True productivity is often painted as perfect, highly ordered, hierarchical and clean. The ideal system is polished and clinical, rules are followed and the productive person is all things to all people.
In my experience, this sanitized ideal is incompatible with ruthless effectiveness. True productivity is messy and imperfect.
It requires mistakes and small sacrifices, elimination and survival of only the most useful actions. Sometimes the quickest, roughest solution is more effective than the right one, and some rules are meant to be broken.
You don’t need to mow down tasks like an unstoppable machine. You just need to stop doing things that don’t matter.
Even if it gets a little messy sometimes.
Be nice, say No.
The ability to say No without making people hate you is one of the productive person’s top skills. This is tricky, because the more productive you are, the more effective you’ll be and more people will want a piece of your time as a result.
I’ve seen many productive people become overwhelmed once others begin to cotton on to their effectiveness!
Will completing this action help further my goals?
Could I accomplish something that would go further in the same time?
What is the worst that can happen if I say “No”?
Never do someone’s homework for them. Say “No” to any request which could be accomplished with some Google detective work. My favorite strategy is: don’t do it for them — tell them how to do it, or how to find the information they need.
That being said, one of my goals is to help bloggers and people trying to earn an income online, and I always do my best to give advice when it meets criteria 1 — that it’s the most good I could do in that time.
If I’m asked to give one person advice that would take 20 minutes to half an hour to complete, I tend to think of greater good I could do in the same amount of time by writing a useful post, for example.
This strategy hinges on your politeness, though. If you refuse in a way that seems rude or abrupt, you’re likely to leave a bad impression on the person who asked.
There is already some small degree of humiliation involved in asking for something and not getting it, so being polite, kind and encouraging or complimentary can help soften the blow and turn a positive into a negative.
Ending on a positive note can change the tone of your entire exchange.
Don’t be afraid to be imperfect.
Sometimes being imperfect is more effective than getting everything right, or trying to be all things to all people.
While it’s often desirable to respond to thank-you emails or email tips, the world won’t cave in if you miss one. If you offer to follow-up on something relatively insignificant, then find out that it’s going to take a lot more time than you thought, it’s usually more effective to cancel the follow-up or forget about it.
If it does mean something to the person, they’ll generally remind you. In most cases though, you’ll find that these things are a lot less important than you think!
Part of being truly effective is understanding that perfection isn’t always necessary. In many cases, you’re your own worst critic, and it can lead us to believe (falsely) that other people will judge us harshly for failing to do small things.
It requires a certain modesty to understand that your non-essential actions probably mean more to you than they do to anyone else.
Just because you are in higher demand doesn’t mean that you’ll suddenly have more time to fit things in. Part of scaling effectively is to cut out just as much as you add.
My main tip in this area is to stop tolerating bad habits. Checking stats or email five times a day is unnecessary, but we often allow ourselves these indulgences because they seem so insignificant.
What’s a few minutes here and there, after all?
In truth though, spending ten minutes more than you need to checking stats each day is 70 minutes a week — time you could have spent brainstorming ideas for a Muse, talking to your youngest child, or doing paid work.
What are your little indulgences really costing you?
Truly effective elimination can be messy because it’s often somewhat ruthless. It might involve cutting out feeds from your feed reader, turning off comment moderation and allowing the occasional spam comment to appear on your blog, or not responding to emails from clients you’re not really interested in working for.
The question: “What’s the worst that can happen if I eliminate this?” will lead to some messiness, and it may seem ruthless to you at first (though it rarely is).
We are so used of doing — or trying to do — every little thing, that we attach too much significance to things which don’t move us closer to our goals.
I want to suggest that many people who feel stressed or guilty about a lack of productivity are actually highly productive, but they undervalue what they achieve and over-value what they don’t.
Work backwards from desired results.
When you decide exactly what you want the outcome of your actions to be, it becomes a lot easier to define the important and the unimportant.
Once you realize that your primary goal is to charge $100 an hour for your coding services, you can begin to categorize potential actions in one of two ways: actions that contribute to this goal, and actions that don’t.
For the don’t pile, apply your new favorite question: “What the worst that can happen if I stop doing this?”
5. The best way is the easiest way that works.
If it takes 10 seconds to create a filter in Gmail that eliminates unwanted notification emails by sending them to the trash, or ten minutes to work out a way to switch off the notifications at the source, the messy productivity method is to go with option 1.
It’s the quickest way to achieve the same visible results. Messy productivity says that the best way to do something is the quickest, easiest option, not necessarily the ‘right’ and proper way.
One of the simplest ways to break bad habits is to make it harder to practice them. If you find yourself checking email a lot more than is necessary, delete your email account bookmark so that you have to manually type in the address.
Do this with any site you waste time on. This prolongs the decision making process and stops you falling into old habits on impulse.
It’s also essential that you get rid of auto-notifiers forever. These are nothing more than a temptation and a focus-breaker. Halt anything which allows a one-click indulgence of bad habits.
Create an action inventory.
Just like it’s almost impossible to maintain good finances if you don’t keep track of where your money is going, it’s impossible to maintain a ruthlessly effective routine without taking a holistic view of where you spend your time.
An incredibly useful process you can undertake for an hour or two every month is to write down a list of everything you do and evaluate the worth of each item on the list.
Are you doing too much of one thing and too little of another? Can you justify every part of your routine?
Critiquing your productivity is the only way to improve it. Though this self-analysis can be a little harrowing at first, it’s a skill that will help you far outside the realm of productivity.