Every time I am at a conference I get asked over and over, how do you get so much done? They want to know how I write for the Bourn Creative blog, my personal blog Inspired Imperfection, and other marketing blogs, how I get so much client work done, create new talks for speaking engagements, do interviews, and write website content for ourselves and clients, how I work in being co-organizer for the Sacramento WordPress Meetup and Lead Organizer for WordCamp Sacramento 2016, AND still have time to take a ton of vacations.
No, I’m not superhuman. No, I don’t stay up all night or sleep only a few hours (any more). No, I don’t have a clone.
I am simply ruthless with my time and focus during the work day.
But it wasn’t always this way.
Earlier on in my journey as a business owner I was a productivity mess. Yes, I got a TON done, but to do so, I had to work 16-18 hour days and both Saturday and Sunday. I was multi-tasking constantly, so everything took longer than it should. I was exhausted, so I wasn’t as creative as I could be. I was distracted and allowed interruptions and other people’s needs to come before my own, which in turn, caused procrastination and more stress.
Eventually I reached a point of total and complete burn out and I knew that I needed to change my daily habits. I knew that if I could just be more productive during the work day, I could get back my nights and weekends. I also knew that if I reduced my stress level and eliminated feelings of overwhelm, I would be more creative and find more joy in my work.
So I made some changes, including:
- Eliminating Interruptions and Distractions
- Implementing Time Batching
- Keeping To-Do Lists Achievable
- Responding To Voicemail And Email Within 24 Hours
- Wrapping Up One Day And Planning The Next
Let me explain…
Eliminate Interruptions and Distractions
Each time you get distracted during the workday, it takes 15 minutes to regain total concentration and focus. If you allow interruptions to distract you throughout the day, your work and your mindset are more than likely suffering, you are less effective and less productive than you could be, and your time is spent reacting to distractions instead of getting things done.
The biggest productivity killers and time wasters are the distractions you don’t often see as distractions. The small distractions, that over time, add up to big distractions. The quick interruptions that eventually take hours and hours of your focus away from important tasks.
The easiest way to give your productivity a boost is to eliminate these distractions and interruptions from your work by:
- Closing and/or logging out of all social media during the work day. I simply do not open any social media sites while working and usually limit my time using social media to my iPhone only, while Brian stays logged out of social media on his work machine to stay focused.
- Turning off the television. Tasks that normally take 30 minutes often stretch into a 60 minute task when trying to get it done and watch TV at the same time.
- Closing your email completely. Don’t just minimize your email, close it completely and keep it closed until the task at hand is complete. If possible, only check email at specified intervals during the day to avoid constant focus interruptions. Trust me, the world isn’t going to end if you don’t check email for two hours.
- If using a landline, turning off the telephone ringer. During dedicated get-it-done time blocks, while working on projects requiring intense focus, or when up against a deadline, turn off the ringer — just remember to check your voicemail as soon as the task is done.
- If using a smart phone, leaving it in another room. To avoid being distracted by text messages, social media notifications, and phone calls, I put my iPhone on silent and leave it in the kitchen while I am working. When I take breaks and stop for lunch, I check my phone for anything important and return any phone calls before beginning the next task.
- Listening to instrumental music. I listen to different music based on the tasks I have to get done. Sometimes it’s high energy dance and pop music and sometimes it’s the Grateful Dead because I can sing along to all of it. But when I’m working on a task that requires high levels of creativity, focus, and productivity, instrumental music keeps me focused and headphones keep out distractions.
Implement Time Batching
Many people confuse time blocking and time batching.
Time blocking is the act of blocking out specific amounts of time in your schedule for a specific task. So scheduling blog post writing from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm on Wednesday is an example of time blocking.
To be completely transparent, time blocking doesn’t usually work for me. I have to be feeling the project to sit down and work on the design and I have to be in a writing mood to write blog posts or develop website content for a client. Forcing it when I’m not in the mood or feeling creative just makes the task take much longer than it otherwise would.
Instead, I embrace time batching. Time batching is the act of batching or group similar tasks together and getting them all done at the same time. So grouping several writing tasks together to do one after another in the same sitting, or doing all errands in one part of the city at the same time are examples of time batching.
The idea behind time batching is that by grouping similar tasks together, you increase concentration, creativity, focus, and productivity while decreasing distraction, interruption, stress, and fatigue. The key is to take a break to recharge and walk around before jumping into the next batch of to-dos.
- I group similar tasks together, like design, copywriting, admin to-dos, phone calls, errands, meetings, and strategic planning.
- I set aside a specific amount of time and get all tasks grouped together done at one time — once in a groove, it’s easy to keep going and similar tasks done.
- I let my partner and anyone else I am working directly with that for the next X hours, I will be busy and I don’t want any interruptions.
- I take a break after each batch of tasks to walk around, stretch my legs, get a snack, refill my water bottle, check my voicemail and email, and get my mind refocused on the next set of tasks.
- I cram everything possible into the hours of 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday, so I can truly relax and recharge in the evenings and on the weekends. Having this time away from my work reduces fatigue and creative drain, so it actually makes my work better.
Keep To-Do Lists Achievable
If we’re really honest with ourselves, our to-do lists are never-ending. We won’t one day magically finish everything on our to-do list and have nothing to do. Instead as we finish and check off completed items, more items get added — and sometimes items get added faster than they get completed and the list gets longer and longer. That’s a stress trigger.
For most people, a to-do list that is growing with new tasks faster than the existing tasks can be completed leads to massive feelings of overwhelm and stress. This in turn leads to frustration, exhaustion, sleepless nights, and ultimately, burn out. I know this intimately because I’ve been there, done that, suffered through it, and changed my habits for the better.
Here’s what I did to eliminate stress and keep to-do lists manageable:
- I stopped using one massive to-do list with everything I have every needed or wanted to get done on it. That list never got smaller and every time I looked at it, I felt stressed and I felt like I was failing and not working hard enough. Instead I created separate master to-do lists for client work, internal company work, home life, and personal projects.
- I broke each master to-do list into time sensitive tasks and non-time sensitive tasks.
- Using my master to-do lists as a guide, I now create a single to-do list for each day that only contains the exact tasks that need to be completed that day — and I make sure the entire to-do list is achievable so I can throw it away at the end of the day. Success!
- On my daily to-do list, I try to include only one major time-consuming project that requires intense focus. This helps avoid my creativity being drained, prevents feelings of fatigue, and in turn, keeps my productivity high for the rest of my work that day.
- I also make sure that I don’t schedule every hour of the workday. My daily to-do list accounts for 5-6 hours of work, leaving time for the unexpected items that never fail to show up.
Respond To Voicemail And Email Within 24 Hours
There is nothing worse than leaving a voicemail, sending a text, or sending an email and not receiving a response — and the frustration magnifies tenfold when it’s a paying client not getting a response from a service provider.
I know that you probably get an insane amount of email and sifting through it can be time-consuming. I know that you don’t always have time to make long phone calls, and sometimes you don’t see text messages, but they are critical to your success and the happiness of your clients.
The first step is to organize your email so almost all incoming emails are moved out of your inbox automatically and all that is left are those from paying clients. I began by creating folders for specific types of emails. For example:
- The Brian Folder: All emails from Brian go straight to this folder
- The Personal Folder: All emails from family, friends, and the kids teachers, school, sports go to this folder
- The Social Media Folder: All emails from social media platforms go to this folder
- The Retail Store Folder: All emails from retail stores and coupons etc. go to this folder
- The Courses Folder: All emails from courses I have signed up for go to this folder
- The Bourn Creative Folder: All emails specific to Bourn Creative as a company or internal tasks, speaking, and partnerships go to this folder
- The Meetup/WordCamp Folder: All emails from Meetup.com for the Sacramento WordPress Meetup and those for WordCamp Sacramento go to this folder
When I check my email, all incoming emails are routed to their specific folders that I can choose to check and review at my convenience. Usually all that is left are those from clients and a few random emails. These I triage and take action on right away.
For voicemail, texts, and email, we try to always reply within 24 hours.
For certain clients, their retainer contracts stipulate faster response times. But in general, no matter how busy you are, paying clients should receive a response within 24 hours, even if it is only to say that you received their message, you’re on it, and you’ll get back to them later.
Often clients don’t expect you to drop everything every time they send you an email or give you a call, but they do want to be acknowledged and feel heard. They want to know you care and that you’ll get back to them.
Wrap Up One Day And Plan The Next
For years, as soon as I finished the last item that needed to get done, I’d save everything, close out all open programs, and walk out of my office. I’d run through the items still left on my to-do list in my head and I’d worry about what I didn’t get done or what I needed to get done the next day. I had a hard time falling sleep at night and often tossed and turned due to stress from an unmanageable to-do list with no plan of attack.
Thankfully everything changed for the better when I created new habits that put action plans in place and eliminated the stress.
The shift began with scheduling in a “conclusion period” at the end of every work day. Just as every article, report, white paper, book, movie, or play has a conclusion, your work day needs a conclusion. This is a block of time set aside at the very end of the day to close out everything in progress and assess how the day went and what got done and what didn’t. I also use this time to clean up my office space and desk and prepare for the next day.
Here is what my daily conclusion period looks like:
- Save and close out all open files and programs. Clean up files for projects in process. Upload any completed items to Dropbox.
- Review daily to-do list and assess what got done and what didn’t. If everything is completed, throw it away.
- Review master to-do lists and client project deadlines to create a to-do list for the next day — ideally with only one major focus item.
- Check email one last time and either delete, delegate, or respond quickly to all emails. Depending on the time, write any emails that need to be sent in the morning.
- Tidy up my desk and immediate office space to start fresh in the morning.
By adding a dedicated conclusion period to the end of every work day, I eliminated the stress that came with an overwhelming amount of to-do items and no plan of attack. It allows me to truly relax and detach from my business and client work in the evenings and to sleep more soundly because I know exactly where I am at with all current projects and deadlines.
This approach also reduces stress and overwhelm during the day because I already know exactly what I have to get done that day when I get the my desk in the morning. I always try to “eat the frog” and get the largest to-do item, requiring the most intense focus done first — even before checking my email. Then I can use the positive energy from accomplishing that task to get more done and the rest of the day feels easier.
Focus Is The Key
How many times have you sat down at your desk to get something specific done, only to be derailed by email, phone calls, meetings, Slack, Skype, texts, or social media and find yourself at the end of the day still in the same place you were at the start of the day? It is easy to allow interruptions and distractions to dictate our focus and activities, and if we do, we end up letting other people’s priorities take over our work day and get in the way of important work and commitments.
Eliminating all interruptions and distractions is critical to your productivity. You must be ruthless with your focus and attention.
- Leave your phone in another room, put on headphones, ask colleagues to leave you alone for a set time period, close Slack, close social media, and close email to stay focused.
- Batch similar tasks together to get more done faster.
- Keep your to-do lists achievable to create feelings of success and accomplishment.
- Plan specific times to check your email during the day instead of leaving it open all day. Respond to email, texts, and voicemails within 24-hours.
- Set aside time to wrap up the day and plan for the next day.
Creating new productivity habits can be tough — especially closing email, Slack, and social media — but without them stress and overwhelm will show up and slowly start to take over. Again, be ruthless with your focus and attention and you’ll get more done than most everyone else you know… and who knows, you may get so much done you can take an extra day off!