I took the last few days to contemplate what worked for me, in terms of productivity, over the past year – and what did not work. The result: a new plan for improved productivity in 2013.
While you may not wish to duplicate my plan point-for-point, I thought you might find it useful to see my “working blueprint”. Maybe it will serve as a springboard for your own fresh new productivity tweaks.
Productivity Philisophy. I looked at a number of productivity programs and approaches, many of which I have used in the past. After careful consideration, I still can't find another system that works as well as Getting Things Done. While I find great ideas in the Franklin Covey approach, among others, GTD makes the most sense for me. If you are not familiar with the GTD philosophy, I encourage you to read David Allen's seminal work on stress-free productivity. A great augmentation to the GTD material is one of my favorite new podcasts and websites, Erik Fisher's “Beyond the To-Do List”.
Planning. In keeping with my adherence to GTD, my planning is fairly simple. I have a weekly review session on Fridays, during which I collect all the inputs that have accumulated over the past week, and one by one clear them from my inbox. For each item I decide whether to do it, delegate it, or delete it. Simple, but not always easy. In 2012, I reached the mythical “inbox zero” only about 50% of the time. My goal for the new year is to reach inbox zero 80% of the weeks in the year.
Disciplined Tracking. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I have never been great at tracking my activities. I am resolved to change that in 2013. In the realm of fitness, I have hired a personal trainer, and invested in a FitBit (this little device tracks my physical activity throughout the day). For business activities, I am developing a dashboard for my company in Excel to keep track of key metrics. For productivity purposes, I have reinstalled RescueTime, to help me evaluate how I'm spending my time on the computer. I am resolved to reduce my computer time in the new year significantly.
Productivity Tools. In the past, I have been a “tool junkie”. One of my favorite time-wasters is collecting new productivity tools. Think about the irony of that. The only productivity tools I actually use on a consistent basis are… OmniFocus and Notes (the iOS app). A relative newcomer to my productivity protocol, but something I use increasingly more often, is the dictation feature on my MacBook Pro, my iPhone, and my iPad.
Boundaries. I admit it. I have a hard time saying “no” to people. In the past year, I agreed to far too many meetings, phone calls, and seminars that required travel. I was far too accessible. In 2013, I am intentionally limiting my accessibility, and enforcing my personal and professional boundaries more diligently. My biggest weaknesses in this area: email and telephone. This year, I am resolved to stick to my regimen of only answering email once a day, and the same for phone calls. I also intends to be “off the grid” three days a week for both email and phone calls. The point of limiting my accessibility is not to stroke my ego, but rather to protect my time so that I can render the best possible service to my God, myself, my family, my friends, and my clients (yes, in that order).
Guarding My Heart and Mind. Toxic thoughts and emotions destroy us. Toxic thinking limits our potential for accomplishment. Toxic emotions limit our potential for happiness and fulfillment. In the new year, I will not allow negative thinking, language, images, or emotions to pierce the boundary of my sight or hearing. If you have bad news that you want to share, don't be surprised when I tell you, “I'm sorry, I can't afford to listen to that. Let's talk about something else.” This includes not only conversations, but communication through social media, email, podcasts, television shows, movies, or any other media. Bottom line: if it's negative, it ain't going into my brain. You may think of this as a form of denial. I agree. When the architect of evil wants to try to slip something nasty into my heart or into my mind, my response is: request denied. Best form of denial I know.
Task Batching. I perform best when I batch similar tasks together and do them all at once. For instance, my plan for the new year is to read incoming email, deal with decisions about what to do with it, and respond to the emails all in one sitting each day. When combined with the “focus block” technique, which I outline below, this makes me remarkably efficient. Give it just a little thought; coming up with tasks you can “batch” is fairly easy. Some ideas for batch tasking: writing blog posts, responding to email, voice mail, customer service, etc.
Focus Blocks. “Focus blocks” are clearly defined blocks of time that I use to focus on one single task. For instance, I have “focus blocks” set aside for writing. These appear in my calendar. If I have an appointment in my calendar for one hour of writing, I do nothing else for that hour; no instant messenger, no phone calls, no checking email, no talking with my wife, nothing except writing. My most reliable productivity tool is actually a simple digital timer, which I use to monitor my “focus blocks”. I have tried lots of timers, both physical and virtual (apps), and I always come back to the same solution… the timer feature on my iPhone. I plan to use this tool a lot more often in 2013.
Digital Fasting. I am a digital junkie. I love Facebook, Twitter, Google+, email, RSS feeds… you get the idea. That's why it's important to me to completely unplug frequently. Otherwise my mind is continually racing, and I begin to feel a low-level stress building up. Frankly, in the past I have been fairly disciplined about this, but over the last six months or so I have completely fallen off the wagon. Time to climb back up there. My goal is to be completely free of email, voice mail, and Internet consumption… 100% free… at least one day a week. You may have noticed, earlier I stated that I plan to be disconnected from telephone calls and email three days a week; that practice refers only to business-related communications. I still plan to be available to talk to my family on those days. But on “digital fast” days, I intend to be completely unplugged from the matrix.
Sabbath. One day each week, my intention is to be at complete rest. No work-related reading, listening, talking, or… welll, working. I believe God instituted the Sabbath because he knew that we human beings love to work, and given the option, he knew we would work seven days a week. That's why the Bible says the “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In 2013, I am graciously accepting my Creator's gift. One day a week, I will be at rest.
The Positive No. I mentioned earlier that it is difficult for me to say “no” to people. This year, my default response to every request made of me will be, at least initially, “no”. It's important for me, a person who so quickly says yes, to be certain I don't overload myself with commitments I cannot keep. Few things cause me more anxiety than to realize I have made a commitment that is difficult (or impossible) for me to live up to. This new policy does not mean that I will never say “yes” to any new request, it simply means that the answer is “no” until I have carefully considered whether the request serves God, me, and the other people in my life who are affected by my decisions.
Income Producing Activity Hours. I have identified the activities which are most likely to result in producing revenue for my company: speaking, writing, marketing and advertising, and creating new material or trainings. There are a few other income-producing activities, such as networking, sales calls, and developing JV relationships. I am creating carefully protected and intricately planned “focus blocks” for these activities. These are among the first activities to be scheduled in my calendar.
Writing Time. This is in my top tier of income producing activities. It is also in my top tier of spiritually fulfilling activities. Therefore, this is one of my very highest priorities, and will be one of my most protected assets in the new year.
30 Day Challenges. I love new ideas, and I love trying them out. So much so, that I have tended, in the past, to try out many different ideas in a single week. These may include new activities, new habits, new books, new podcasts, etc. While each seems like a small commitment at the time, collectively they end up consuming massive amounts of time that could be used more productively. Therefore, in the new year, each month I plan to adopt one “30 Day Challenge”. A single new habit, activity, or discipline. I will post each month's 30 day challenge publicly, and at the end of the 30 days report on my experience. I want to try new things, things I have never tried before. Suggestions are welcome. Tip of the hat to Matt Cutts, who gave me this idea.
That's my plan for tweaking my productivity protocol in the new year.
What about you? Are you making adjustments to make the coming year more productive than last year? I would love to hear your ideas-please post them below in the comments.