You: How’s it going today Bob?
Bob: Oh, just lovely. I’m so busy it’s ridiculous. You?
You: Yeah, me too. It sure makes the days go by fast though!
Bob: You got that right.
Is this a familiar exchange at work? If you’re one of the countless people swamped by busyness – and see the viral Times article The ‘Busy’ Trap for a more complete diagnosis – then the answer is probably yes.
To improve productivity, many smart people share time-saving hacks like cooking a gourmet meal using only one pan, or recommend one of the thousands of task and time management apps:
Granted, I think there is some value to using these techniques and tools, but they are productivity porn.
To truly become more productive, it’s not just about time it’s about minimalism. What!? Yes, minimalism, because when it comes to getting more done, less really is more.
A couple years ago I decided I was going to learn to speak Italian before an upcoming trip to Italy. Even though I don’t have any Italian blood, I do have marinara running through my veins. You see, I love pizza, I love Italian wine, I love bread, plus my chest is super hairy. My homemade pizza:
So I researched the best way to learn the language – I could already envision wooing a voluptuous Italian woman when I was there – and settled on purchasing the super popular Rosetta Stone product. After I got it I would get home from work and always have plenty of time to focus on learning Italian.
Do you think I ever learned one word? Hell no.
So what was wrong with me? I had the best product, I had the time, and as most who know me can vouch, I’m extremely self-disciplined.
The problem was that I had limited energy to complete another to-do, and in my grand vision for my life, learning Italian really wasn’t all that important. I could have tried the latest and greatest life hacks and productivity apps, but they would have done zero to help me learn Italian.
So, the questions you need to ask yourself about your own tasks are:
- Is your list short (3-5 to-do’s)?
- Are you focusing on the “big picture” things?
- Do you actively manage your limited energy?
- Finish all the projects you start?
If you can’t say yes to all of these we need to simplify your life to ensure you’re spending your limited time and energy on the things that truly matter. You’re smart, competent, and motivated (you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t), so let’s get started!
Mistake #1: Saying yes
The mail carrier brought another baby shower invitation. There’s a Vegas bachelor party for a friend you haven’t talked to in years. Every classmate of your kid has a birthday party you’re invited to attend. You receive an email from a friend-of-a-friend who wants to meet for coffee to network.
If you’re super excited about going, by all means say yes. Otherwise, decline. Learning how to say no is a liberating path that directly impacts the amount of time and energy you have for your life.
Key takeaway: You are not obligated to go to anything, learn to say no.
Mistake #2: The endless to-do list
You’re busy juggling a career, a house, and maybe a family, so your to-do list is a mile long.
You know that one task at the bottom of your to-do list? It’s the one that keeps moving from the old list to the new list time and time again. But it’s something that you really want to do so it keeps clinging on for life.
Get rid of it.
We have limited time and energy and if this task keeps slipping then it’s not a priority.
Key takeaway: Eliminate one task from your to-do list.
Mistake #3: Social media
Both small and big wins in your life will come from knocking out your to-do list. The problem is that it is so easy to get sucked down the time-wasting hole of checking Twitter, or scrolling through Instagram and Facebook? Just five more minutes, you tell yourself.
We do this because it’s an easy and soothing information diet, similar to eating at McDonald’s. And if you eat McDonald’s every day you’ll die.
I recommend a simple browser add-on that will help you manage your time on the internet:
Key takeaway: Actively manage your time on the internet.
Mistake #4: Being cheap
I’m the first to preach frugalism and the cost-saving DIY approach. But there is no award for doing everything yourself (if there was, most of us would be in the running).
So think about hiring someone to do your taxes for $250 rather than spending five hours trying to figure them out yourself. Ordering your stuff from Amazon rather than running around to a bunch of stores checking prices on who has the cheapest toilet paper. Paying someone to clean your house.
The tasks that bubble up to the top of your to-do list should be the ones that support your vision for yourself: getting a Masters degree, polishing your public speaking skills, writing your business plan. Those are the things that deserve the lion’s share of your time.
Key takeaway: Outsource one thing this month.
Mistake #5: Not taking time for yourself
Your energy is zapped, when you talk you have trouble putting words together into a sensible structure, and you can’t recall the last time you had eight hours of sleep in a night.
Ok people, you don’t need to be productive all the time. In fact, you need rest in order to have the energy to tear through your to-do list and perform at a high-level.
Having a routine at night is the perfect way to implement a system to wind down. If you usually hit the pillow at 11:00 PM, maybe you turn off all screens and technology at 10:00 PM, then you brush your teeth and crawl in bed. You read fiction, do other fun stuff in bed, write in your journal, generally have “me-time”.
You need to take time for yourself, and if you have trouble doing this then set an alarm to remind yourself.
Key takeaway: Schedule down time.
Assessing your performance
A great way to assess your performance to determine if you’re being productive – and not just busy – is to write down the three things that you want to get done this week.
Got them? Carry this list with you during the week and think if what you’re doing right now is helping you accomplish one of those three things. Here’s my actual list:
At the end of the week, check the list and determine if you got those things done. If you didn’t, why didn’t you?