You all are in for a real treat today. Today’s guest post comes from the amazing, smart, uber talented Jess Ostroff, the Director of Calm at Don’t Panic Management and a great friend of Team Belle. We LOVE her post today about cultivating better habits to improve your productivity (and your life). Oh, and if you need some calm in your work life, be sure to check out Don’t Panic Mgmt’s services. We can attest that Jess and her team are awesome!
When you have client placements and projects to manage, internal deadlines, a team of coworkers (plus a family!) who count on you, an active personal life, and a long list of wellness goals to juggle, the term “stressed out” may play a large role in your vocabulary.
To lower your blood pressure and combat your never-ending to-do list, you’ve tried every productivity hack in the book: Wunderlist for syncing your to-dos across devices. Basecamp to manage your work projects. Block calendaring. The list goes on.
But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Productivity is more about habits than it is about tools. Habits take practice. And there isn’t a one-size-fits-all-approach. (I know, it sucks. Sorry!)
So, without further ado, here are some new productivity hacks that you can practice every day, and over time you’ll adopt them as habits that will change your life, both personally and professionally.
Multiply Your Time
Being productive is not about being able to do everything under the sun at once. We all know by now how terrible multitasking is for productivity. And I’ll admit it: I’m a huge culprit of the multitasking habit. I now have a note that says, “One. Thing. At. A. Time” on my desk so I don’t forget how important it is. But I digress…
Productivity is about multiplying your time, not maximizing it.
Take a look at your to-do list. You’ll likely notice that there are some things that require more of your brain space than others. For example, things like creating strategy documents, writing a long article, or managing a tough colleague may not take any more of your time than entering data into a spreadsheet, but they require much more energy and attention. We tend to procrastinate on these items because they’re hard. It’s understandable. But the reason why they’re hard is because they’re important. They carry weight and they make a difference for your future.
Create ample, uninterrupted time for those thoughtful to-dos, and squeeze in some of the smaller tasks when you have a few minutes waiting for the subway or between meetings.
Don’t feel guilty about holing up and even turning off your internet to get these items done. It’s okay if you don’t respond to an email within two minutes or if you return a call a little later.
In fact, if you let yourself get trapped in the email game – responding to everything that comes in as it comes in – it will create more work for you as people respond to your responses, and those large projects will get pushed and pushed further out by (often meaningless) back and forth.
Soon, you’ll find that when you invest the time on important work, like setting up internal processes, developing strategic plans, and communicating with your team, urgent emails will begin to subside. People will begin to respect your time more as they see the important work you’re doing.
And they’ll reconsider what really is “urgent” and what can wait a bit.
Prioritize the things that are most important, realistically schedule them into your calendar, and do the rest later.
Don’t Forget Margins
I’ve never liked doing back-to-back meetings, and I’ve learned that most of my clients feel the same way. There’s a reason for this—we need time to reset and reframe our mindset in order to be prepared for the next thing. Many of the newer meeting schedulers build this buffer time into their options so that you can do 50-minute meetings with a 10-minute break, or 25-minute meetings with a 5-minute break. You can use the breaks to stretch, grab a drink, or prepare your talking points for the next meeting.
You can also use the buffer time to cross off small items from your to-do list, like checking your mentions on Twitter, writing a quick follow up email, or even doing a few pushups.
The point isn’t how you use this time, necessarily, but that you do actually schedule the time.
Michael Hyatt has a name for these times: He calls them margins. Similar to the way you have margins on either side of a page for easier reading, you must have margins on either side of your meetings and other engagements to be most productive.
Margins work wonders when combined with the above point about multiplying your time.
Listen to Michael Hyatt’s How You Can Better Control Your Time podcast
Many people think that compartmentalizing your work life and your personal life is the best way to complete everything and not feel like you’re overstepping any boundaries. But the truth is that if you try to adopt different methods to manage your professional and personal to-do’s, you won’t be able to manage either one of them successfully.
Instead, schedule the things that are important to your own self-improvement, your family, and your individualism the same way you would schedule your work meetings. By blocking off time for things like working out, taking your kids to the park, or even grocery shopping, you’re making sure these things actually happen, while also helping yourself stick to your promises and not letting work take over.
I have found that making these items just as non-negotiable as a client meeting makes me more likely to get them done. Plus, I am more motivated throughout the day to work more efficiently on everything else that needs to get done so that I can make that “go to kickboxing now!” deadline.
Don’t forget to schedule margins with your personal items the same way you would with work appointments, and be realistic about how long things will take by including travel time or any other potential hiccups as you plan.
Enlist Your People
As you begin to get a handle on what works for you and what doesn’t, keep the people who matter in the loop. For example, if you find that you’re more productive on bigger to-do items in the morning, tell your assistant not to schedule any calls then or ask your colleagues if you can have two uninterrupted mornings per week.
If you have set a goal for yourself to do yoga three times a week, add the class schedule to your calendar and tell your significant other that this is something that’s important to you so they understand why you’re home later certain nights of the week or gone earlier in the morning.
I tend to do better with meetings in the mornings and larger projects in the afternoons, so I have blocked off two afternoons per week (Wednesdays and Fridays) where I won’t take meetings unless it’s urgent. I have also set a three-times-per-week (at least) exercise goal, so I map out my workouts on Sunday or Monday mornings so that I am mentally prepared for them and so I have time to register for classes and get them on the calendar.
I am also lucky to have a partner who gets up early, so that has forced me to break some of my night-owl habits and get more sleep, which was an important goal of mine.
Letting people know about your projects and priorities not only brings you the personal and professional support you need, but it will also help you feel accountable to your goals and your new habits, which will help you achieve them more successfully.
I chose these four habits because they work really well when you start practicing them all at the same time. I recommending picking your top three priorities for work and your top one priority for your personal life to start. (If you’re not a workaholic like me, you could pick three for each.)
Then, figure out what needs to happen in order for you to feel like you succeeded in making these priorities happen. Re-evaluate after 3-4 weeks and choose new priorities as your goals change. Rinse and repeat!
Finally, many of these items can work with support from digital tools. A word of caution: If you’re going to employ a digital tool to help you work smarter, you have got to stick with it or you’re better off not using tools at all. Don’t get me wrong, I love tools. I’ve tried them all. But sometimes it’s more about how to manage yourself than how you manage a tool. Because even if you have a tool to log your progress, at the end of the day you’re still the one that has to do it all.
I’m looking forward to hearing your challenges as well as your success stories as you test these out. Go flex your superhero muscles and make this your most productive year yet!
Want to contribute a guest post of your own? If you have advice and expertise related to marketing, startups or business best practices, email Heather to learn more about guest blogging opportunities.
Jess Ostroff is the founder and Director of Calm of Don’t Panic Management, a virtual assistant agency that specializes in digital marketing and operations. She loves finding efficient ways to get work done, bringing good people together over food and wine, and enjoying live music.