I meet busy people all the time. They’re the people who run from meeting to meeting. They’re usually running late. They start a to-do list, but they usually don’t finish writing out all of their tasks. They’re too busy attending to one emergency after another.
People like this are in a constant mode of keeping their head above water. As soon as they finish one urgent task, there is another fire they need to put out.
If all you’re doing is keeping your head above water, you will easily fall behind. Here are some tips for getting your head above water and having more efficient days.
1) Establish long term goals
Have you ever decided to take a vacation without having a destination? Some people do their vacations like that. But I like to have a target. Once we decide where we want to go for vacation, we decide on the mode of transportation. Then we put together a plan. If we decide to drive, I’ll map out the preferred route. If flying is selected, I seek out the optimal flight based on airline, cost and convenience.
Your career should be like that. Decide where you want to go. Then decide how you want to get there. You’re bound to have the equivalent of flat tires and flight delays. When those happen, you make adjustments to get you to your ultimate goal.
2) Make strategic daily to-do lists
Once you decided what you want to do with your career, everything on your daily to-do list should be prioritize to drive you toward that goal. There will always be tasks and meetings that you have to tend to. They’re the “airport security” of your career. You don’t want to do them. They don’t directly do anything to get you to your goal. But they are necessary evils you do in order to get to where you want to go.
As you put your list together, decide what must be done to meet your goals. Avoid always doing the urgent tasks at the expense of the important ones. If you don’t prioritize the important things above urgent activities, you’ll never do what is important. And you won’t have more efficient days.
3) Make your to-do list the night before
The last task of each day should be to plan your work for the next day. Think in terms of your career goals and plan tasks that are in line with those goals. If anything changed overnight that results in changes to your to-do list, you can make those adjustments in minutes and get working on closing out your list.
If you wait until the morning to plan your day, there is the tendency to jump into urgent tasks, answer emails, and check your social media sites. You may never get around to finishing the to-do list. The daily short term tasks should be building blocks to your long-term goals.
4) Always think in terms of priorities
Once the list is completed, prioritize each item. What is the best order to complete each task? Some build on dependencies. Some are just more important to do than others. Every time there is an interruption or a new task that comes along, compare the priority of the new activity to the top one on your list. Is it worth diverting your attention from what you were working on?
If not, add the new task to your list and give it a priority. You’ll get to it when it becomes the highest priority.
5) Spend time being organized
Some people don’t like to “waste” their time organizing. Their desk is cluttered. They don’t have a good filing system for paper or electronic documents. Their inbox is cluttered with thousands of emails. They don’t want to spend the time it takes to get organized and to stay organized.
What they don’t understand is that the time they spend being organized is only a fraction of the time that being disorganized costs them. If they had only spent thirty seconds putting it where it belongs, they wouldn’t spend five minutes searching for it each time they needed it.
6) Figure out what motivates you
Do you like grabbing your favorite snack during the work day? Maybe you have this urge to check your emails. Find out what a motivating award is for you. When you finish a major task, reward yourself with it.
Limit yourself to only five minutes. Then return to your list to accomplish the next item. The worst thing about rewards is allowing them to distract. By limiting the amount of time and doing it more often, you will be more productive in two ways. The incentive drives you to finish your work. The frequent breaks keep you fresh and work more efficiently.
If you’re driving on a long trip, it is unsafe to drive for extended periods of time without a break. If you travel with others, it can be safer and more efficient to share the driving responsibilities. It allows you to take a break from driving without taking as long of breaks. You can also have someone navigate and find destinations on a GPS system while you drive.
As you put together your to-do for the day, try to identify tasks that can be done or shared by others. You may feel that it would be faster to do something yourself than to spend time explaining it to others. But looking at it strategically, once you’ve taken the time to explain a task to someone, you can delegate it to them again and again with little to no additional instruction.
Woody Allen is famous for saying “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” People don’t realize how true that is. People have dreams and desires to do things but they don’t take the first step of their dream. They don’t show up.
The first step of anything is usually the hardest. Whether you’ve got a multi-page report to create or a PowerPoint deck for a big meeting, you’ll usually find that just getting started is the biggest hump to get over.
Once you start, it’s easy enough to continue. If I find it easier to procrastinate than to start, I break the task down and list out the steps to begin. Once I start on those tasks and get into the project, it is 100% easier to continue on. You just have to start.
9) Don’t multitask
I hear people brag about it all the time. “I’m an excellent multitasker.” Maybe you can stir coffee while listening in to a conference call. That’s about the limit. It has been proven that the human mind can only focus on one thing at one time. People try to go through their emails while they attend meetings. They aren’t focused on one of those things and it’s probably the meeting. If the meeting is that unimportant, don’t attend it. If the emails are that important, figure out more efficient ways to manage them in order to give them your undivided attention.
Many of the meetings you attend may only cover things that apply to you during a few minutes here and there. By listening and being involved, you won’t waste time later asking questions that were answered while you were reading emails. You will also learn about other areas of the business that may help you make better – and more efficient – decisions.
You will find that by focusing on one thing at a time, you finish them more promptly. You also end up doing better quality work than when you write a report, create a PowerPoint, check email, and check Facebook all while attending a conference call.
10) Have an attitude of being in control of yourself
If you feel like you’re out of control, you will most likely be out of control. As interruptions occur, you may have to make adjustments. You will have to add tasks to your to-do list and reprioritize. If you used the techniques detailed above, you can move forth in confidence that you are still focused on the right things to reach your goals.
You readjust. Do a restart. And start moving forward with the new plan. So you got bumped from your flight. You still know that you’re going to get another flight to your destination.
Too often, people get caught up in the here and now. They focus on what needs to be done at the moment without thinking about where they are going long term. This is the equivalent of getting in the car and driving randomly. You’re moving, you’re just not going to any specific destination.
You must have a master plan of where you want to go, prioritize the tasks that will get you there, and take control of your own destiny to complete those tasks every day. If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?
How do you plan for more efficient days?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com