Francis Wade, author of Perfect Time-Based Productivity, guest posts today. If you missed his post on Why College Students and CEOs Manage Time the Same Way, be sure to give it a read.
When you are someone who is already more productive than most people you know, how can you still make improvements?
At first it may seem to be an easy question to answer: just browse the Internet, pick out a bunch of websites or books and find some tips, tricks and shortcuts. Try a bunch of them and see what works.
If you are someone who has lots of time on your hands, this approach might bear some fruit. In times past, when there were only one or two credible resources available, you had no choice. Now, however, you have a plethora of advice at your fingertips, but no way to choose between different sources. Therefore, you waste a lot of time in your attempts to get just a little bit better.
Is there a better way?
There is. Just look at the way top athletes learn. They don’t chase after trivial bits of advice from everyone they meet — that’s a recipe for disaster, or at the very least, permanent distraction. Instead they find ways to focus their energies on precise behavior changes, in small doses.
Michael Jordan put it well. “My attitude is that if you push me towards something that you think is a weakness, then I will turn that perceived weakness into a strength.”
He was fortunate: he had others around him like teammates, coaches and opposing players who helped him find potential areas of growth. You probably aren’t as lucky. In the workplace, as in everyday life, there remain few clear cut measures of success and few people who can give clear feedback. Instead, you need a way to assess yourself and provide you with the same edge that Michael Jordan had at the height of his days in the NBA.
Your Time Management Autobiography
If you have ever read a time management book or sat in a productivity workshop you probably found yourself discarding many of the specific practices and habits the author/instructor recommended. Others may have seemed to be in love with them all, but some struck you as unnecessary for your situation. Why the difference?
It’s because each of us has an individual time management autobiography which has brought us to this point place in time.
Your biography started at the age you learned to tell time, which for most people happens before 10 years old. You were probably taught that time was a real substance that needed to be learned and understood.
Once you mastered the concept, it didn’t take long for you to create what are called “time demands” — internal, individual commitments to complete actions in the future. They are psychological constructs, according to academics Dr. Wendy Wood and Judith Oullette who labeled them “conscious intentions.” With MacGyver-like ingenuity, you didn’t stop there — you also taught yourself how to deal with time demands each day.
Unfortunately, these two life-changing events go unnoticed by most of us. As important as they are to our future success in life, we usually can’t recall either when we discovered time or started manipulating time demands.
However, once you started creating time demands, you exerted a supreme effort to keep them alive long enough to get the prescribed actions done. If you are like most people, the first thing you tried was your memory. Over time, you were forced by its limits to use other devices. For example, the chances are good that if you are reading a blog post such as this one on Psychowith6.com, you taught yourself to use a To-Do list, either written on paper or kept on an electronic device.
The transition you made was typical: the research shows that as time demands increase, over time we progress through a number of turning points. The first was the decision to use memory (rather than rely on chance), while the second was to replace memory use with a To-Do list. Perhaps you have also reached the third: the use of multiple lists rather than a single list. Some have even reached a fourth: they tend to be time-starved and use a detailed schedule, without any To-Do lists at all.
These turning points — the moments when we decided to switch methods — are an all-important part of our biography. Dr. Key Dismukes and others have shown that we commit fewer errors when we switch to the right technique at the right time: the one that happens to match the volume of time demands we are trying to process daily. Stress occurs when there is a mismatch, and we experience persistent failures.
Now, see if you can fill in some holes in your time management biography. Which tools do you use to manage time demands? Which ones predominate? When did you hit some of these turning points and start to change your habits? What habits, practices and rituals did you unlearn, then learn?
These aren’t easy questions to answer because we hardly noticed them happening, but your answer provides a beginning — an understanding of how you came to do what you do, and why.
Your Current Profile
Your history has brought you to this moment, the time when you are using a particular set of habits, practices and rituals developed over time. It’s responsible for every single one of your achievements. However, if you are experiencing time-stress, the answer probably doesn’t lie in tips and tricks randomly tweeted out into cyberspace.
A better place to start is with an important part of your biography — your current day assessment. For example, in 2008, Dr. Lydia Liu and her team of researchers gave one of the few self-assessments for adolescents to over 800 seventh-grade students. They found that they were well on the way to developing their own system which, in general, was less sophisticated than those being used by college students — a great piece of information to have for a parent who is guiding their kid’s development.
In my book, Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I also provide a self-assessment covering over 40 critical skills that, like Dr. Liu’s work, results in a personal profile. This profile is the end-product of your autobiography, but you don’t need to know the details of each turning point to develop it — it’s just better if you have that knowledge as you can understand why you possess certain behaviors and not others.
These are just two methods. You can also keep a detailed diary of your behaviors, tracking repetitive errors as they occur. Hiring a coach who can tell you what your developmental needs are is another. You can also develop your own assessment. In my book, I share the methodology I use so that you can create an assessment based on any best-practice whenever you want.
The result is the same whichever path you take: an in-depth understanding of your current skills which reveals the most obvious gaps. A good assessment may reveal the fact I found in hundreds of self-assessments delivered during training; most of us had no formal training in time management during our adolescent years. The result is predictable: unorthodox profiles that owe more to Rube Goldberg than scientific research. Dr. Liu makes the point: figuring out this piece of our autobiography is critical if we want to be effective in the future.
Your Future Biography
In my book I tell the story of a fictitious CEO named Rebecca. She made the switch from one technique to another in response to increasing responsibilities, first at school and then in her career. She had help along the way, but the transitions were still difficult to undertake because our ingrained habits, practices and rituals are unlearned slowly.
Advancement up the corporate ladder is one guarantee of greater time demands. Others include having children, getting married, undertaking a degree part-time and taking care of an ailing parent. All of us who have swapped a feature-phone for a smartphone know that technology also changes the way you deal with time demands. In all these examples, the outcome is the same — you need to upgrade your methods.
Fortunately, if you have completed your autobiography you know exactly where to start. Your self-knowledge sets you apart from others who feel the need to change, but only have random tips, tricks and shortcuts to choose from. Their job is much harder — and it takes a much longer time.
Armed with your autobiography, however, you can ignore irrelevant advice, snazzy technology upgrades and silly shortcuts that have nothing to do with your needs. As opposed to chasing down trivial recommendations and advertisements, you can commit yourself to making slow, steady progress — the kind that’s unfashionable, but ultimately works.
In this way you can write your future biography — one in which you improved your skills at will with the awareness, intuition and skills of an adult. This gives you a way to keep your peace of mind regardless of the challenges life might bring.
Dismukes, R. (n.d.). Prospective Memory in Workplace and Everyday Situations. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 215-220.
Liu, O. L., Rijmen, F., Maccann, C., & Roberts, R. (2009). The assessment of time management in middle-school students. Personality and Individual Differences, 47(3), 174-179
Ouellette, J., & Wood, W. (1998). Habits and Intention in Everyday Life: The Multiple Processes by Which Past Behavior Predicts Future Behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 124(1), 54-74.
How on earth can we do everything on our to-do lists? We can’t. But we can do the most important things!
I recently wrote about my enthusiasm for the book, The One Thing by Gary Keller, in a post on getting organized to blog or have a business while homeschooling. But this approach to productivity has the capacity to help anyone get more done.
A friend asked how I used the approach. I explained how I am using it to improve my marriage and work with my digital task list. She mentioned that she wished there was a good paper list to be used with this approach and I was inspired! Read on for what I shared with her and what I ended up using to manage my own tasks.
JUST WANT THE TO-DO LIST? Click here to download a blank PDF of the 1-Thing To-Do List or Click here to subscribe to productivity posts and get an editable form.
First, what’s The One Thing?
Gary Keller urges his readers to determine the one thing that would make the biggest impact in their lives (usually that will be the thing that makes the biggest impact in others’ lives, too). Once we know that, we can determine the one thing that would have the biggest impact on our lives in the next five years, next year, and so on. The great way he defines the one thing is:
the one thing you can do that will make everything else easier or unnecessary.
If you don’t yet know what you want to do with your life, I urge you to spend time praying and thinking about it. The book itself may help your thinking. Once you know your ultimate goal, deciding the one most important thing to do becomes easier. As a busy homeschooling mom with many interests, I loved the concept of choosing the one thing in every area of my life. I can’t possibly choose only one important area of my life to focus on! If you get stuck choosing one thing, remember that choosing doesn’t mean you can’t do anything else–it just means that you have chosen what you think is the most valuable use of your time for now. Perfectionists, take note: choose what appears to be the one thing. That’s good enough!
For inspiration on using a one-thing approach, listen to Jeff Sanders’s podcast on the subject.
How I’m Using The One Thing to Build My Marriage
I realized from interviewing Dr. Don McCulloch, author of Perfect Circle, that I longed for my husband to ask me what he could do to make the marriage of my dreams a reality. The problem was, like most men, he was inclined to guess what I needed and would give me that instead. Inspired by The One Thing, I asked my husband what the one thing was that would make his day easier (that I could do) and he told me. He was very open to hearing the one thing he could do to make my day easier, too. In fact, he is asking me this question on his own now. Wow!
I recommend asking your spouse what s/he needs first and then telling your spouse what you need most and make it a daily habit. Morning works best for us. Before you know it, your spouse will be asking you first!
How I Use The One Thing to Get More Done with ToDoist
Because I already have my tasks sorted by life area (colored categories) in ToDoist, it’s easy for me to review these and choose my one thing each day. I have tasks dated (something I accomplish during my weekly review) for the week, making choosing one to make top priority quick and easy. Rather than work from the Today view, I keep my list open to Top Priority tasks until they’re complete. I take all of this one step further by scheduling time for each “one thing” in Timeful. I explain more about this in 6 Important Habits for Getting More Done.
How To Use The One Thing with a Paper To-Do List
I’m absolutely crazy about digital task solutions like ToDoist, but I’m also crazy about pretty paper lists–the more colorful, the better. When my friend mentioned a paper list, I had to create a weekly form that would work for 1-Thing Productivity. Each life area has a color and a space for one monthly and weekly thing that will make everything else in that life area easier. What do I mean by life areas? The best way to explain is with examples. My life areas are church/faith, marriage, kids, homeschooling, blog, business, relationships, organization, personal, and scrapbooking.
The beauty of this list is the linear connection between your monthly and weekly 1-things and your daily 1-things. Every day, you list a new 1-thing per life area and check it or cross it off as you complete it.
Click here to download a blank PDF of the 1-Thing To-Do List. You will hand write up to ten life areas in the colored boxes. An editable Word form is a subscriber freebie. (Subscribers, you’ll find yours in the subscriber freebies folder.) Click here to subscribe to productivity posts.
A few notes. Sometimes your 1 thing won’t correspond with your weekly and monthly 1 thing. That’s ok. The form exists to keep your longer-term things top of mind. You may also have days when you don’t need to do anything in a particular life area. That’s ok, too. The form serves as a reminder of all the important aspects of your life and where you’re devoting the most time. If I don’t complete an area’s “one thing,” I rewrite it for the next day IF it’s still the one most important thing I can do.
Finally, you may have other must-do’s for a particular life area. You can approach this in a few different ways. First, list the rest of your must-do-today’s on the back of the form under today’s date. You could work on them as you complete the various 1 things. Second, you could keep these other must-do’s on a separate list that you only tackle once all of your 1 things are done. Lastly, you could schedule your “one things” and everything else you want to accomplish today on your calendar or datebook or using an app like Timeful. I use the latter approach.
Whatever method you choose, the 1 Thing approach to getting more done is really powerful. What 1 thing could you do right now that would make the rest of your day easier? Let me know how this works for you.
This is Week 7 of a Year of Living Productively
This week I tested Jason Womack’s technique of envisioning my ideal day each morning. I wrote what I envisioned using idonethis and then followed up by writing how it went. Scroll to the bottom of this post to see what I planned to do this week.
How Envisioning My Ideal Day Saved My Sanity This Week
- Helped me become less task focused. Even though the metric I’ve been using is “getting more done,” the truth is that’s not all I’m after. I want to have peace in knowing I’ve used the gift of this day well. Thinking about my ideal day helped me consider more than just things to do, but people to love, and experiences I wanted to have. That gave me some peace this week.
- Gave me a general guide for the day. I didn’t plan to envision my days this way, but I ended up writing down how I saw the day unfolding, step by step. As long as I kept this guide in mind, it worked well to help me recall what I really wanted my day to look like. It also helped me take all my commitments for the day into account.
- Got me to do things I ordinarily wouldn’t have. I found this was especially true in the evenings when I’m much harder to motivate. I made time for my kids and for reading and I felt great about that.
How Envisioning My Ideal Day Made Me Crazy This Week
- I wasn’t well. I had another week of extreme fatigue and that made thinking about my ideal day that much harder. I finished the week feeling better though and I’m hopeful to be back to normal soon.
- Started off as an unrealistic routine. At first, I approached my ideal day list as a have-to list. That didn’t work well. I felt like I didn’t want to do any of it then. The rebel in me kicked in. But then I reminded myself that this was just a wish list–not a requisition–and it helped a lot. It also helped not referring to it, but just remembering what I’d written.
Did Envisioning My Ideal Day Help Me Get More Done?
Yes. At first I thought my answer was going to be no, but that’s because I expected to do everything I had planned. When I started seeing it as a general guide and not a must-do list, I started seeing progress. I plan to continue doing this mentally, though I don’t plan to continue recording it via idonethis for the time being.
I do this now using an app called the 5 Minute Journal. I answer questions about what would make today great. I do believe it makes a difference.
The Productivity Approach I’ll Be Using for Week 8
“Do it tomorrow” doesn’t sound like very wise advice until you read Mark Forster’s book. I read Do It Tomorrow a number of years ago, tried the approach, and failed miserably. Having a number of years of experience in productivity, I decided to give it another try. I re-read the book and I think I understand what went wrong last time and I’m very excited to test it this week.
The concept. Most of us aren’t efficient in getting our work done, because we do things as a reaction. We attend to all kinds of requests as though they were urgent, when most of them aren’t. By waiting a day to do those that aren’t argent, we can organize them to get them done quickly. All the day’s email and paper can be handled at once, for example. The idea is that you are always completing one day’s work rather than an endless stream of tasks. Any work you have now that you’re behind on (including email) is declared a backlog. The first part of your work day is devoted to clearing the backlog–at least 5 minutes every day, and then for as long as you wish. The rest of your day is devoted to working on the tasks that came in yesterday. The idea is that you can stay on top of your work, and if you can’t, you need to figure out why and take steps to address it.
Do it Tomorrow is chock full of ideas for dealing with projects, finding time to work on meaningful goals, and addressing procrastination. It’s a great read! (The links above are affiliate links.) I’ll be using IQTell to manage my Do it Tomorrow approach, but a dated diary works beautifully, too. (Note: My past mistake that I’ll avoid this time was entering many tasks that were really part of my backlog to action the next day.)
If you’d like to join me this week, here’s what you do. 1. Put all work you’re behind on into backlog folders where it’s out of sight. 2. Collect all today’s incoming work and deal with it in batches tomorrow with the goal of completing all of it. If you take action on a project and have more to do on it, re-enter it for the next day. 3. Items that you must action today (because they’re urgent) should be written on a separate list. 4. Spend the first part of every work day clearing your backlog. If you’d rather not order the book, but still want some guidance, search the forum on Mark Forster’s website for DIT.
Click here to see how my week with DIT went.
If you’ve tried envisioning your ideal day to increase your productivity, please vote in the poll below.
Here are the links to the productivity hacks I’ve tried so far:
A Year of Living Productively
Week 1: Paper To-Do List
Week 2: Covey’s Quadrants
Week 3: Routines
Week 4: Paper Planner
Week 5: SMEMA
Week 6: Guilt Hour