Do you sometimes feel stuck, stressed, or like you’re not making enough progress despite your best efforts? As we progress in our roles, we often take on new, greater responsibilities. Yet, we don’t always adjust our personal processes to keep up with the workload. It’s important to regularly pause and reflect on improving personal productivity. How are you getting your work done? Can you adjust your approach to work itself to increase your capacity, rather than just hustle to get things checked off your to-do list?
Ask yourself the four questions below to reduce the number of times you feel overwhelmed. Even better, create a regular practice of going through these questions every morning, every week, or at moments of uncertainty or overload.
Q1. Do I know what I should be doing right now?
Having a list of tasks and checking them off does not necessarily mean you are working on the highest priorities. It’s important to see the full picture of your workload and be familiar with the drivers that determine priority. Managers should provide employees with enough guidance and information to understand what they need to do and in what order. This does not mean that managers should lay out the exact plans, but rather they should communicate frequently with their staffers about the thinking that underlies the work and share deadlines or other time constraints. With this understanding, you can continually re-prioritize based on the goals and current context.
Maintain an updated and organized to-do list to keep tasks and projects manageable. This will help you remember the full picture of what’s on your plate so you can re-prioritize as needed. Priorities can be set externally (e.g. a deadline), by context (e.g. I only have 10 minutes), and by other factors. However your priorities settle, being able to quickly identify them minimizes the time you spend figuring out what to do so you can actually get important work done. Consider using a digital task manager like Wunderlist or a paper task system like Bullet Journal.
Use the action priority matrix to assess your work and make the most of your time and energy. Consider the impact and effort of your tasks when prioritizing. If something has high impact and takes low effort, it’s a “quick win” which can immediately create a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and motivation to continue working. Break down high impact and high effort work into smaller, more manageable elements. Then allocate time in your schedule for them to avoid last minute stress. Minimize the time you spend doing “thankless tasks” which require high effort for a low return. Consider if these are necessary tasks, can be automated, or completed at a GETGO (good enough to go) standard. Delegate or complete “fill ins” in “found” moments in your schedule, such as when something else takes less time than you thought.
Q2. Do I have the resources to do that work right now?
Once you know what you should be doing, do you have everything you need to do it? If you’re waiting for something - materials to arrive, feedback to be provided, etc - it’s hard to get things done. When you plan your week or day, consider all resources including your time, co-workers, and other moving pieces.
Plan the flow of work to minimize bottlenecks and roadblocks. When your tasks are dependent on someone else, anticipate delays and plan accordingly. Include the waiting period in your task list and send reminders to help minimize the chances that others will be late in getting work back to you. Whether it’s the competing priorities of your colleagues and managers, or back and forth discussion, it’s better to plan your workflow to accommodate delays rather than be stuck scrambling at the last minute.
Protect your time. This can be hard when you’re expected to attend meetings that waste your time. Developing relationships where you can respectfully decline a meeting invite or let a colleague know that now is not a good time for a social chat will help you maintain control over your time.
Good enough is the goal, not perfection. Another way to protect your time is to allot a reasonable amount and work towards GETGO. It’s easy to get sucked into a piece of work and spend twice as long on it as you should. Ask yourself, must it be completed perfectly? Should it take 30 minutes or 3 hours - and what is appropriate? Once you have a sense of how long it “should” take, timeblock your calendar so you have a time and place to get that work done.
Q3. Do I have the capabilities to do that work right now?
You may have all the necessary resources, but lack the skills, competencies or experience to get the job done in an efficient manner. Building your capabilities so that you can increase the quality of your work while decreasing the time to get it done will also lead to improving personal productivity.Strategies to build capability:
Ask questions and seek out mentors, courses, or articles to support you. Find the balance between asking for help and accelerating your own independent learning. There are many online resources to help you build skills and competencies. For example, Lynda.com provides e-learning courses on technical and business skills. Check if your organization provides learning opportunities or will sponsor its employees to take classes elsewhere. Remember that spending an hour to improve or learn a new skill, tool or process can often save you many hours down the road.
Take a break and assess your mental state. Sometimes you may find that it’s not a matter of skill that’s keeping you from moving forward - it’s that your brain is running low. Take a break, take a walk, or plan to get more sleep so you can do better work faster. Pay attention to your mental states throughout the day. You may find that you are more productive with big project work first thing in the morning or you are better at detailed work right after lunch.
Q4. Do I have the motivation to do that work right now?
Humans are not machines. We need to be motivated to do our work and to do it well. The motivation may develop from internal or external factors, but if we don’t have something driving us to action, we will distract ourselves, self-interrupt, or just plain waste time. Some people find that just completing the work is reward itself. Others find satisfaction in the moment of checking it off a list. Yet many prefer external motivating factors, such as project deadlines or the expectations of bosses and colleagues to push us to action.
Reward substitution, or, bribe yourself. It worked for us as kids so why not as adults? Whether you establish a regular practice or change it up, decide how you’ll celebrate your accomplishment and use that as motivation to get the work done. Be sure to match the reward to the work appropriately. If you send one important email, that may earn you a chocolate chip (my reward of choice!). If you spend an hour writing a blog post, that may earn you a 5 minute walk outside to clear your head.
Shift your perspective to focus on your goals and expectations. When meeting the expectations of bosses and colleagues turns into fear or anxiety about disappointing them, that becomes a problem. Shift your thinking to what you can gain from working on a task in the context of your own goals. Will this help you develop a new skill, move your career forward, or set a personal record for tasks completed in a day?
Improving Personal Productivity is Ongoing
Whether it’s for work or personal goals, regularly pausing and asking these four questions can propel us from a place of stress to one of positivity and forward movement.
What questions do you ask for improving personal productivity?