Manage your time more effectively and beat procrastination
Are you always busy? Do you constantly feel overwhelmed by the amount of different things swirling around in your head? Does it feel like every new bit of information pushes something else out of your head?
Busyness is the modern disease. Almost everyone when making small talk will allude to how busy they are. It usually goes something like: ‘how are you?’ ‘good thanks, super busy though’ ‘yeah, me too’. I say this to people far too much, it’s just become the thing that you say.
If you feel like you’re constantly busy and juggling a thousand things at once but without actually getting anything done, I have one important question for you. Are you actually busy? Like really, truly, no time to spare, important meetings all day, in-charge-of-a-country kind of busy? Or is it that you just haven’t gotten yourself properly organised?
One of the most common causes of feeling this kind of busyness overwhelm is that you’re trying to keep far too much in your head and holding onto all of that information while trying to go about your day being productive. It might be a combination of those; you can be truly busy and be doing it wrong too.
To fix this you need to be really honest with yourself. It’s so easy to feed yourself bullshit about the fact that you’re busy to avoid doing any real thought or making a real effort, or to use busyness as a badge of honour- you must be super important because you’re just soooo busy. You can work on your productivity and get more done, but first you have to get over that, you have to stop the busyness self-talk and focus on putting in place systems that are going to help you make a change.
Over the years I’ve experimented with different time management techniques, sometimes without even realising it, going all the way back to revising for exams as a teenager. After a degree, a masters and a demanding job which sees me working on several projects simultaneously while fitting in the gym, my social life, and working on my pet projects, I want to share the things that have worked for me.
1. Think on paper
Yeah, that’s why I called my blog that! The first and most important step is to get everything out of your head. Stop forcing your brain to processes hundreds of bits of minutiae in the background while you try to do proper work.
How can you possibly expect to be productive or to do any really creative or analytical thinking if your head is full of ‘buy cat food, go to post office, finish report, make calls, emails….etc.’? You can’t. There’s no ‘multitasking’ your way out of this one (most people can’t multitask at all- period.)
The best way to increase your productivity is to take the pressure off yourself and stop approaching life as a memory test. You need a series of reliable systems that can do the remembering and easy lifting for you. We’re going to cover these systems in further posts.
If you do something regularly and it’s straightforward, why on earth would you keep thinking through that each time you have to do it? Get a list or a process or a flow chart you can use over and over again each time you do that task.
The example I always use here is packing for a work trip. You need 90% of the same stuff for every single trip. Why would you burden your amazing brain with that nonsense? Have a list you can use each time to tick stuff off into your case and forget about it. Packing then takes 10 minutes and virtually no brain power.
Everything to do with organisation, productivity and time management stems from getting all the thoughts, ideas, deadlines, phone calls, etc. out of your head and onto paper where you can organise them effectively and start making your life easier.
2. Plan properly
Planning out your day and your week and your month is crucial if you’re going to find time to do everything as effectively as possible. And yes, I said effectively, not efficiently, we’ll get onto why in a future post.
To plan properly you have to get clear on what is and isn’t procrastination and what’s actually useful to you. Just because others use one process doesn’t mean you should and just because someone says your system is useless, doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.
When I did my GCSEs I sat and planned out all the topics I needed to revise for each of the subjects I was taking. I actually still have the timetable I made. I vividly remember it being the standard joke (and I’m sure it still is) that students would procrastinate by making painstakingly elaborate revision timetables in lots of different colours instead of actually revising. I remember questioning whether I was doing the right thing as people seemed to suggest I was procrastinating and wasting time by making my revision timetable.
Now answer this, how on earth would I know how long it was going to take me to revise all those topics in time for each of the exams? How would I know I’d covered everything? How would I know I had time to get through it all? I wouldn’t. I needed the timetable, I planned properly and it paid off.
Don’t let people tell you what is and isn’t productive. Take the time you need to properly plan. Don’t be deluded into thinking that blazing in doing ‘stuff’ with no direction is productivity. With no direction you’re going nowhere and you’re not going to get anything done.
Stop, breath, think. Make a plan and then execute it (but probably don’t spend time adorning it with cute cat memes… not productive).
3. Find your productive times and use them well
This feeds into the planning stage above. How will you know when best to tackle certain tasks if you don’t know when you’re most productive? How will you know what order to schedule everything in?
Think about when you’re best able to read and take in information, when you’re best able to sit and write for a sustained amount of time, when you’re best able to be creative or make phone calls and be sociable.
Make sure you’re scheduling your less productive time for things that are less mentally taxing, like easily repeatable administrative tasks. If you have to write lots of emails that don’t require too much thought or technical input, save those for that time.
Pre-empt lulls in your productivity to do a different task for a ‘break’, like putting down your report and going to the gym for an hour. Absolutely do not wait until you’re unproductive to switch task. This is a super important point so I’m going to say it again: do not wait until you’re unproductive to switch task. It’s a bit like keeping hydrated, they always say by the time you’re thirsty it’s too late, you’re already dehydrated. The same is true with productivity.
I still occasionally fall into this trap (I did it yesterday, in fact), I’ll schedule my lunchtime gym break in my calendar, then 12pm will roll around and I still feel like I’m being super productive so I carry on…30 minutes later and productivity is going down…another 30 minutes on and I’m now getting next to nothing done.
But wait, I just had a super unproductive hour, I can’t possibly go to the gym now, I need to catch up on work! And so the vicious cycle is established and I end the day a) not having gone to the gym, b) not being as productive as I could have been, c) stressed that I haven’t worked out or done all my work. Learn from your typical routine, if your productivity trailed off at lunchtime yesterday, it’ll probably happen today. Have a plan, as soon as it hits 12pm, hit the gym.
4. Batch tasks effectively and time block key tasks
I’ve alluded to this above while talking about finding your productive time. The best way to minimise the time wasted by constantly switching tasks is to batch similar tasks together, providing your deadlines allow it (but you have loads of time to finish everything because you planned ahead, right?).
Got lots of emails to send that don’t take too much brain power? Set aside an hour after lunch when you’re a bit sleepy to read and reply to emails and send any new ones. Or use a pesky 30 minutes in between meetings where you can’t possibly get back into the flow of a larger, more complex task to knock a few admin-type tasks or emails on the head.
I’ve always used time blocking, right from my GCSE revision timetables, even though I only recently found out that it was a ‘thing’. Each evening I’ll look at my to do list and my day ahead and think about how I’m going to best fit those tasks into the next day to minimise task switching, use up shorter bits of time between meetings and take advantage of any less productive times of day to complete the ‘easy’ tasks.
This achieves two key things. Not only will it help you get things done in a productive and time-effective way, it will reduce the sense of overwhelm and panic you get from having lots of things on your plate. If you work on several projects at once, you’ll know that tense feeling on working on one thing while panicking about the fact that you’re not doing the other things, which usually leads to pointless and ineffective switching between the tasks.
If you batch and schedule your tasks properly you can focus on the task at hand, safe in the knowledge that your diary will tell you what to do and when (assuming you’ve scheduled it correctly!) without having to constantly worry about what else you should be doing.
The crucial thing here is that if you haven’t planned this out before hand, you’re unlikely to put it into practice. If you don’t already have the time blocked out or a to-do list that’s properly scheduled, you’re going to try to do the wrong tasks at an ineffective time or you’ll complete similar tasks piecemeal throughout the day and force yourself to keep switching focus.
When you notice your attention waning you need a go-to list of ready batched ‘easy tasks’ to smash through while you’re waiting for your brain to come back online.
5. Use ‘down time’ effectively
Everything goes back to proper planning…including this. There’s a lot of ‘dead’ time during the day. I’m not saying you should be flat out morning, noon and night, but if you have a short train journey or walk where you can’t do much that’s useful then why not use the time to make all those calls you keep putting off? Or listen to an audio book or language course that you otherwise struggle to find time to get to?
The trick to this is very much in the planning part, otherwise it’s too easy to just let the time get away from you daydreaming or wasting time on social media.
Think about some of the down time in your day; it could be time spent travelling (especially shorter journeys), time when your attention is poor. Make sure you have a subset of your to do list (I’ll cover different ways of producing to do lists in future posts) which has these types of ‘down time’ tasks all batched up and ready to go so you don’t have to rely on your brain randomly reminding you to do them at an opportune moment, but so that you can go straight to that list and work through it when you know you have an appropriate time slot coming up.
I’ll be writing a series of posts on the best ways to record and organise this information so you can get it out of your head and into a trustworthy system that will greatly increase your effectiveness and productivity.