Being Productive Starts The Night Before - Techniques to Help You Be More Productive Part 2

Posted by Amy Wallace Amy Wallace on .

In my last post, I wrote about some different techniques that can help with productivity at work by starting at the end of the work day. Taking a few minutes at the end of the day to do a review, setting up what work needs to be done the next day, and reflecting on the day's work can help increase your productivity and focus. But what about during the day? Are there some productivity tricks that can help you become a productivity ninja?

The Morning Review

Similar to ending the day with a review, it's a good idea of take 5 or 10 minutes first thing in the morning to organize your day and your thoughts. It may be that all manner of unexpected tasks appear in your inbox but beginning with an outline of how you might ideally spend your day can help you start the work day focused.

If you've spent some of your evening review planning out what you still need to do the next day, then you'll be halfway there with your morning review. Of course, there's no guarantee that everything on your list will still be important come morning but this morning review gives you the chance to access just that. The time you spend on each evening review will really come into play in the morning because you'll be able to find yourself better prepared to understand how your work's been going.

The 5 or 10 minutes that you then set aside first thing in the morning can become a really calming ritual for yourself as you set up your to-do list for the day. It's a good way to ease yourself into work in the morning without jumping straight into the inbox and even if your job is tied predominantly to answering emails (customer support, for example), you'll likely still have other tasks that you'll need to stay on top of. 

The combination of the evening and morning review can become really powerful because each will not only help you be more focused and aware of what work you're doing but they will also help you learn about your own working habits. Reflecting on what you've achieved each day can help you discover in time that you might work much better in certain spaces or listening to certain music. It could also show you what time of day is when you feel most creative. 

These patterns might not emerge immediately but with just a week or two worth of data, you might be surprised about what you discover. 

Productivity tips

Once you get started with work after your morning review, there are certain techniques you can use to help you stay focused throughout the day. For example, James Clear suggests starting your day with the most important task. This is not a new idea (Brian Tracy's book, Eat That Frog!, starts with exactly that idea) but it's often easy to overlook the power that this can bring to your day. If you're able to truly sit down and focus on that one biggest task for the day and get it done first thing in the morning, you can leave yourself a lot more breathing room for the afternoon and feel more focused on the smaller tasks without that other biggest task in the back of your mind. It then just takes a decent chunk of discipline to make sure you avoid procrastination as much as possible... 

The Pomodoro Technique

Staying focused on the biggest task on your list is no easy job, especially if you want to make sure you get it done first thing in the morning but techniques like the Pomodoro Technique can help break those big tasks into smaller pieces (of work & time) and make your focus levels easier to manage.

I recently wrote a post about the benefits of the Pomodoro Technique, as well as how to implement it into your daily routine, which you can take a look at here. The basic idea of The Pomodoro Technique is to work with the natural ebbs and flows of your mind's ability to focus and make the most of them to work productively throughout an 8-hour work day.

1 Pomodoro is a 25-minute segment of time during which you focus on a specific task, pre-defined in your morning's to-do list, with a 5 minute break at the end in which you can do anything you want, as long as it's not work related. For every 4 pomodoros, you can take a longer break, between 15 and 25 minutes, to completely refresh, ready for the next 4 pomodoros. The idea is to give you a structured amount of time that is at once long enough to get a decent amount of work and focus done, while not too long that it will impede your ability to focus for a whole day's work.

The Pomodoro Technique also offers some tips about how to track your work as you progress and by doing so, helps you get better at estimating the time it should take you to complete your most frequent tasks. This is particularly helpful as part of your end-of-day review and can really help in the long run of better understanding how you work.

Getting Things Done (GTD)

Getting Things Done is a productivty method created by David Allen. If you're one for organization techniques that will span across life and work, then this might be the one for you. In his book, Getting Things Done, Allen sets out all of the detail of how to implement his different philosophies, and it's a great read if you want to be inspired to become much more organized (reading it is much easier than really Getting Things Done, unfortunately!).

In upcoming weeks, we'll be writing a series about GTD For right now though, the philosophy behind GTD is that you should be capturing everything that's on your mind and placing it straight into a trusted system. With everything you need to do and remember in your system, you can free up all the space in your mind that's constantly trying to remind you of what you have to do. Without all of the thoughts running around in your head and with everything in one trusted place (rather than 5 different lists and draft documents dotted about your home/office), you should be able to get into the 'mind like water' state where you can focus absolutely on the task at hand without worrying that you're forgetting something. Gone is the feeling that you have something you can't quite remember in the back of your mind.

The crux of the GTD philosophy can be summarized in 5 steps

- capture 

- process/clarify

- organize

- review/reflect

- do/engage 

In the capture stage, the key is to make sure you are capturing everything you need to in one place, one reliable system. That system can be whatever you choose: whether this means a physical inbox on your desk, a notebook, or a fancy app, it doesn't matter as long as you use it. The system is rendered useless if you don't commit to it 100%; if you don't capture everything in it, you won't check it and then you'll forget things, never to trust the system again. 

After capturing, you have to process everything in your inbox. This means looking at/picking up items one at a time and thinking through what it is. You then decide whether each item is actionable or not. If it's a task you have to do, then it will go on your 'Next Action' list, but if it's a file that you need to keep for reference, then your action is to file it away. If it's trash, you simply throw it away and if it's an action that you can complete within 2 minutes, the GTD method dictates that you do that action then and there. Any items that are actions that can't be completed in 2 minutes are written down on a list that you will then organize in the next step. It's a simple but effective way of getting things out of the inbox and done before you even have to start keeping track of it in a notebook or app. It really helps you get things done!

The organization step overlaps strongly with the processing stage but this is where you make sure everything that is an action is written on a list: your 'Next Actions' list. Again, it doesn't matter if this is a low- or high-tech, just that you write everything down. This means breaking projects down into their individual actions, thinking through the best plan of action for each, and keeping each project breakdown in a projects list. 

Projects are by definition any thing that requires more than one action to complete. So, for example, booking a table at a restaurant is one action, but planning a surprise birthday party would be a project because there are different steps within that which need to be thought through and completed. 

When writing your 'Next Actions' list, consider that only the absolutely next action that can be taken should be on the list. It's really helpful to put each item into 'contexts', like 'at the computer', 'at home', or 'at the office'. This helps you stay focused on only what you can and should be doing within that time and place, and it also means that if ever you have a spare minute to fill, you can quickly see which tasks are possible within a short amount of time or within that specific context.

Organizing your tasks by energy needed to complete the work is also a great tip that can make a difference to the way you get things done. In a video on Entrepreneur.com, James Clear explains why this made such a difference to him and that the most important tip he discovered was: 

Deciding to manage my energy rather than managing my time [...] the truth is, we all have the same 24 hours in a day. It's not whether the time is there, it's are you energized and motivated to use the time that is available to you.

The review stage, much like the morning and evening reviews, emphasizes the importance of continually reviewing your system. This means looking at longer term project list and making sure that, after completing the previous action, the next action is now on your next action list.

With this system in place, you're then free to do all your tasks, safe in the knowledge that nothing will fall through the cracks and that you're focusing on exactly what you should be focusing on at any one moment.  

This was just a brief overview of GTD so do look out for our future posts or head over to David Allen's website to get more information and great tips (as well as the book) about the GTD philosophy. 

The End of the Day

Once you have a system in place for staying focused, dealing with interruptions, and organizing to-dos during the day so you don't forget anything, you can end your day on a more productive note. And then, you can set aside some time to do your evening review and start the cycle again.

These techniques do take work and it's not easy to get into the habit of implementing them so don't feel worried if they feel more like work than help. Many people have fallen off the GTD bandwagon because it does take the regular work to keep the system working. The Pomodoro Technique also needs work to build the ability to focus on only one thing for 25 minutes. It might sound easy but starting the technique can be a revelation into how easy it is to get distracted. When they do work though, these techniques can most definitely make you feel like you have a weight off your mind and hugely increase your productivity.

Do you have any favorite productivity techniques? We'd love to hear about them and your thoughts about productivity in general in the comments below!

Image Credit: Justin See