Get Sh*t Done: 10 Productivity Techniques To Try * CoveyClub

Reading: Get Sh*t Done: 10 Productivity Techniques To Try

Mental Health

Get Sh*t Done: 10 Productivity Techniques To Try

These hacks from popular time-management books can help you stay focused

By Lori Miller Kase

It took me forever to write this article. 

Ironically, as I scoured books about productivity, I was surprisingly unproductive. My emails piled up as I researched how to achieve “Inbox Zero.” I procrastinated by reading book after book about how not to. 

I’m the consummate list-maker; in fact, when I’m stressed and on deadline, I recreate my already-created to-do lists, assigning tasks to every single minute of the day. Yet many of the items on today’s to-do list started out on yesterday’s, and are often likely to migrate to tomorrow’s.

Now, after binging on what Eat That Frog author Brian Tracy calls “productivity porn,” I understand why. My to-do lists are over-ambitious. My next-steps are not clearly defined. I check my emails, rather than process them, using my inbox as yet another to-do list. And I check them way too often. 

How many of us stare at our overflowing inboxes and berate ourselves for not being able to stay on top of it all? Feeling overwhelmed by the constant stream of communication that pours in via email, text messaging, telephone, and social media is not a sign of moral failure. “Trying to answer every email as it comes in is like trying to drink from a firehose,” notes Ian Charnas in his book Inbox Zero. Plus, when you are in constant response mode, you let others dictate what you spend your time doing, succumbing to other people’s priorities, instead of focusing on your own. 

So how to best manage your time, boost your productivity, and stay focused on what matters to you? There are countless time management techniques out there: A search for productivity books on Amazon turns up more than 1000 results. Here, I’ve culled a sampling of books designed to help you get sh*t done — some from best-of lists, some penned by well-known time management gurus — and given their techniques a spin. Keep in mind that not every productivity technique is suited to every individual. Choose an approach that addresses your particular problem (Procrastination? Distraction? Disorganization?) and syncs with the way you — and your brain — work. 

1. The Pomodoro Technique: The Acclaimed Time-Management System That Has Transformed How We Work, by Francesco Cirillo

The Pomodoro technique, an oldie but goodie that gets its name from the tomato-shaped timer that Cirillo first used to help him focus, breaks down the workday into smaller  — more manageable — chunks separated by breaks. Frequent breaks are designed to boost mental agility, an idea bolstered by scientific research showing that brief diversions improve focus. While a traditional “pomodoro” is made up of a 25-minute work block and a 5-minute break, you can tailor your time blocks to your own workflow: For me, it’s 45-minute blocks interchanged with 15-minute “breaks” during which I may just get less taxing things done, like walking my dog, watering my plants, or throwing in a load of laundry. 

Who Should Try It
Those who are easily distracted, and those trying to battle procrastination. It’s less intimidating to get started on a 25-minute chunk of a project than on a massive opus that may take hours, days, or even weeks to complete.

2. Get Stuff Done: How to Focus, Be More Productive, Overcome Procrastination, and Master Concentration, by Dominic Mann

“The way to success is not working hard, but working smart,” according to productivity guru Dominic Mann, who points in his book to research indicating that 20 percent of people’s efforts produce 80 percent of their results. Not surprisingly, he suggests prioritizing the higher-value work that will give you the greatest return. He insists that a full calendar and endless to-do list are not signs of productivity; in fact, he recommends focusing on just one thing a day to complete. Task switching, he says, reduces productivity by 40 percent. To develop your “focus muscle,” Mann says, stop multitasking, eliminate distractions (close tabs on your laptop, put the cellphone away), and try using a time-blocking system like Pomodoro. 

Who Should Try It
Those of you who find yourselves focusing on too many tasks at once — and having trouble finishing any of them — will benefit from Mann’s advice.

3. Eat that Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, by Brian Tracy

Like Cirillo, Tracy recommends “slicing and dicing tasks.” That is, breaking large, complex projects into bite-size pieces. But the hallmark of his productivity method is that you should do the hardest thing — the thing you want to procrastinate on most — first. Presumably, this hardest thing — your “frog” — is probably the thing that means the most to you, which is why you keep putting it off. (As Mark Twain once said: “If the first thing you do in the morning is to eat the frog, then you can continue your day with the satisfaction of knowing that this is probably the worst thing that will happen to you all day.”) 

According to Tracy, every minute spent planning can save 5 to 10 minutes in execution. He suggests making a list of your most important goals, slicing and dicing them into actionable steps, and then working on each task to completion. Starting with your frog. 

Who Should Try It
Procrastinators: This book is for you. 

4. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen

The way to maximize output while minimizing input, explains David Allen in this productivity classic, consistently featured on best-of lists, is to think about work before doing it. He advocates creating a system that captures all things you need to get done on an external list (thus getting them out of your mind, where they only serve to distract you and cause stress). Your list should clearly define the actions needed to complete a project, include plans for your next action, and be organized in a way that allows for regular review. Our short-term memory can only focus on two or three things at a time, notes Allen. Stress results when we have too many “open loops,” he says, that is, you haven’t clarified the intended outcome, haven’t decided on the next physical action step, or haven’t put reminders of outcome and actions required into an organized system. If it takes less than two minutes, Allen suggests, do it now. Major projects should be broken down into smaller, quicker, actionable parts. 

Who Should Try It

If you get overwhelmed by projects that generate piles of documentation — or need help focusing on specific actions — Allen’s book will likely help you feel more in control.  

5, First Things First, by Stephen R. Covey

In First Things First, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People offers a guide to prioritizing your goals so that you can be sure to do what’s important, not just what’s urgent. “The main thing,” he writes, “is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Covey helps readers to categorize tasks into four quadrants: Important/Urgent (i.e. deadline-driven projects),  Important/Not Urgent (like preparation and planning), Urgent/Not Important (many phone calls, some meetings), and Not Urgent/Not Important (i.e. junk mail, busywork). He suggests weekly reviews, making appointments with yourself to meet your goals, and treating those appointments the same way you treat appointments with others. 

Who Should Try It
This book is for people striving to create a better balance between work and personal life — and for those who want to make sure the things they are “getting done” are bringing them closer to their ultimate goals in both spheres.

6. Inbox Zero, by Ian Charnas

According to Charnas, the average white collar worker spends 5.2 hours per day on email: No wonder we often feel like we can’t get anything done. Research shows that the more time people spend on email, the more stressed they get; conversely, one study showed that spending even 20 percent less time checking email can cause as much stress reduction as meditation! 

The antidote to email overload, Charnas says, is achieving — and maintaining — “Inbox Zero.” How? For one thing, he says, stop using your inbox as your to-do list. He advocates pausing your inbox (using an app like Boomerang) until you are ready to process it (and limit those processing sessions to a couple times per day); doing your work without distraction (using an organizing system like Allen’s); and that you stop “checking” your email and instead “finish it,” processing incoming messages as Do, Delete, Delegate, or Defer (these go into whatever system you use to keep tabs on future action items). Charnas uses an app called Trello to organize his to-dos into categories like Done, Action items, Project, Waiting for (i.e. a response from someone), and Someday/Maybe. 

Who Should Try It
Eighty-five percent of people suffer from email overload — if you’re one of them, this book’s for you. 

7. How to Be a Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More and Love What You Do, by Graham Allcott

Replete with fun graphics and chock full of practical productivity hacks, Allcott’s book is all about attention management rather than time management. He recommends scheduling your tasks for when your attention is most available for that type of task. Allcott offers tips on how to define the actions you need to take rather than deferring and avoiding tasks. Like Allen, Allcott advocates getting things out of your head “to achieve Zenlike calm,” and having an organized system to keep track of what you need to do.  And like Charnas, he recommends processing email rather than simply “checking” it. He also stresses the importance of saying “no,” both to ourselves (don’t take on too much) and to others (don’t make yourself available 24/7). In a nutshell, Allcott teaches readers to Capture and Collect, Organize, Review, and Do, while timing different types of work to synch with your level of focus. 

 Who Should Try It
Allcott’s practical advice — and hands-on exercises — can help boost anyone’s productivity but is particularly useful for those struggling to focus their attention or having trouble completing tasks. 

8. Time Warrior: How to Defeat Procrastination, People-pleasing, Self-doubt, Over-commitment, Broken Promises and Chaos, by Steve Chandler

Chandler urges readers to become “Time Warriors,” wielding their “swords” to carve out uninterrupted time, to cut out “the unnecessary,” and to “dismember” procrastination. According to Chandler, we procrastinate because our mind makes all future tasks seem big and scary. But if we commit to taking action now — even a “tiny action,” devoting just three minutes to a dreaded task — we often see that the task is actually easier than expected. Chandler insists his is not a “time-management” technique; instead, he offers a non-linear approach to dealing with time, advocating that readers focus on action in the present moment rather than on future goals. He instructs readers to look at a task and make a decision: Do it now, schedule it, or forget it. Don’t multitask, he advises; instead, slow down and focus on just one thing. And don’t let other people clutter up your day. 

Who Should Try It
Chandler’s book may prove helpful to those focusing on too many things at once, or  those who have trouble completing projects. 

9. Personal Kanban: Mapping Work/Navigating Life, by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry 

Kanban means “signboard” in Japanese, and the Personal Kanban provides a way of mapping out your work, and thus visualizing your workflow. Barry and Benson teach readers to literally create a picture of all their to-do’s, turning abstract ideas and tasks into tangible things they can touch (i.e. sticky notes labeled with different tasks). Creating a personal kanban board is strangely satisfying: You place your tasks into different sections — Ready, Doing, Done, and Backlog — and physically move them (from Backlog to Ready, Ready to Doing, and finally, upon completion, from Doing to Done) as you attack each task. According to the authors, limiting works-in-progress (items under “Doing”) to three tasks will actually help you to accomplish more. Like Allen’s system, the Personal Kanban enables you to get things out of your mind and onto paper so that they aren’t as stress-inducing and distracting.

Who Should Try It
Personal Kanban is best for the visually-oriented, or anyone looking for a simple system for managing projects. 

10. Work Clean: The Life-Changing Power of Mise-en-Place to Organize Your Life, Work and Mind, by Dan Charnas

Borrowing from the culinary world, Charnas takes the concept of mise-en-place — which technically means “putting-in-place” and refers to the way chefs gather, prepare, and organize all the necessary ingredients before cooking — and applies it to work productivity. According to Charnas, there is a difference between working hard and working clean: Working clean means physically putting in place all the tools you’ll need to complete a task (and removing from the workspace anything that’s not needed) and mentally organizing the actions you need to take (i.e. planning what needs to be done and sequencing tasks on a timeline). He teaches readers to do work with an economy of time, space, motion and thought, adhering to mise-en-place principles such as  “Finishing Actions,” “Cleaning as You Go,” and “Slowing Down to Speed Up.” 

Who Should Try It
If you are feeling disorganized, this book can help you unclutter your workspace — and your mind — and work more efficiently. 

*Honorable Mention: While not technically a productivity book, I must give a shout-out to my Productivity Planner by Intelligent Change, which is full of useful productivity tactics, many gleaned from the works above. (Plus, remember how getting things out of your mind and onto paper reduces stress and eliminates internal distractions?) The planner is based on the Pomodoro Technique, but the book’s front matter offers a mash-up of productivity hacks from top time-management gurus, including planning ahead, doing the most important task first, and focusing on just two to three items per day. The “Weekly Review” pages provide the opportunity to reflect on what worked and consider what you might do more efficiently — so you can get even more stuff done in the weeks ahead. 

Tell us what you think.
Leave your comments below