The Ultimate Guide to Productivity
Being an entrepreneur can have you feeling overwhelmed. There is so much to get done every single day, and until you're able to start scaling the organization and putting people and processes in place to lighten the workload, it's all you.
When I got started with my first company, it wasn't uncommon to put in a minimum 60 hour week. I don't do that anymore, but in the beginning, it's certainly par for the course.
So with all of that coming at you, what's the best way to structure your day? How do you make sure you're getting the most important things done while also not losing track and letting things slip through the cracks? How do you stop worrying about what needs to get done?
I'll walk you through a step-by-step process of organizing your day to maximize your effectiveness and minimize your stress. Each step will give you an action plan that you can put into place right away so that your productivity can rapidly be improved.
Step #1 - Determine where your inbox is
One of the main problems people face with productivity and getting organized is that they face a barrage from all angles - emails coming in, voicemails on their phone, instant messages, sticky notes, etc... The solution is to figure out a central place for all of these different types of communications to flow into. For most people, the best place to start is their email inbox. However, start with where most of your communications currently come into. This doesn't mean that you're going to work out of your email inbox, but rather things should all flow into your email inbox first.
For the remainder of this article, I'm going to use email as an example as that's what most people's communication centralized are going to be. It's not uncommon for new entrepreneurs (and even experienced ones!) to have overflowing inboxes. By following this method, I guarantee you'll get to inbox zero each and every day.
Next, figure out any other points where new communications, tasks, and ideas come into your workflow.
For example, if people call you and leave a voicemail how does that get to you? If you get a new idea during the day where do you write that down? If someone needs something from you how do they get ahold of you?
The idea here is to take all of these other points of communication and funnel them all into your inbox. For example, I use my email as my inbox. If somebody calls and leaves a voicemail for me, the phone system that I use forwards me the voice mail message as an attachment to my email inbox. If I'm out and about and have an idea that I want to pursue at a later time I send myself an email. If I'm on the phone with somebody and they ask me for something that I'm unable to take care of at the time I tell them to shoot me an email, and I'll get back to them. Do some brainstorming on each one and figure out a way to get all of these coming into your inbox first.
By doing this, you can create one system where all of your incoming communications flow into which enormously simplifies things in terms of managing those communications. The other benefit is that because you know all communications are getting captured through a centralized point, you're not missing anything. This allows your mind to be able to relax and not worry.
Step #2 - Set Your Schedule
The next step is to determine an optimal schedule to go through all the items in your inbox.
When I first started, I kept my email open all day long. This is absolutely the worst thing you can do for your productivity. If you're doing this now, stop IMMEDIATELY. This includes having email on your phone. If you're doing this, remove it from your phone right now. Seriously, don't move on to the next sentence until you've closed your e-mail application and removed email from your phone.
Breaking this one habit alone will skyrocket your productivity on a daily basis. If you leave your email open all day long and work out of your inbox, you're allowing other people to dictate your priorities and what you work on throughout the day. Now, if you're in a support or account management role (anything that is directly customer-facing), you may need to check email more frequently in the beginning. However, this should motivate you to get to a point where you can hire an employee or contractor to take over this role as soon as you can. This will free you up to make better use of your time and make a more effective contribution to the business every day.
Here's the method that I used to ratchet down how often I checked e-mail:
- I started changing things so that I only checked email as I finished a task on my list for the day which usually meant I would check it about every hour or so.
- From there I switched to checking it at specific times throughout the day. I started with four times - once right in the morning, once before lunch, once mid-afternoon, and once before the end of the day.
- Later, I moved that down to three times a day - once first thing in the morning, once right after lunch, and once at the end of the day.
- Next, I ratcheted it down again to twice a day - once mid-morning, and once mid-afternoon.
- When I felt comfortable that that was working okay, I finally switched to only checking email once per day.
I check email typically at about 11 each day, and then I shut it off. This allows me to stay focused on the things that matter most and also gives me a sense of freedom that I don't have to be tethered to my email all day long.
As a side bonus, checking your e-mail more infrequently tends to prevent more email from coming to you. It signals to people that you're not as readily available which causes people to start looking for their own solutions, and it prevents endless back and forth of small messages all day long.
I know some other entrepreneurs that only check e-mail two or three times a week. It's hard to explain the sense of freedom that getting unchained from your email brings. Get this process going, and you'll be able to experience it first hand.
Step #3 - Quickly Get Through Your Inbox
Now that everything is flowing into one, centralized inbox and you're checking it on a certain schedule, you need to know how to blast through everything that's there. Otherwise, even though you're only checking your inbox sparingly, you'll still live in your inbox all day long trying to take action on every communication coming in rather than evaluating the best course of action. It's about working smarter, not harder.
I'll first take you through some rules to follow as you go through your inbox and then we'll tackle what to do with each item.
Rule #1 - Go Through Your Inbox Newest to Oldest
Start with the most recent items and go down to the oldest. The reason you want to do it in this order is that because many times there will be several communications all about the same topic and if you're going through them oldest to newest instead, you may end up wasting time going through things you don't need to. In my experience, this can save you from having to look through 10-15% of the items in your inbox.
You might be concerned that if you're running through things from newest to oldest that you might miss some important things that were sent a while ago. No need to worry. You're going to go through EVERY item in there in (ideally in under 30 minutes) so everything will have a chance to get addressed.
Rule #2 - Don't Move on Until the Current Item is Processed
Look at it each item one by one and get it handled before moving on to the next item. If you've spent the time to read and think about an item in your inbox, make sure you decide on what to do with it. The worst thing you could do is move on to another item because now all that time is sunk and you'll have to spend it again whenever you come back to the item later. Read it once, decide, and move on to the next thing.
Rule #3 - Don't Get Stuck on an Item
Expect to spend no more than 30 to 60 minutes going through your email depending on how much volume is in there. In general, try not to spend more than a minute on each item. For me, I average about 30 seconds per item. So if my inbox is full of a hundred messages, I'm going to spend about a half an hour at most clearing it out completely.
This is totally achievable - you've got this!
Rule #4 - Don't Waste Time Organizing
Again, using email as an example, many people will create subfolders in their inbox to organize communications so they can locate them later. They will literally put every single email they get into a folder structure so they can find things they need later. This may not seem like it takes a lot of time, but as the folder structure grows over time, it can add a decent amount of time to process your inbox, with little to no benefit. If you use Gmail for example, the search is phenomenal, and the folder structure isn't needed.
On the other side of the spectrum, I've seen people that simply keep everything in their inbox and tag things in different ways to know if they've gone through them. This method can be very confusing, and in most cases, things will slip, and you'll miss something.
The easy way to handle things is to simply create one subfolder off your inbox called "Processed" and throw everything in there that you've gone through, leaving your inbox to only be your remaining items. It's simple, and it works. I have easily over 15 years worth of email in a single "Processed" folder, with my inbox left for things I need to deal with. I've never had a problem finding something and I rarely if ever, miss anything.
What to do With Each Item
As you look at each item, ask yourself the following 3 questions:
Question #1 - Does this need to be dealt with at all?
What's the impact if I take no action? If the answer is that the email is inconsequential then move it to "Processed" and move on to the next item.
Question #2 - Can/should somebody else deal with this?
If so, forward the email to somebody else on your team to handle and schedule a follow-up to make sure that I got completed. Make sure to move it to "Processed."
Question #3 - Will it take me less than 5 minutes to deal with?
If so, take care of it right then because it'll take you more time to figure out what to do with it and re-read things later than to just handle it.
Everything else gets added to one of your lists which I'll describe shortly.
Once you've processed an item, make sure to move it to "Processed" and get it out of the inbox when done. Once you've gone through all your items, you're at inbox zero, and you can get back to working through your priorities for the day.
Now you may be saying to yourself sure there's nothing in the inbox anymore, but you didn't take care of all of those emails, they just got moved around. In a sense you are correct however there is a very important difference. You cut out a lot of unnecessary email on the front end (things that aren't important or someone else can handle .) You've also now created a system where you decide what you work on and when you work on it versus somebody else dictating your daily schedule. Plus there's just something so refreshing about having an empty inbox every single day. Clear inbox, clear mind.
Creating Your Lists
If you take a look at everything you have to do all at once, it quickly becomes overwhelming and stressful. That's why we're going to partition your tasks out into lists. Your lists are simply collections of tasks you have to complete, but they're organized methodically. The goal with your lists is to allow you to focus on a very small subset of your tasks at a given time and know that you're working on the right things so you can just forget about everything else.
For example, I probably have between 200-300 tasks between all my lists, but I'm only ever looking at 8-10 of them at a time. This allows me to work with a clear head and give all my focus on the most important things.
What Are the Lists?
You want to have the following lists that you maintain at all times:
- This Week
- This Month
- This Year
You can keep these lists in a digital text document, written in a planner, etc. I like using a program called Todoist, but this part of it is entirely up to you. The important part is that you have and maintain these lists regularly. However, I will say that for me, having something digital saves a lot of time. It allows me to reorganize things easily if I need to.
How to Put New Items on Your Lists
We'll break down new items in two different ways - urgency and importance. Urgency dictates when a task needs to be done, and Importance dictates the priority a task has.
This matrix created by urgency and importance is attributed to Dwight D. Eisenhower.
"What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important."
- Dwight D. Eisenhower
How Urgent Is It?
In other words, does this need to be taken care of today or at least in the next couple of days? Or can it wait for a while? If it can't wait, pop it on either your "Today" or "This Week" list depending on how urgent it is. Everything else goes on your "This Month," "This Year," or "Future" lists depending on when it needs to be done by.
Note: when you're deciding which list it goes on, make sure to use the time period where it MUST be done by versus the time period where you WANT it to be done by. Otherwise, you'll end up with a ton of tasks that all need to be done right now. This doesn't help you at all, so make sure to keep this in mind. Remember that tasks are seldom as urgent as we feel they are.
How Important Is It?
Does this particular task move you closer to your goals? How much does it move the needle for you? What sort of consequences would you face if this task wasn't completed? Many tasks seem important, but when you ask yourself these questions, you can see them in a different light.
When you're placing a task on one of your lists based on its urgency, the importance will dictate the order in which you complete those tasks, in other words, which position on the list that task goes (#1, #2, etc.)
Keep in mind that urgency is very different from importance. Urgency is how soon something needs to be completed, whereas importance is how much impact something has. Here are a few examples:
Priority #1 - Urgent and Important
These are your emergency tasks. Something is on fire, and you are forced to react to it. It has a significant impact on your business and needs to be addressed right away. An example would be that your website is down and orders can't be placed. Ideally, you want to minimize these types of tasks. If you noticed that you always have a lot of them, then you need to do an analysis to determine the root cause of the issue and get it fixed.
Priority #2 - Not Urgent but Important
These tasks should be the meat of what you work on every single day. Most of what's on your plate should fall into this category - that's the goal. These tasks don't need to be completed today, but in completing them, they are moving you one step closer to moving the needle on your business. They directly impact your plan. Generally, these tasks are taken directly from your quarterly planning session. Or they contribute to those tasks or the metrics that you want to move forward currently.
Priority #3 - Urgent but not Important
Typically these are the tasks that you can delegate to someone else. They may be unimportant in the sense that they don't directly move one of your quarterly goals forward or they don't directly impact a key metric of your business, but there will be some kind of consequence for not getting it done. If you don't have somebody that can help with these tasks you can work on tackling them after youth finished working on priority #2 tasks for the day.
Priority #4 - Not Urgent and Not Important
If you have anything in this category, it may be because you're just afraid to remove it from your list. In many cases that's the answer - to not even deal with it but just delete it off of your list. However, sometimes you need a place for ideas that you may want to revisit it sometime in the future, and this is a good place for those things to live.
Your Daily Routine For Maximum Productivity
At the beginning of each day, you're going to first Schedule and then Work.
Future->This Year->This Month->This Week->Today
In order to maximize your productivity and work the system correctly, you're going to go through your lists at the start of each day, with some special things that need to be done on certain days. Note, you don't need to go through all your lists every day, just the situations mentioned below:
The First Day of Every Year
Review everything on your "Future" list and move anything that must be in the new year over to your "This Year" list. Note, there's an emphasis on MUST be done here. Make sure to maintain the importance of a task to keep your lists in order of priority.
The First Day of Every Month
Review everything on your "This Year" list and move anything that must be done in the current month over to your "This Month" list.
Monday of Every Week
Review everything on your "This Month" list and move anything that must be done in the current week over to your "This Week" list.
Review everything on your "This Week" list and move anything that must be done in the current week over to your "This Week" list.
Add reminders for each of these on your calendar, or if you use an app like Todoist, you can schedule it to remind you in the future.
Today->This Week->This Month->This Year->Future
Now that you know what needs to be done, you only have to worry about the tasks at hand. Throughout the course of your day, work through your "Today" list. It should already be in priority order, so you only need to worry about the next task on your list - forget about the rest. Don't worry about item #2, item #3, etc. Grab the item off the top of your list, put all your focus on it, and get it done.
This creates a system where at any given time you only have to worry about a very small subset of all the things you could be doing. This frees your mind, reduces your stress and anxiety, and allows you to just focus on the important thing at hand right now. If you follow the system properly, you have peace of mind that you haven't let anything fall through the cracks.
Since you've only been moving over items on your lists that MUST be done, you should be able to complete everything on your "Today" list before the end of your workday. From there, you can move on and start knocking out some extra things on your "This Week" list. If that's empty, move on to "This Month," etc...
If you aren't able to complete everything on your "Today" list, follow these steps to see where the issue is:
- When you're scheduling, make sure that everything you're moving over MUST be done (go through your lists and potentially move some items back that you might've prematurely moved forward)
- Go through your tasks and reask yourself:
- Does this need to be dealt with at all?
- What's the impact if I take no action
- Can/should somebody else deal with this?
By getting real with the answers to these, you might be able to remove some items.
- Go through your tasks and figure out what might be able to be automated so that you don't have to do them.
- Use the five whys analysis to get to the root of why you have to do tasks that are taking up most of your time.
- Still not sure what to do? Email me your task lists, and I'll give you an outside perspective on it (forrest at forresthatfield.com). Seriously, I love this stuff; I'm glad to help.
This system has immensely changed my life, and I hope that this guide helps you to dramatically increase your productivity as well!