Time Mastery Hacks from Productive Leaders
It's no secret that the world is a fast-paced place. (Understatement of the century?) We're constantly inundated with new information, technology, and change, which, for many of us, only seems to be getting more so. It can be overwhelming. So, when we don't take the time to plan our days, we can easily lose focus and become less productive. This can lead to even more stress and anxiety as we try to play catch-up. Additionally, not planning our days can also lead to missed opportunities and goals.
In order to combat this, it's important to learn how to be more productive in our everyday lives. And while there are many different ways to increase productivity, one of the most important is learning how to effectively plan out each day.
Effectively Planning Your Day
First, you need to define what "done" means so you can realistically plan (and stop when it's 'done' – no perfectionism allowed). This may mean setting a daily or weekly goal for what you want to achieve. For example, if your goal is to author a novel, "done" could mean writing 1,000 words each day. If your goal is to get in shape, "done" could mean going to the gym three times a week. Once you have a clear understanding of what "done" looks like, you can start to realistically plan your days.
Next you need to decide what end results would make the day a success for you. This will help you focus on what's truly important and let go of anything that isn't. This step involves really thinking about what you want and need to achieve. If you don't know what results you want, it's pretty hard to plan your day effectively!
The next step is to break down those desired results into tasks - the actions you need to take to make the day a success. Be mindful of what you choose to prioritize, you don't want to waste time doing tasks that won't help you achieve your daily goals. This is also a great time to note any tasks that you can delegate to others to lighten your load.
Once you've decided what "done" looks like, selected your goals for the day, and broken those goals down into tasks, it's time to actually start planning and preparing.
What does that look like? For many people it involves planning out times throughout the day for specific prioritized tasks. It's helpful to start with the most important tasks first, so that if you get distracted or have something come up later in the day you've still accomplished the most important task(s) for the day.
Part of the planning process also involves preparing. Making sure you have all the resources you need is an important piece of the productivity puzzle. To combat this, you can sketch out a general plan for your week in advance and list the resources you need to obtain or access for each task. Especially if it’s something you need from someone else; preparing in advance allows time for you to get all of those things together.
Along the same vein preparing in advance, it’s important to plan ahead as well. For most people this looks like a daily plan in addition to some sort of weekly or monthly plan. Planning ahead allows you to allocate your time appropriately in order to achieve your goals. If you want to complete a large number of work tasks but you also have several doctor appointments, meetings, kids’ activities, etc. that week, you’ll quickly see that you don’t have as much time as you thought and you can prioritize tasks accordingly.
You can also use productivity technology that's available to you to make your tasks easier. There are so many tools available today that can automate processes or at least make them simpler or faster to complete. Digital planners, Google Calendar, productivity apps, AI tools, scheduling tools, etc. are all technology resources you can utilize to make your life (and work!) easier. Don’t get so caught up in finding the “perfect” technology to use either – the best tools are the ones you will use consistently. Pro tip: Some people are reluctant to pay a fee for productivity technology, but many times it is absolutely worth it. Freeing up more of your time allows you to do more tasks and make more money. If you utilize productivity tools efficiently, you’ll make way more money in return than you spend on the tool itself. Plus, those expenses are typically able to be written off on your taxes if you are a business owner.
One more tip for planning and preparing purposes – create a morning routine. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or complicated. In fact, that’s exactly what you don’t want! Having an easy-to-follow, set routine to start your day helps to put you in productivity mode.
Knocking out those morning routine tasks will get you motivated to complete more throughout the day. Having a morning routine also helps provide structure and discipline, especially if you work from home. It's all too easy to fall off track without structure to your day. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing, you’ll spend your time spinning your wheels.
8 Strategies for More Productivity
1. The Warren Buffet Strategy
This strategy has three steps:
Step 1: Write down your top twenty-five goals. This could be career goals, personal goals, weekly goals, annual goals, etc.)
Step 2: Go over your list and circle your top 5 goals. Make sure take some time with this part; don’t rush it!
STOP – Do NOT proceed to Step 3 until you have done the two steps above first.
Step 3: Now you essentially have two lists: the circled items are List A, and the remaining items are List B. So logically the next thing to do is start on your most important tasks. Well, not exactly. Here’s the catch – Buffet says this, “Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Costs list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your Top 5.” For Step 3, you only want to focus on working on the items on List A.
Why it works:
Eliminating things you care about is the most difficult part of this productivity method. Those twenty items on List B are things you care about, just like the items on List A. They are tasks that important to you for one reason or another. It’s super easy to tell yourself that you’re being productive while spending time on those twenty tasks. But when you hold them up to your top five goals, those other tasks are simply distractions from your biggest goals. Spending your limited time on secondary priorities may just be the reason you still have twenty half-completed projects instead of five finished ones.
2. The Ivy Lee Strategy
Step 1: At the end of each day, jot down the six most important tasks you must accomplish the next day. ONLY six. Don’t write more than that. These can be work or personal tasks.
(You could actually do a separate list for both!)
Step 2: Prioritize those six tasks in order of how important they are and how much they will have an impact on your end goals.
Step 3: The next day when you start working, focus ONLY on the first task. Work on it until it is finished before you move on to the next item on the list.
Step 4: Continue down the list, marking off each item as you complete it. Remember, you prioritized this list yesterday, so there’s no need to jump around between tasks – stick with the priority order you already lined up.
Step 5: At the end of the day, move any tasks you didn’t complete to a new list of six tasks for the next day. This is also a good time to re-evaluate each item and decide if it’s really one of the most important tasks you need to complete.
Step 6: Repeat this process every day (or every working day)
Why does it work?
Simply put, it works because it’s simple. This strategy requires you to make hard decisions. One of the best things you can do when your brain is full of ideas, or you are feeling overwhelmed by your to-do list is to trim the fat. It forces you to get really serious with yourself when you are focused on eliminating those tasks that aren’t absolutely necessary. We all have a myriad of things we’d like to do, and we may even consider many of those things to be tasks we must do. But the truth is that imposing limits on yourself can make you a more productive person. If you try to do everything, you usually end up getting nothing meaningful accomplished.
This strategy also eliminates the friction of starting. For most people, getting started is the biggest hurdle! Creating your prioritized list the day before allows you to just sit down and get to work the next day without spending hours waffling back and forth about what to work on. Just getting started is as important to your success as finishing.
Finally, effective productivity strategies require focus, and this strategy works because it gets rid of multi-tasking. As much as people like to think they are multi-tasking machines that can accomplish all the things at once, science says otherwise. Multi-tasking has been shown repeatedly to be inefficient. You can’t do great on the task at hand when your attention is divided a million different ways.
3. The Anthony Trollope Strategy
This strategy is even more simple than the others. Trollope simply did the following:
Step 1: Set a timer for 15 minutes.
Step 2: Write 250 words before the timer goes off.
Step 3: Repeat 12 times throughout the day for a total of 3 hours.
With this simple method, Trollope completed 47 novels, 18 non-fiction books, 12 short stories, and 2 plays, in addition to multiple articles and letters.
“This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year…” —Anthony Trollope
Why does it work?
Anthony Trollope was an author (obviously) and writing a book is a pretty big project. It’s impossible to complete in one sitting, much less one day. So instead of tracking progress by how many books or chapters he wrote, Trollope simply aimed for 250 words in 15 minutes, multiple times a day. This allowed him to feel accomplished and successful each day because, even though he wasn’t writing an ENTIRE book that day, he was completing 3,000 words towards the overall project daily.
Measuring progress in smaller increments helps you to keep the momentum going throughout a bigger task. And more momentum means more progress, which means even more tasks will get completed overall. This strategy applies to any big projects, not just writing ones. Think about how you can break your tasks out into highly productive, 15-minute segments throughout the day.
The quicker you finish a task and check it off of your to-do list, the faster you will feel like you are being productive and effective each day. This early win can be a crucial part of keeping your attitude upbeat and your drive going as you complete the remainder of your tasks throughout the day.
Simply put, Anthony Trollope’s strategy allows you to get the immediate pay-off of finishing a task quickly as well as the long-term value that comes from working on your most important goals.
4. The Eisenhower Matrix Strategy
The Eisenhower Matrix strategy uses a decision matrix to help you prioritize all the tasks you have on your to-do list. There are four different categories: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, and neither urgent nor important.
Urgent and important – these are tasks you need to do right away
Important, but not urgent – these are tasks you should schedule to do later
Urgent, but not important – these are tasks you can (and should!) delegate to someone else
Neither urgent nor important – these are tasks that you should just remove from your to-do list completely
As you start each day, it’s important to look back at the previous day’s matrix to see what urgent and important tasks you didn’t complete. Those need to either be at the top of your list for the day or you need to decide if you can delegate them right away. Or they aren’t as urgent as you initially thought, and you can move them to the section of the matrix for later scheduling. Remember, urgent tasks are those that you need to react to or take action on right away, whereas important tasks are things that help you reach your long-term goals.
Why does it work?
One of the best things about the Eisenhower Matrix is that you can use more than one for bigger plans (weekly, monthly, etc.) and for smaller daily tasks as well. The other great thing about it is that you can use it to help you make decisions and prioritize, over and over.
But what really makes it shine? The Eisenhower Matrix requires you to make tough decisions about your goals and all the tasks on your plate. The fourth quadrant of the matrix, the tasks that are not important nor urgent, is the secret.
Too often we equate busy-ness with productivity, and that is not the case. In fact, the fastest way to get something “done” is to eliminate it entirely. This strategy gives you a chance to regularly evaluate each task and ask yourself, “Do I really need to be doing this?” It takes a little more thought and effort, but the time and energy you save on those eliminated tasks will be well worth it!
5. Newton's Laws Strategies
Newton’s First Law of Motion states this, “An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force. (Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest.)”
We can easily apply this same principle to productivity. People at rest tend to stay at rest, but that also means that the opposite is true - people in motion tend to stay in motion. When it comes to productivity, this means that the most important thing you can do is just get started. Once you get started it is much easier to continue. You don’t even have to start with the intention of completely finishing the task! Need to exercise? Just start with one exercise, one repetition. You’ll find that it’s incredibly easy to do another, and another, and another. And the next thing you know, you’ll be done! Just get in motion.
Newton’s Second Law of Motion states, “The vector sum of the forces on an object is equal to the mass of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector of the object. (Force equals mass times acceleration.)”
In other words, this law means that if you want to get an object to accelerate in a particular direction, then the amount of force you apply and the direction of said force will both have an impact. The same is true for getting things accomplished in your life. Productivity isn’t just about how much work you put in (magnitude), but also where that work is applied (direction). You have a limited amount of force (energy); where you spend that energy matters!
And finally, Newton’s Third Law of Motion says, “When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body. (Equal and opposite forces.)”
Your typical productivity and efficiency level is the result of the productive and unproductive forces in your life. Productive forces are things like focus, motivation, drive, and positivity. Unproductive forces include things such as poor sleep quality, stress, poor eating habits, and overextending yourself.
In order to become more productive and efficient, you must either increase your productive force or eliminate unproductive forces. Increasing your productive force is possible, but it often results in exhaustion and burnout. The better option is to work to remove unproductive forces from your life instead. You can do this by reducing your stress level, taking on fewer responsibilities, living a healthy lifestyle, setting appropriate boundaries, etc. It’s all about removing those obstacles that are holding you back.
6. The Essentialism Strategy
Essentialism at its core is about discernment in the way you make decisions – with a slow, carefully considered “yes” or a quick, decisive “no.” It’s about recognizing all of your responsibilities and homing in on what is most essential to you. Being more intentional about your choices will allow you to have more control over your daily life, and therefore more time and energy available for productivity.
Step 1: Write each task down on a separate piece of paper (like a sticky note).
Step 2: Look at everything you have written in front of you and ask yourself, “If I could only keep one of these, which would it be?” Place the chosen task’s paper face down.
Step 3: Repeat Step 2 again with the remaining tasks. Once you’ve selected one, place it face down on top on the first task you selected.
Step 4: Repeat until all the papers are in one stack.
Step 5: Flip the stack over and work from the top, as you’ve just prioritized your to-do list!
Why does it work?
Saying “yes” to everything (or making no decision at all) means giving up your choice and losing control. Your purpose is greater than just being someone else’s workhorse. When you don’t make your own choices, you can’t work towards where you want to be, in either work or life. This often results in being overextended, stressed, frustrated, and less effective. Practicing discernment and saying “no” more frequently can take some work, but it gets easier as you go.
7. Personal Kanban Strategy
Personal Kanban is a system based on Lean manufacturing principles but applied on a personal level. Personal Kanban only has two rules: make your list visual and limit your work-in-progress (WIP). It’s a strategy that anyone can use, regardless of their situation, age, or learning style. Its visual nature is also great for those that struggle with figuring out where to begin working on tasks for the day.
Step 1: Create a board or poster with three columns: To-Do, In Progress, and Complete.
Step 2: Make a sticky note (also called a “card”) for each thing you need to complete.
Step 3: Add each sticky note to the To-Do column.
Step 4: Label each sticky note task as high, medium, or low priority
Step 5: Choose 2-3 tasks and place them in the In Progress column and get to work.
Step 6: As you complete each task, move it to the Complete column. Then take another task from the To-Do column and move it over to In Progress.
Step 7: Rinse and repeat.
Why does it work?
Personal Kanban gives you a visual system to prioritize your tasks in a way that promotes both balance and productivity. People often overextend themselves or bounce between unfinished products, so having a visual reminder of the In Progress tasks is helpful for keeping you on track and focused. Make sure to always move a new task into the In Progress column as you complete other tasks. This ensures that you will have a steady flow of tasks, which leads to increased productivity and effectiveness. It’s also a really great way to keep you focused on only 2-3 tasks at any given time, helping to prevent overwhelm and burnout.
8. The Attention Span & Energy Strategy
This strategy utilizes block scheduling to take advantage of your most productive times during the day. Your attention span and energy levels have a massive impact on productivity and distractibility. Focusing on harder and more time-consuming tasks during your most alert and productive hours will yield much better results.
Step 1: Evaluate your current calendar/schedule – Start by tracking how you spend your time for a week. Include every activity (even the mindless social media scrolling!) and how much time you spend on each thing. Once you have a better idea of how you are spending your time, it will be much easier to create a new, more efficient schedule.
Step 2: Look for patterns – Review your activities from the previous week and group the tasks into categories such as meetings, creative work, email, social media, household tasks, family time, etc. Alternatively, you can categorize tasks based on how you feel while doing them, or how they impact your energy levels on a scale from 1 to 10. Any of those methods will work; it’s all about what makes the most sense for you.
Step 3: Organize your time blocks – Use the categorization in Step 2 to help you lay out blocks of time throughout the day. Be sure to plan the most intensive tasks during your high energy times. You may have to play around with the schedule to find what works best for you, but here’s an example for inspiration:
8:00-9:00am – Check and respond to emails 9:00-10:00am – Marketing tasks 10:00-10:15am – Snack/walk break 10:15am-10:45am – Fold laundry and clean bathrooms 10:45-11:45am – Phone calls 11:45-12:15pm – Lunch/walk break 12:15-1:00pm – Prep things for dinner 1:00-2:00pm – Outsourcing check-ins/assignments 2:00-2:30pm – Customer support tasks 2:30-3:30pm – Graphic design work 3:30-4:00pm – Evaluate today’s progress and create a schedule for tomorrow
Bonus Tip: Create day themes – some people find that switching gears during the day causes them to get distracted and lose focus. If that’s the case for you, try day themes instead. Monday can be marketing day, Tuesday can be creative workday, etc. If you choose to go this route, be sure to schedule in a family/rest day as well to rejuvenate yourself.
Why does it work?
Block scheduling can be a great tool to combat procrastination. When you know you only have 30 minutes to get something done, it’s much easier to stay focused and on task. It’s also a good way to get a better grasp on how much time it takes you to complete different tasks. We have a tendency to underestimate how long things will take to complete – using a block schedule for a few weeks will give you a much better idea of how much time you really need to complete things. Finally, when your schedule doesn’t allow space for mindless tasks like chatting with friends or scrolling social media, you’ll find that it’s much easier to pay attention to the task at hand.
Now let's talk about distractions. Distractions are anything that pulls our attention away from what we are trying to focus on. These annoying distractions can break our concentration and make it difficult to get work done. By determining the triggers that cause distractions and finding ways to eliminate those triggers, you can work towards an environment that is more conducive to productivity.
There are two types of distractions - external, like a phone notification, or internal, like a thought that pops into our head. External distractions are usually easier to eliminate than internal ones, but both can be detrimental to productivity. Internal distractions are a bit more difficult to control, but there are still things you can do to minimize them.
In order to eliminate distractions, we first have to determine what the triggers are. For example, a notification ding on your phone causes you to pick up the phone and check it, and then maybe you think you’ll check Facebook really quick and the next thing you know it’s been 30 minutes! Or say you choose to work in the living room and the television is on in the background – you’ll catch yourself listening or watching the tv without even realizing it.
Some common distraction triggers include:
Noise: Whether it is music, phone notifications, people talking, or other sounds, noise can be a huge distraction. If possible, find a quiet place to work or invest in a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones. Turn off all unnecessary notification sounds on your devices as well.
Visual stimuli: Something that catches our eye can be enough to break our concentration. If possible, work in a place with minimal visual distractions or use a screen blocker to help you focus. A big visual distraction we all deal with are the notifications on your phone screen. Even if you silence your phone, if you still have it out where you can see it, you may still be distracted by the notifications that you see pop up.
Interruptions: Whether it’s a colleague wanting to chat or an unexpected phone call, interruptions can quickly derail your productivity. If possible, let people know you’re busy and can’t be interrupted or set aside time specifically for returning calls.
Wandering thoughts: Our minds can be our own worst enemy when it comes to concentration. If your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to the task at hand. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you get distracted—just refocus and move on.
Anxiety: Worrying about a project can make it difficult to focus on anything else. If you’re feeling anxious, take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that you can handle the task at hand.
Exhaustion: Trying to do too much can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, which makes it difficult to focus on anything. If you’re feeling tired or burned out, take a break, or even consider cutting back on your workload until you’re feeling better.
Hunger: Failing to eat breakfast or lunch can cause you to feel hungry, tired, and unfocused. To combat this, eat a power-packed breakfast and keep healthy, fulfilling snacks with you. Be sure to schedule time to take a lunch break as well!
More Distraction Eliminating Tips
-Mute your phone notifications and flip your phone over so you can’t see the screen -Turn off the television and put the remote in an out-of-the-way place -Keep snacks and water by your work area -Eat healthy meals during the day to prevent hungry-brain -Get plenty of sleep each night -Set “office hours” for yourself -Use a timer to work for dedicated periods of time -Use fun things you enjoy as an incentive for completing a period of dedicated work -Track what you spend your time on -Focus on one task at a time – multi-tasking often leads to distractions -Plan your day the night before so that you can get right to work in the morning
The missing piece to the productivity puzzle is oftentimes clarity. Using a strategy like the ones shared above can be an excellent way to get clear on what “done” means to you, what goals and tasks are most important to you, and what your biggest distraction triggers are. Try a new method out for a few weeks and see what the results are. You may need to try another method after that, or you may find that your productivity has already begun to improve. Regardless of what method you choose to use, the most important thing is that it’s something that works for you that you will stick with long-term.