It actually feels fairly ridiculous to me that I’m now writing this article, as productivity is something I’ve struggled with so much over the years. Getting to the evening knowing I’d worked hard all day but feeling like I’d accomplished nothing… Spending my days deciding spur of the moment on random activities when I noticed them or they became urgent… Doing tasks that appealed to me but probably didn’t really need doing (HELLO twiddling with my website / choosing new ribbon for packaging / trying out the millionth new preset)… Repeatedly distracted, jumping from one task to another with no real focus… In a nutshell, constantly busy, but rarely feeling I’d achieved what I actually needed to.
A FEW SIMPLE TRICKS
A few years ago, after having my second son Huey, I made a firm decision to stop working in such a chaotic and haphazard way. I was really exhausted and, with less disposable time than ever, knew I needed to start working much more efficiently. I got stuck into loads of productivity courses, books and podcasts. It was a bit embarrassing because it turned out that getting organised was actually pretty easy. I’d spent years floundering around like a complete wally when actually just a few simple tips & tricks turned everything around. It’s a shame I didn’t do this earlier but better late than never eh 🙂 Nowadays I spend most days with a clear plan and focus, and I get SO much more work done than I used to.
I MIGHT NOT ALWAYS BE PRODUCTIVE, BUT THERE’S ALWAYS A PLAN TO GET BACK ON TRACK
Of course I still have days when despite my best efforts I don’t even remotely get through everything I thought I would. I have some foggy days when I feel all over the place and just can’t get my brain in gear. Sometimes unexpected things land on my desk or happen in my personal life that completely derail everything I’d planned. Sometimes if I’m being honest, I’m just knackered and know that there’s no way I can muster up any energy to tackle what I should do that day.
We’re humans, not cyborgs, and sometimes, with the best will in the world, shit happens. But at the end of the day I now know exactly what I didn’t do and what needs catching up on / prioritizing the next day. I might not always BE productive, but there’s always a plan to get back on track.
From chatting to other photographers in The Shutterhood, I know productivity is an area lots of you struggle with too, so I wanted to share my top 10 productivity tips that have made a massive difference to me and how much I get done each day 🙂
1. MULTI-TASKING IS NOT A VIRTUE
I used to think that the more I was multi-tasking, the more productive I was being. It’s often referred to in a positive way, something we should aspire to and get credit for doing. But the reality is that focusing on too many things usually means you do none of them very well, and end up driving yourself round the bend in the process. Clear focus on one thing at a time is the way forward.
There will always be lots of things that you COULD be doing, but prioritise them and focus on only ONE key thing at a time, making sure that you do that one thing really well before you consider doing anything else. Ask yourself, what do I really NEED to accomplish today that will make a bigger difference to me than anything else? I highly recommend The One Thing by Gary Keller as a brilliant guide to doing this.
2. POST-IT NOTES OR TRELLO INSTEAD OF TO-DO LISTS
This tip possibly won’t win any prizes for kindness to the environment… but for me a massive game-changer was starting to use post-it notes instead of a one-sheet to-do list. Write one task on each post-it note. You can then stick them to a sheet of paper or on the wall and can move their order around as their priority changes. When the tasks are all on post-its, you can easily and repeatedly swap them and it just looks so much more accessible. You can use different coloured post-its for different types of tasks (or different levels of priority – up to you). Plus, however satisfying it is crossing something off a list, don’t underestimate how much more satisfying it is to scrunch up a post-it note and throw it away.
(NB buy recycled post-it notes and put your discarded ones in the recycling bin!)
Alternatively, if you prefer planning electronically I highly recommend Trello – this is what I use myself – I don’t know how I’d get by without it! It’s basically like a virtual board on the wall with electronic post-it notes that you can drag around into different lists in exactly the same way as you would paper ones – you can dorkily colour-code them to your heart’s content (which I take great delight in doing!) It’s fantastic for organising your workload and you can attach documents and make notes to accompany each task so that everything you need to complete that task is handily stored in one place.
3. “EAT THE FROG”
Mark Twain said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Simply translated, whichever task is the biggest ball ache… whichever task you’re inwardly groaning at the thought of… make sure you do it first thing in the morning before everything else. You won’t want to, but as the day goes on, your inclination to tackle it will dwindle and dwindle even further – just get it done.
The “frog” is usually the dreaded task that has been lurking in your brain, that you know you should do, but that for some reason you just haven’t got round to yet. If you’re anything like me, you think, “I’ll just do this other task first (i.e. something you quite fancy doing), then I’ll tackle that later.” But later, you have even less energy and inclination to tackle it so you procrastinate again, and sometimes this can repeat itself for days/weeks/months on end. Just eat the frog. Then everything else becomes easier.
4. TIME BLOCK
Split up your day into 30 minute chunks. It’s very hard to focus on one activity for longer than that. Obviously some tasks are larger and might take hours or even days or weeks to complete – but if so, split them up into lots of smaller 30 minute tasks. It’s SO much easier to keep on track with impetus and focus when you know you only need to focus on something for 30 minutes. Put a timer on with an alarm if you want to – you can even make it into a challenge – to get the task done before the alarm goes off – whatever motivates you best.
5. WORK OUT YOUR ENERGY LEVELS OVER THE DAY AND PLAN YOUR TASKS ACCORDINGLY
This was MASSIVE for me. Changed everything. Everyone has different levels of energy throughout the day. Split these into three different categories – high/creative, moderate/steady and low/distracted, and map out when yours are. Different tasks require different levels of energy – this will be different for different people depending on their own skills, experience and preferences.
For me, creative tasks like writing blog posts, creating brochures, developing new products / systems and responding to some emails need me to have high levels of energy to be able to tackle them well, or at all. Stuff like editing, admin, simpler emails and social media only requires moderate energy and things like looking stuff up on the internet, ordering new stock and packaging stuff up only requires low energy.
The mistake I used to make was to do the low-energy tasks in the morning when I had high energy. It’s human nature to try to tackle the easy stuff first – which is why we never want to ‘eat the frog’. But this completely wasted my creative energy on stuff I really didn’t need it for. Then later in the day when I’d done the easy/enjoyable stuff and it was time to tackle the trickier high-energy stuff, my energy levels had dipped and I couldn’t face tackling them. Work out your own personal energy patterns, how much energy you need for the various tasks you have to do, then when you’re planning your day, allocate your tasks accordingly.
6. SCHEDULE IN LEISURE & BREAKS
The Pomodoro Technique tells you to time block in 30 minute chunks with 5 minute breaks in between. Most people stop for a lunch break but often we don’t give ourselves any others. I always felt like breaks were ‘slacking off’ but actually they really recharge you and make you so much more productive – even just a two minute break makes all the difference. Personally I don’t tend to take them every half hour, but certainly every hour. Take them however often makes sense to you – but make sure you do schedule them in – regular breaks of between 3-10 minutes.
Even if it’s just a couple of minutes to get up, stretch your legs, walk away from your desk, make a cup of tea, water the plants, stroke the dog, whatever. It doesn’t have to be a huge break, just give your eyes and brain a rest from the task at hand. You’ll be so surprised by how much more ‘on it’ you are when you come back. Make sure you also schedule in your leisure time otherwise you’ll burn out – properly schedule in time for hanging out with your family and friends, exercise, relaxation and fun.
7. BATCH TASKS
Group similar tasks together – then you get ‘on a roll’ and get quicker at doing them. Each time you start a task from scratch you take time getting your head around it, setting up all the software / equipment you need for it etc. The first one will always take much longer than subsequent ones. So, while your head’s still ‘in the zone’ and you’ve got everything you need open and set up, you may as well do a few more. You’ll get them all done so much quicker than if you did them one at a time, separately, on different occasions.
Things that lend themselves really well to batching are editing, packaging, scheduling social media, marketing, writing blog posts and admin tasks. Instead of mixing loads of these different things into one day, set aside a day or morning for each individual task and batch a load of them together.
8. ELIMINATE DISTRACTIONS
I’m horrendously easy to distract. Even when I have my plan for the day it really doesn’t take much to derail me. The biggest culprits are my phone and Facebook. I find leaving my phone in another room, or at the very least having it on silent and out of arm’s reach, makes a massive difference. Otherwise it’s pinging away next to me and I’m constantly checking it, chatting on WhatsApp and basically just fannying around getting nothing done. The same goes for Facebook. Obviously I have to go on it for work to manage my Facebook page and Facebook group, and I enjoy going on my personal profile just to chat to friends. However I HAVE to limit this to certain times otherwise I can easily spend all day on the thing.
A really nifty little piece of software I found is SelfControl – because I basically have none of my own 🙂 You just list whatever websites are the main distraction culprits, things you’re likely to keep checking, then set how long you want ‘barring’ from them. Then it doesn’t let you go on them for that fixed amount of time, and you can’t turn it off without actually shutting your whole computer down 🙂 It’s ace.
9. EAT PROPERLY
It might sound silly, but when you’re busy it’s so easy to not eat properly. As a perennial greedy-guts I literally NEVER forget to eat. But I’m a devil for grabbing really crap, lazy food – like eating a block of cheese straight out of the fridge, or scooping peanut butter straight out of the jar (yes I am minging). Crap food (or no food) will just make those energy levels that I chatted about in point 5 dip much sooner than usual. So, ironically, although I grab lazy food in order to work more, I then tend to tire quicker and become less able to complete the task anyway.
Make sure you have nutritious, wholesome, filling, easy-to-grab food at hand while you’re working. I find meal planning for the week really helps. Alternatively I just make too much of my evening meal so that there’s a portion left over for lunch the next day that I can easily just reheat.
10. DAILY PLANNING
Last but definitely not least, plan in detail what you’re going to do each day. Most productivity experts advise spending 5 minutes at the end of each day planning what you’re going to do the next day. Personally I prefer to do it right at the beginning of the day – just do whatever makes sense to you.
Combine all the techniques I’ve listed above. Look at your post-it notes or Trello board, split your daily plan into 30 minute time blocks, consider your energy levels when you’re planning what goes where and make sure you schedule in food, leisure and rest breaks. Evaluate how you got on each day to inform planning future ones. As a total stationery dork I find having a spanking notebook makes daily planning much more enjoyable – at the moment I use a lovely Moleskine one. I definitely don’t stroke it or sniff it. Promise.
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