled back those goals when I saw myself attempting to do too much. I treated the system as an evolving idea, rather than a set of hard-and-fast rules, so it was easy to adjust as my needs changed. Over seven months later, my productivity system is very customised and personal. It's something I've developed to ensure I always make time for the things I care about.
For some, productivity systems work as they are. For others, they don't work at all. For people like me, they require a bit of modification and personalisation in order to be effective. It all comes down to personality. You need to figure out who you are and what helps you the most so that you don't waste your time fumbling through ineffective productivity hacks. You need to know there's no magic bullet. Being truly productive is about a qualitative balance, not a quantitative checklist. Explore ways of working that make you feel good and accomplished. That's far more productive than doing it all.