Does the idea of following an agenda, bullet journaling, or even sending calendar invites make you want to run screaming into the night? Me too, actually. Despite this, I still became a productivity pro and managing editor of a blog literally about productivity.
That’s right: I am punctual, I hand in assignments on time, and I communicate effectively with my team and our network of freelance writers.
But all this didn’t come naturally to me. I had to adapt my habits to make this happen. Henceforth, I’m sharing my wisdom for fellow slackers.
The bad news is that no one becomes a productivity pro overnight. The good news, however, is that there’s still hope for even the laziest among us. Leveraging known frameworks and results from social science can help you to reach beyond your own innate productivity abilities.
To start, the biggest productivity woes can be synthesized into these 5 categories:
- Time management
- Ability to focus
- Feeling burned out
So let’s break it down.
1. Prioritize Your Priorities
Tell me: is this you? You’ve got 100 things on your to-do list, but somehow you spend the subsequent 5 hours not accomplishing any of them.
You do a little bit here, and a little there, and then you browse the internet for a while,
then you make a sandwich, then you you spend a few hours down a rabbit hole of some other, entirely unrelated task that’s not even on your to-do list.
We’ve all done this, but why?
Part of your problem here is analysis paralysis. You have so much on your plate that you simply don’t know where to start at all.
How To Prioritize With The Eisenhower Matrix
In an analysis paralysis situation, you can actually channel a lesser-known productivity professional: Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Appropriately, Dwight D. Eisenhower was actually a very productive guy. He was a general in World War II, he was President of Columbia University, and oh yeah, the 34th president of the United States!
He was known in his circles for being an exceptionally organized person, and as such he is credited with inventing a framework called the Eisenhower Matrix:
The Eisenhower Matrix is a system of prioritization that can be split into 4 boxes:
- Important/Not Urgent
- Not Important/Urgent
- Not important/Not-Urgent
Take all of your tasks and figure out which box they might fall in. For example:
So once you’ve decided where all your myriad tasks go, what do you do now?
Now remember, you had a lot on your plate and you were having trouble figuring out where to start. The order in which you execute the tasks on your lists are:
- The Do column: do these first, as they are both important AND urgent.
- The Decide column: do these next, or even create a calendar invite or reminder for yourself for when these tasks will be on deck.
- The Delegate column: We don’t all have personal assistants, but there still may be members of your team or family that can take some tasks off your plate.
- The Delete column: When you have a lot of tasks, anything in this list needs to get put to the side. OR, you can use these tasks as your “reward” for completing everything else in the other columns on your list.
You can also turn your Eisenhower Matrix into a Trello board for a visual flow:
Get a more detailed explanation of the Eisenhower Matrix, plus a sample Trello board here:
Practice The Rule of Five
There’s another trick you can do for better prioritization— and it was actually one of the fundamental reasons that we invented Trello in the first place!
Trello’s co-founder, Joel Spolsky, found that at his software company, Fog Creek, he felt like he didn’t know what everyone was working on.
What Joel did was he asked everyone at the beginning of each week to provide him with a list of 5 items:
- 2 items they were currently working on.
- 2 items they planned to work on next.
- 1 item that everyone probably thinks they’re working on, but they’re not actually doing at this time.
The findings actually surprised him.
What Joel realized when looking at everyone’s lists was that the things that people were actually working on were all over the place. A lot of the tasks really didn’t align much with the bigger goals that management had.
He realized this was an error in transparency: no tool was showing these lists in a clear, digestible way. So long story short, this lack of transparency was one of the realizations that helped birth the tool that eventually became Trello.
Anyone else just get goosebumps? No? Just me. Okay. Cool. Anyway!
Here is an example of how you can translate the Rule of 5 into a Trello board format.
Traffic-light colored labels to indicate the projects currently being worked on, working on next, and not doing:
2. Time Management
So we’ve established some methods for how to figure out what you should be doing. But how about when? And for how long?
For example, do you ever feel like you’ve spent entire days in back-to-back meetings talking about work, but never actually getting any time to do any of said work?
This goes on for days and then suddenly it’s the next week and you’re in the follow up meeting for something you talked about last week, and someone is asking you about the status of the project. You realize you haven’t actually had any time to do any of that work, because you’ve only been in meetings talking about doing work.
This doesn’t yield good results for anyone. So how do you thwart it?
Figure Out If You’re A Maker Or Manager
So here’s a concept that might help shed some light on why the aforementioned scenario keeps happening: makers vs managers.
This line of thought was first popularized by another famous software engineer turned tech blogger, Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator. He realized that most job titles can be broken down into 2 categories: makers or managers.
Managers are just what you think: they’re the people that facilitate work. They are the delegators, the project managers, the team leads. They make decisions that help move work along.
Managers sit in meetings to help understand higher-level company objectives. They remove roadblocks so their teams can continue creating. Their calendar is also the sort of thing that gives me hives.
But that’s their job. That’s how they operate.
Makers, on the other hand, are individual contributors, and their job is to execute on the work that needs to happen. Their job is to sit quietly for long, uninterrupted periods of time and get sh#t done, frankly.
A maker’s calendar should look nothing like a manager’s calendar:
So which one are you? Figuring this out should help inform the errors in your time management.
If you’re a maker sitting in meetings all day, you’re not able to be effective. Subsequently, if you’re a manager and your makers are in a bunch of meetings, you need to figure out which of those you can attend for them, or just simply identify meetings that your makers need to drop entirely.