Do you feel inundated by advice? The internet has literally countless tips for improving your life, and it can feel overwhelming. In this post, I want to simplify and streamline my own advice for you—specifically, advice for how to improve your productivity. After all, the last thing you need for better productivity is to spend a bunch of time searching online to find productivity tips! I hope this post will let you find, in one place, all the key guidance you need to develop greater productivity.
I’ve outlined five simple steps to greater productivity:
- Evaluation and Celebration
As you read this article, I have two requests for you:
First, please always keep the word “simple” in mind. Simple is always better when it comes to productivity. The more you’re trying to juggle, the less you’ll get done.
Second, you know how there’s no “i” in “team”? Well, there’s no “productivity” without “u.”
Productivity is very personal and very subjective, and I want you to think about yourself first and foremost when you’re developing your productivity routine. It is okay to change your goals and strategies as you realize what’s working and not working for you, and it’s definitely okay to learn as you go. In fact, it’s strongly encouraged.
The important thing is to always be mindful of your needs, preferences, and aims, and to sculpt your productivity routine out of those elements.
Step 1: Focus
The first step in the productivity process is focusing. That doesn’t just mean concentrating; it also means focusing on what your goals are.
What do you want to achieve out of your productivity routine?
When it comes to goal setting, be specific. Vague goals give vague results while specific goals lead to specific achievements.
I recommend using the acronym SMART (developed by George Doran and Peter Drucker) when setting your goals.
- Specific—clearly defined in specific terms, not general terms that can be interpreted in different ways. A goal like “eat more healthily” is not specific. A goal like “eat five fruits and vegetables every day” is.
- Measurable, so you know exactly what/how much you need to accomplish.
- Achievable, realistically. If your goal is to win a Nobel Prize by the end of the year, I admire your ambition, but I recommend coming up with something a bit more achievable.
- Relevant to your larger objectives. If your goal is to run seven miles by the end of the summer, and your larger objective is better health, your goal is relevant. If your larger objective is to become a better public speaker, it’s not.
- Time bound, so you have a time frame in which to achieve your goal.
As an example, say you have a company that sells t-shirts, and you want to sell more of them.
Here is how a SMART goal might look for your company: “By January 1, I aim to increase sales by 10% by expanding my reach on social media to 10,000 followers, hiring one part-time salesperson, and creating 10 targeted ads for different online channels.”
This goal is specific: Increase sales by 10%.
It is measurable (10%), as are its methods for achieving that 10% (10,000 followers, one salesperson, 10 ads).
It is achievable, assuming the company has the stock available, a marketing budget, and some sort of existing social presence.
It is relevant to your plan to grow your business.
And there’s a timeframe to it: You have until the end of the year.
If you’re not sure what your goals are, start with a brain dump. Write down anything that comes to mind as you contemplate your goals, as though you’re in a flow state. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or even logic. Just get it all down on paper (or screen). Once you’ve written it all down, prioritize, and eliminate the unnecessary. For more details on doing a brain dump, here is another article I wrote on the topic.
While creating your goals, don’t overlook the importance of setting boundaries. There are infinite possibilities to the goals you could set, but being targeted will lead to greater productivity. Remember what this first step in the five-step productivity process is called. F-O-C-U-S.
Know Your Why
“Why power is more important than willpower.” – Darren Hardy, author of The Entrepreneur Roller Coaster
For each goal you set, think about the why. Why is that goal truly important to you? What does it mean to you, and for your personal development?
Here’s a tip: For most people, making more money is not incentive enough. It is what the money will do for you that matters—for instance, it gives you the opportunity to travel, have new experiences, develop new memories, or care for your family. Ask yourself what matters to you, and how you can realize whatever that thing is, through goals and action.
Step 2: Planning
“Every minute you spend in planning saves ten minutes in execution.” – Brian Tracy, motivational speaker and author of Earn What You’re Really Worth
Planning, like the rest of productivity, is personal, and it may take some trial and error for you to find the best planning system for you.
Whatever system works for you is great, whether you wish to use an app, like Asana or Trello, or a paper planner. What matters is that it works for you. So find the best option for you—one you will use consistently and reliably.
If you have not been a planner, I like to recommend that you start with a simple formula:
- Quarterly: Decide one to three goals to work on for a 90-day period.
- Monthly: Each month, decide on one to three goals for the month that will help you reach your 90-day goals.
- Weekly: Each week, decide on the one to three of the Most Important Priorities (MIPs) for the week that will move you closer to your monthly goals.
- Daily: Each day, decide on the three MIPs for the day to get you to your weekly goal.
- Decide on your MIP for each day either the evening before or first thing in the morning.
If you have done goal setting in the past and have had some success, then you may want to expand this process and set yearly goals, three-to-five-year goals, and even ten-year goals.
Breaking goals down into concrete time frames and focusing on the MIPs gives you concrete objectives to work toward, and reduces the strain that comes with thinking only about the big picture, which can often feel overwhelming.
It’s fine to have a big objective like, “I want to become a best-selling author.” But if that big-picture goal is all you think about, you may not focus on what you have to do to get there.
It can also be frustrating not to achieve a goal, and you definitely won’t achieve a big-picture goal overnight. Daily MIPs, though? That you can do, no problem.
Start with the quarterly goals—for instance, “Three months from now, I will have completed the outline for my book”—and then chunk it down from there, until you get to your daily goals. Maybe those daily goals start with conducting research, structuring your outline, etc.
Take pride in achieving your MIPs, and consider those achievements both rewarding in their own right, and as motivation to keep going.
Step 3: Action
“Never mistake motion for action.” – Ernest Hemingway
Now that you’re focused, well planned, and ready to go … take action! Start working toward your MIPs.
Here are some tips for taking action.
- Develop daily habits and routines. Having daily routines helps you establish the momentum of positive action, which will carry throughout your day. You will become accustomed to your work habits and patterns, and they will become a welcome aspect of your day-to-day life. If, for instance, you find that doing more creative work in the morning, and then focusing on paperwork like invoices and contracts in the afternoon, suits you, keep up that routine on a regular basis.
- On that note—although again, productivity is personal and depends on your own best practices—I’ve found that for many people, it is best to do creative work during your most productive time of day. Your brain is literally bigger in the morning (!), so the most productive time of day for the vast majority of us (myself included) is the morning.
- Do the hardest things first in the morning. Brian Tracy calls this the “Eat That Frog” method, inspired by Mark Twain. Twain said that if you eat a frog in the morning, you will have gotten the worst part of the day out of the way. As Tracy notes, it’s better to get it over with, rather than stare at the frog. Whatever your frog is, eating it will let you move forward, having already accomplished the hardest part.
- Time block your day, and batch similar items together. For instance, group emailing together, set aside a certain amount of time for phone calls, and log off email and put your phone on silent while you focus on the task at hand, whether that’s content creation, data analysis, or something else that requires full attention. For more on time blocking check out this article.
- If you’re feeling overwhelmed, or if you start to procrastinate, ask yourself: What is one small thing I can accomplish in ten minutes? Getting that one thing done will remind yourself that you can do what you’ve set out to do, in digestible bites rather than all at once. Small actions are much better than inaction.
- Resist the urge to go on social media and email first thing in the morning. I find that checking email or social media first thing in the morning can derail my day. You may get caught up in an email chain that will not contribute to achieving your daily MIPs, or you may get frustrated and distracted by something you see online. You could end up wasting a substantial portion of the morning, when you should be in full-productivity mode.
- Consider trying the Pomodoro TechniqueⓇ for time management. It’s simple yet effective. Basically, you focus on one task for 25 minutes, take a short break, then focus on another task for 25 minutes. When you’ve accomplished four tasks, take a longer break.
Step 4: Accountability
You are 95% more likely to reach your goals if you have a consistent weekly accountability meeting.
One of the key focuses of my coaching relates to accountability, which I consider to be an essential aspect of productivity. Many of us struggle with motivation, especially when we have no one to report to but ourselves.
In her book The Four Tendencies, Gretchen Rubin writes about four behavioral tendencies: upholder, questioner, rebel, and obliger. The obliger meets outer expectations but resists inner expectations, so while she may struggle to self-motivate, she will be motivated by the knowledge that others have expectations of her. I think we all have some obliger in us, which is why accountability groups are so beneficial.
Accountability groups bring the motivation outside yourself, so that others know what your aims are and will be there to encourage you along your journey. They will also know if you haven’t achieved your goals, although the purpose of accountability groups isn’t judgment or condemnation.
If you haven’t met your goals, you’ll know it and others will know it, but the environment is one of support and encouragement, so you’ll work with all the more motivation for next week.
You will feel so accomplished when you can announce: I did it. And you’ll feel energized to keep going.
Consider getting an accountability partner, group, mentor, or coach.
If you decide to find an accountability partner, look for someone who is at a similar stage as you or even slightly ahead of you in the realm of goals and achievements. I don’t necessarily recommend using a friend as an accountability partner, because they will tend to let you off the hook, and you and your friend will likely get off topic more often.
Your accountability partner must be willing to commit to the same day and time every week for check-ins. Routine is truly crucial to success in accountability partnerships. Stick to a specific agenda each time:
- Quick update
- Review of last week’s accountabilities and progress
- Points you and your partner are stuck on
- Three things each of you is committed to completing this week
Start and end the meeting on time. It can be just ten to fifteen minutes; you can accomplish so much toward your productivity goals in that time.
Sometimes it can be difficult to find a reliable and effective accountability partner, so a paid group or coach can be more beneficial.
You will have greater consistency, and you will have “skin in the game,” so you will be more committed.
I offer small accountability groups, called Accountability Circles, of 4-6 women. We meet weekly via video conferencing, during which I offer coaching, and each of us experiences encouragement and feedback (and yes, gentle nudging!). If you would like more information, drop me an email at: email@example.com.
Step 5: Evaluation & Celebration
If you’ve made it to step five, you have every reason to congratulate yourself. You have already accomplished so much! High five. ✋
Now that you’ve planned and executed, it’s important to evaluate those plans and their execution. Regularly evaluate what is working for you and what is not. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my productivity system feel like a smooth operation?
- Does my productivity system feel like a daily struggle to use and implement?
- Am I using the right tools? (For some people, an electronic planner is a dream come true. For others, it’s a nightmare to think about having to use.)
- Am I achieving all my goals?
Your answers should be: yes, no, yes, yes.
If you need to make adjustments, go ahead and switch things up. It’s unlikely that you’ll find exactly what works for you right out of the gate. Most of us need some trial and error to reach the optimal system for ourselves.
Despite what many gurus and thought leaders say, there is not one program, application, planner, or system that will guarantee your success.
This will be an ongoing and evolving process while you work toward becoming your most focused, most productive self.
Give yourself grace along the way. And celebrate each and every win! You deserve it.
That’s it! Five simple steps. Anyone can achieve them, truly.
And remember, no one is perfect. You will probably hit some roadblocks, and you will likely experience frustration.
Pick yourself up. Keep going. Remind yourself that many others are doing exactly what you’re doing, and we’re all in this together!