Staying productive is one of those skills no one teaches you in school but you have to learn. It’s especially important if you’re self-employed or a telecommuter because you usually find yourself performing many different jobs, each with their own set of tasks, during the course of a single day. It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you can’t organize information well enough to take it in. And it doesn’t matter how skilled you are if procrastination keeps you from getting your work done.
Many of us are prey to time-wasters that steal time we could be using much more productively. What are your time-bandits? Do you spend too much time ‘Web surfing, reading email, or doing personal stuff? Twittering?
Here are 10 tips that can help you increase your productivity and stay calm, cool and collected:
- Make it easy to get started. Often we don’t have issues with finishing projects, we have issues starting them. I try to break own my projects into what Sark calls Micro-Movements, small nuggets of action toward the completion of a goal, so I am not overwhelmed by them.
- Do the most important thing first. When I sit down at my desk in the morning, before I check e-mail, I work for an hour on the most important thing on my to-do list. I got this idea from Gina Trapani of Lifehacker. What I found was that even if I don’t get the whole thing done in an hour, I usually to go back to it once I’ve started it.
- Prioritize and organize the night before. I have also found doing the most important thing first thing in the morning works best if I prioritize and organize the night before so when I sit down at my desk in the morning I know what my most important task of the day is. Some people do this as soon as they are done with work for the day. I generally take 20 to 30 minutes before bedtime to prioritize my To-Do list, check my calendar for events I need to attend or appointments I need to go to.
- Check your email on a schedule. It’s just not time effective to read and answer every email as it arrives. Just because someone can contact you immediately doesn’t mean that you have to respond to them immediately. Check your e-mail on a schedule and prioritize the responses. During work hours, my clients’ e-mail tend to get priority. After business hours, other people and things get my attention first. Most people want a predictable response, not an immediate one so as long as people know how long to expect an answer to take, and they know how to reach you in an emergency, you can answer most types of email just a few times a day.
- Don’t leave email sitting in your inbox. The capability to quickly process information and transform it into action is one of the most emergent skills a self-employed professional can have. I organize email in file folders and use G-mail to archive all my important e-mails. If the message needsmore thought, I move it to my to-do list; if it’s for reference or to read , I either print it out or save the URL and add it to my To-Do list; if it’s a meeting or an appointment, I move it to my calendar . Take action on an email as soon as you read it.
- Keep web site addresses organized. You can use book marking services like del.icio.us or StumbleUpon to keep track of web sites. Instead of having random notes about places you want to check out, places you want to keep as a reference, etc., you can save them all in one place, and you can search and share your list easily. If you use Firefox, you can also use their handy tool bar to create links to the sites you use most often either with a button or using bookmarks.
- Know when you work best. Because I telecommunute, I can pretty much work any time of day or night. But I try to schedule things so that I work on the most important things between the hours of 11AM and 3PM when I am the most productive. I also often work in the evening after dinner for a few hours, depending on my energy level. Everybody has a “best time”. You can figure out yours by monitoring your productivity over a period of time. Then manage your schedule to keep your best time free for your most important work.
- Don’t waste time waiting. From client meetings to waiting for a bus, it’s impossible to avoid waiting for someone or something. But I don’t just sit there and twiddle my thumbs. I always have something with me to do such as something I need to read, a phone call that needs to made, or a small bound book in which I write new tasks, make notes or organize work for the following day. Technology also makes it easy to work wherever you are too; your cell phone, laptop or netbook will help you stay connected.
- Organize your to-do list every day. If you don’t know what you should be doing, how can you manage your time to do it? Some people like writing this list out by hand because it shows commitment to each item if you are willing to rewrite it each day until it gets done. Other people like software that can slice and dice their To-Do list into manageable, relevant clusters. For example, I use Tasktoy because it shows me only my tasks for a specific client or project and I can access it from anywhere as long as I have Internet access. It’s also free. You can get Tasktoy here. I use both methods. I flesh out my tasks by hand and then add them to Tasktoy.
- It’s okay to be a little pokey. Remember that a productive manager actually responds to some things more slowly. For example, someone who is doing the highest priority task is probably not answering incoming email while they’re doing it. Typically in any day, there are more than a few tasks more important than processing email. Intuitively, we all know this. What we need to do now is recognize that processing work (evaluating what’s come in, what’s going out and how to handle it) and planning work are also critical tasks.
No matter how organized we are, there are still always only 24 hours in a day. Time doesn’t change. All we can actually do is manage ourselves and what we do with the time that we have.