Busy or Productive. Be more successful and less stressed by improving productivity.Time is the one true constraint for all of us in our lives. We all have 24 hours in a day. We all have 60 minutes in an hour. You can’t change the pace of time. But what we can change is how we use that time. Most people I know are busy within their constrained time. A few people I know are productive in that time. Are you busy or productive? Here are 15 tips that can help you highlight where you fall, and how you can improve your productivity, be more successful and reduce your stress.

Not every tip will work for everyone. Individual work styles differ, and some people can optimize more or less in each of these areas. The most important factor to success in productivity improvement is to be conscious in your efforts. Take time to understand how you work today and how that could be improved. Then execute against that plan.

1. Set Fewer Priorities

If everything is important, then nothing is important. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.Garr Reynolds

If you care about something that needs to get done, then you will make time for it. Carefully selecting your priorities takes a conscious effort. You can’t say yes to everything, and you can’t prioritize everything, or you won’t achieve anything. The most productive people are ruthless with their priority list and will only allow three items to make the cut. If you have three top priorities, then you can be focused and productive. If you have 20 top priorities, you have a mess that you can’t manage, and you will remain busy.

Take a look at how you manage and track your priorities. Having an ongoing to-do list that allows you to flag the top three items while capturing future priorities is a great start. I use a simple free app on my iPhone called 2Do to manage all of my current and future priorities, but I am strict about what makes my top priorities list (and that those are what I work on first). If you don’t track and manage your priorities, you can’t improve your productivity. Try 2Do or figure out your own system, but be conscious about your priorities to improve your success rate.

2. Say Yes Less

Its’ only by saying “no” that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.Steve Jobs

Most of the busiest people I have ever met are the ones that struggle to say no. In Gretchen Rubin’s latest book, “The Four Tendencies“, she discusses her Rubin Character Index. One of the character types she has identified is “Obligers“. By her definition, obligers are more motivated by external expectations than their own internal motivations. Obligers are more likely to say yes when asked to do something new because their motivation comes from satisfying the needs of others. It also turns out that obligers are the most common character type, which is a good reason that so many people struggle to say yes less in their pursuit to be more productive.

If you are going to be strict with your priorities, then you need to be equally strict about what you say yes to. If you already have three top priorities and someone asks you for something that will get in the way of you accomplishing your top priorities, then you have to empower yourself to say no. Unless what you are being asked is important enough to replace one of the top three things you are working on, then it needs to be saved on a “do-later” list or declined altogether. You will dramatically improve your productivity if you practice saying yes less.

3. Clarity Before Action

If you can clearly define the dream or the goal, then start.Simon Sinek

Busy people jump straight to action on the challenge or goal. Productive people stop and verify before they take action to validate the goal and the approach. In some cases the outcome of these approaches is the same: action is required, so start. Unfortunately, in many cases, the action is either not required or is inefficient. Productive people stop to understand the “why” of the challenge, validate the approach and the proposed actions, and then adjust before they start working.

If you force yourself to check in on the purpose and approach before you start working, you will likely find that you can drastically reduce the effort required to achieve a goal. If you can complete one of your top three priorities faster, then you have the opportunity to accomplish more priorities in less time.

4. Only Output Matters

Activity is not output.Andy Grove

If you measure your productivity by the number of actions you take in a day, you are measuring the wrong thing. The simple act of action doesn’t equal output and in the productivity equation only output matters. Productivity is defined simply as the amount of output per unit of input, so if you are measuring only the quantity of input, you are actually hurting your productivity.

It is easy to be lulled into a feeling of productivity when we have completed our day if we have checked off a long list of tasks, but if we haven’t delivered any output, we can’t consider the day productive. Feeling productive isn’t the same as being productive. Start writing your priorities and to-do lists on the basis of the outputs you need to deliver. If you measure your accomplishments in terms of the quality of the output you deliver, you will automatically achieve more success.

5. Focus on the Big Picture

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.Lewis Carroll

It might be the small pieces that make up the big picture, but if you don’t understand the big picture or the goals, then you will never achieve success. Productive people realize that the big picture is what matters. There might be 50 ways to achieve a goal successfully. To improve productivity, you need to find the shortest path to the desired outcome. Busy people focus on the individual tasks, and while they may complete all the tasks, they may never achieve the goal.

Think about the difference between following a printed map to your destination and using a GPS like Waze. The map might show you the shortest distance between two points, but it can’t account for obstacles and unknowns along the way. Waze understands that the goal is to get you to the desired destination in the shortest amount of time. Because Waze focuses on the big picture goal, it can make suggestions that might take you a further distance but drastically reduce your travel time. Productive people take the same approach to their work and adjust their approach based on the roadblocks or obstacles they encounter. After all, the goal is to achieve the desired output faster and with less effort, not just in the least number of steps.

6. Learn to Delegate Better

Surround yourself with great people; delegate authority; get out of the way.Ronald Reagan

In his best selling book “Getting Things Done“, David Allen correctly points out that you can do anything, but not everything. Learning how to delegate tasks effectively drastically improves your productivity by allowing you to focus on the things that only you can do. It doesn’t matter if you are a leader or a team member, you need to be laser focused on what you can do better than everyone else, and then leverage other’s strengths through delegation.

When you stop to think before taking action, one of the questions you should be asking yourself is whether you are the right one to take action. If there is someone who can accomplish the task well enough to move you forward toward output, then delegate it. Productive people focus their time and energy on those tasks that require their attention and delegate everything else.

7. Allocate Time for Reflection and Planning

The more reflective you are, the more effective you are.Brendon Wainright

If you allow yourself to be busy, you never have time to plan for your next priorities or reflect on your outcomes. The ultimate goal is output and productivity. You need to allow yourself to be continually improving your approach which requires reflection. If you pack your schedule with meetings, work, and tasks, then you never have time to step up to the big picture or plan for the future.

Productive people schedule time for reflection and planning into their day. For some, allocating planning time in the morning to start the day and reflection time at the end of the day is most effective. For others, it may be checkpoints throughout a day to check in on progress, adjust approaches, and get clarity work best. Either way, you need to ensure that you carve time out in your day to think, reflect, and plan if you want to improve your productivity in a meaningful way.

8. Avoid Multitasking

Multitasking is merely the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at a time.Gary W. Keller

Many of us operate under the illusion that we can multitask. I did for years (and still fall into the trap from time to time). Unfortunately, the science is against us. Studies have shown that multitasking can actually reduce our output by up to 40%. If we are working on multiple things at once, we need to mentally switch tasks as we jump from priority to priority. That switching requires us to take time to catch up to where we were last.

If you schedule the work on your priorities in blocks of at least 60 minutes (and preferably 2-3 hours), you allow yourself time to get focused and stay focused on the task. When we create time for focus, we create the opportunity for flow. Studies have demonstrated over and over that we are at our most productive when we are focused on the task. Busy people leave the door open to distractions which cause multitasking. Productive people create zones for laser focus and schedule their priorities with thought.

Busy or Productive – It’s Your Choice

Unsuccessful people are busy being busy. Successful people are busy being productive.Kevin Abdulrahman

Ultimately your success is up to you. You can choose to mindlessly wander through a busy life, stressed and unfulfilled. Or you can choose to do the work to become productive. Hopefully, some of the insights and tips shared here will help you take action on your path to productivity. Feel free to share other productivity tips or hacks in the comments. We are always interested in hearing how you accomplish your goals and how our posts help in your life.

About Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.

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