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Improved Productivity: A 12-Step Program

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Productivity can seem so elusive at times. It can be hard to prioritize, manage the workload and stay focused, but with a few simple steps and a good dose of discipline, you can be on your way to more control over your days.

  1. Plan your exit. Productivity for tomorrow starts today. Set a time to leave the office and stick with it. An hour before that time, have a wrap-up alarm remind you to start wrapping things up for the day, a great tip from organizational and productivity guru Julie Morgenstern in her book, “Never Check E-Mail in the Morning”.
  2. Plan tomorrow. Set your intentions and priorities for tomorrow during the last hour of your day so that you hit the ground running.
  3. Set your boundaries. At quitting time, turn off the computer (completely off so that you’re not tempted to “quickly” check your email), turn off the light, and shut the door. Don’t return until it’s time to work tomorrow.
  4. Honor a bedtime routine. Two or three hours before you want to be asleep, begin a routine of winding down. This will be different for every person, but it might include: no more phone calls or connectivity with the outside world (unless it’s an emergency, of course), no more talk about work, a bath or shower, a cup of hot tea, light reading, journal writing, no television, and lights out at a set time.
  5. Start the day off right. Wake up at a set time. Exercise or do yoga for fifteen or twenty minutes, unless you have another workout routine that you prefer. Eat a healthy breakfast (don’t skip this, as it affects your energy levels for the rest of the day). Set out with the right intention for your day by taking care of yourself first.
  6. Maintain your boundaries. Don’t immediately go to your office and start checking emails or news feeds. You’ll be at your computer all day. Take some time for yourself and other priorities in your life, or they’re less likely to get done later in the day, especially after work.  Have some coffee, write in your journal, read, or go for a walk. Just take some time for yourself before jumping into your work day.
  7. Avoid or limit email time. Avoid checking your email right when you go to the office, or if you prefer seeing if anything important is waiting, at least limit your time to fifteen minutes so that it doesn’t distract you from more important tasks. Email is a huge time suck; if you don’t control it, it will control you.
  8. Avoid or limit news feeds and social networks. This is another time-suck that easily distracts from other priorities. Set specific times for keeping up with the latest news and updates, and then be diligent about staying away from the distractions.
  9. Start with your list. Jump right to your list of intentions and priorities that you jotted down the previous day. You were probably much more focused and honest about what needed your attention when you were planning it out with a clear head. First thing in the morning, it’s easy to want to procrastinate or give too much importance to trivial tasks and to-dos.
  10. Check in often. Set yourself an alarm for every hour or two. Don’t let yourself get too far off base from your intention/priority list. If you do get derailed, at least you’ll not lose much time this way.
  11. Work in blocks. In a business, it’s easy to have a wide variety of different types of tasks. There might be client work, writing and publishing, and marketing-related tasks to be done. Groups these tasks and complete them in scheduled blocks of time, say two- or three-hour sittings.
  12. Stay disciplined. When you finish with a particular type of task, like work for a specific client, don’t pick up that client’s work again until his/her designated time comes back around again. It’s easy to be tempted to do “just one more thing” for a project, especially when clients are emailing feedback and updates throughout the day, but avoid the temptation. Treat all time blocks with equal importance, whether you’re working on client projects or doing lead generation tasks. It’s all important, and if you don’t maintain a balance between current work and future prospects, you’ll experience peaks and valleys with your revenue as well.

It’s not always easy to stay on track. Time flies, distractions can beg for your attention, and deadlines loom, making you feel pulled in one hundred directions and unable to keep up with the demands, but by approaching your work with purpose and discipline, it’s a lot easier to get things done and feel great about what you’ve accomplished.

What steps do you follow each day to stay on track and productive?

Photo by Flickr user SC Fiasco, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

66 Responses to “Improved Productivity: A 12-Step Program”

  1. As a small-business owner, I believe it is necessary to focus on those tasks that help increase sales or build your potential client-base. I’ve been working with a very successful entrepreneur in the Tulsa, OK area who has won the SBA Entrepreneur of the Year Award. His philosophy is this: with regards to business, whatever you are doing, if it doesn’t help increase sales, it probably isn’t necessary. As business owners and entrepreneurs, we must learn to be more efficient with our time. Focus on the things that are truly important to your business; not simply time wasters! And remember this: this best time to start something is after you have already finished it in your mind!

  2. anthonydexter

    Thanks Amber, I truly appreciate the clear, concise and no-nonsense, no frills way you laid it out…I’ll have to start implementing some of these ideas and reexamining others…

  3. Amber, this is a great list.
    Very timely. I’ve started again planning my days night before and it works great.
    Also time blocking is one of the crucial elements to move IMPORTANT things forward especially when things are hectic around.
    Also your tips can be implemented in both work and personal life. Many people forget about this and focus only on one area where benefits can be moved between both. Something along the lines of ‘happy home – happy work, less stress at work less stress at home…’

  4. Hello Amber,

    I do a lot of things already including waking at a set time, start with my list, work in blocks, minimise email time, etc. But I still find myself going off track from time to time so the discipline part is the hardest of all.

    Very helpful to read that I’m doing a lot of the right things but need to stay focused on the discipline.



  5. These are some great tips!
    What also works for me is to have my daily goals written up large on my wall, amongst drawings, photos and other inspiration. That way my attention is always drawn towards it and It’s surrounded by things that keep me energized.

  6. These are definitely great tips. I like the idea of using blocks to divide tasks by type. Even as a college student (or maybe because I am), I find myself shifting from doing homework, to reading ahead for class, then remembering to send an email to a professor or organization member and on and on. Add on scholarship and job searching and time seems to fly by without much getting done in terms of the “intentions and priorities” that Amber mentions.

    Without the ability to do use a 13th tip – delegating simple tasks that are not strenuous, but are time consuming to an extent – I do not know what I would do. Whether it’s getting help from a group member to compile gathered information into a PowerPoint, or using something like to delgate something basic (for instance, Internet research), having the option to “outsource” lower priorities to free up more time to the important stuff helps improve productivity as well.

  7. Taking a bigger picture view, I also have a weekly routine. Example, right now I do snow sports on Sat-Sun, so I started panicking about trying to complete housecleaning, laundry etc on weeknights. Now I have a “Monday morning” list with all that stuff and I don’t allow myself to feel guilty about taking care of personal things, plus paying bills, researching a new microwave, downloading iTunes etc. I try to not do anything with email unless it’s critical, and sometimes allow myself up til noon to knock off all this stuff. You had some additional ideas I’m going to adopt also. THX

    • That’s a good point, Patricia. I think we have a tendency to feel like we have to do things the “traditional way,” and sometimes that just won’t work for our given situation. Allowing ourselves permission to do things our own way is really liberating. Congrats on making time for yourself and your hobbies and passions! The dishes can wait.

  8. I agree with Judith that it’s a very “‘print-out-in-an-attractive-font-and-stick-it-to-your-desk’ idea” — I’ve been trying to decide whether to print it out, myself! I’ve had it open in my browser since yesterday…

    Some things I already do. I live from lists, though I’m not diligent about making a new to-do list every day. I also have a pretty good bed-time routine: I don’t use the computer for the last couple hours of the day, and I read some before going to sleep (whether it’s a few paragraphs or a few chapters). But those are such good, key points to focus on when trying to be productive. Thanks!

  9. Thanks for the Suggestions. great Stuff. A little Unrealistic. more like a steady hope and goal to shoot for. 2-3 hours before bed is only a couyple hours after work. Maybe its just me but lA living is jammed packed. 2 hrs for myself is tuff to find on weekdays.

  10. judith parker

    Ditto! It’s going to be one of those “print-out-in-an-attractive-font-and-stick-it-to-your-desk” ideas :-)
    Your writing style is so straight and non-judgmental! Itself an inspiration.

    • Well, thank you, Judith. I really appreciate that compliment. You know, I’ve gotten to where I really see almost all things in shades of gray, which has allowed that non-judgmental side to the writing. I realize there are so many different experiences and circumstances that make us do things a certain way. I just want to put out the information, as it works for me, and people can take whatever parts will help them in their situation. I’m glad to hear that it’s coming across that way.

      Oh, and I’m so flattered to have an article of mine adorn your wall! Pick a pretty font!

  11. My cross to bear is email – it’s just soooo easy to get sucked into other people’s problems. Next thing I know, I’ve spend an hour composing just the right response.

    Got to train myself to either have one-word responses (yes, know, wait, etc) to email requests or to simply use the phone.

    Putting a time limit on an activity – and sticking to it – is a great idea.


    • I definitely agree, Hiram, and another trick to the email problem is canned responses (Gmail has a great Labs feature for this). It helps tremendously when spouting off the twenty or so regular responses to email requests that I have to make.

      Lately, especially, I’ve been trying to really enforce the time blocks. It’s the only way for me to guarantee big rocks get moved.

      Good luck!

  12. These tips might not be new for some but I did find some golden nuggets and I have to agree that we sometimes need to be reminded of how we are going the wrong way with the way we work.

    I will start setting my working hours in blocks from today onwards and I can’t wait to see the impact that it will bring.

    Thanks for the blog post, Amber.

  13. Excellent advice. Also consistent with Pam Kristan’s new book Awakening in Time about spiritually-enriched, sustainable time management. We hosted a retreat with her in January and participated in some of the workshops and are having our most productive first quarter ever…our Best Year Yet!

    Good ideas tend to pop up like grass in spring when the time is right for us to recognize them. Keep writing, Amber!

  14. I’ve been practicing the blocking of tasks strategy to complete projects like scripts. It’s all about time management.

    What I have to be reminded of is to not check email so much, it’s a major time waster. Also discreet times for morning workout – yes.