Marking the transition from summer to fall, kids are returning to school, life is starting to ‘normalize’ in the wake of the pandemic, and many of us are reconsidering the way we work.
Whether you’re a parent who needs to cram more into your day so that you can homeschool, or you simply want to make better use of your time, the following three techniques will help you to become more efficient and effective at home and work.
Complete three major tasks each day, and then celebrate your achievements.
If you’re like me, the number of things you feel like you should be doing is steadily increasing. With a limited amount of time and an unlimited amount of things to do, I have gotten into the habit of making a list of what I need to do. That list doubles as a personal backlog and an accountability tracker.
Since there is only one me, I don’t differentiate between personal and work tasks. I’ve learned that more lists make me feel overwhelmed and give me a false sense of responsibility to manage more things. Here’s what works for me. Each day, I run through my list and prioritize three things to complete throughout the day. In truth, some days I do more and others I do less. The common denominator is that I try really hard to make three things happen.
The simple act of choosing puts me in a position where I’m actively working on the things I feel are most important, versus going through the sequence arbitrarily (like back when I used to let my inbox run my life). Of course, this comes with trade-offs. Some of the things that I used to turn around same-day will slide for the sake of the greater good.
It may come as a surprise to read that one of the most satisfying parts of my day is crossing things off my digital list. Making my accomplishments tangible and releasing a large portion of my cognitive load is almost as important as making the list and completing my tasks.
Move meetings to the afternoon.
There’s a common belief that morning meetings are the best way to help you attack the day and get everyone on the same page. For years, I stacked meetings at the beginning of my day, until I found myself waking up earlier and earlier to “get work done” beforehand. Eventually, I realized that, by the time I was done with my meetings, I didn’t have any creative juices left for the higher-level problem solving my job requires.
I’m hardly unique in this respect. In fact, research confirms that the best time for your brain to do project-based work is first thing in the morning, when it is fresh. The main takeaway is that mornings should be reserved for deep work, while administration and meetings can wait until the afternoon – when your brain is getting ready to punch out anyway.
To be clear, moving meetings and admin to the afternoon doesn’t have to interfere with planning for the work ahead. The objective is to get these lower-level activities done before the next morning, so that you can hit the ground running on deep work as soon as you’re at your desk. As a case in point, I know that I’m working at peak efficiency when I’ve already outlined the three things I want to do tomorrow.
Opt for “deep work” over multi-tasking.
Contrary to popular belief, multi-tasking actually detracts from productivity. To accomplish more without being lured into multi-tasking, I use the Pomodoro Technique for time management. Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, the technique involves using a timer to do batch work – typically in 25-minute intervals that are separated by short breaks. While you can play with your work-to-break ratio, the idea is to pick one task and focus on it exclusively for the duration of the time period. At the end, you’re rewarded with a break that is not only refreshing, it motivates you to do more.
No doubt, in the beginning you’ll be spending a lot of time stopping yourself from reaching for your phone or opening a new tab in your web browser. Most importantly, you’ll be amazed at how much you accomplish by using this technique.
Full disclosure: I had to turn off my phone’s notifications and close my browser tabs when I was adjusting to this technique, otherwise I simply couldn’t stop myself from checking to see who emailed me. Now, I try to get at least three deep work sessions done every day, which just so happen to coincide with my three items for the day.
Without overstating, by combining the three tasks with the Pomodoro Technique, I make the best use of my time, skills, and add value to my work.
Building New Habits
Each of these habits is fairly easy to implement, and, when combined, they are incredibly powerful. That being said, big changes are often difficult to make all at once. My best advice is to implement these strategies in the order I’ve presented them here. First, get used to working with a list; then try to complete the work when your brain is at its peak productivity; and, finally, convert some of your dedicated work time to deep work sessions so you can maximize your results.
More granularly, if you’re struggling to get into the habit of making a list, I recommend building a reminder into your schedule. This can be as simple as putting a sticky note on your computer that reads “make a list”. That way, when you arrive at your computer in the morning, the note will remind you to start your day off right. Prompts are critical to habit building, because it’s impossible to do anything if you don’t remember to do it in the first place.
If you’re interested in a deeper resource for building habits, I recommend Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything by BJ Fogg and Getting things Done, by David Allen.