Over the past few years, I’ve completed two marathons, six half-marathons, and four triathlons. I’m a glutton for punishment. All of these races have required some level of training. Because of my travel schedule, there are times when it is difficult to get outside and go for a run, so occasionally I’m confined to the dreadmill…I mean, treadmill.
When I run on the treadmill, I can work up a sweat and wear myself out. The machine will even tell me how far I went. But the fact is, I didn’t really go anywhere.
I was literally like the hamster on the wheel.
Everyone has had those days (or even weeks, or months, or…) where they arrive at the end and find themselves wondering what they actually accomplished. Maybe you feel mentally tired or physically worn out, but you didn’t really do anything meaningful.
You ran in place for a long time, but you didn’t actually accomplish anything.
Maybe you got stuck in the black hole of email. Or you got caught up in a YouTube video. Or you fell into a social media maze and couldn’t get out.
It’s possible to be really, really busy and yet really, really unproductive.
We’ve all been there.
You lose focus, drift off, and come out of your work coma hours later wondering where the day went. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience on a road trip where you mentally drift off and don’t remember the last 50 miles. Had that happen? How jacked up is that?!?
So how do you avoid falling into a meandering day? Here’s what I’ve done to structure my days, weeks, and even years to get a lot done…
1. Think Long Term
To get a lot accomplished today, you’ve got to zoom way out and look at the bigger picture. At the beginning of each year, I map out the goals I want to accomplish. I break these into 5 broad categories:
- Personal Development
For each category, I create very specific goals I want to accomplish. Goals like “I want to lose weight” or “I want to be happier” are adorable, but they mean nothing. Your goals should be very specific and measurable, so it’s extremely clear whether or not you accomplished them.
I’ve heard it said that people often overestimate what they can accomplish in a week but dramatically underestimate what they can accomplish in a year.
365 days is a long time. So map out what you want to accomplish with yours.
Once I’ve determined my year, I break that down by quarter. At the beginning of each quarter (January 1, April 1, July 1, and October 1), I review my annual goals and pick out which I want to focus on for that quarter.
Many goals require planning and won’t happen in just a weekend. So I review where I’m at and what needs to happen to keep moving the ball forward.
I’ve also found that by breaking my year into quarters, I can more easily add and subtract goals as they come into my life. On January 1st, I have no idea what opportunities may come up throughout the rest of the year. By planning each quarter, I give myself some latitude to add new goals to my plate.
2. Plan Your Week
Once I’ve boiled my year down into a quarter, I then focus on the individual week ahead. I know what goals I want to accomplish, so now I need to figure out what needs to happen in the trenches to make those happen.
Generally on Sunday nights, I sit down and map out my week. I review what I have coming up and any meetings, travel, speaking engagements, or prior commitments I have.
Then I make a list of the 5-10 tasks I want to accomplish that week. Some of these are individual tasks that need to happen that week. Some of these are ongoing tasks that must get done (i.e. prepping/scheduling podcasts). Some tasks are simply the next step that needs to happen to move a bigger project forward.
I keep all of this information in Evernote and review it multiple times per week to make sure I’m on track. If I ever don’t know what to do next, I go back and review my list for what needs to happen this week.
3. Schedule Tomorrow Today
At the end of each day, I take the time to map out the following day. Rather than just making a list of what I want to accomplish, I literally schedule out my entire day.
I’ve always heard that what gets scheduled gets done. So I’m very intentional in creating my plan for the day.
Think of it like a road trip. Before you leave the driveway to hit the road, you need a map, GPS, or some form of directions to get from where you are to where you want to be. With that GPS, you don’t stress when you get to an intersection. You just follow the map. But the key is that you make that plan before you leave the house.
Before I start my day, I want to have a map of exactly where I’m going. There’s never a question of what comes next. It’s all scheduled out.
Now, I can hear what you’re thinking… But what about when interruptions happen? Or tasks take too long?
Both of these are inevitable. Interruptions do happen and sometimes tasks take longer than projected.
So just make adjustments and move on. It’s your schedule, so if something comes up and you need to change it, then change it. But don’t let a small interruption derail your entire day.
4. Batch Your Days
Most people have little rhyme or reason for when or why they work on certain projects or tasks.
One thing that has helped me be more productive is batching my work. When you’re starting, stopping and switching between tasks, that requires energy.
Think about the fuel efficiency of a car. Your gas mileage in the city isn’t as good as on the highway. Why? Because in the city, you’re constantly starting and stopping. You’re shifting gears. You’re slowing down and you’re speeding up. But on the highway, you settle into a rhythm and just cruise.
One thing I batch is podcast interviews. When I first started recording interviews for How Did You Get Into That, I would just record whenever. That meant I was always starting and stopping and shifting gears a lot.
Now we block out three days per month for interviews and calls. If we need to schedule an interview for our show or to be a guest on someone else’s podcast, we push everything to those three days. If none of those days work, then we look at the three pre-selected days the following month.
So on those three days, I’m in interview mode. No need to start, stop, or switch between tasks. I’m locked in.
Another example is any accounting/financial tasks I need to work on happen on Fridays. Any speaking business-related tasks happen on Tuesdays.
Your goal should be to find the tasks you work on randomly throughout the week and find a day and/or time you can batch them together.
5. Know How, When, and Where You Work Best
Most traditional jobs require people to work some variation of 8 a.m.-5 p.m. But unfortunately not everyone is at their best during those hours.
Most jobs require people to sit at desks or work in Cubicle Land. But again, not everyone works well in that setting.
How, when, and where do you work best? Do you even know?
Here’s what I’ve learned about myself…
I like to start my day early. I get up around 6 a.m. and start work around 6:30 a.m. I’ll usually work until 8 a.m. and then have breakfast with the girls.
I am generally at my best in the mornings. I am very focused and energized before lunch, so I reserve tasks that require creativity or a lot of brain power for those hours.
Typically after lunch I do more tasks that don’t require as much critical thinking. Responding to emails, catching up on phone calls, etc.
Usually by 3 p.m., I start to lose focus and shut down. I usually reserve my afternoons to spend time with the family or go for a bike ride.
Occasionally, I’ll do a little more work around 9 p.m. after everyone goes to bed.
I know a lot of people who exercise first thing in the morning. I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work for me. I’d rather exercise in the afternoon when my brain is winding down.
But again, that’s just me.
Not everyone is wired to work 8 a.m.-5 p.m. like robots.
So when do you work best?
Do you know where you work best?
Some people love being around others. They feed off that energy. Others prefer to fly solo and don’t want to be interrupted. Some prefer the coffee shop atmosphere. Some people like a co-working space.
Personally, I prefer working from my home office. I don’t want a traditional office. I don’t like being around a lot of people when I’m working. I prefer to be in my own little cocoon to work.
If you don’t know when or where you work best, you need to try different settings to see what works. Don’t assume that, because something works for me or anyone else, it will work for you.
What works for me may not work for you. What works for you may not work for me. And that’s just fine.
6. Get the Right Tools
I like tools. Not the home improvement/repair kind of tools. I hate those.
In fact, my wife is the handy-person of the family. For real. I know nothing other than how to change a light bulb.
But enough about my lack of manliness.
To get a lot done, you really need to have the right kind of tools. Here are a few tools I use every day to stay on track:
- Evernote – I organize all of my annual, quarterly, and weekly goals in Evernote. It is a backup for my brain. I dump all ideas, thoughts, and project plans into Evernote.
- Wunderlist – Here I keep track of all my tasks. I loosely follow the GTD system from David Allen, so here I put down tasks and organize each day for what needs to happen. I still love the feeling of checking off boxes after completing something.
- Bose Headphones – Given that my home office is in the basement away from the craziness of the family, I could easily close the door, put on some music, and be good to go. But I’ve found that putting on noise-cancelling headphones helps me really zone in on my work. I’m telling you: I work best in a cocoon 🙂
- Focus At Will – This is an online service that plays streaming music to help people stay focused on their work. I put on my headphones, pop on Focus At Will, and lock into what I’m working on.
- Stand-up desk – Depending on the type of work I’m doing, I will use a stand-up desk. I have a Varidesk that sits on top of my existing desk, so I can raise and lower it as needed. I record all podcasts, videos, and webinars while standing.
I’ve also been experimenting with the Pomodoro technique for working. The idea is that you focus and work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. You can simply set a timer on your phone or computer, but there are also apps to help with this. Currently, I’ve been playing with Pomotodo.
The danger is sometimes it’s more fun to play with tools than to actually do the work. Don’t get caught in that trap. Figure out what you need, find tools to help you get the work done, and then get to hustling.
7. Execute Your Plan
Alright, so you’ve mapped out your plan. You’re in the right time and place to get stuff done. You’ve got the tools needed to make work happen.
Get to Work!
Get after it. Stop dinging around and start being productive on the right tasks and projects.
The more intentional and focused you are in your planning, the easier it is to be productive and get work done.
YOUR TURN: What are your biggest strategies for getting a lot done? Leave a comment below!
Photo via Mufidah Kassalias