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Productivity continued: Eight techniques to help you stay focused
After last week’s post on productivity tools, we thought we’d keep the momentum going and share a few more tips on maximizing your time. This week, we’re sharing eight productivity techniques to keep you focused and productive, without burning you out.
One of the most popular productivity methods is called the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a great way to harness the power of focused work and frequent breaks to be more productive. That’s right, more breaks for more productivity. The idea behind this one is that when you’re multitasking, you’re distracted by many things, and get nothing done. With the Pomodoro Technique, you are laser-focused on one item, eliminating all other distractions. You don’t need any expensive seminars, books or apps—all you need is a timer.
Set your timer for 25 minutes and focus on one item of work for the entire 25 minutes. When the timer goes off, you can take a five-minute break to go to the bathroom, check your phone or email, get some water, make a phone call—whatever you want, but only for five minutes! Each 25-minute work session and five-minute break is called a “Pomodoro,” and after four of them, you can take a 15-to-30-minute break to recharge.
The trick to the Pomodoro Technique is to make sure you’re using your breaks to deal with all the things that are mentally distracting you, so you’re not thinking about them during your work periods. Time blocking is an effective productivity hack for entrepreneurs that will leave you feeling rested and recharged.
Time boxing is another great method for people who are easily distracted by small tasks or interruptions. Research has found that those bite-sized tasks or interruptions can disrupt concentration for up to 30 minutes! That means that something as common as email notifications (which can realistically appear every minute depending on how much of your work is done via email) could be causing you to be distracted for hours of your day, every day! That leaves you with very little time to focus on your actual work.
With time boxing, you’re held accountable to your daily plans by allotting specific periods of time for specific work. For example, you would box task one from 9-10:30 am, task two from 10:30-1 pm, task three from 2-4 pm, and so on. This prevents you from spending hours working on something that should only take you 45 (focused!) minutes. There’s a saying that work will take however long you want it to. Have you ever noticed that you can take a week to do the exact same work you’ve done before in two or three days? That’s because the longer we have to do something, the more we push it. By setting a specific time to complete each task—and adhering to it—your work will get done sooner.
The Pareto Principle or 80/20 Rule
This technique uses an analytical approach to understanding effort versus results of activities. The Pareto Principle (or 80/20 rule) says that in any situation, 80 percent of the output from a given situation or system is determined by 20 percent of the input. For example, 20 percent of an entrepreneur’s time will yield 80 percent of their output (and the remaining 20 percent of the output can only be achieved through 80 percent of their time!)
Let’s say you’re working on a pitch deck, for example, and you need 100 hours to create the greatest pitch deck your potential investors have ever seen. If you follow the 80/20 rule, it means that you can get 80 percent of the quality achieved by spending 20 hours on it. It also means, however, that to bring that 80 percent quality up to 100, you’ll have to work on it another 80 hours. From a productivity standpoint, it wouldn’t make sense. The Pareto Principle would tell you to get the A grade deck in front of your investors and spend the remaining 80 hours working on other important projects. The difference between the A and the A+ isn’t worth the time it will take to put in all the bells and whistles you might be the only one to notice.
The Two-Minute Rule and Time Pockets
The two-minute rule puts those small pockets of time you have throughout your day to work. The idea is to acknowledge all those small, quick tasks that you know can be done in two minutes or less and, well, do them. The psychological burden that comes with postponing tasks and constantly adding them to a never-ending to-do list takes more time than if you just did them when they come up. Completing a task right away actually takes less time than having to come back to it later.
In the same vein, doing tasks that are 120-seconds-or-less during time pockets can greatly improve your daily productivity as well. Time pockets are the times in between your scheduled events or work sessions; waiting in lines or lobbies, travelling to or from work or meetings, getting to an appointment early, etc. You will be amazed at how much can get done when you combine these two productivity techniques!
Eat the Frog
If there was an award for the productivity technique with the best name, it would easily go to Eat the Frog, but don’t let the quirky name fool you. This strategy is a great way to boost your productivity early in the day so nothing can sidetrack you from your most important tasks.
The name comes from the idea that if you had to eat a live frog every day, you should do it when you wake up, thus preventing anything worse from happening for the remainder of your day. Your most important task (MIT) is often the one you dread the most, and the one you’re most likely to push until you can’t push it anymore. If you want to be as productive as possible, identify your MIT and get it off your to-do list first thing in the morning. This will prevent you from letting your day get away from you when your inbox is overflowing, your phone is incessantly buzzing, or a client decides to surprise you with an unplanned request. Tackling the one or two projects you dread the most early on in the day allows you to spend the rest of the day focusing on the more fun—or at least easier—tasks.
This rule works by helping you focus on the most important tasks of your day, without getting caught up with the ones that don’t need to be handled immediately. Start each day with the intention of getting only one big item, three medium items, and five small items accomplished, and build your daily to-do list with only those nine items.
Setting expectations for the day makes it easier to stay focused, and when you start viewing tasks with importance or urgency in mind, it will be easier to prioritize your workload. The reality is, no matter how many tasks you have on your plate, there are only 24 hours in a day, so there are only so many things you can get done. With the 1-3-5 rule, you decide which projects you’re going to get done, instead of letting the unpredictability of running a small business control your time.
Don’t forget to allow yourself the flexibility to amend when necessary. If your days are spent in meetings, you might have to cut the list down (and start calling it the 1-2-3 rule, perhaps?). If your business often includes last-minute requests or orders, you might have to leave one medium or two small tasks open every day to account for them.
Don’t break the chain
This method doesn’t necessarily help with productivity, but it helps with adopting or ditching bad habits and encourages consistency. Made famous by Jerry Seinfeld, it’s used to get you accustomed to putting in the effort every single day to achieve one single goal.
Jerry Seinfeld said that no matter how he feels or what he’s doing, he writes at least one joke every day. To hold himself accountable, he uses a calendar and marks up a big old X on the date after he has written his daily joke. The idea is that by seeing a calendar with a consistent set of crosses or lines through each date identifying a completed task, you will be less likely to ‘break the chain’ and skip the task. So, if you’re trying to write a book or make a sale every day, this is your trick.
When your daily list of projects, tasks or appointments is long, it’s hard to know where to begin, or what requires your attention most. Hopefully one of these eight techniques will help you figure it out!