Have you ever met someone so productive that they accomplish more in a week that would take others months to do? It’s not a secret; it’s their fierce personal discipline in control of what they spend their time and energy focused on.
We all have the same 168 hours each week. That includes you, me, Elon Musk, Warren Buffet, Walt Disney and Andrew Carnegie. We are all plagued by the same limits of time.
If you bring the same ferocity to your own work, you can accomplish just as much.
Here’s the recipe:
- Have a clear vision for what you want to accomplish to determine what’s important to you.
- Orient your life around projects that move that vision forward.
- Ruthlessly weed out distractions
Lets break this down a bit more:
Your Personal Vision
What difference do you want to focus on making in the world?
Think intentionally about your personal vision. By doing so, you can create a map for how to get from today’s reality to fulfilling the vision.
Where are the gaps in your map? What needs to change? What resources do you need to acquire? What projects do you need to do? What external things do you need to influence? Who do you need to partner with?
Answering these questions help you decide what is important to you.
Orient Your Life
With the map to your vision in hand, orient the systems that organize your life to focus on the most important things.
- Setup your todo list with buckets for each project related to your vision, and sort them in order of importance.
- Come up with a set of rules for what is worthy of a spot on your calendar.
- Create personal guidelines to how you handle messages coming at you. Configure your email and chatroom to bring the messages most relevant to the top of your inbox, and send the rest to spam.
- Talk with your executive assistant about your priorities and direct them to support you.
You’re going to have to learn to say “no” to other people... probably a lot more than you’re accustomed to.
Other people will want your input or involvement in the things which are important to them. They might even need you, or potentially fail if you don’t help them. And in a lot of those cases, you’ll still have to say “no” to their requests anyway.
That said, the point is not to be completely self-serving. There are times when you should serve other people. For many of us, a culture of supporting each other is one of our important priorities. That’s definitely true for me. Just make sure that you are intentionally deciding to pause your work to help them.
Sometimes I find the gratification of helping someone else to be so enticing, that I drift into those situations too carelessly. Often I later recognize this as procrastination, or self-gratification, rather than productivity. It’s likely those projects would have been successful anyway, and by getting involved, all I managed to do was slow my own progress.
Distractions can sneak into your world easily in these places:
- Email. Your inbox can easily become a task list of someone else’s work. So “no” to those requests.
- Calendar. Decline those invites for other people’s priorities and abandon standing meetings which don’t move your vision forward.
- Chat Rooms. Leave any Slack, Campfire, Hipchat or other company chat rooms that can pull your attention away.
Learn to add friction to your communication. Today's collaboration tools make it easy to talk. In fact, it’s so easy, you end up being too accessible and too distractible. Put up some barriers and respond at your own schedule. Be careful not to abandon others by going dark, but at the same time protect your own space.
Define Outcomes and Tasks
Once you have determined your vision, created your map, setup your environment for success, and pruned away all the distractions, you’re ready to dive into the work.
To do this, we need to identify physical, tangible outcomes that we need achieve in order to move things forward. You’ll write down this list of projects in your todo list by describing them as if they are already done.
- Sales quota met
- Seed funding raised
- Final book draft sent to publisher
- Airplane purchased
- Marketing director hired
As we identify individual tasks to do, we’ll assign them to these projects:
- Email from Sally about airplane interior decoration - File under Airplane purchased
- Resumes on your desk about marketing director - File under Marketing director hired
- List of edits to your book from your editor - File under Final book draft sent to publisher
Throughout your day, as you process email, talk to others, attend meetings, you’ll encounter an onslaught of tasks that don’t fit these projects. Get rid of them. Your task list is the driver of your new productivity habit. A polluted list becomes a wandering focus. You must be diligent in keeping this clean.
Here’s a pro tip: Always work from your list. I find the simple act of adding each task I do to the list helps remind me of that focus. Doing so forces the task into the map, which lets you catch the distractors before you wander off course.
Urgent and Important Tasks
Very often we confuse urgency for importance, but it’s critical to differentiate. Not all tasks that are urgent are important.
Important tasks are those which push your vision forward when they are completed.
Urgent tasks are those with an approaching deadline.
Important tasks tend to grow in urgency over time. With time being our most valuable commodity, we should do important work as soon as possible, as this gives us the most time to do it well. If we wait until it becomes urgent, the work must be rushed to be completed on time.
You will certainly find tasks in your projects which are urgent, but not important. Or worse, you’ll have some which are not important and also not urgent.
Dwight Eisenhower Invents the Eisenhower Matrix
President Eisenhower found himself struggling to prioritize those things which were most important to him, just as we do. And so, he took these dispositions of urgency and importance and created a decision making framework.
This framework, today commonly known as the Eisenhower Matrix, is a 2 dimensional matrix with 4 quadrants. The horizontal axis representing urgency, and the vertical axis representing importance.
Eisenhower Matrix Quadrants
Check out John Green's great introduction to the topic over on his YouTube channel.
As we evaluate our tasks, we’ll lay them atop this matrix to guide our decision making.
Let's take each of these 4 quadrants one at a time:
Important and Urgent
This is your “Do Immediately” list. These items are important, and therefore must be done, but you’re running out of time to do them well.
Beware of false urgency. Urgent means that if you don't complete the task before the deadline you risk not getting full value for the work. Many times tasks masquerade as urgent just because there's a date attached.
As much as possible you want to avoid things landing here if you can help it. That’s impossible to do all the time as there are always external influences at play, but it’s good to strive for nonetheless.
The tasks in this quadrant are generally the biggest sources of your anxiety and stress at work.
Important, but not Urgent
This is your “Do Next” list. When the urgent tasks are behind you, these should be the next things to get your attention.
Consider using a time blocking technique for these tasks, where you schedule time with yourself specifically to work on them.
This is where you do your best work. With full energy, and plenty of time to complete them without stress.
When your world is healthy, this is where you’ll spend at least 80% of your time.
Urgent, but not Important
If work is urgent but not important to you, it’s very likely important to someone else. In that case, delegate the work to them and let them prioritize it for themselves.
These tasks often come wearing disguises. Their urgency makes them feel important. Don’t be fooled. If they don’t add value to you, get them off your plate and onto someone who does care.
Not Urgent or Important
This is trash, plain and simple. Throw it out without more than a moments thought. Don’t push your trash onto other people. Don’t give the courtesy of a response to someone who sends you trash.
Do everything in your power to get these items out of your way, and shut down the systems that create them.
You should be nothing short of ruthless with these items.
When I put these practices in place for myself, I saw an instant jump in productivity. As I’ve gotten better at building this habit, it’s continued to pay dividends.
I encourage you to try it for yourself.
To learn more about the Eisenhower Matrix and other decision making frameworks, check out The Decision Book by Mikael Krogerus.