Focusing for Better Productivity

Close up of a woman's face with a brown eye.

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

Just a year or two ago, I had so much that I was trying to multi-task that I got easily overwhelmed.

What’s more, I felt really scattered.  There were so many different things to work on that I’d work a bit on one thing (maybe adding my books to a publishing platform) and then start working a few minutes later on something else that seemed equally important and pressing (maybe the book that I needed to finish).

The biggest problem was the very fact that everything seemed equally pressing.  This feeling that I needed to really scurry to get things done spurred the multitasking.  I felt as if everything were an emergency.   I considered all of my tasks equally important…personal and professional.  And if I thought of something that needed to be done (buy a birthday present for a friend whose birthday was in a week), then I felt as if I immediately wanted to check the task off my list.

A couple of things got me to reevaluate how I was handling my priorizing of tasks.

The first was an article I read in Time Magazine by Eric Barker: “The Morning Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity.”

Barker listed five ways to maintain productivity: stop reacting, decide the 3 things that matter today, use your ‘magic hours’ for the top 3 important things, have a starting ritual, and ‘positive procrastination.’ 

What resonated most with me were the “deciding what three things matter today” and the “magic hours for the 3 most important things.”

My usual method was just to hop in. Write,  schedule updates on Twitter, answer emails, go grocery shopping, and not really prioritze.

I liked the idea of finishing the day and feeling like the day was a successful one. Now, I ask myself: what three things out of my to-do list will make me feel most successful for accomplishing them?  And I try to make the goals/tasks realistic.

Our ‘magic hours’ are simply when we’re most productive. For me, it’s the morning, but many people are more productive in the afternoons or evenings.

It’s easy to list our top three things on a piece of paper each day.  Or, we can modify what we’re doing slightly.

I modified my list when I came across the free app : 135 List.  There we can list one big thing to knock out, 3 things of medium importance, and 5 minor tasks.  This helped me sort everything out, from writing, to promo tasks, to dusting, to cooking supper.

I try to set up my list the night before so that I don’t start wildly multitasking first thing. It’s sort of like an outline for my day.

I’ve found that, since I started using the app last January, I’ve felt a lot more focused and less-stressed.

Do you take time to prioritize your to-do list? Any tips?  When are your ‘magic hours?’

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27 thoughts on “Focusing for Better Productivity

  1. I’m a morning person too and find if I set out what I need to do before I head to my desk I actually get it done. Never heard of that app, will have a look but I started bullet journaling and this helps me to prioritise my to do’s and limit my procrastination!

  2. The best tip I came across last year was Marie Kondo’s email management I now have only two folders of email with very little in them. More than anything, it gave me back mental energy that was getting sucked up worrying about my email.

    But this article from the Guardian is making me reassess how I look at my time even more

    1. Deb–I somehow can *not* seem to let my email go. I like seeing old emails in my inbox as a reference (my memory is so bad that it needs a crutch). I know I should archive it, but when I do, it worries me that it’s not there in my inbox. Gah!

      I read that Guardian article, too! I’ve been trying to go more in the direction of mindfulness/enjoyment instead of productivity, but I seem to be wired more for productivity and it hasn’t worked so far.

      Reading my comment back over, it’s apparent that I need to try to relax more in 2017. Ha!

        1. Deb–I’m setting up filters on gmail (learned how to create a ‘delete me’ filter on gmail that deletes after a certain amount of time) and that’s helping. :) But I only use it for news-related and retail-related stuff, ha!

  3. That’s some very good advice, Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing it. I think we all have those times where everything seems to be urgent. And that means it’s harder to set priorities and focus. But as you say, that approach just isn’t productive. We can only get so much done at once, and it’s more productive and less stressful to go with that.

  4. Oh, I’m definitely a morning person. Since I’m retired, I only need to keep one list on a yellow pad. If the list gets too long, I do a daily list. I do think about priorities and make sure I do those first. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed these days. The way you’ve organized yourself is great.

  5. Two classes of items on the list. Important: these get boxes beside then and a rank … A , B … there are no “C” tasks that are important.

    Then, necessary items: these get circles and are consecutively numbered for importance. Then, those things that MUST be done today are underlined ( say, my expense report).

    All necessary are done before bed. The Important ( moving needle forward) get all my attention beyond what must absolutely be done today (tax, compliance, RFP response, client call …).

    That morning drill of “what must be done” is the freeing event for knowledge workers, just like you! It isn’t “what should” but “what must.” That is a hard line in the sand but without it … the needle doesn’t move ahead.

    1. Jack–Well put!

      I think my biggest problem was that I moved the needle forward on *everything*. The book that needed finishing, the e-course I was trying to take on FB ads, the closet nagging me upstairs. But then I was stressed and tired. Ranking everything helps me not to knock myself out.

      I like the idea of it being a ‘freeing event.’ :)

  6. Hi Elizabeth – I definitely need to be focused ‘when I do things’ – I know what I should be doing … and that’s different. My Ma always used to say to me … do what you need to do now … don’t wait for the morrow – I had to laugh with her … as she went off back to sleep and I went home ‘to do’ … what needed to be done for one and all. Thankfully my brain is quite good – but I need her maxim today to finish off a few things!

    Brilliant post – so good to read your posts, which remind us of great ideas, or ways to do things, as well as being so helpful – have a very happy 2017 … cheers Hilary

  7. Great tips, Elizabeth. If I try to go through a day without a to-do list, I feel overwhelmed and don’t seem to get very much done. With a list, even if I don’t get everything done on it, I feel better structured throughout the day. I’ll have to check on the app. It sounds very helpful.

  8. this article was full of great advice! I totally believe in the prioritizing and I get as much done as I can in the time that I have and then I reprioritize to see what it needs to be done the next day, something unexpected inevitably comes up that has to be done that bumps something on the original list !

    I also wanted to thank you for stopping by my cradle rock release tour at Ken’s place
    happy 2017 !

  9. I’m glad I fell on this article. Ironically I was reading a passage about you in the 2014 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market and decided to come check out your site. This was the first article that caught my attention. I currently feel this way everyday. I feel so overwhelmed at trying to get it all done that I feel I get less done then I would if I just prioritized the important stuff and knocked things off my list one at a time. As a young writer everything seems so overwhelming in the beginning. I guess its nice to know I’m not the only one feeling like this and that it is possible to overcome.

    1. Ruthnye–Thanks so much for coming by! It sounds like you’ve taken a very thoughtful approach to the business–reading Writer’s Market and researching. That thoughtful approach is best, but, as you’re saying, it can be very overwhelming because of the sheer magnitude of the information. By being methodical in the way we absorb the info and parse it out, we can help prevent overwhelm. Good luck to you!

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