Methods Of Productivity: The Busy Person’s Guide To Getting Things Done.


We’re all busy. Occasionally overwhelmed.

How can you get things done when you have to juggle 20 projects at once? 

Well, first of all you shouldn’t. Multitasking is known to be counterproductive. 

Find your focus. This is how…

Life is an inbox.

Lists are the key to doing focused work.

The concept is simple, yet effective. If you don’t find a place to keep an inventory of all the things you’ll need to do, those things will end flying around in your head. Eventually they’ll either get lost or burn you out.

The basics of productivity are simple:

  1. Create your list.
  2. Order your list.
  3. Execute the one thing that is on top of your list.
  4. Update your list and return to step 2.

Take life one task at the time. Trying to do a lot of things at the same time will have you taking a small step in all directions. If you want to get somewhere, you’ll have to focus and take a big step in one direction.

I personally use the free version of Trello to create my lists, but Asana is a popular tool as well. For me, my inbox looks like this:

No task should ever enter your inbox unless you have a full understanding of the following:

  • What is it that needs to be done? Details matter.
  • Why do we want to do this?
  • When does this need to be done by?
  • Why does this have to be done by this date?
  • How long would it take me to complete this task?
  • If we’d complete this task, what would the expected impact be on key business objectives and results?

This includes not only projects that land on your plate through others, but also the projects that you came up with yourself!

Ask these questions consistently and eventually other people will do the same before they come to you. Your time is valuable, demand consideration from the people who want you to dedicate some of that time to their projects. 

That takes us to our next point…

Protect your inbox with your life.

When a new project comes to you (either from yourself or someone else) and you’ve asked the questions to understand the full scope of the project, ask yourself if this project is something you want to spend your time on. 

Many people skip this step and just accept new projects as they come in. 

This is counterproductive. Soon you’ll find more and more projects coming your way and you’ll end up with a lack of focus on all fronts. This is not only frustrating for you, but also for the people who depend on the successful completion of these projects.

Your inbox is holy ground. Protect it from getting overloaded – all the time.

Good questions to ask yourself when a new project comes in, are…

Should we be doing this task at all?

  • Is this task likely to have a positive impact on the key business objectives and results? Don’t be afraid to ask, if the answer isn’t clear to you.
  • Is there a better solution to the problem this task is trying to solve? Again, don’t be afraid to investigate why this task ended up on your plate.

Can I automate this task?

  • Can I (or someone else) automate this task? This will likely take some investment upfront, but might be a good solution if the task is repetitive in nature (e.g. monthly reports). Automation might save time in the future!

Can I delegate this task?

  • Is there someone I can delegate this project to who would be able to complete it to satisfactory standards?
  • Is it worth training someone to be able to complete this task going forward? Again, this will take some investment upfront, but might be a good solution if the task is repetitive in nature.

Should I be doing this task?

  • Can I deliver quality work before the imposed due date? If not, say no. Only do the tasks you know you’d be proud of the result afterwards.
  • What other tasks will have to be delayed / sacrificed in order for me to complete this task? Do I have other priorities that have a bigger impact on the key business objectives and results? If you have other priorities that are more important, say ‘no’ or ‘not right now’.

The projects making it to your inbox should be carefully vetted. Most people who say ‘yes’ to everything that comes their way, will find themselves stuck sooner or later.

As with everything…

Communication is key.

Dare to say no.

Saying no is a sign of being focused, not a sign of being lazy. Saying ‘yes’ to everything is counterproductive. However, it’s incredibly important to explain why you’re saying no to a project. 

Here are some good examples:

‘I am sorry, but I won’t be able to work on this right now, because I have other projects on my plate that I’ll have to finish before {due date}.’

‘There might be a better solution to solve your problem. Will you allow me to investigate and come back to you?’

‘I could work on this project and I see how it’s valuable for the business, but to deliver quality work it would take me longer than the imposed due date. Is there an opportunity to move the due date to (your proposed date) somehow?’

‘I could work on task A, but that means I’ll have to stop working on task B for now. What do you think has higher priority?’

Be transparent to prevent work relationships from going sour.

Sharpen the axe: plan the week.

You created your inbox and filled it with projects to work on.

It’s as massive as it’s beautiful.

Before trying to chop down the entire forest with a blunt axe like a mad man, take some time at the beginning of your week to sharpen your axe and make a plan.

To the left of your inbox list, create a list for each workday of the week. One list for Monday, one for Tuesday, … all the way up to Friday.

Lists: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Inbox.

Check your calendar for planned meetings and see how much time you have to do focused work each day. Now start dragging tasks from your inbox to the lists you created for each day.

Don’t worry about unforeseen events, you can always shuffle things around as they come along.

Tip 1: Identify the frog. The frog is a complex and / or big task that you’re least looking forward to working on. It’s human nature to keep pushing the ‘frog’ to the horizon, finding other projects to work on first. This way, the frog will sit on your plate for a long time. Don’t do this to yourself! Get rid of that nasty thing early on in your day when you still have the energy and motivation to do so.

Tip 2: Get rid of the flies as they come in. Flies (I am literally making this up as I go) are tiny tasks that would take less than 10 minutes of your time to get them off your plate. The problem with flies is… they keep adding up in numbers and will circle around your head until you eliminate them. Try to get rid of ‘flies’ in the moment, so you can keep your focus on the projects that really matter. Either say no, delegate them, or complete them yourself. If you find yourself getting flies non-stop, you’ll have to learn to say ‘no’ more often.

Time to start chopping: become ‘indistractable’.

You created an inventory of tasks and sharpened the axe by planning out your week. Now it’s actually time to do some work!

Create a ‘Done’ list to the right of your ‘Friday’ list. Drag the tasks you have been able to finish to your ‘Done’ list as you go along. 

Lists: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Done, Inbox.

Imagine a small choir of angels serenading you while colourful confetti is falling from the skies, every time you get to drag a task to your ‘Done’ list.

The more you get done, the bigger this imaginary party, so you better find some time to focus.

Be proactive (as opposed to being reactive).

Check your emails on fixed times during the day. I like to use my mornings for this, or whenever I finish a task. Everyone has their own preference. Key is not to look at your emails as they come in. Turn off those notifications.

Let your colleagues know that email is not a good way to get your immediate attention.

I used to work for a boss who sent us company-wide emails on random moments during the day and hand out prizes for the people who answered his email the fastest. It’s one of the most counterproductive things I’ve ever seen. Productive people are per definition not reactive.

Like your inbox, your focused time is holy.

If necessary, block some time out in your calendar so people don’t schedule meetings during this time. Make clear you can only be disturbed for immediate emergencies during your focused time.

Unlike email notifications, you can’t turn off your colleagues.

However, wearing headphones can be an effective way of letting them know you don’t want to be disturbed. Tell your colleagues in advance it means you’re either in ‘the zone’ or trying to get there.

Make clear that distractions are not appreciated.

Pro tip to increase your focused work time: Be selective which meetings you attend. Find yourself completely ‘blocked out’ from morning to late afternoon? It’s really not something to brag about. Stop attending meetings that don’t need your presence. Make a point of only attending meetings in which you’re either able to empower others or empower yourself. Refuse to accept meetings that don’t have a clear agenda and goal. Again, communication is key. You don’t have to be a dick about it.

When doing all of this right, you’ll have a nice amount of projects in your ‘Done’ list at the end of the week. Hurray!

Empty your ‘Done’ list at the start of the new week. 

The madness starts all over again.

Keep track of dependencies.

Sometimes you’ll find yourself dependent on others to get things done. 

These tasks can be gathered in your ‘outbox’. Create a new list to the right of your ‘inbox’.

Lists: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Done, Inbox, Outbox.

Make sure all of these delegated tasks have a name and a due date attached to it, otherwise you’ll lose track of when to follow up with who. Don’t count on others to do the tasks as fast as possible and then come back to you. They’ll have other tasks to finish too. 

I prefer to ask the person who will be working on the task to propose a due date, as it’s hard to estimate a reasonable due date for someone else. Productivity is dependent on motivation and nothing demotivates a person more than continuously being given unrealistic deadlines.

Also read: Twelve One Way Tickets To A Toxic Work Environment.

Make it a habit to follow up just before the proposed due date if you haven’t heard anything in the meantime.

Long-term projects & Ideas.

You should have around eight lists now:

  • Monday
  • Tuesday
  • Wednesday
  • Thursday
  • Friday
  • Done
  • Inbox
  • Outbox

Surely that’s it?

Nope. Let’s do one more.

Sometimes you get a big and complex idea you just can’t work on right now. However, you’d like to work on it in the future. For these projects, create a list to the far right called ‘Long term’.

See if you can fit these ‘Long term’ projects in your inbox in a later stage.

Lists: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Done, Inbox., Outbox, Long term.

If all of this seems a bit extreme, just wait until you have twenty projects flying around in your head. If you don’t organize your projects, these projects will end up dictating your week. And guess what happens then? 

You’ll be busy… but not productive.

These are two very different things.

Get to it!

If I had eight hours to finish a task, I’d spend the first half hour going for a run. Yeah, that’s right: a run. It’ll give you a mental edge. Also read: Why I Started Working Out In The Morning (I Am Not A Morning Person).

About the author

Wesley van der Hoop

Dutchman living in The Bahamas. I get excited about digital marketing, writing, traveling, surfing and learning new things.

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