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More Productive in 2021: 4 Things to Stop Doing and 4 Things to Start Doing

It’s 4:55 and you’re ending your workday. You need to transition out of work and leave to pick up dinner for your family. As you take a minute to review your day, it occurs to you that you didn’t finish a single key task you intended to finish when you started that morning. And yet, you feel completely exhausted. You think to yourself, “How did I not get anything done? I feel like I’ve been running around all day. Ugh. I never have enough time.”

How often does this happen to you?

This productivity “let-down” at the end of the day is all too common—and it’s depressing. You work furiously and yet feel like you didn’t do any REAL work. You wonder, “What did I spend my day doing?” It feels like a blur.

Often our response to this productivity let-down is to work longer hours and burn ourselves out. Or we might engage in the blame game. The three horsemen of blame are:

  • Stuff — “I’m overwhelmed by my tasks, there’s just too much to do.”
  • Time — “There’s just not enough time in the day.”
  • Others — “If my boss didn’t give me so much to do, then…”

What if I told you none of these is the REAL problem? What if I told you the real issue is you? What if I told you the majority of your stress is not due to a lack of time or the volume of stuff, but to how you manage it all?

I’m not saying it’s all in your head. I am saying it’s all in your habits. If you are going to succeed in this world, you have to find a way to manage everything rather than blame everything. Notice I didn’t say “do” everything, I said “manage.” Having too much on your plate and not enough time is not a new challenge. It’s not specific to Covid-19. Neither is having conflicting priorities.

If you want to avoid this productivity let-down and at 4:55pm feel both exhausted and PRODUCTIVE, here are four things to stop doing and four things to start doing.

Transition 1

Stop checking your email first thing.

Let me clarify. I’m not saying you should only look at your email once a day. I’m saying it shouldn’t be the first thing you look at. When you start your day by looking at email, your daily outlook gets distorted by the new stuff that’s popped into your inbox. All new inputs seem important and therefore override any plans you made for the day.

Start looking at your calendar and to-do lists first.

Take two to three minutes each morning to review your calendar. This is the stuff you’ve committed to accomplishing and is the best data regarding how much time you have in which to do other work during the day. After reviewing your calendar, look at your to-do lists. And that’s it. Doing a quick review of your calendar and lists before checking email increases your likelihood of doing the “right” stuff throughout the day. You’ll review the new stuff with a clear view of what you’ve already deemed important.

Transition 2

Stop planning on doing ten things in one day.

Most of us pretend that somehow, between six meetings, lunch, dozens of emails to plow through, and driving the kids to school, we will find a way to accomplish ten key tasks. It’s highly unlikely. When we give ourselves unrealistic daily goals, we set ourselves up for failure and frustration.

Start making a list of three things to accomplish each day.

I’ve found you can usually accomplish three things well each day. And I’m not talking about mundane or routine tasks—I’m talking about three key items that will help important projects move forward. If you have extra time, great, you can always introduce a new task. But anything beyond three is dangerously ambitious.

Transition 3

Stop saying yes to everything.

Too often we think the word “yes” comes with magical powers. We think that by agreeing to every task that comes our way we’ll somehow be able to defy the odds and get it all done. It’s an illusion. Realize there is always more to be done than you can actually do. Stop saying “yes” willy-nilly, believing you’ll figure out the details later. Help your future self by not overloading your plate.

Start declining requests and renegotiating commitments.

When someone makes a request, ask a few key questions so you fully understand what that request entails. If you can’t do it, you might say, “I’m very sorry, but I will need to decline that right now so I can focus on other key priorities.” Or you might renegotiate the request in terms of how much you do or by when. For example, “I can’t commit to having that completed by Friday, but I could start on it Friday and have it done the following Tuesday. Would that work?”

Transition 4

Stop multitasking email and work.

This is one reason you never clear your email inbox. Email volume is less important than how you manage it. When you start sorting emails and then spend 20 minutes on a project that pops up in one of the emails, you end up losing time. It’s true, sooner or later you’ll need to do that project. But it’s less efficient to do it in that moment. Processing email is one task, doing the work entailed in email is another. Don’t mix the two.

Schedule “email only” time for focus and efficiency.

Set aside time each day to be in “email mode.” A time when you won’t do anything else but read each email and decide what the next action is. Then park the results of that decision on a list or a calendar and archive the email away. When you spend 45 minutes solely processing your inbox, for example, you get through more items, which allows you to populate your calendar and lists according to priorities, which then allows you to do more of the right stuff throughout the day.

Life is unlikely to slow down any time soon. Follow these eight tips to reclaim your time, attention, and energy. Stress-free productivity is possible, but only if you control your incoming requests and existing projects rather than letting them control you.

If you’d like to learn how to turn these tips into habits, register for our upcoming web series on The Power of Habit with author Charles Duhigg and trainer Scott Robley.

Justin Hale

"You change your life one action at a time. My next tip is your next action.” Justin Hale is a speaker, trainer, and training designer. He plays a key role on VitalSmarts’ product development team and is often the face of VitalSmarts’ award-winning classroom, virtual, and on-demand courses.

The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Getting Things Done®. Learn more about Getting Things Done.

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3 thoughts on “More Productive in 2021: 4 Things to Stop Doing and 4 Things to Start Doing

  1. Thanks Justin! I’m looking forward to trying these tips in 2021. I’m going to focus on “Stop saying yes to everything.” Hope I don’t take it too far though. :)

  2. Justin I agree don’t jump straight into email. This is a great way to avoid having your day hijacked. I like to do one thing first before looking at emails. That way I’ve always accomplished something I intended to do. I need to work on checking my calendar though – I’ve accidentally missed a few meetings because I’ve jumped straight into my priorities. I’ll work on quickly checking the calendar.

  3. Excellent article! I find myself being guilty of several of these time eaters. I appreciate the tips and will start putting them to practice.

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