We all know the days we feel so busy we don’t have a moment to sit down, and when we look back at the end of it we feel like we’ve done… not that much really, a small part of what we wanted to do. Then comes frustration – why didn’t we manage to do what we thought would be possible to do? How come some people are much more efficient than others, how do they do it?
I realized it’s a challenge especially for us, women, as we take on average more than we can do – and believe in multitasking.
This happens both at home and at work. Saying ‘no’ to additional projects is still on the top of the most difficult things to do. Think about it: how many assertive women do you know? How many of us can go through our days without running from a meeting to a meeting, from work to school, from gym back home to clean and cook?
We live in a culture that glorifies spending long hours at the office. Being the last one to leave is often associated with commitment and productivity. That’s the reason why even if you are done at 5pm you wait for others to go not to seem uncommitted. The research, however, proves exactly the opposite: showing that overwork leads to decreased total productivity. Did you know that while
working 60 hours a week you accomplish less than by working 40 hours: this is how much our creativity and mental capacity drop in the additional 20 hours.
In the past I’d often get frustrated at the end of the day knowing I really worked all day, but when I glanced at my to-do list I could see I only accomplished around half of the tasks. Where did 10 hours of productivity go? As my job was getting very demanding due to a hectic travel schedule I needed to find a way to still do my admin work while in the office, catch up on things I would de-prioritize during travel days, and of course I still wanted to leave work on time. I wondered:
How can we start going through our work days mindfully, and acting – instead of reacting mindlessly – to whatever happens?
There will always be days or weeks of increased workload, but that’s not the norm – and it shouldn’t become one as we end up less and less productive, personal life and health deteriorate, and people in their early 30ies feel burnt out. I have 2 brilliant friends working in completely unrelated businesses. At the age of 28 they were both struggling with first symptoms of depression and burnt out. 28?! Isn’t that too early?
Here is the tricky part: they both enjoyed their work. I was asking myself how can someone who only spent a couple of years working end up at the brink of exhaustion so early? How can we manage our energy to stay productive, and sane, way longer? I soon found the answer as I felt I was headed in the same direction last year.
Ever since I’ve been looking for ways to find a balance in my own life, and took a closer look at what our experience, and science, say about productivity. It turns our there is a direct link between the way you prioritize your to-do list and feeling of accomplishment at the end of the day. Similarly, a strong correlation between the times of the day, as well as energy needed to complete it. Below 5 tips worked magic for me, you can try to apply some of them yourself:
1: Focus only on one thing, and don’t proceed to another one until there is nothing more you can do.
This was one of the most powerful realizations for me. Women are great at multitasking, right? So I thought. I used to open emails only to glance through them and then flag them adding them to my to-do list. The longer it got, the more it would put me off. Now I only touch things once. It can’t always be done with bigger projects, but most tasks can be either completed or delegated within less than 10 minutes. For larger ones follow the 80/20 rule.
Put your phone on mute (or at least all the social media notifications) not to get distracted easily. If you work in an open space, you can have your earphones with some relaxing music to keep a higher level of concentration.
2: Follow the 80/20 rule: create priority lists, not to-do lists.
Every day I ask myself what things will give me the biggest ‘return on time invested’? In most cases roughly 80% of results are driven by 20% of most important tasks (MITs). If you can, try to spend the first part of your day dedicating your time to your priorities. You shouldn’t have more than 2-3. Why? You will easily lose focus.
A great way to start is to create a priority list either in the morning or at the end of the day so that you know what you should do first. Important: forget to-do list. They make you feel organized in the morning as you write down every single thing under the sun that you should do, but quickly realize there is no way you can do them all, and feel frustrated and demotivated.
3: Design your own morning routine.
This is one of the things all successful people share. How you start your morning (first 60-90 minutes) will shape your entire day. A good relaxing morning helps you set your priorities straight and have a clear image of what needs to be done. A couple of years ago I joined the ‘6am club’ and decided to wake up an hour earlier that usual to have some quality time before heading into the office. It’s amazing how much can you do in 1 hour when you are not in a hurry, and how accomplished it makes you feel.
First things first: if you don’t have to, don’t sleep next to your phone, and don’t check it until you are done with your routine (shower, breakfast, morning reading). This ensures that you take care of your priorities and plans before you read 5 work emails and start thinking about doing things for others.
Secondly, be mindful. The idea is to relax and think about the day: what would you like to focus on? What are your 2-3 most important priorities? Write them down. Take a minute to imagine how good the day is going to be and spend a moment reading or watching something inspiring. You can try meditating for 5-10 minutes. Sitting still helps your brain set the priorities for the day.
Thirdly, get active. I do 15 minutes of yoga or pilates.
If I have more time I spend 15-45 minutes reading or working on my personal projects. By the time I leave my apartment I feel energized and ready for the day with a focus in mind (and I keep the list of my priorities on my phone with on a post-it note).
4: Energy is everything.
We all have the same amount of time on our hands and only in the short run we can pull all-nighters, stop seeing friends or sacrifice gym to complete some of our bigger projects. What can we do on a daily basis it to drive our productivity and enjoy the journey by optimizing the energy to have more focus, attention, make faster decisions?
There are 3 essential components: sleep, nutrition and breaks. Try to get between 6-8 hours a day of good sleep, eat clean, make time for short breaks during the day (walks and power naps are my favorite).
At work, work in intervals and take breaks – just like we did back in school. I believe we get most done when we find a way to be more flexible around our 8 hours workdays.
5: Theme days of the week.
This one helps if you have to work (as most of us) on many different projects and keep your focus. It’s up to you to divide your work. I handle a lot of international projects and depending on the country I want to focus on, I have Mondays for Germany, Tuesdays for France, etc, leaving Fridays to clean up the general admin items and organize for the following week. Weekends then feel relaxed as you don’t unconsciously stress about any unfinished business. If you work on one big project then you don’t need to do it – you will have your focus anyway.