5 Secrets Productive People Know

We all have the same number of hours in the day, and yet some people accomplish what seems like 48-hours worth of stuff while others struggle to make use of 4. Check out these five secrets that productive people know about time management.

1) One Hour of Focused Work is Better Than Three Hours of Un-Focused Work

Every time your focus is broken while you’re working, you have to spend time getting back into the “work groove” before you can be productive again. Think of it as taking one step forward and two steps back. Stop allowing your work to take longer. Eliminate Time Killers, such as email, Facebook, or texting and make time for them during breaks or when your work is finished. Don’t allow other people to make a habit of interrupting you either.

2) Training is a Time Investment That Pays Off

Learning a new method of doing something takes time. However, productive people know that initial time investment will pay off in the long run. This is particularly true for new technology. When we get a new program, there is a strong temptation to just figure it out on our own. Spend the few extra minutes to watch the tutorial. Not only will you instantly learn more time-saving capabilities the technology can offer, you will also save yourself months of trial and error.

3) Goals and Plans go Hand in Hand

Productive people start each day with a goal and a plan to reach it. They know that goals aren’t limited to long-term, big-picture dreams either. A goal is simply a realistic set of priorities you wish to accomplish during the day. Do not waste time moving haphazardly from one task to the next. Stay focused by keeping track of these goals on a written list and moving methodically through them.

4) Sometimes You Must Do Work When You Don’t Want To

There are some tasks we never really feel like doing, but productive people know better than to use that as an excuse to procrastinate. Instead, they consider the phrase “I don’t want to” as merely a truthful statement, not a reason to stop. Break up difficult or unwanted tasks into smaller pieces to make them more manageable. Ditch your excuses and just get started on your most dreaded tasks. The sooner you start them the sooner they are over.

5) Commitments to Yourself are Important Too

Unproductive people sometimes look at their productive counterparts as workaholics who never have any fun. This is often a misconception. Truly productive people are equally committed to themselves as they are to their work. They make time for the “desserts” they enjoy and maintain a balanced schedule.

Don’t waste your time wishing for more hours in the day before making the best use of the ones you already have.

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Unplugging Your Day

We use technology for everything. We use it to manage our communication, organize our finances, keep track of our schedules and even supplement our social lives. Email, word processing, social networking sites and Google have become mainstays in our daily lives. This week, I found that sometimes unplugging for an afternoon can do wonders for our time management.

My Unplugged Afternoon

I am teaching a few college classes in the near future and was struggling to come up with a course calendar. I sat staring at the blank Microsoft Word screen for 20 minutes as that blinking cursor seemed to mock me. Keeping Facebook, Gmail and other Time Killers at bay was becoming a strain.

Finally, I just couldn’t look at a computer screen anymore. I slammed my laptop shut, grabbed a notebook and pen, and went downstairs.

I suddenly felt more productive. Not only were some of my distractions instantly removed, but I somehow felt more free to brainstorm with a pen in my hand rather than a keyboard.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you trade an afternoon with your computer for a much cheaper “tablet.”

1) Faster Isn’t Always Better

Initially I was hesitant to do my work on paper because I can write so much faster on a computer. However, I realized that if I wasn’t writing anything I was wasting far more time than the extra few moments it takes me to form letters with a pen. The pen and paper method works great for planning, outlining and brainstorming. I could then use my computer to quickly type up my plan later.

2) A Change of Scenery is Key

Even if you have a laptop, you are still somewhat limited as to where you complete your work. You don’t want to be too far from a power outlet, nor do you want to be anywhere it could get easily damaged. Using a pen and paper eliminates those problems. Sometimes just being in a new place is enough to kick-start your productivity.

3) Technology is a Tool

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that we are still the ones doing the work. Technology is a tool we frequently leverage to help us, but we need not feel lost without it for a few hours. Sometimes getting off our desktops for a bit helps us better tap into our own personal computer that rests on our shoulders.

To be clear, I am a huge fan of technology and do not plan on throwing my laptop away any time soon. However, my “unplugged” afternoon was extremely productive. I plan to make another date with my pen and paper next week, and I encourage you to do the same!

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Tackling the I Don’t Wannas

There is something tremendously freeing about finishing something you don’t want to do. It’s as though a weight has been lifted from our shoulders and we suddenly feel so much more in control of our time management. The problem, however, is mustering up the motivation to actually finish these tasks, especially when no one else is checking up on you.

I’ve been putting off starting my next Time Diet book (this one is for teachers!)  I had everything planned and outlined, but I had been coming up with every excuse in the world to avoid sitting down with my computer and actually starting the first chapter.

A few days ago, I finally sat down and said, “OK, I’m not getting up from this desk until I have three pages finished.” It was tough, but I did it, and when I was done I wanted to shout it from the rooftops! I was so proud of those three little pages.

My Summer Plan

This has now become my summer mission. I was a little intimidated about summer’s rapid approach. I have no “boss” in the summer. If I don’t finish enough work every day to keep me on track with my goals…nothing happens. Nobody checks up on me and tells me to work harder. It takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline to stay motivated and I was a little worried that I wouldn’t be up to the task.

Now I have a goal: Six days a week, I will write at least 3 pages in my book this summer.

Here are three things to keep in mind as you’re planning to tackle your own “dreaded” task.

1) State Your Plan

I just publicly stated my plan of writing 3 pages per day this summer. I could have kept this goal to myself, but then I’d only be accountable to me. Now, I’m also accountable to all of you. Get a friend or family member on board with your plan too.

2) Set Aside Time

Saying you’ll do something is only half the battle. Saying specifically when you’re going to do it turns a goal into a plan. As you’re crafting your schedule for the day, don’t just add your task to the end of your lengthy to-do list. Set a specific time that you’re going to work. Think of it as an appointment with yourself.

3) Recognize Excuses

When you don’t want to do something, it’s very easy to start making excuses. Learn to recognize when you’re doing this and stop. Making excuses is easy. Finding a way is rewarding.

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Busy, Busy, Busy!

Our attitude toward time management greatly affects our productivity, and that attitude starts developing very early. This week, I overheard an interesting conversation between two 11-year-olds. It went something like this:

Kid 1: “Oh my goodness, I am so tired, I don’t even know if I can do anything today. I got no sleep last night.”
Kid 2: “Oh I KNOW! I was up until 1:00am and I had to get up at 5:00am for school.”
Kid 1: “Well, I’ve actually been up until 2:00am all week”
Kid 2: “Well, I kind of have it worse because I have a teacher who gives way more homework than you do…”

I listened to this conversation in amusement as I pondered two things:

1) Imagine how brilliant these children would be if I actually thought they were using all of this time to study efficiently and

2) How perfectly they will fit into the adult world where this kind of dialogue happens on a routine basis.

The Busy Battle

I like to call these kinds of conversations “busy battles” and the one-upmanship that occurs during them is extremely detrimental to our time management. We all have lots to do. Some of us, admittedly, have more to do than others, but when we make it a point to focus on how little time we have and how busy we are to the point that it becomes a competition, we are only creating an environment that breeds negativity and seeks pity. These of course are not the conditions that lead to motivated and efficient work.

In this recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Laura Vanderkam makes some interesting points on the subject. At times, she seems to insinuate that everyone is exaggerating their busy level, which I do not entirely agree with, but I do agree with her suggestion that we change our language. She writes, “Instead of saying ‘I don’t have time’ try saying ‘It’s not a priority’ and see how that feels.”

Saying that something is ‘not a priority’ shifts the control of our time back to us, not our schedules. In the competitive society we live in, it’s only natural that we’ll get sucked into a busy battle from time to time. Wouldn’t it be cool, however, if that battle were about things we’ve actually accomplished with our time and not simply how many hours we fill with things on a daily basis.

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Time Savers That Aren’t

Don’t be  “April Fooled” into thinking things are time savers when they really aren’t. If we’re not careful, these things can be extremely detrimental to our time management.

On my way home this week, traffic had slowed to a crawl on a busy road that was being resurfaced. I could see the construction zone up ahead, and knew that if I could just be patient, I would be past it soon enough. However, after a few minutes, I started to get antsy.

Just sitting in the car and hardly moving seemed like an awful waste of time, so I decided  to try to find a faster way home. This involved navigating across four lanes of stopped traffic, turning onto a new street, detouring far out of my way, and getting a little bit lost. As I was turning around in the third dead-end residential street I had come across, I caught myself thinking, “Ug, well at least I’m moving and not wasting my time on that same street any more!”

Not a Time Saver

I had fallen into a time management trap. It seemed like detouring around the construction zone was going to save me time, but in reality, I probably would have been better off staying on the original street.

This got me thinking: What other things do we do in our lives that seem like they should save us time, but don’t?

For example, when you multitask, is your work taking twice as long instead of going twice as fast?

Are you sending an email when a phone call would be far more efficient?

Is setting up your calendar taking longer than actually doing anything in your calendar?

This week, I am going to take a long, hard look at what I’m doing and make sure my “time savers” aren’t actually “time spenders.” I encourage you to do the same! Let me know what you find out.

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My Productivity Bracket

Have you filled out your bracket yet? Basketball? No. I’m talking about your productivity bracket.

We all know what it feels like to be pulled in a million different directions. When we accomplish work, it didn’t just…”happen.” It beat out many other priorities that day. This bracket is a tribute to the countless  time management battles we all fight each day. What tasks would you add to your bracket?

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Time Management Paralysis

Sometimes, when we have so much to do that we become overwhelmed with all of our impending deadlines, we freeze up and end up accomplishing nothing. This is what I call Time Management Paralysis and it is a huge hurdle to overcome in our Time Diets.

Time Management Paralysis is a problem because it causes our stress level to rise and our productivity level to sink. It isn’t caused by laziness or disorganization. It’s caused by a hectic schedule and a lengthy to-do list where everything seems of equal importance.

This week, I had to overcome a serious case of Time Management Paralysis. I went up to my office, sat down at my computer, looked at my list of tasks…and froze. I didn’t know what to do first. I’m staring down a jam-packed month of seminars, conference presentations, deadlines and projects. Everything I needed to do seemed like a big, daunting task that had to be a priority. When everything is a priority, nothing gets done.

Here is how I regained my productivity.

Four Steps to Fight Time Management Paralysis

1) Calm Down
It may seem simple, but a huge part of Time Management Paralysis is all in your head. If you spend too much time thinking about the huge stack of work you have to do, you psyche yourself out for failure. Don’t let yourself spend precious energy on self-doubt. (Loyal readers know my favorite story about the two cows that illustrates this point.)

2) Write it Down
All of our deadlines and obligations can get tangled up in our heads. Take the time to write down everything that needs to be done, even if it doesn’t seem very organized. Just putting it all down on paper can free up valuable brainpower, allow us to think more clearly, and bring back that feeling of control.

3) Break it Up
When writing down all of your big “Meat” tasks, be sure to break them up into smaller more manageable pieces. For example, I am giving a presentation in Texas next month. When I see “Create San Antonio Presentation” on my list, it sounds difficult and daunting. Instead, I broke that task up into smaller chunks and wrote, “sketch out speech,” “create slides,” “make hand out,” etc…Those smaller tasks are easier to complete and remove the anxiety of tackling something huge.

4) Set Yourself Up to Win
We know our strengths and we know that some tasks are bound to give us more frustration than others. When you are trying to overcome a case of Time Management Paralysis, start off with a task you know you’ll be able to finish. Experiencing some productivity success will give you the momentum to tackle the tasks that are more likely to pose a challenge.

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Photo Credit: David Castillo Dominici

Finding Your Time Management Groove

“In the zone” “On a roll” “In the groove.” No matter what you call it, we all know what it’s like to be in a highly productive state. Ideas seem to just flow, time seems to stand still. It’s as though…(dare I say it)…you enjoy doing your work.

This kind of work is great for our time management because we are the most efficient and productive. However, it can often be difficult to transport ourselves into this productive state when we need it most!

This concept is referred to as “flow” by a Hungarian psychologist named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (whose name is harder to spell than it is to pronounce.) He talks about flow as a period of “completely focused motivation,” and he even has three tips about how to reach this highly-desirable state.

1) Be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals
Working toward a goal is far more motivating than simply meandering through your day. Be sure to set both short-term and long-term productivity goals for yourself so your work is purposeful.

2) Have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and your own perceived skills
In other words, if you have the confidence that you can complete a task, you’re far more likely to do it efficiently. If the task is too easy, you’ll be bored. If the task is too difficult, you’ll be frustrated. The path to productivity is one that has just the right amount of challenge.

3) The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback
Few people like to work just for the sake of working. Seek frequent feedback. Is your task producing the desired result? Better to find out at the beginning of a task that you need to change course, rather than waiting until it’s finished to realize you made a mistake!

While these three factors may not always be within your control, the more you can harness them the better. Optimizing your “flow” causes your work to be completed much faster.

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Photo Credit: Dan

My 10-Second Time Management Resolution

How long does it take you to complete your most dreaded “Vegetable” task on your to-do list? Easy, mindless Vegetable tasks are the easiest to put off because they “just take a few minutes.” However, if you knew exactly how little time they took, you’d be more likely to just get them over with.

While many people resolved to eat healthier in 2012,  my time management resolution is to stay on top of my Vegetable tasks before they build up and become more difficult Meat tasks.

My Time Management Resolution

The tasks I chose to tackle are keeping my office and kitchen clean. Filing a paper, or putting a bowl in the dishwasher hardly takes any time at all, but when I’m faced with a long afternoon of work to do, tidying up is the last thing on my mind.

But we all know how that story ends don’t we? Pretty soon, it isn’t just one bowl, it is a sink full of dishes. Pretty soon, it isn’t just one paper, it is a whole stack of papers. Then I’m left with two messes that will take a more substantial amount of time to tackle. My two easy Vegetables tasks have become Meats.

How Long Things Actually Take

Well this year is going to be different.

It takes exactly 10 seconds to file a piece of a paper.
It takes 6 seconds to put a dish in the dishwasher.

I know this because I timed myself.

Now, when I go to set a document down on my desk, instead of telling myself: “This will only take a minute to file. I’ll do it later.” I will instead say, “It takes 10 seconds to open the filing cabinet and put this away. I’m going to do it now.”

Why This Works

When we really don’t want to do something, we start to convince ourselves that things take longer than they actually do. If we know the exact amount of time it takes to complete a task,  it is easier to find the motivation to do it.

This year, pick your most annoying Vegetable, whether it is for work, home, or school, and time how long it actually takes you to complete. Then, when you catch yourself trying to put it off, ask yourself if it’s really worth saving it until “later” and letting it become a Meat task, or is it better to just take the allotted time now and finish it.

Good luck with your Vegetables and Happy New Year!

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A Procrastinator’s Holiday

Happy Holidays from The Time Diet!

(sung to the tune of Jingle Bells)

“Dashing through the mall
More gifts are left to buy
My calendar’s so full
It’s bursting at the sides!

So much work to do
So much on my plate
Maybe this will be the year
I don’t procrastinate!


Calendars, To-Do Lists
Planning all the way
Next year I’ll be organized
And that’s the way I’ll stay (Hey!)
Time Killers, Distractions
They won’t bother me
2012 will be the year
Of productivity!”

Wishing you and your family a Happy Holiday and a Joyous New Year!

~Emily Schwartz

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