Productivity put simple. This is a guest post by Dimitri Uralov, a Barcelona based entrepreneur and financial coach.
When Conor offered me the chance to write a post on time management for this blog, we laughed as I commented that most people would probably find the truth about productivity too simple.
I am interested in time management. I spend a lot of time reading books on the topic, testing new systems and methods and trying the latest software. Invariably, I always come back to the same simple principle that has been guiding my productive life for the last several years.
Here it is. Productivity boils down to one simple thing: your capacity to do the most important, and only the most important, and to stick with it until it’s done. Time management tools and strategies are useful, but always secondary.
Our time is limited and we will never accomplish everything that we and others put on our plate. The only question is whether what we choose to do takes us closer to our goals and allows us to make a difference or not.
The only thing you need to know about time management.
I can only really accomplish what really matters if I spend most of my time working on the most important tasks. If I’m doing something else, no matter what I choose to do (and what software or system I’m using for it), it will relatively be a waste. (Conor has a good post that distinguishes great work vs bad work).
What are these most important things? I don’t think you need help with answering this question. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using the Eisenhower matrix, the ABC method of setting priorities or simply your gut feel. We all happen to know what our most important tasks are.
The real problem is that these most important tasks are usually the most difficult and least “attractive” items on our agenda. They require time, effort and getting out of our comfort zone. So, humans as we are, we consciously or unconsciously choose to keep ourselves busy with other less important yet so much easier stuff.
I remember the first time I realized how powerful this “just-do-the-most-important” principle was. About two years ago, when I was working in a family office, my boss had a conversation with me. He was kind but honest. He complained about my productivity. He said it took me too much time to finish important projects. He didn’t know what I was doing, but he knew he didn’t like the results.
That came quite unexpected for me. At that time I considered myself to be a very good worker. I was always busy doing things. I was staying late to do more. I had my to-do lists all over the place. I would answer all e-mails and return all telephone calls quickly. I was up-to-date with everything happening on the markets. I was available and ready to help others. However, my boss felt that I was not achieving much.
So I decided to reassess the way I was working. I tracked my time and took records of my activities. Soon it became very obvious that most of my day was spent on unimportant stuff, such as answering e-mails or reading investment articles. Meanwhile, the important stuff was sitting on my desk and in my to-do lists, waiting to be dealt with.
Eat that Frog.
Having realized I was always postponing the most important, I made a strong decision to change my working habits. Every morning I would arrive to the office, make a list using the ABC method, and then go directly to my most important task, the A1, resolving to do nothing else until it was completed. I would then go to A2, then A3 and so on.
As I adopted this simple productivity rule, my results changed completely. Difficult projects and tasks that used to take weeks were now done in days. I felt more energetic and motivated. For the first time I would have moments when all items on my to-do list were ticked. Eventually I would accomplish most of the tasks for the week in only 3 or 4 hours on Monday morning. The change was so amazing, that I even started to share my insights with other people.
Today, as an entrepreneur, the productivity issue has become more important than ever for me. To be honest, I sometimes find it quite difficult to control myself and keep focused. If there’s something good in having a boss, it is that you have someone who can warn you when your productivity has gone low.
Therefore, whenever I feel stuck among all the things I have to do, I go back to the same simple principle that has proved to work so well – I start doing the important things, and only the important things.
I grab a sheet of paper and write down my two or three most important tasks for the day. Yes, those that are usually also the most difficult and uncomfortable. I allow myself to forget about everything else, and then I focus on getting these two-three things done.
Once you eat a frog, nothing worse can happen in the day.
Sometimes it takes me the whole day to accomplish just one of these tasks. But I’ve discovered that I don’t really feel bad about it. I feel calm, concentrated and productive. I’m doing the right thing, the one that matters most. It is the best use of my time, and there’s nothing that can be compared to that feeling of fulfillment when it’s finally done.
I’ve also discovered that every time I concentrate my effort on the most important, the unimportant stuff takes care of itself. Problems solve themselves in my absence. I get less e-mail in my inbox. The phone is silent. Life flows.
And usually, if I manage to keep myself focused and avoid distractions, I end up doing much more than I would expect. It seems that things do not always take as much time as we think, especially those that initially look so big and difficult.
Therefore, the next time you feel tempted to test the next revolutionary time management system, think again whether you really need to overcomplicate it. Get back to the basics and ask yourself a simple question:
Are you inventing things to do to avoid doing the important and only the important? (A good reminder from Brian Tracy)
I recognize that even when we know what we have to do, it is not always easy to stay focused and avoid distractions. I personally find it to be the most difficult part of the “art of productivity”. For that reason, in my next post I will share some of the tips that have proven most effective for me.
In the meanwhile, could you share your experience and insights on simple productivity in the comments? What do you do to manage your time better?