Learn five ways to increase productivity and create effective and efficient habits so you can get more done in less time and stop working nights and weekends.
Every time I attend a conference I get asked, “How do you get so much done?”
People want to know how I write for various blogs and websites, create a run program and courses, host workshops, manage my family, deliver webinars, co-organize the Sacramento WordPress Meetup and WordCamp Sacramento, travel regularly for work and pleasure, and get all of my regular client work done.
I’m not superhuman. I don’t have any special abilities that you don’t have. I definitely don’t have any more hours in the day. I don’t stay up all night or sleep only a few hours (anymore). And no, I don’t have a clone.
I am simply ruthless with my time and focus during the workday.
But it wasn’t always this way…
Building Productivity Habits
Early in my journey as a freelance business owner, I was a productivity mess. I got a TON done, but to do so, I worked 16-18 hour days and almost all weekend every weekend.
- I was constantly multitasking, so everything took longer than it should.
- I felt like I couldn’t take breaks to rest, relax, recharge, and refuel.
- I was exhausted, so I wasn’t as creative as I could be.
- I was distracted and allowed interruptions and other people’s needs to come before my own, which in turn, caused procrastination and stress.
Eventually, I reached a point of complete burnout and I knew my daily habits needed to change. I needed to be more productive during the workday, so I could reclaim my nights and weekends. I also needed to reduce my stress level and eliminate feelings of overwhelm, so I could be more creative and find more joy in my work.
The productivity changes I implemented included:
- Eliminating Interruptions and Distractions
- Implementing Time Batching
- Keeping To-Do Lists Achievable
- Responding To Voicemail And Email Within 24 Hours
- Wrapping Up One Day And Planning The Next
1. Eliminate Interruptions and Distractions
Studies show that each time you get distracted during the workday, it takes 15 minutes to regain concentration and focus. Allowing interruptions to distract you throughout the workday means your work and mindset are suffering, you are less effective and less productive, and your time is spent reacting to distractions instead of getting things done.
The biggest productivity killers and time wasters are the distractions you don’t see as distractions. The small distractions that over time, take hours and hours of your focus away from important tasks and add up to big wastes of time.
The easiest way to give your productivity a boost is to eliminate these distractions and interruptions by:
- Closing and/or logging out of all social media during the workday. I simply do not open any social media sites while working and usually limit my time using social media to my iPhone only, while Brian stays logged out of social media on his work machine to stay focused.
- Turning off the television. Tasks that normally take 30 minutes often stretch into a 60-minute task when trying to get it done and watch TV at the same time.
- Closing your email completely. Don’t just minimize your email, close it completely and keep it closed until the task at hand is complete. If possible, only check email at specified intervals during the day to avoid constant focus interruptions. Trust me, the world isn’t going to end if you don’t check email for two hours.
- Turning off the telephone ringer. During dedicated get-it-done time blocks, while working on projects requiring intense focus, or when up against a deadline, turn off the ringer — just remember to check your voicemail as soon as the task is done.
- Leaving your smartphone in another room. To avoid being distracted by text messages, social media notifications, and phone calls, I put my iPhone on silent and leave it in the kitchen while I am working. When I take breaks and stop for lunch, I check my phone for anything important and return any phone calls before beginning the next task.
- Listening to instrumental music. I listen to different music based on the tasks I have to get done. Sometimes it’s high-energy dance and pop music and sometimes it’s the Grateful Dead because I can sing along to all of it. But when I’m working on a task that requires high levels of creativity, focus, and productivity, instrumental music keeps me focused and headphones keep out distractions.
2. Implement Time Batching
Many people confuse time blocking and time batching.
Time blocking is the act of blocking out specific amounts of time for specific tasks. Scheduling blog post writing from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm on Wednesday is an example of time blocking. Unfortunately, time blocking doesn’t usually work for me — I have to be feeling the project to sit down and work on the design and I have to be in a writing mood to write blog posts or create content. Forcing it, when I’m not in the mood or feeling creative, just makes the task take longer than it otherwise would.
Instead, I embrace time batching.
Time batching is the act of batching or grouping similar tasks together and getting them all done at the same time. Grouping several writing tasks together to do one after another in the same sitting, completing the design revisions for all open projects in one afternoon, or doing all errands in one part of the city at the same time are examples of time batching.
The idea behind time batching is that by grouping similar tasks together, you increase concentration, creativity, focus, and productivity while decreasing distraction, interruption, stress, and fatigue. The key is to take a break to recharge and walk around before jumping into the next batch of to-dos.
Here’s how time batching works for me:
- I group similar tasks together, like design, copywriting, admin to-dos, phone calls, errands, meetings, and strategic planning.
- I set aside a specific amount of time and get all tasks in a group done at one time — once in a groove, it’s easy to keep going and similar tasks done.
- I let anyone I am working directly with know that for the next X hours, I will be busy and don’t want any interruptions.
- I take a break after each batch of tasks to walk around, stretch my legs, get a snack, refill my water bottle, check my voicemail and email, and get my mind refocused on the next set of tasks.
- I cram everything possible into the hours of 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday, so I can truly relax and recharge in the evenings and on the weekends. Having this time away from my work reduces fatigue and creative drain, so it actually makes my work better.
3. Keep To-Do Lists Achievable
If we’re really honest with ourselves, our to-do lists are never-ending. We won’t one day magically finish everything on our to-do list and have nothing to do. Instead, as we finish and check off completed items, more items get added — and sometimes items get added faster than they get completed and the list gets longer and longer.
For most people, a to-do list that is growing with new tasks faster than the existing tasks can be completed leads to massive feelings of overwhelm and stress. This leads to frustration, exhaustion, sleepless nights, and burn out. I know this intimately because I’ve been there, done that, suffered through it, and changed my habits for the better.
Here’s what I did to eliminate stress and keep to-do lists manageable:
- I stopped using one massive to-do list with everything I have ever needed or wanted to get done on it. That list never got smaller and every time I looked at it, I felt stressed and I felt like I was failing and not working hard enough. Instead, I created separate master to-do lists for client work, internal company work, home life, and personal projects.
- I broke each master to-do list into time-sensitive tasks and non-time-sensitive tasks.
- Using my master to-do lists as a guide, I now create a single to-do list for each day that only contains the exact tasks that need to be completed that day — and I make sure the entire to-do list is achievable so I can throw it away at the end of the day. Success!
- On my daily to-do list, I try to include only one major time-consuming project that requires intense focus. This helps avoid my creativity being drained, prevents feelings of fatigue, and in turn, keeps my productivity high for the rest of my work that day.
- I also make sure that I don’t schedule every hour of the workday. My daily to-do list accounts for 5-6 hours of work, leaving time for the unexpected items that seem to always show up.
4. Respond To Voicemail And Email Within 24 Hours
There is nothing worse than leaving a voicemail, sending a text, or sending an email and not receiving a response. The frustration magnifies tenfold when it’s a paying client getting put on ice and not getting a response from a service provider.
I know that you probably get an insane amount of email and sifting through it can be time-consuming. I also know that you don’t always have time to make long phone calls, and sometimes you don’t see text messages, but following up is critical to your success and the happiness of your clients.
The first step is organizing email so nearly all inbound messages are moved out of your inbox automatically, leaving only those from paying clients.
You can do this by creating folders for specific types of emails. Some of my folders include:
- Brian Folder: All emails from Brian
- Travel Folder: All emails related to travel for conferences, events, and vacations
- Personal Folder: All things for me personally
- Kids & Family Folder: All emails from family, friends, teachers, school, and sports
- Social Media Folder: All emails from social media platforms
- Retail Store Folder: All emails from retail stores and coupons
- Courses Folder: All emails from courses I have signed up for
- Newsletter Folder: All email newsletters I subscribe to
- Bourn Creative Folder: All emails specific to Bourn Creative as a company
- WordPress Folder: All emails about the Sacramento WordPress Meetup, and WordCamps
With this approach, inbound email is routed to specific folders that can be reviewed at your convenience. This ensures the messages that enter your inbox are only from clients — with a few random emails. Triage these messages and delete, delegate, or respond to them right away.
For voicemail, texts, and email, try to reply within 24 hours.
Certain contracts may stipulate a faster response time but in general, no matter how busy you are, paying clients should receive a response within 24 hours, even if it is only to say that you received their message, you’re on it, and you’ll get back to them later.
Most clients don’t expect you to drop everything every time they send an email or call you, but they do want to be acknowledged and feel heard. They want to know you care and that you’ll get back to them.
5. Wrap Up One Day And Plan The Next
For years, as soon as I finished the last item that needed to get done, I’d save everything, close out all open programs, and walk out of my office. I’d then run through the items still left on my to-do list in my head and throughout the evening, worrying about what I didn’t get done and what I needed to do the next day. I had a hard time falling asleep at night and often tossed and turned due to stress from an unmanageable to-do list with no plan of attack.
Everything changed when I created new habits that put “next day” action plans in place.
The shift began with scheduling in a “conclusion period” at the end of every workday.
Just as every article, report, white paper, book, movie, or play has a conclusion, your workday needs a conclusion too. This is a block of time set aside at the very end of the day to close out everything in progress, assess how the day went and what got done and what didn’t, clean up your office space and desk, and prepare for the next day.
- Adding a dedicated wrap-up period to the end of the workday eliminates the stress that comes from too many to-dos and no plan of attack.
- This time allows you to relax and detach from your business and client work in the evenings and on weekends, and to sleep more soundly because you know exactly where you are at with all current projects and deadlines.
- This approach also reduces overwhelm during the day because you already know exactly what you have to get done that day.
Focus Is The Key
How many times have you sat down at your desk to get something specific done, only to be derailed by email, phone calls, meetings, Slack, Skype, texts, or social media, and find yourself in the same place you were at the start of the day at the end of the day?
It’s easy to let interruptions and distractions dictate your focus and activities, and if you do, you end up letting other people’s priorities take over your workday and get in the way of important work and commitments.
Eliminating all interruptions and distractions is critical to improving productivity. You must be ruthless with your focus and attention.
- Leave your phone in another room, put on noise-canceling headphones, ask colleagues to leave you alone for a set time period, close Slack, close social media, and close email to stay focused.
- Batch similar tasks together to get more done faster.
- Keep your to-do lists achievable to create feelings of success and accomplishment.
- Plan specific times to check your email during the day instead of leaving it open all day. Respond to emails, texts, and voicemails within 24-hours.
- Set aside time to wrap up the day and plan for the next day.
Creating new productivity habits can be tough — especially when it means closing email, Slack, and social media — but when you’re ruthless with your focus and attention, you’ll get more done than almost everyone else you know… and who knows, you may get so much done you can take an extra day off!
And, if you need a bit of help making it happen, check out my Proactive Productivity Mini Course where I share all of my best productivity strategies, tips, tools, and tactics.