Simple habits to work better
and be more efficient everyday
Why a Personal Productivity Guide?
At Hightrack we love Personal Productivity because it’s helped us get results in our personal projects and enjoy our personal lives to the fullest. And although the project revolves around our productivity application, we know that in Personal Productivity, personal habits are essential.
That’s why we’ve compiled our favorite habits into this personal productivity guide for you to discover some of the best habits for improving your efficiency, working with less stress, and regaining control of your time. Read, discover, practice and go back to this guide whenever you need to “restart” your productivity. And don’t forget to register to become a Hightrack users at app.hightrack.me.
Over the next few pages we’ll go over the five most important areas for toning up your way of working and getting organized:
With this quick personal productivity guide and Hightrack Academy’s materials, you’ll discover smart work based on personal habits. Because it’s not about working more—it’s about working better.
I. Tasks & Planning
Many people think that planning consists of simply making a list of the things you have to do tomorrow. But that’s just a part of planning, and not necessarily the most important one. The true core of planning lies in identifying your goals ahead of time.
Planning is the map of the path you want to take, a way of seeing your goals more clearly.
Daily planning is a way of preparing yourself to do things better, because it allows you to separate what’s important from smaller tasks ahead of time, before each day’s email confuses you, and before emergencies make you lose perspective.
When you take it seriously and do it on a daily basis, planning is a powerful tool that allows you to identify more clearly the activities that will lead to real results, and thus improve your personal productivity.
Planning, a daily habit
One of the key habits of productivity is planning tomorrow’s work before the end of today. Ten or fifteen minutes before finishing work, take the time to review all your pending affaires and sketch out a map with tomorrow’s tasks. That involves three things:
- Choosing the tasks that you have to do tomorrow.
- Identifying the 2-3 most important ones (those that will lead to real results).
- Choosing the optimal time to do those 2-3 essential tasks.
If you’re not used to daily planning, set an alarm in your calendar so you don’t forget (Hightrack is perfect for this, since you can stablish repetitive tasks with alarms).
Start the day with Key Tasks
Always start with the 2 most important, demanding, and complicated tasks of your day. This will allow you to get them done faster and better, and to get results from the very first minute.
The first hour is much more productive than the rest of your day. This is when you’re most alert and focused and when there’s the least noise and the fewest calls and interruptions. If emergencies or complications arise during the day, at least you will have done the tasks that are the core of your day.
There’s a time for each task
Before planning a task, ask yourself what kind of task it is and how much energy and concentration it will take. This is important because in a typical day there are many types of tasks: key tasks, complementary tasks, minor tasks, and mechanical or routine tasks. Assign each of the them to the right time of day: the most demanding ones to the best hours of the day and the minor ones to the afternoon or end of the day (Hightrack allows you to include time and energy with every new task).
Group similar tasks together
Always group similar or related tasks in the same blocks of time. That way you can have a block of time for tasks that require concentration, another one for creative tasks, another one for paperwork, another one for online activities, etc. Your mind is more efficient (and faster) when it’s dealing with similar tasks.
Invest more in finishing than in starting
Every day, beginning with the plan you made the day before, focus more on finishing things than on starting new ones. An unfinished task is a problem that sooner or later will call for your attention and will get in the way of more important things. True progress happens when tasks are finished, not when they are begun. Begin each day with an eye toward finishing things, and you’re sure to see results.
Take breaks and mini-breaks to be more productive
Those of us who work with our brains often forget that the mind needs to rest periodically. Your creative flow, the rhythm and intensity of your work, and your ability to think and analyze all depend on a clear and fresh mind. Spending too much time in front of a computer screen can lead you in just the opposite direction.
Take a 2-3 minute mini-break every hour, and a 10-15 minute break every two hours to boost your personal productivity. Make sure it’s a real break: don’t open Facebook or Twitter; get up and away from your desk, stretch your body and joints, have a glass of water, and breathe deeply. Take an active break.
Take advantage of ‘time pockets’
Time pockets are unplanned periods that come up during the day, 5 or 10 minutes that suddenly present themselves to you. This “dead time” is great for speeding up your day: you can use it to get a head start on menial tasks planned for the afternoon, or to do mini-tasks like returning calls or checking your work.
Practice the ‘Golden Minute’ Rule
There’s a practical rule that goes like this: “Whenever you find yourself with a task that can be done in 1-2 minutes, do it immediately. Don’t write it down, and don’t say you’ll find time later. Get it out of the way before more things come up and complicate your day”. However, this rule should never be applied if you’re in the middle of a key task or something that requires concentration; in those cases, you should always make a note and do it later.
Attention (concentration) is the glue that holds together all your strengths and personal skills. If it’s missing, you can never do your best work and it’s twice as hard to get results. Things like ideas, energy, speed, motivation, and mental agility can only be activated when you’re attentive, that is, when you’re not susceptible to distractions and interruptions.
I’m the source of my distractions
On your computer and at your desk there’s a whole host of distractions that you can avoid before they attack. This is especially important when doing key tasks. Before beginning a task that requires concentration or creativity, make sure to always take a series of basic anti-distraction measures.
These are extremely easy and basic, so putting them into practice is just a question of personal interest. Until you get used to them, consider putting them on a simple post-it checklist on your monitor.
- Close your e-mail (and any “new mail” alerts).
- Close any instant messaging applications and social networks.
- Silence your cell phone and put it face-down or in airplane mode so your voice mail is automatically activated and does its work.
- Disconnect your land line or ask not to receive calls for a time.
- Close all applications that you don’t need for your next task. Don’t have them on in the background, because sooner or later they’ll end up distracting you.
Do leave Hightrack open. That’s where your daily plan is, and it’s also the tool for jotting down new tasks as they come up.
Necessary vs. unnecessary interruptions
Working on a team means interrupting and being interrupted. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just part of group work, and it’s good in that it allows you to get support from your co-workers and vice-versa. But it’s important to distinguish between two types of interruptions at the workplace: necessary ones and unnecessary ones.
Necessary interruptions are the ones that require you to interrupt a co-worker’s rhythm and concentration out of real necessity. You need their input, advice or help so that you can move forward on something important or complete a task.
Unnecessary interruptions are those requests or consultations that can be left for another time or can be addressed in a different way (for example, by e-mail). Even worse are those comments, jokes, or trivial conversations that really should be kept for a coffee break. These are social interruptions.
What to do when you get interrupted
You can’t avoid interruptions, but you can minimize their impact and length. Remember this golden rule: “The longer an interruption lasts, the more damage it does to your Attention-Concentration”.
There are three techniques for dealing with (shortening) the interruptions of your co-workers and/or boss:
- Quickly write down what they ask you for. Use Hightrack to write down the new task your co-worker asks you for, especially what he asks you for (title of the task) and when he’d like it done by (expiration date). Then get back to the task you were working on as fast as you can.
- Apply the Golden Minute: If you’re not in the middle of a key task or one that requires concentration and your co-worker’s request is something that won’t take more than 1-2 minutes, do it right away. (If you’re not sure whether it will take more than 1-2 minutes, don’t do it; write it down in Hightrack for later, following the guidelines from the previous point.)
- Practice “Yes but No”. Often a co-worker asks for help or immediate attention while you’re in the middle of another task. “Negotiate” with him so he gives you the 10, 15, or 20 minutes you need to complete your task, while at the same time committing to be there to give him a hand. You do have to be there to help him, but you also have to finish your task without interruption.
Reduce your own interruptions
Never forget that interruptions go both ways. It’s something that people do to you, but it’s also something you do to them. It’s just as important to know how to deal with interruptions as it is to be aware of how much you interrupt other people. Before interrupting a co-worker, ask these questions:
- Could I send him an e-mail? (That way I would avoid an interruption.)
- Could I talk to him the next time I see him get up (or during a coffee break or at the next meeting)?
Urgencies are deceiving. They make you move, involve a frenetic pace and can even raise your pulse. This makes you think you’re getting things done when really you’re just doing things. Urgencies make you stray from your work plan and original goals, which is exactly where you can find the results you’re looking for.
You do have to deal with urgencies. But don’t be fooled into thinking that just because you devote time to them you are advancing. That’s not where true results lie; really, they’re in your key tasks and in your projects. Unless you work in customer service or technical support, where your job is to deal with them, urgencies are not the heart of your work.
Most urgencies aren’t urgent
A lot of unexpected things come up at work, and some of them are urgencies. We often get carried away by fake urgencies, labeling some tasks as “urgent” simply because they’re unexpected. Learning to identify the things that really are urgencies will allow you to work with less stress and get results.
Start with what’s important
You do have to deal with urgencies. But the more energy you spend on them, the less you’ll have left to invest in your tasks. If you spend your energy, ideas, and passion on the most pressing things, you won’t have any left to invest in the things that really make a difference: your projects and your most valuable tasks.
To prevent unforeseen problems from getting in your way, always start with the 2-3 tasks that will have the biggest impact on your day. This doesn’t mean that nothing unexpected will come up, but it will better prepare you to start getting tangible results from the very beginning of the day.
Detecting false urgencies
Creating false urgencies or letting yourself be carried away by other people’s is a bad habit that will make you work worse and worse.
It’s important for any professional to be able to distinguish between real emergencies and other unplanned occurrences. This allows you to finish a job and get results while at the same dealing with the unexpected problems that inevitably come up in any job.
Unforeseen vs. Urgencies
How can you tell the difference between a surprise and an emergency? By thinking and analyzing—things we do less and less due to the frantic pace at which we work, our tendency to multitask and our over-dramatizing of unforeseen events.
As soon as they come up, unforeseen events will always give you the impression that they are emergencies. Don’t over-react to the situation: instead of following your first instinct, let it sit for a minute. During that time, analyze the situation by answering a few key questions that will help you act in a smarter way:
- Can I finish what I’m doing? (Remember: invest more in finishing than in starting.)
- How much time do I have?
- Can I delegate or share this surprise task?
- How did it come to my attention? (Real emergencies shouldn’t be communicated by e-mail, for example.)
- Is this surprise task something I know about or have done before?
Email is a great work tool, but unfortunately our bad habits make us use it terribly. It’s an “animal” that will control you if you can’t control it.
Remember: e-mail isn’t your work; it’s a tool for working. You get ideas far away from your inbox, and you get results far away from your inbox, too.
Key E-mail Habits
- Don’t open it at the beginning of the day. Instead, put it off for at least an hour so you can get one or two key tasks done first. You can check it at some point in the morning, just not at the very beginning.
- Check it less. Four times a day is more than enough to deal with the things you’re sent. By reducing the number of times you check your e-mail you’ll gain peace of mind, time to do your important work, and you’ll be less distracted.
- Quickly decide what to do with each new e-mail. If the message include a big task, write it down in Hightrack (save it quickly in the inbox; later you can assign it calmly); if it’s a 1-2 minute mini-task, do it right away; if it’s something you should delegate, forward it right away; otherwise, delete it or archive it in your application’s history.
- Apply the Golden Minute. E-mail is one of the places where this time-management tool works best. Confirmations, attaching documents, sending brief information… all these things don’t take more than 60 seconds. If you’re on the watch for opportunities to get these e-mails (and tasks) out of the way, you’ll save a lot of time every day.
- Avoid copying to a lot of people. The only thing this achieves is weakening your message. At the same time, it amplifies the internal “noise” of the company and makes problems bigger. Be careful when choosing who really needs to get your message, and don’t go overboard.
Tips for writing e-mails
Your e-mails should be clear, direct, and brief. This can be achieved by following these guidelines:
- Before writing an e-mail, ask yourself, “Is this the best way to do/solve what I’m about to send?”. Remember, e-mail isn’t good for everything.
- Before typing, take 15 seconds to think about what you want to communicate, ask for, or assign. This simple mental exercise will help you choose your words in order to be clear and precise.
- Be as brief as you can. Most e-mails can be written in just one paragraph (2-3 lines). When you think before writing, this becomes much easier to do.
- Be direct. Don’t beat around the bush. Be clear from the first line about what you want. That will make the other person understand and attend to your e-mail more quickly.
- First write the body of the e-mail, then the subject, and last, the recipients.
- If you find yourself writing the same things over and over, you can use templates. Headings and greetings, signatures, instructions, and procedures are all things that you won’t have to rewrite if you use the templates included in your application.
- Write the subject last. It should be like the headline of a news story, summarizing and highlighting the key points of your e-mail. If you write it well, the relevance and importance of your message will be clear, and the other person will be better prepared to deal with it.
- Before clicking “Send”, quickly reread the message to make sure everything is OK. It takes just a few seconds, and will ultimately pay off both for you and the other person.
Although meetings are an essential tool for group work, we often overuse them and misuse them. They are one of the most unproductive parts of work for a simple reason: no-one ever taught us how to call, attend, and participate in a meeting.
Is it necessary?
Before calling a meeting think twice—or even three times. Bringing several people into a room and taking an hour or two of work away from them comes with responsibility. There must be at least one significant reason to do so. Before sending an e-mail invitation, ask yourself if it’s really necessary. Maybe what you want to communicate, ask for, or order can be solved through another, less traumatic channel. Similarly, if you are called to a meeting, be sure you really have to go, that you’re going to contribute something and that the meeting really has to do with your job or responsibilities. Remember, you can’t work without meetings, but you can work without most of them.
A meeting does not start when everyone enters the room, but much earlier, when the meeting is called. And that’s where many meetings begin to fail. There are several things to be careful of when informing participants of a coming meeting.
Agenda & Goals
Make sure everyone knows the real purpose and objectives of the meeting before entering the room. Through an email sent days earlier, clearly communicate what you are going to speak about at the meeting. Of course, list the issues that will be dealt with (the agenda). Then, always include what you are going to accomplish at the meeting (the goal). This is often forgotten, and it may even be more important than the agenda itself.
If possible, avoid holding meetings both at the very beginning and very end of the day. As you know, early in the day is the time when the most and best work gets done, so it’s far better to invest that time in working and achieving results than in talking about work. At the end of the day, fatigue and distractions are people’s worst enemy.
If attendees have to contribute something to the meeting or present documents, make sure they know well enough in advance in order to prepare well. Whether it’s a question of checking figures, presenting findings, showing graphs, giving a small presentation… let them know clearly right when you call the meeting.
Less is better. After 45-50 minutes a person’s attention starts to break down, and it’s much more difficult to focus the conversation and get results. However, you will see that when the meeting is well focused (agenda + goals) and is prepared adequately, participants’ contributions are short and direct.
Take productive notes
If you know how to take notes in a meeting you can classify everything as you write. By using special symbols you can organize your notes as you go. This will save you a lot of time later and will help you get it done sooner.
Some symbols you can use:
[ ] Tasks ! Reminders @ Delegate # Investigate * Ideas
A meeting can never end without it being clear what needs to be done next. Next actions, assigned tasks, distribution of responsibilities, next steps… the point of any meeting is for it to be translated into action. Otherwise, the meeting has been a failure.
To succeed at this, keep three golden words in mind at all times. They are three questions that must be answered after addressing each item on the agenda:
- WHAT do you need to do?
- WHO is going to do it?
- WHEN is it going to be done?
A meeting with an agenda and clear objectives that has been well prepared for, lasts the right amount of time and takes place at the right time of day usually leads to a clear course of action. Finally, meetings can be productive and efficient again.ç
Hightrack is a multi-platform personal productivity app that combines a task manager, a calendar and smart workspaces called Tracks.
We created this project because like you, we love the feeling of finishing. But with so many tasks, events and distractions, every day it’s getting harder to get stuff done.
Productivity software should help you choose better and make better decisions. It should help you focus and get started, and show you the real info you need to get going. It should help you accomplish your daily goals, with less effort and more control over your life.
This is what we call Raw Productivity. Productivity with soul.
Blogs on Productivity
Life Hacker: http://lifehacker.com/
Dumb Little Man: http://www.dumblittleman.com/
Getting Things Done: http://gtd.marvelz.com/blog/
The Fast Track: http://quickbase.intuit.com/blog/
Marc & Angel Hack Life: http://www.marcandangel.com/
Cal Newport: http://calnewport.com/blog/
Laura Stack: http://theproductivitypro.com/blog/
Penelope Trunk: http://www.penelopetrunk.com
Time Management Ninja: http://www.timemanagementninja.com/
Better Productivity Blog: http://www.betterproductivityblog.com
Bob Stanke: http://bobstanke.com/
Scott H. Young: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/
Steve Pavlina Perosnal Development for Smart People: http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/
Productive Flourishing: http://www.productiveflourishing.com/blog/
Life Optimizer: http://www.lifeoptimizer.org/
Source Of Insight: http://sourcesofinsight.com/
Simple Productivity Blog: http://www.simpleproductivityblog.com/
Alpha Efficiency: http://alphaefficiency.com/
Productivity Today: http://www.keyorganization.com/blog/
Legal Productivity: http://www.legalproductivity.com/
Cloud Productivity: http://www.cloudproductivity.net/
Michael Sliwinski: http://www.michaelsliwinski.com/
Ciara Conlon: http://www.ciaraconlon.com/
Think Productive Workshops That Work: http://www.thinkproductive.co.uk/
Hillary Rettig: http://www.hillaryrettig.com/blog/
Personal Excellence: http://personalexcellence.co
Get Everything Done: http://markforster.squarespace.com/blog/
FacileThings Blog: http://facilethings.com/blog/en
Productivity Theory: http://productivitytheory.com/
GTD Times Blog: http://www.gtdtimes.com/
Lateral Action: http://lateralaction.com/
Productive Magazine: http://productivemagazine.com/
Cranking Widgets: http://blog.crankingwidgets.com/
Michael Hyatt: http://michaelhyatt.com/
Pick The Brain: http://pickthebrain.com/blog
I´m an Organizing Junkie: http://orgjunkie.com/
Ian´s Messy Desk: http://www.ismckenzie.com/
The Chief Happiness Officer Blog: http://positivesharing.com/
The Bamboo Project Blog: http://michelemartin.typepad.com/thebambooprojectblog
Gear Diary: http://www.geardiary.com/
Paul Isakson: http://paulisakson.typepad.com/
Books on Productivity
Eat That Frog, by Brian Tracey Kindle | Android | iTunes