I used to really identify with Sisyphus, the character from Greek mythology. For those of you who aren’t mythology nerds, Sisyphus was a man condemned by the gods to roll a huge boulder up a hill. When he would reach the top of the hill, the boulder would suddenly roll backward, crushing him. Day after day, this was his fate for all eternity.
I guess I identified because early in my career it seemed like I spent a lot of frantic days working away at things, but never really getting a lot done. I was a little bit different from poor Sisyphus in that I wasn’t focused on a single task. Still, we both put in a lot of effort for very little reward. Even more to the point, the things that I didn’t get done seemed to be constantly rolling over top of me.
The truth is, however, we are constantly getting things done. The problem is that they are only the things that just keep our heads barely above water. And this leads me to my first tip to be productive: We will always undervalue what we accomplish unless we are squeezing out that extra little bit that makes us feel like we are progressing.
That is what these productivity improvement techniques are all about—achieving that extra little bit every day that we need to move forward, and also recognizing it when we are indeed getting more things done.
What is productive? What is unproductive?
A great tip to be productive is to start evaluating your work by specifically defining what being productive means to you. In other words, how can we properly assess anything without a clear understanding of what it is?
This can actually be harder than it sounds, especially if you try sifting through the activities of your day after the fact. Everything that you did will seem like it was necessary for retrospect. And we will also conveniently omit or underestimate all of those time wasters we engaged in.
Speaking of time wasters, they deserve a little bit of attention here. You all know what I mean: social media quicksand, extended small talk, Internet roaming, etc. These little thieves don’t seem like much, but they are constantly robbing us of our attention, energy and time. Their aggregate effect is killing us. These are the reason why it seems like we are doing a lot, but accomplishing very little.
So here is a work efficiency tip that I will share with you—it will not solve everything in your life, as it is only a first step, but it is an important one: When we take the time to define what productivity is before we start working, it will accomplish two things for us:
- When we know specifically what we need to accomplish, we have something that we can specifically evaluate at the end of the day.
- Even more importantly, when we clearly state to ourselves what our productive work for the day is, we become more mindful of slipping into unproductive activities. We have the opportunity to catch ourselves before we “cheat”. More and more, we start saying No! to unproductive things.
What does productivity mean today?
Now that we have established that it is important to define our productive goals—so we can both achieve and evaluate them—let’s make a habit out of doing that. Habits are what we do … well habitually, right? So every day we are taking the time to define what productivity means for us that day.
The beauty about this tip to be productive is that this practice generally only takes five minutes or less. That’s because we all already know what we need to get done in order to move forward. It’s already bouncing around in our heads. The only problem is, when it’s stuck in our brains like that, it’s just a vague, wishy-washy notion. We need to pull it out into the world of concrete things. Write it down! Spend five minutes, every day.
Set a reasonable productivity goal
Sometimes we feel anxious, or even get angry with ourselves, because we sense that we are not being as productive as we could be. We tell ourselves to start “tomorrow” and knock out everything that we have been putting off in a fell swoop. When it doesn’t happen—when we don’t morph into Superman overnight—we get even more bogged down in negative emotional states.
So, when you first start this process of defining and evaluating your productivity, begin by being honest about what you can accomplish in a day. If you set goals that are way too high, you are only setting yourself up to feel demoralized because you didn’t get everything done. The key is to start with one reasonable thing that is out of the flow of your normal work routine. “I am going to spend ten minutes becoming more proficient with creating budgets.” Boom! Done, easy. When you reflect back on your day, you will feel uplifted, because you got all your “normal” stuff done AND you addressed your weakness with budgets. Your evaluation will be that you increased your productivity, and you’ll be right.
Build on your success
Once the habit of defining productivity is ingrained and we have experienced some success in accomplishing one small productivity goal on regular basis, we must begin building.
Here’s why, and it’s also part of a great tip to be more productive. Once we establish a habit, we begin to take it for granted. That can be a good thing, in a way. It means that we have incorporated another positive component into our routine. But this is about evaluating ourselves as being more productive. Like we said earlier, you won’t feel like you are being productive if you are just accomplishing everything in your daily routine.
You’re still going to be haunted by the idea that you left a lot on the table. And you know what, you’ll be right. So we have to be continually building in order to evaluate our current level of productivity favorably. We have to incorporate another small goal for greater productivity, and another, and another…
Reap the rewards
The great thing about being realistic about what you can accomplish now, and then slowly build on it, is that you are going to be actually getting way more done—and in less time. Your days are going to be so much less stressful, but you will evaluate your level of productivity as being much higher. Now you are going to have more time to also focus on your personal growth. This is important, by the way, because it is actually the point of all of this emphasis on productivity in the first place.