Two questions I get asked frequently are: (a) what are the secrets to your productivity and (b) do I sleep. The reason for these questions is that I’m perceived as somebody who is highly focused, and gets a lot done.
It definitely didn’t always used to be this way!
In the first couple of years as a CEO, I worked at a relentless work pace, was always ‘busy’ and frequently felt stressed. Between the Board, my senior management team, my staff, our strategic partners and the clients, I had so many competing pulls on my time and attention, I didn’t always know which way to turn. Something had to change if I wasn’t to hit burn out – which actually I did a couple of times.
To counter-act the demands on my time, I recruited a PA to act as a gatekeeper. Nobody could speak to me on the phone or book a meeting with me without going through Rachel! And better still she filtered and answered my emails so that I only ever dealt with those that really did require my focus. This freed up a lot of time so that I could focus on implementing our very ambitious strategic plan.
To a large extent, this dealt with the external environment. But I had been recruited to implement a highly ambitious strategic plan in a bootstrapped company with a weak infrastructure. There’s an old saying. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Despite having a PA to filter out the important from the urgent and trivial, I still had more on my plate than I could possibly chew.
Around this point, I came across the work of Brian Tracy and Michael Hyatt and learnt about the ‘Pareto Principle’ and ‘Law of the Vital Few.’ Distinguishing between the “trivial many” and the “vital few” can be applied to every human pursuit and has been explored by Richard Koch, the author of several books on how to apply the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule) to everyday life.
I realised that I needed to become ruthlessly focused on a very small core priorities, execute and complete these, and then move on to tackle the next project. This meant ‘saying no’ a lot and didn’t always make me popular in some quarters. But it meant I found a way a working that suited me personally and allowed me to have periods of deep focus when I could work on my highest priorities.
In my second career as a business consultant and coach I work in a similar way today. And this is what enables me to be so productive – and get my 8 hours sleep every night. Here’s what helps me.
1. Keep Everything In One Place
I use Evernote as my digital brain, repository for all my bright ideas, and a filing cabinet for everything I write. I use a system of tags to help me find notes quickly. Evernote contains my business plan, my personal and business goals, details of my projects and implementation plans.
This may sound obvious but I cannot tell you how much time this has saved me. Plus Evernote is super easy to use, and has an excellent free plan.
2. Organise your Ideal Month
I took this idea from Michael Hyatt’s advice on how to organise the ‘ideal week.’
I rarely make appointments on Mondays and Fridays as this time is set aside for me to work on my own projects and priorities. It’s when I write articles for my blog and LinkedIn, and when I work on my business goals.
I see all my clients for 1:1 business coaching during the first few days of the month. This makes sense from my clients’ perspective because we review their results from the previous month, and work on their priorities for the coming month and quarter.
I set aside Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for calls with potential clients, 60 minute instant business advice sessions and consultancy projects. These are also the days when I attend networking events, catch up with referral partners and build relationships with my business network.
On months where there are 5 weeks, I leave the fifth week free so that if I want, I can take a couple of days off.
3. Batch Tasks
I find it really hard to switch between tasks that require ‘deep focus’ such as writing, or creating a new product and ‘shallow tasks’ that require me to be more extrovert. I get around this by batching similar tasks. If I’m going to a networking event, if at all possible I’ll arrange 1:1s either side of the event. If I want to publish a new e-book, I’ll allocate 3-4 days for this task in order that I can focus all my energy on getting it done with minimal distraction.
4. Create A To-do List For Today
List keeping is popular, especially for people who have been inspired by David Allen’s GTD method. They have scores – perhaps hundreds – of tasks, neatly divided by projects, contexts, or areas of focus. But they don’t know what they need to get done today. I recommend creating a simple list for today with just 2-3 priority actions on it.
5. Turn Off All Communications
Shut down Facebook, Twitter, Messages, Slack, and email. If you don’t have the discipline to do this, use technology to help you e.g. Freedom.to. Instead of closing everything down, it lets you selectively disable apps and websites for specific lengths of time. It also allows you to keep your browser open for research. And it works for both PC and Mac.
This is one of my key productivity secrets. You’ll find that meditation actually increases your concentration and productivity. There’s proven science around this. I like to start my day with a short yoga practice followed by a 20 minute meditation practice. I use resources from the Yogaglo and Chopra Meditation Centre.
Other Resources You Might Like
Over the past few days, I’ve been following Michael Hyatt’s Free To Focus Productivity Summit. I particularly enjoyed the discussions with:
- Cal Newport, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work.
- Shawn Stevenson, bestselling author of Sleep Smarter, creator of The Model Health Show podcast, and founder of Advanced Integrative Health Alliance.
- Greg McKeown, best-selling author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.
You may also like to check out the work of Kathryn Brown of Creating Your Plan. What I love about Kathryn’s approach to productivity is her recognition that it is deeply personal. What works well for me won’t necessarily work for you.
Join The Conversation
Question: In a noisy world, how do you switch off distractions so that you can do your best work? I love hearing your views so please do let me know in the comments box below.
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