Starting the Year Off Right: Tips to Improve Your Personal Productivity — Jan 2023
January 25, 2023
Everyone is trying to do more with less these days (or maybe just more with the same): the world has become more complex, and professional demands seem to be ever-increasing. In response – and to kick off PEN’s 2023 webinar series earlier this month – we decided to focus on personal productivity, exploring ways that leaders and all professionals could maximize their efficiency and start the year most effectively. We invited Jan Lehman of CTC Productivity (one of PEN’s long-term partners and the perfect speaker for this topic in my opinion). Jan’s talk was so thoughtful, relevant, and valuable, I thought I’d share some of her insights with our broader network, since we’re all trying to maximize productivity.
Jan started the discussion with a fairly startling statistic from the Wall Street Journal: office workers are wasting 40% of their workday because they were never taught organizing skills to cope with increasing workloads and demand. Obviously, that’s not a picture of efficiency or productivity; rather, it’s a recipe for waste. Jan went on to say that in her mind organization is the founding principle of productivity: if you organize where your data are, you can find it faster; if you organize your tasks, you can execute more effectively; if you better organize your time, you can focus on the most important priorities first.
Jan declared that the three most valuable resources for any of us are time, talent, and technology. She went on to offer dozens of tips, tools, and good practices to maximize those three assets. Here is my summary of her insights, centered around four main themes…
Theme 1: Prioritize. Recognize that you will never get to everything on your to do list. As the demands of all our jobs continue to expand, we need to be realistic, prioritize, and focus on the most important things. Jan recommends that we all use the Pareto Principle: find those 20% of activities that will generate an 80% return. Her suggestions for prioritization:
Divide your to do list into three buckets: highest priority items that you must accomplish; middle priority things that you should accomplish, but things that are not as critical or urgent; and lesser priority items that you may get to another time. Focus your work – structure your daily schedule – in that descending order.
Manage the scope of your tasks by focusing on three variables: time (the speed & sequence of tasks), cost (the budget required for specific tasks), and quality (the level of performance you need out of certain tasks). Each of your decisions are trade offs between those three variables. For example, you may be able to deliver a premium deliverable in a month, but a first draft (so-called “adequate”) deliverable within a week or two. Intentionally consider the best balance of time, cost, and quality in managing your task list, so that you optimize resources, set and reinforce appropriate expectations with your stakeholders, and focus on the highest priorities.
Don’t be a perfectionist. You don’t have to settle for average, but recognize what levels of quality are needed given the requirements of the task and the expectations of key stakeholders. Sometimes we all tend to “overdo” things, so calibrate your effort levels given the nature of the work.
Theme 2: Pace yourself and shift your context. Jan suggests that what’s on your calendar shapes your workday. If you could spend 100% of your day on one task, you’d be highly productive, but the more tasks you add to your calendar, the more time you spend shifting your mind between those tasks (see more on how that creates waste below). Her suggestions:
Batch the tasks in your day to maximize productivity. For some, it might make sense to work on similar tasks in sequence after you establish a rhythm and pattern; for others, it might make sense to accomplish a difficult task and then “reward” yourself with something a little less mentally strenuous. Find whatever works for you, but clustering and pacing your day will help improve productivity.
In addition, create downtime in between tasks to help you absorb content, reflect on issues, and prepare for the next task. Rather than having back-to-back meetings all day long, Jan recommends putting gaps in your day – maybe 20-30 minutes of “downtime” in between meetings.
Jan also recommended limiting technology distractions (emails, texts, notifications). Instead, put away your devices or turn off notifications, and batch your review and response to them a couple of times in your day. She cites a University of California at Irvine study that suggests every interruption in your day leads to 23 minutes of lost productivity, so creating an environment that reduces those interruptions can really improve our productivity.
Theme 3: Spend more time planning. Leadership, strategy & training guru Brian Tracy suggests that one minute of planning can lead to 10 minutes of better execution – yes, that’s a 10-to-1 ROI (we all know the phrase “measure twice, cut once”)! Jan’s recommendations on better planning:
Have dedicated time every day – perhaps at the very beginning or ending of your previous day – to stop, regroup, and intentionally lay out the day.
For a little longer range personal planning, form a habit of looking out about two weeks. When you do so, you’ll identify tasks that need to start a little earlier to accomplish certain outcomes a couple of weeks out.
But when planning for your team, form a habit of looking about 90 days out. The reason: you need to explore interdependencies between tasks (and between people), and if each individual on your team is looking two or three weeks out, finding those interdependencies and connections requires a long-range view.
For complicated projects, use Mind Maps – a tool that allows you to identify and eventually organize different tasks into clusters, helping you to make sense of (and begin to organize) different activities into more logical patterns. Just Google “Mind Maps” to find how to create these and various online tools to help you do so.
For complicated projects that have higher risks, consider using PERT charts or the Critical Path method. These tools help you sequence tasks, identifying those that have dependency on others, as well as the estimated days of completion for each. It also helps you estimate the amount of time needed to complete tasks or a series of tasks. Her advice is to always use the most conservative, pessimistic estimates, which helps you create a more realistic schedule, build some cushion into the plan, and appropriately set expectations with stakeholders.
Speaking of stakeholders, Jan suggested we all need to focus more on collaboration rather than isolation. The RACI Matrix helps in identifying who needs to be involved and what role(s) each stakeholder serves in more complex projects.
Theme 4: Leverage technology. There are so many powerful technology tools now available to help us organize information, improve communication and collaboration, and maximize productivity. Most of these tools now fit under either the Microsoft or Google umbrella. Jan’s suggestions:
In general, automate time-consuming and/or repetitive tasks. For example, consider online scheduling apps like Calendly or Bookings for scheduling meetings.
Consider more team communication and collaboration tools, rather than email and disparate platforms. Both Microsoft and Google have elevated their toolset the last few years to really enable this communication.
As we all try to get our arms around the increasing demands of our work, picking just a couple of Jan’s suggestions will go a long way in improving our productivity.