Tips and tools for super simple productivity and effectiveness
We all want to be more productive. Since adding time to the day is impossible, we try to squeeze more out of ourselves each day in ways that are honestly pretty terrible for our bodies (and believe it or not our productivity too). Many of us have pulled all-nighters once or twice, grabbed coffee at 2pm to get over the midday hump, taken a power nap that turns into a power slumber, or done other things to try and get more out of ourselves. But these methods are neither sustainable nor enjoyable (except maybe napping).
Instead, I have found other ways to become more productive to the point where you won’t need a traditional 8 hour day to feel like you’re getting things done. Rather, I have found that with the right system in place - one that works for you and your style of work - as well as some powerful habits, you can actually complete more work in a 6 hour day (or shorter) than most people get done in an 8-10 hour day!
I want to share with you my routine for getting things done in the hopes that you can learn a few new tools, habits or systems that can help you accomplish more meaningful work in your day.
Part 1. Knowing your roles
The Planner and The Doer
The two roles that I believe all of us have in common: The Planner and The Doer. I borrowed this concept from a smart guy with a smart blog, Jonathan Millikin, and here is the gist
You have two roles in business: The Planner and The Doer
As The Planner you spend your time figuring out what needs to be done and by when. The Planner sets goals, develops strategies, comes up with to-do lists and milestones.
When you’re in The Planner role you are NOT doing any Doer tasks. That means no: writing, designing, phone calls, email response, any social media….none of that. You are simply creating the plan for which you will execute later.
The Doer role is where you actually get crap done! It’s where you do all of your: writing, video editing, social media posting, blog commenting, emailing, etc. The Doer does not worry about what needs to be done, that work has been taken care of by The Planner, well before The Doer sits down ready to get going. The Doer’s main concern is clearing the to-do lists that are set up for him/her to knock out.
*It’s important that you minimize jumping back and forth between roles while you’re trying to get stuff done, because doing so wastes time and energy, both of which should be maximized to keep you at peak productivity.
Now that we understand the two big roles that we all assume at one time or another, let’s dive into some of the tools that I use to help make my time in each role more productive.
Part 2. Planning
To-do lists: Figuring out WHAT needs to be done
My old method
Before I adopted the method that I’m outlining below, I was using multiple to-do list and task/project management systems to keep track of what I needed to do in a day. Here are a few methods I used:
- TextEdit to-do lists on my Mac, filed in my business Dropbox account by date and client
- Asana to-do lists: one general list and individual lists sorted by client
- Basecamp to-do lists filed under each client
My new method
There are three types of lists that I use as The Planner:
- A Master Task List
- A Weekly Big Rocks List
- A Daily To-Do List
*If you don’t already have a solid system for taking, saving and retrieving to-do lists, I highly recommend using Evernote. I have found Evernote to be extremely useful at not only capturing information and saving it for me to check out later, but also for holding my to-do lists and for use as a simple task management system. But ultimately you have to do what works for you (leave a comment with your task management system of choice so we all can benefit).
The Master Task List
The first list I use as The Planner is a Master Task List, and it has ALL of my tasks on it. It’s called the “Master List” for a reason, and I add to it any task that needs to get done, no matter how big or small. Examples might be, “Draft email for Holiday promotion campaign for Client A” or “Send ebook to Client B for feedback”. The Master Task List is where I dump all of my tasks for sorting at a later date. (I’ll explain when I sort in a second).
Here’s what my Master Task List looks like right now.
The Weekly Big Rocks List
The second list I use is a list that has all of the big things I want to accomplish for that week I
call it my Weekly Big Rocks List. A “Big Rock” can be a single task, a project that has multiple
tasks within it, a major milestone...whatever. It doesn’t matter. It’s just something major that I
want to accomplish in the week that I am going to set aside time to make sure it’s done. Some
examples might be, “Launch Holiday promotion campaign for Client A” or “Have team meeting
about new product offering”.
Here’s what my Weekly Big Rocks List looks like right now.
The Daily To Do List
This is probably my most important list, and it’s the list of tasks that I want to complete in a day my Daily To Do List. If the other two lists are new to you, this one probably isn’t. Most of us keep to do lists in some form: sticky notes, notebooks, text files, word documents, or with tools like Asana or Trello.
Now here’s where my to do list might differ from yours I aim to have no more than 5 items on my Daily To Do
List each day. If something makes it on my Daily To Do List then I know that it’s top priority and needs to be done. I am disciplined about keeping filler tasks off of my Daily To Do List.
In the past my daily todo lists were very lengthy: I could have 20+ items on my daily list, which inevitably had a negative psychological effect on me as I would see the list and think “Dang, I have a lot to do today.” But the reality was that maybe only 25% of the items on those lists were important, the rest was just filler.
So, now when I create a Daily To Do List I only include those items that are top priority, the things that absolutely NEED to be completed that day. Otherwise they live on my Master Task List for sorting another day. Some examples of daily tasks might be, “Build out Client C engine framework” or “Send Client D MOFU offer to Julia”.
Here’s what my Daily ToDo List looks like right now.
Calendars: Figuring out WHEN to do it
Now that we have all of our monthly, weekly and daily tasks down on lists, the next step for me as The Planner is to figure out when I’m going to do all of this stuff. Here is where I use my calendars to create what are called “Time Blocks”, which are chunks of time in a day when I will focus on a single task or group of tasks. I borrowed the concept of time blocking from the manual of effectiveness The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. I recommend you check out this book if you have not already!
Time blocking is a simple and a super valuable method that I use to help me get stuff done in a more effective way. The idea is to map your Daily To Do List onto a daily calendar, so you know exactly when you’ll be starting and finishing each task. To begin, first consult your Daily To Do List and estimate how much time each item might take. Give yourself some extra time because things generally take longer than you think. I normally break my tasks into 30 minute chunks, so 30-60-90 is generally what you’ll see on my time block.
This is what a single block of time looks like in my calendar time block.
Next, open up your calendar app or pull out your daily planner. We’re going to put those tasks down in your calendar at the start and end time that works best for you. I personally like to get all of my daily tasks done in the morning, so I’m going to start my time block at 7am. Do whatever works for you. Fill in your time block for the day with the tasks from your Daily To Do List.
And now, here’s where my calendar might differ from yours. I not only time block my work tasks (time management), but I also time block the personal things that I want to make sure I carve out time to do each day (energy management). Examples of this might be, “Take the dogs to the dog park - 60 minutes” or “Yoga - 120 minutes” or “Lunch with Mom - 90 minutes”. I use the time block method to schedule all of my big priorities for the day, and for me that means all of those non-work things that I value deeply. These non-work things energize me, they bring me joy and peace and I use them as performance boosts throughout my day.
When to do all of this planning
I plan my schedule at three distinct times:
- At night - planning my tasks for the next day
- On Sundays - planning my big rocks for the upcoming week
- At the end of the month - planning my goals for the next month
At the end of each business day (or at the very beginning of the day, depending on if I was lazy the night before), I’ll spend time creating my Daily To-Do List for the next day.
On the weekends I spend time planning out my next week. I’ll first go through my emails and add any new tasks to my Master Talk List. Then I’ll look at my master list and decide what things are “Big Rock” worthy. I’ll create my Weekly Big Rock List, and from there I have a good grasp on what I want to accomplish in the week.
And roughly once a month I will take a 10,000 ft view of my overall goals to make sure that I’m on track to hit my milestones and that I’m keeping pace with everything I want to accomplish.
*BONUS: I also keep a dry erase board next to my desk that shows the status of all of my clients. Next to each client’s name is a “Current” box and a “Next Step” box, and those boxes are filled in with the appropriate info. So anytime at a glance I’m able to see where each of my clients is right now and what’s coming up next. I spend time on the weekends setting this up, and periodically through the week I will update it.
So once you have your time block complete with the work and non-work tasks for your day, the next step is to get stuff done! There are a few tools that I use as well which I am going to share next.
Part 3. Execution
How to gets things done in less than 8 hours a day
So by this point you have created your lists and scheduled your tasks on your calendar. It’s now time to switch hat’s and step into your role as The Doer.
*Remember, The Doer’s main objective is to complete the task list that was created by The Planner. So when you’re in Doer mode you want to make sure that you’re in the best environment for getting stuff done.
The right environment can make all the difference
For me that means being in my home office, with a jazz record on, some incense burning and my phone on silent and my email application turned off. I have found that I can hit my flow state only when I am free of distractions and am able to consciously dive into the task at hand. My phone and email are the biggest enemies to this, so I make an effort to turn them off completely when I’m wearing The Doer hat. Depending on your job this may or may not be possible, but I encourage you to rid yourself of distractions while tackling time block items, it will help you move powerfully through your tasks.
Eat your frogs first
One of the best lessons I learned in getting stuff done, was to complete your toughest task FIRST. We tend to push off our tough tasks to the end, and then move them until tomorrow, and then until the end of the week - until finally the deadline is upon us and we’re scrambling to get it done. Cut that crap out!!
Be a grownup and handle your toughest assignments first. It’s Habit #1 in Covey’s 7 Habits (“Be Proactive”), and it takes the top spot for a reason. So start off your day by completing the biggest task on your list and you’ll not only be working in a more proactive manner, but you’ll also free yourself up to apply your energy towards other things during the day.
Time tracking tools
One of the best tools that I’ve found to help me get things done in the allotted time, has been a simple stopwatch application -- Toggl. I use Toggl to keep track of how long that I spend on any particular task. I can start and stop the timer at will, and I can easily see how long a multi-part task is taking me
The benefits of using Toggle for me are two fold:
- By tracking the time I’m spending on a task I can make sure that I’m sticking to the amount of time I’ve blocked off for the task at hand (am I keeping to my timeblock?)
- The psychological impact of knowing that I am being timed keeps me on task more effectively than if the clock was not ticking (am I staying on task and ignoring distractions?
This second benefit, for me, is the greatest because I have a huge problem with “going down rabbit holes”. These are the tiny distractions that lead to another tiny distractions that, before you know it, have you so far off course from the task you were working on that you forget the objective in the first place. I am super guilty of this, BUT using Toggl to track my time has proven to keep me on task when the clock is running. It’s probably the biggest contributor to higher time efficiency that I have found.
Working no more than 90 minutes at a time
The other “tool” that I use to keep myself on track is to not work for any longer than 90 minutes at a time. I have found that I can sit down and focus for about 90 minutes before my brain turns to goop. So, knowing this, I don’t give myself more than 90 minutes of work, ever. I’ll break up 90 minute chunks with some exercise, a walk to the dog park with my dogs, some meditation, or maybe an episode of Buffy.
Keeping a 90 minute limit relates to time blocking, but it helps me to get more done when I don’t expect myself to sit down and work straight through the day. Because of this, a typical work day for me does not always fit in between the hours of 9am - 5pm. I’ll start work really early in the morning, and might still be on the computer late at night. But the benefit is that when I stick to my routine I can typically knock out all of my daily tasks by 12 noon, and any other time after that is spent getting ahead. My night work time is all for personal projects, which means that I’m making time each day to exercise my passions.
It’s incredible just how much you can complete in a single day if you are intentional about managing your time and your energy.
Conclusion: becoming more productive and more effective is all about HABIT
And that’s really it. My system includes habits for figuring out what needs to be done and when, scheduling time to do these things, not forgetting the non-work items that are equally important to me, rolling up my sleeves and checking off items on my list, and enjoying it all in the process : )
For all of you blog article skimmers out there, here is a recap of all of the major points from this article so you can soak up all the good stuff and continue on your way.
Part 4. The Recap
Everything You Need To Know From This Article Condensed Into A Few Bullet Points
Here’s all the juicy stuff for those people who don’t want to read all of the way through.
I. Know your roles
- The Planner - figures out what needs to be done and by when
- The Doer - gets everything done on time and well
II. Tools of The Planner
- Master Task List - contains ALL of the tasks, projects, items that you are responsible for completing
- Weekly Big Rocks List - contains all of the top priority items that you want to get done in a particular week
- Daily To-Do List - contains the top 3-5 tasks that you must complete in a day
- Use the time blocking method to schedule your days and weeks (don’t forget to time block important non-work items as well!)
- If a task takes more than 90 minutes, give yourself some sort of break to replenish your energy and focus
- If it’s not on the calendar it does not exist!
- Planning time
- Spend time each night to create your To-Do list for the next day
- Spend time each weekend to create your Weekly Big Rocks list for the next week
- Spend time each month reviewing your major objectives to make sure you’re on track to meet your goals
III. Tools of The Doer
- A distraction free environment
- Time tracking software, like Toggl, to ensure you’re sticking to the time allotted in your time block, and to subconsciously keep you on task because you know you’re being tracked
- Energy breaks every 90 minute
Is that it?!
Yes and no. I am always looking for more ways to improve my productivity and maintain a healthy, balanced lifestyle. So there really is no final destination. What works for me today may not work next month. And similarly, what works for me may not work for you. That’s why I encourage you to try on a few of these methods, see if they fit you, and if not toss them to the side. There is no “one ultimate solution” for productivity, efficiency, or for finding meaning in your work. You have to figure out what works best for you, and to do that you need to try new things.
If you have any tools, methods, habits, or systems that you use to impact your productivity, effectiveness or overall well-being while at work, please share them in the comments below. This is an ongoing conversation and we want to gather a wealth of great information to help others get more meaning out of their work days. So don’t be afraid to share!
What does it look like when a marketing company adopts a culture of productivity, personal growth and BALANCE?
At 98toGo, we believe that in order to do great work our people must be in their power more times throughout the day. Our culture has grown around this concept, and has become one of BALANCE, Health and Wealth. What the heck does all of this mean and how does it translate into great results for our clients?? Grab a free copy of our ebook “A BALANCED Partnership With 98toGo” and find out!