Do you keep chasing a growing to-do list? Always playing catch up and putting out fires? Procrastinating on the things that really matter? I’ve been there too. That’s why I built a system for myself to get the things that really matter done. In this post, I will walk you through the main parts of this system and how you can be more effective with your time.
Here are 9 short tips on how to be more effective plus a chance for you to download a free one-pager PDF with a concrete example of how I structure my work.
Establish your golden hour and commit to it
A few years ago I read “The 5 am club” by Robin Sharma. My philosophy in life is that most things are worth trying. However, I quickly came to the conclusion that getting up at 05:00 in the morning is not very compatible with having small kids. So I changed the concept to suit me better.
There is nothing magical about early mornings, but if you do set aside 1 hour for yourself in the morning to work on your most important things you win a lot. It will make it virtually impossible for you to procrastinate. The trick is to do it the first thing in your day. That can be at 07:00, 08:00, heck, even 10:00 if you are a night owl.
1 hour every day stacks up to a lot of time. It’s 5 hours every week, and 210 hours every year if you work only weekdays. You will start seeing your projects move forward and with that a great feeling of achievement and confidence.
This hour is great to combine with the Pomodoro technique I address a little further down in this article. It will get you moving with steady continuous progress.
Set aside time for focused and creative work to be more effective
Creative work requires dedicated time. It’s not possible to squeeze in 30 minutes between meetings or while reading your email and/or instant messengers at the same time. It just will not work and all you will do is exhaust yourself.
Bring out your calendar and book for at least 90 minutes every week. A lot more if you are not a manager or need to attend a lot of meetings. This time is holy for you. Put the timeslot at a time when your mind is rested.
This focus time is where you distinguish yourself from the others at work who seems to get nothing done, except always answering Slack or emails within minutes. You are not a hotline / first-line support, you are a knowledge worker and will get rewarded for results, not activity.
Use this time to digest and analyze large pieces of information, create important presentations, write content, and architect complex systems like organizations, workflows, processes, and code.
Have an inbox for your ideas and incoming tasks
Your brain is built to solve complex problems and be creative, not remember details and tasks like buying milk, paying bills, or sending that status report. Make sure to create a system for yourself to use your brain the right way.
Have a place where you put all your incoming tasks. Tasks can come from your partner telling you to pick up something from the store, as an idea popping up in your head about how to solve a problem, or as a suggestion to read a book from a podcast you are listening to.
The trick is to clear your head from all the small things you need to remember and train your mind to not worry about forgetting things. Because now it’s all there in your system. Later you will decide if you actually are going to do it or not.
This video on “Getting Things Done”, by Dave Allen, is inspiring even though I have tweaked the system to be more lightweight myself. Find a setup that works for you.
Scheduling Black Swan Time helps you be more effective
I used to be constantly stressed. Probably because I’m a time optimist both in the matter of how much I can accomplish in a certain period of time as well as that I don’t expect unforeseen issues to pop up during the day.
The Black Swan Time concept is a mental model you can use both for yourself as well as your team. First, we need to acknowledge the concept of forecasting called yesterdays weather. It tells us that the most likely weather tomorrow is the weather of today.
In the sense of managing your time, this means that if you have had to spend 1 hour per day putting out unforeseen fires in your organization lately the chance of you having to do so tomorrow is overwhelming. So instead of constantly being in a state of emergency why don’t you set aside 1 hour per day for these unforeseen problems, these black swans.
This Black Swan Time, as the slot is called in my calendar, is a meeting with myself that I remove the day before when I plan my next coming day. All of a sudden I then have 1 hour free not scheduled for meetings or doing planned things. Simple as that. It is a buffer that helps you not to overfill your day.
Do your admin and meetings last in the day when you have less energy
You need to be super conscious about how you spend your energy. The first step is to understand what you want to accomplish in the long term. I wrote about this in the article “What 2021 taught me about preserving energy”.
The next step is to be mindful of what things to do when during the day. There are two things to be aware of here:
- Every micro decision you make during the day drains your energy.
- Some tasks require less focus and energy to complete.
This means that generally your work capacity peaks in the morning, or when you have had an extended period of rest. Now when looking at the kind of things you do during the day it’s probably a mix of creating things, sorting through your email, and having meetings.
My suggestion is to do your admin last in the day. Things like email checking, scheduling meetings, filing expense reports, planning your to-do list for the next coming day, or folding your laundry.
What about meetings then? I’d also put them late in the day, especially if it is information meetings and check-ins. Se if you can get them done as walk-and-talks. Workshops could be argued to go earlier in the day, if they are important to you, as they require a focused effort.
When you are the most rested, usually the mornings, are your prime time. This is your most precious resource. Here you ideally schedule your Focus Time. This is when you get what matters done. Creating that presentation for the board, designing the killer product feature, or reading that complicated report and summarizing your conclusion about it.
Work in shorter sprints with active rest in between
I suggest you take a look at the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a great way to get started with tasks that seems hard to accomplish. I found it to be a great way to trick my mind to stop procrastinating. It’s based on the fact that the best way to get something done is to get started.
Let’s say you are supposed to build an important presentation from scratch to be presented to the board of your company. A complicated task that will take hours. What material to include, what should be the storyline, and so on.
The trick is to slice the work up into smaller pieces. Commit yourself to work for a shorter period with the presentation. I use sprints of 40 minutes, it works for me. The original technique suggests 25 minutes but the important part here is not to make it too lengthy. Don’t go over an hour.
Set a timer, and start working. Do nothing else. Be strong! When the time is up, stop working immediately. Mid-sentence if that is the case. Why? Because it will lower the threshold for you to get started again in the next sprint. You will pick up your train of thought and complete that sentence and then use the momentum to push on with the next steps in your work.
Take short breaks in between the sprints, five minutes. This is when you do nothing, don’t check your email. Stare out the window, brush your teeth, stretch, water your plants or empty your dishwasher. But no cognitive work!
Set a focus or goal for every week and day
You probably have heard the expression what’s measured gets done. I’ve found measuring things quite energy-consuming. The important part is what you focus on. The fact that you measure something gives it focus but sometimes the energy cost gets too high. So I tweaked the statement to be what gets priority and focus gets done.
What gets focus gets doneMy own re-write of the old “What gets measured gets done (managed). by Peter Drucker.”
Every week is a new iteration for me. On Fridays I take a look at my calendar for next week, my “Someday” backlog and write a one-sentence statement of what will be my focus for the coming week. I keep this at the top of my Evernote page where I have my “Todo” backlog so I see it every day.
At the end of the week, I also write a one-sentence statement on how good I think I was at sticking to my focus. This is part of my weekly reflection exercise.
Every day also has a focus. I keep all my notes organized chronologically, which means I have one page per day. On top of the page, I always have the daily focus written so I get reminded of it. The focus can also be a challenge for me, like “In meetings, only ask questions” or “Start wrapping up meetings 10 minutes before their end time”.
If you want to see a concrete example of what this looks like download the free PDF from the banner a little bit further up in this article.
Have a prioritized backlog for what you should do
Don’t waste your energy constantly deciding what to do next. Remember, every decision drains you of energy. This is why you should keep a short, max ten items, prioritized backlog of what to pick up when you have some time to work on it. It can be smaller things like reaching out to someone to ask something.
If you have a large project you have to do, like preparing for a workshop, you should slice that up into smaller parts and add them individually to the backlog. This will give you a sense of accomplishment when you complete them one by one.
Have a mix of input-oriented and output-oriented tasks on your todo list
There are two types of goals/tasks you can put on your backlog. The input-oriented and the outcome-oriented goals.
Getting important things done is often about getting started and then surfing the momentum. As we talked about in the section above about working in sprints. Let’s say you need to build a strategy presentation from scratch. You are thinking this will really take you 8 hours. Don’t just put a task like “Create the strategy presentation” on your to-do list. It’s too big. You will keep procrastinating it.
Break it up in pieces instead. What is the best way to break it up? You now have two options. Consider these formulations of tasks.
- [ ] Strategy Presentation #> Create the outline
- [ ] Strategy Presentation #> Work 40 minutes with the outline
- [ ] Strategy Presentation #> Work 40 minutes with the slides
Option 1 is great if you plan in advance how to complete the project. You can add more tasks for each step then and see them complete over time.
The downside with option 1 is if you get stuck with the outline trying to perfect it. You want to give yourself the satisfaction to tick off tasks often. It’s almost guaranteed that you will be able to spend 40 minutes on focused work and when that time is up you can re-assess what the next step is. I can promise you that the presentation will feel less daunting then.
There are a lot of tips in this article on how to be more effective. Pick and choose from the ones you like the most. It is meant to be inspirational and not commandments.
On a general note, I’d say the crucial part is to know through planning what is the most important thing to do. Train yourself to always work on your priorities first.
Have a system for how you keep your mind focused on one thing at a time. It’s easy to waste your energy otherwise.
Dedicate time to handle unforeseen events/tasks. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that SOMETHING always comes up.
And finally, be mindful about when you choose to do what tasks. Don’t start your day by filling out the expense reports, checking your email, or doing other admin things. Save those tasks for when you have less energy later in the day.