Periodically, I like to review the systems and procedures I’m using to see if there are ways I can improve my productivity at work. As a consultant and small business owner, I’m doing it all pretty much by myself, so whatever I’m not able (or can’t afford) to delegate, I want to make sure it gets done right.
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds: there is a dizzying array of choices when it comes to organizing our communication, schedules and tasks. Devices and apps come and go, but the following foundational approaches will always ensure you get things done. Here are my top 5 productivity hacks for the new year:
Embrace The Cloud
If you’re an old-school corporate guy like me, it may be difficult to contemplate moving all of your files and data onto the Internet-based cloud. Admittedly, it’s quite a paradigm shift. What happens if something goes wrong? What if there’s a security breach? What if the Internet goes down? A massive hard drive crash a couple of years ago changed my mind. I endured significant data loss, an expensive recovery operation, and vowed to never store my email locally again. I switched to a cloud software solution and have never looked back. I now rely on cloud storage to either hold, or “mirror,” everything on my computer. For me, it’s about convenience and peace of mind. I know I can access my data from anywhere, at anytime and on any device, which trumps any other concerns I might have. Every minute of the day counts, so if I am waiting for a meeting to start or in a cab or on a subway, I know I can open a document on my phone and keep working on it.
Choose an Ecosystem
By “ecosystem,” I mean Apple, Google or Microsoft. All three software giants have staked a claim on offering end-to-end, cloud-based software to accomplish pretty much all of the core business tasks. By choosing one of these systems, you save yourself the headache of having to learn more than one set of software paradigms. Admittedly, there is no perfect solution. Each of the three has its strengths and weaknesses, but you should pick a dominant provider for your core functionality and add to it as necessary. If you must work in a multi-ecosystem setup, try drawing a defining line between what goes where — for example, work docs on Google Drive and personal files on iCloud.
Take a Break from Email
For most of us, communicating via email is a must, but when we check our email far too many times during the day, it turns into a distraction. Try to check email no more than four times in 24 hours (some of my more hard-core management experts would say even that’s too much). I get on first thing in the morning over coffee to respond to overnight traffic; check in again before lunchtime; do a final wrap-up stint at the end of the work day; and then, if I really need to take care of correspondence that can’t wait until the morning (or I need to reach overseas contacts), I do one final check-in before bed.
Get Ideas Out of Your Head
Productivity and task management guru David Allen says that our minds are for having ideas, not for holding them. His No. 1 rule is to collect ideas in a central location or device to process and prioritize. To make sure you never miss a deadline or forget a follow-up, use a cross-platform digital task manager to track and remind you. There are many options (e.g. Todoist, Remember the Milk, or Toodledo — not to mention note-taking apps like Evernote or OneNote and their new competitor, Roam Research), and you should do some research to find the one that works for you. There have been great advances in user interfaces over the past few years, making the experience of taking and organizing notes much more visual – e.g. apps like Milanote that let you create image boards and layouts, and Notion, which organizes ideas into easily accessible databases. Trying to remember what we need to do and working without a functioning external task collection system will sentence us to perpetual productivity.
Science shows that our productivity declines when we are fatigued and when we attempt to multitask. Multitasking is actually not neurologically possible. To accomplish a task, we need to concentrate on it fully. Switching back and forth between tasks diminishes our ability to get any of them done. One way to help us learn to concentrate on one task is the Pomodoro Technique, in which you work for 25 minutes, and then rest or shift your attention to another task for five minutes before coming back to your main task. In this way, your day is divided in 30-minute flights, or “Pomodoros,” that let you concentrate, but then rest. Pomodoro helps you avoid burnout and is also a great way to keep track of how much time you’re spending on a task. Regular Pomodoro users say they have a better picture of how they spend each day, and of how long it actually takes them to get something done. This allows them to better estimate their time and meet their deadlines.
Each of us needs to find the best combination of tools and techniques to be productive. As our lives and businesses get more complex, using a little discipline and a little technology can go a long way in helping us stay on top of tasks to achieve and maintain success.