Being ‘too busy’ is not productive. Prioritize and focus on what matters.

Productivity has been a topic of huge interest to me over the past few years. In fact, when having a discussion with a friend, I told her that my goal is to help people be more productive. Not happy, productive. If people are productive, my thinking went, they would be doing the things they love and thus be happy.

I may have gotten my thinking reversed, but one thing is still clear. To be successful at work, and in life, you must spend your time on the right things. You must be confident in how your spend your time to eliminate two common fears. (1) Fear of wasting your time or (2) fear of not having enough time to do things. Managing your time is critical because you can’t get any more of it, you’ll always have 24 hours in a day. Being productive, then, is about focusing that time on the most important things and deprioritizing the rest.

Be clear on what is important to you

First, you must be clear on what matters to you. What is it that will truly bring the change that you need in your life? What are the actions that will help you accomplish those goals? You must clarify what you want to accomplish. Sit down and make a plan. If you have difficulties, find resources to help you. But don’t skip this step.

If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much.

– Jim Rohn

The book Designing Your Life has been a great asset for me. It helped me crisply define a work view and a life view. Combined, my work view and my life view help me define a true North which I can follow as I navigate through life. An interesting insight I had was that although my work view and life view are compatible, I have ignored aspects of my life view due to focusing only on my work view. Taking the time to reflect on this helped me identify the right priorities to focus on, both inside and outside of work.

As you grow older and hopefully wiser, you will pursue different passions and your interests may change. Just make sure that you are true to yourself and what really matters to you.

Make time for what matters

You may have already defined what is important to you. It feels like January 1 when you have your list of resolutions that you know, for sure, you’ll stick to this year. Except that February 1 comes around and you don’t even remember what your resolutions were. Life happens. You still only have 24 hours in a day and this just didn’t fit in. It isn’t enough to know what matters to you. You must make time for what matters most to you.

I like the framework of Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand. I first heard about it in this YouTube video. Take the 2 minutes to watch if you haven’t already.

Identify your rocks. Know what you must do to get to where you want to be. Don’t let anything else fill your jar and prevent you from accomplishing your most crucial goals. Block your calendar ahead of time, remove distractions, and allow for ample time to work on your rocks. Once you’ve spent enough time on your rocks, you can take care of the pebbles and sand. But not before.

Identify the key next step and just get started

Once you know what’s important and have blocked time for it, do the work. If you feel stuck on an important task, clarify what the next action needs to be. David Allen’s Getting Things Done defines a project as anything that takes more than one action to accomplish. This is important, you can’t do a project. You can only take an action. If you feel stuck, break down your project into discrete actions that you can take. Then bring out your favorite tomato-shaped timer and get that next action done.

Beware of the ‘urgent’ trap

We often confuse urgency and importance. Habit 3 of The 7 Habits book focuses exclusively on this point. Let’s define these two things.

Important things help you move closer towards accomplishing a goal.
Urgent things are time-sensitive, if not done quickly you may never reap benefits from it.

A common pitfall is spending time on urgent things that are easy to do but don’t significantly help you to accomplish a goal. Just because something is urgent, time-sensitive, doesn’t mean that you must do it. That is the equivalent of filling up your jar with Pebbles and Sand before trying to put in the Rocks.

A common example is allowing email and text notifications interrupt your focus. Presumably, before getting the latest email or text, you were working on something important. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have been working on it. Yet, you allow your brain to shift its focus momentarily to check the email’s subject line or text. Your brain switches its focus to the notification, scans it, and decides that it is not important. You then switch your focus back to the task at hand. This constant distraction interrupts your thought process and makes you much less effective. Even worse, it makes you much less creative and engaged during meetings. The same happens when your colleague stops by your desk with a quick question. You can take this as an urgent request and let is stop you from completing other important work. Or, kindly ask them to send you an email (sand) which you can respond to in a bit after completing your current task (pebble or rock).

As you go through your day, don’t confuse urgent with important. Be proactive and work on the truly important today so that it doesn’t get crushed among many urgent things tomorrow.

If all else fails, talk to a friend

If you’ve done all of the above and still feel tired and disoriented, get help. Go see a friend, a family member, a coach, a therapist, a priest, anyone. Don’t try to get answers from them, but rather go to them to gain a new perspective. We all go through moments of confusion and stress, times in which we struggle with clarifying what we should be doing. Use other people’s experiences to form a perspective that works for you. You may need to do this again many times over the next decade as you keep learning, growing, and gaining more insight and responsibility. Accept it as a part of life and enjoy the journey.

Be Busy, But Only With Purpose

There is a lot going on in our days, and we tend to put so much pressure in being better, doing things better, making a big difference, and more. This is something I often do, and then when all is said and done and I go to bed at night, oftentimes there is uneasiness. And then I go back to the fundamentals… I ask myself a few questions, which sometimes are harder to answer than others:

  1. Is what I’m doing something that makes me happy?
  2. Do the things that keep me “busy” matter to me?
  3. Am I making progress in the areas I care for?
  4. Will I be able to make better contributions to society through what I am doing or the skills I’m learning?

Sometimes the answer for some of these questions is… “uhmmm… maybe?” and that can be acceptable, but at least asking myself these questions helps me evaluate the true meaning of what is keeping me busy. Sometimes I am busy and flustered by things, and at the end of the day I realize… none of the things that kept me so busy truly mattered or made a different in my life, my happiness level.

“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing”
Lao Tzu

Most important steps to "Getting Things Done"

I read David Allen’s book, Getting Things Done, and I’m glad I did.  There are many, many useful tips and a fantastic system to be learned out of that book.  Here I want to share with you the most important things I learned to boost productivity and make time for the things you want to do!

Define the Next Step

Don’t say “I need to workout more” and just let that sit in the back of your head.  This is a very abstract goal and will lead to inaction.  Instead, say what is the next step you need to take in order to get this ‘goal’ DONE.  For example, “Set Schedule for going to the Gym” would be a bit more concrete and would lead to “Go to the gym at X hour of the day for 45 minutes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”

The reason it is so important to DEFINE the next action to be taken is that it really makes the next step simpler.  You don’t have to stop and think, “what should I do to workout more?” next time you think about working out, you already defined your next step, GET TO THE GYM.  Maybe before you get there you have to define many smaller steps and get them done, such as “find a good workout plan for me to follow”, “buy a water bottle and gym clothes”, etc.  The point is that you have a clear plan with only actionable items, not ideas, to be DONE, and it’s very clear what you should do next.

Don’t keep things in your head

Most people, myself included, tend to keep a list of things they have to do, but in their heads.  The reason, they haven’t found a better system.  The problem with this is that we tend to forget things we are not focusing our attention in, which makes us less efficient.  You should know what I mean if you have ever gone to the Post Office and on the way back home you realize that you should have bought THE light bulb. The light bulb you need for the bathroom that you could have gotten at the store next door  from the post office.  If you had a good system in place with lists you could check such as “errands” you would have seen the item saying “BUY LIGHTBULB” and would have made better use of your time during the trip to the Post Office.

Another important reason to keep things in a system outside of our heads, a reliable system, is that when we are working on something we don’t get distracted by thoughts such as “am I forgetting something?” or “damn, I need to call X or Y person to figure out Z thing.”  If you have a good system in place that can capture everything that you currently keep in your head, and this system reminds you of the things you need to know, when you need to know them, you will be able to FOCUS on the task at hand. This will definitely allow you to be more efficient!  A person that is distracted takes twice as long to get the same task done, with twice as many mistakes, that someone who focuses.  So, work your system well organized and start working more efficiently!

There are lots of things to be learned from the book, Getting Things Done, and if anything I wrote here intrigues you and you would like to learn more about how to further implement it in your life, I refer you to the book.  It’s one of the best investments I’ve done.

Questions, Suggestions, and Comments are welcome!  Comment in this post and I will definitely read them all and answer when appropriate. 🙂

To a Happy and Productive Year, Decade, and Lifetime!

Focus on one task at a time

Let’s face it, when you have something important to do that you don’t want to do, even doing your friends’ homework seems appealing (and urgent) in some sort of weird way.  This is why we can be ‘working’ 8 hours a day and only get results for what we could have done in less than half of the time.  Because of this, I encourage you to use a ‘focused-work’ system.

When you have a task at hand, and you know you have to do it eventually, just set out 25-30 minute intervals to work on it uninterrupted.  You heard me, uninterrupted.  If someone calls you, and you know it’s not urgent, let the phone call go to voicemail and return the call after your 30 minutes focused work session is over.  No checking e-mails, text messages, facebook, instant messengers, blogs, etc.  None of that.  You are just going to work for 25-3o minutes purely on your task at hand, and then you will reward yourself with a 5 minutes break.

During your 5 minutes break go ahead and return that phone call, or check your e-mail/facebook/etc.  Then look forward to your next 25-30 minutes focused work session and your eventual 5-minutes break.

To put this into practice all you need is a timer.  This timer will preferably not be your cellphone.  Once you have your timer this is what you can do —

  1. Make a list of the tasks you need to work on.
  2. Make boxes to its side, one box for each 25-30 minutes time period you will need to finish the task.
  3. Now, every time you work on the task for 25-30 minutes uninterrupted make a checkmark on the box — if you allowed yourself to get distracted, instead of a checkmark make an X or other symbol.

This system will allow you to see how often you can actually finish a focused work period, and at the end of the task you can also get a good estimate of how long you ACTUALLY worked on a project.  You’ll be surprised when you realize that those 10 hours papers could actually be finished in 5 hours.

At the end of the day, it comes down to your own work style.  I would rather work very efficiently 5 hours and then go enjoy 5 hours getting a good dinner, some tea, and relaxing,  rather than spending 10 hours working inefficiently just because of the instant gratification of allowing myself to give in to distractions.

On a separate note, I just accepted a job offer from Accenture as an Analyst, so I will be working there shortly after graduation next June 2010.  I’m thrilled about this opportunity! 🙂

Killing habits that keep us from succeeding.

It is often easy to get inspired and excited about something new in our lives, but how long do we stay motivated?  Most people I have met are only happy and excited for as long as a novelty lasts, or until the first big challenge arrives.  However, if you aim to be successful in any personal goal, the initial inspiration and emotions need to be present day and night, for it will carry us through difficulties.  When we face difficulties, when we receive bad news, it’s even more important to stay focused on our goal and be positive.  We can’t simply give up and move on, it doesn’t work that way.

For winners, losing inspires them. For losers, losing defeats them.

– Robert T. Kiyosaki “Rich Dad, Poor Dad

We are living in a society in which most people are encouraged to find an excuse and give up, rather than take charge of our problems and tackle them.  Beneath this behavior of excuses is the belief that you won’t achieve your goal, so you might as well find an excuse and that way avoid facing defeat.  How many of us have heard a couple of our friends complain about their weight problems, but then go on and say that they just have to accept their body the way it is.  Apparently they got the ‘bad genes’ from their parents and the ‘bad metabolism’ so they just have to accept their fate.

This approach, full of excuses, will keep you from achieving your goals.  If we do not pay attention to this problem, and ‘let it slide’, we will soon find this same attitude poisoning other areas of our life and becoming a habit.  This habit, like a virus, prevents us from living the life of our dreams, as cliché as that sounds.  It is important, then, to recognize when we are falling into this trap so we can stop it immediately.  Here are ways to assess this problem.

    • Write down your goals – small and big.
  • Prioritize – Which of your goals are more important and/or urgent to you?
  • Establish a timeline – set a deadline for your goal.  Include many short-term goals along the way!
  • Follow the timeline – reward yourself every time you achieve one of your short-term goals.

As soon as you catch yourself not following the timeline, you should answer a few questions:

    • Am I close from achieving my goal?
  • What is keeping me from achieving my goal?
  • Was the timeline realistic?  Should I reassess it?
  • Have I done everything in my power to achieve it?  What can I do differently?
  • What have I done that is preventing me (or has delayed me) from achieving my goal?  Has it been really worth it?

It is important to really take the time to reflect on the things that are keeping us from achieving our small, short-term goals.  Awareness of what is stopping you from achieving small goals will be the foundation to changing habits that are most likely affecting larger areas of your life without you noticing it.  It all boils down to self-control in the end, and taking the time to study yourself is the best tool you have to achieve this;  it is also one of the most rewarding activities you can do!

Share your thoughts – What techniques do you use to not fall in a vicious cycle, and instead keep working toward your goals?  What are common excuses you have found that should be rethought and avoided?

Productivity & Healthier Eating

As part of my reflection time during this winter break, I’ve decided to rethink my eating habits and think about ways to be more productive. Here is a list of the things I decided to do:

1) Create a new way to track how I actually spend my time. [Focus on one task at a time]
2) Be strict about setting times to work on specific tasks, and follow them.
3) Sleep 12-6 7am and add a 30-45 mins nap in the afternoons (~3pm)
4) Plan out my meals for the week and cook more!

For my 1st point here is what I’m doing. I currently have a few Google Calendars that I use to track different things. I have one for birthdays, one for ‘homeworks and assignments’, one for classes and appointments, and one to track all of my professors/ta’s office hours.

I renamed the ‘classes and appointments’ calendar to ‘scheduled activities’ (i.e. things that are set in stone when they have to be done.)  The ‘homeworks and assignments’ calendar is now named ‘to-do’, and there’s a newly created calendar named ‘completed’ to which things will be moved as they are done. The biggest change I made was creating a new calendar that is called ‘Time Tracking’ which I’ll use to log exactly what I do during the day. This calendar I will use to look back into the week and see how many hours I spent working, playing, socializing, etc. To make this reliable and informative I’ll do my best to focus on ONE thing at a time and avoid distractions as much as possible. It’ll help that I’ll schedule time for checking e-mails, Facebook, using GChat and AIM, etc.

For point number two, I’ll use a calendar named ‘Daily Schedule’ to plan out my time for the next day, hour-by-hour including travel time. This sounds scary, but I’ll leave some room for flexibility as long as there aren’t too many things to get done that day.

Point number three is pretty self-explanatory, I want to try out a new sleeping schedule that includes a nap in the afternoons and see how that works for me. The lenght of the nap I can extend to 90 mins if 12-6am + 45mins doesn’t work.

For my last point I want to share with you this site: http://www.mealsmatter.org/ [after much more investigation I decided to use http://www.sparkpeople.com/ instead to plan my meals.]
I started using it not long ago and I plan to use it to  find good, healthy recipes and use these to prepare my grocery shopping list. This I’ll start testing out once I’m back in Boston. The site is very useful and I hope it helps me get on track cooking and eating healthier!

-Omar