When people find out I’m a productivity expert, they often ask, “How can I have a more productive life?” They probably expect me to give them a quick solution to boost their productivity at home and at work, so I usually start by sharing my definition of productivity. I say:
“Personal productivity is the measurement of a person’s progress toward their significant results. People who practice attention management are able to make more progress toward their most important goals, because their attention is not diverted by constant distraction.”
The next question is often, “How do I determine “significant” results?”
I explain that these are the plans and goals you set for yourself, with regard to things like career, health, and relationships, because you believe achieving these outcomes will have a positive impact on your life. The significance typically changes with the time horizon.
For example, my significant result for today might be to submit my next article for Harvard Business Review. This month’s goals relate to larger projects, like expanding that article into a chapter of a book, and this year’s goals to still larger projects, like getting the book completed and published. You can see in these examples that if we don’t achieve the daily results that are significant to us, it becomes harder to achieve the longer-term results.
Control Leads to Productivity and Happiness
In my decades of work as a productivity expert, I’ve noticed one common theme among clients who feel happy and excited about their work; they feel in control of their days, both personally and professionally—like they are running their days instead of the other way around. It’s true that we often assess our productivity a day at a time. But together, all of those days add up to your life.
How to Be More Productive in Life: Regain Control
The answer to, “How can I have a more productive life?” begins with helping you get more control over your attention. The reason is that the more control you have over your attention, the faster and better you will do important tasks, and the more present you will be in the moments of your life—both of which will move you closer to achieving your significant results. The more progress you make on your significant results, the more productive you’ll feel and the happier you’re likely to be.
Meet Allison, an Engineering Manager
Allison manages a team of 12 civil engineers who coordinate and execute construction projects. Her team’s stated goal is to get their projects completed on time and on budget, every time.
Allison’s Hunch: Multitasking Is Causing Burnout
Allison is pretty good at managing the team, but because they each manage multiple projects, and are constantly bombarded with communication from all of the other project players, the engineers are stressed. She knows they are working long hours to stay on top of everything, and Allison fears her team members are burning out.
Allison frequently checks in with her team, and lately, she’s noticed that they seem more tired, more impatient, and more harried. She asks them weekly to rate how they feel about their work on a scale of 1-5. Typically, her team’s responses average above a 4, but lately, their average is closer to 3.This concerns her because she cares about her team members, and she believes that work-life balance is important. She knows that her team’s increasing stress can lead to absenteeism and turnover, and either will have a detrimental effect on the entire team.
Allison’s Significant Result: Reduce Stress for Team Members
Allison has decided that her most significant result at work is to reduce stress for the engineers on her team, because this will have a positive effect on the individual engineers, the team, and, ultimately, the success of the organization. She is going to try several methods to accomplish this significant result. She’ll measure her progress by the agents’ responses on the weekly survey.
She aims to get her team’s feelings about their job back up to at least a 4.5 and keep it there. To make more time to focus on her significant result, Allison and I worked on her “Action Management,” one of the key components of my Empowered Productivity System. This helped her to break down her activities into manageable steps that she could organize, prioritize, and execute in the most efficient way.
How to Break Down a Task List
Once you define your significant results, you have a better chance of doing work that will move you toward what’s important in your life. However, you can’t focus only on your most important results, because there are always tasks that need to get done, even though they aren’t significant. There are also tasks we’d like to do, but aren’t really necessary.
Let’s take a look at the type of activities that might show up on your daily next actions list:
1. Necessary but Not Significant Tasks
We all do tasks that might not advance us toward our significant results, yet are necessary to maintain our relationships or our finances.
For example, Allison may need to send a birthday card to her aunt, and to pay her bills. She also has to get groceries, and she should probably clean up the leaves in the yard. These tasks won’t help her lower her team’s stress, but they’re still important to keeping her life on track.
‘Shoulds’ Kill Productivity
There is a model called the Eisenhower Matrix. It splits tasks into 4 quadrants:
- Low importance, low urgency
- Low importance, high urgency
- High Importance, low urgency
- High Importance, high urgency
The low importance, low urgency tasks are like monkeys on your back. You avoid them, but they weigh on your mind because you feel like you ‘should’ deal with them.
For Allison, the task of picking up the leaves in her yard has been taking up brain space for the last two weeks. She avoids the task, though, because it requires a lot of physical energy, and she prefers to use weekend time to restore her body and rest after a busy week. But now there are so many leaves that she’s worried it may soon snow, and if the leaves are there, it will kill the grass.
What Should You Do About ‘Shoulds’?
Delegate as many low importance items as you can to others. When you offload time-consuming tasks, you free yourself mentally and physically. You feel more energized to tackle the tasks that are important to you.
In Allison’s case, she can hire someone to pick up the leaves. She can order her groceries online. And she can even reach out to the utility companies and ask them to put her on “budget billing” so that her check will get sent automatically every month and she won’t have to worry about logging in to her online banking portal to change the amount. Automation is a great way to deal with “shoulds.”
In our gig economy, there are so many services available that can free you up to reach your significant goals. One of my favorite services is TaskRabbit.* Their platform will instantly connect you to skilled Taskers to help with cleaning, furniture assembly, home repairs, running errands and more.
*The link above will provide each of us with a $10 discount on our next task.
2. Tasks That Can Be Done Later
If you examine your task list carefully, you’ll often find low priority items that you can shift to a ‘someday/maybe’ list. These are items you’d love to do if you had all the time in the world. But realistically, at this moment, these tasks don’t need to be done. Completing these tasks won’t move you closer to your significant results, so doing them will not increase your productivity.
For example, Allison has wanted to create an onboarding program for new members of her team. However, she has her hands full with her current workload, and implementing this project won’t decrease the stress of her team members. So I advise Allison to move the onboarding project to the “someday/maybe” portion of her task list, which she evaluates quarterly.
3. Tasks That Propel You Toward Significant Results
This last category are the tasks that move the needle toward achieving our significant results. When you perform these tasks, you feel excited about your progress. You feel productive! And there’s a good reason for your internal glee; you know these tasks are helping you to achieve your goals and design your life.
Allison Learns How to Be More Productive in Life
In order to be productive, Allison makes more time in her life to work toward her significant results. Even though this particular significant result is related to work, being overwhelmed at home can exhaust her and impact how she approaches work.
Outsource When Possible
After Allison decides to automate her bill pay, hire someone to pick up the leaves, and order her groceries online for delivery, she feels exhilarated! Over the weekend, Allison sends a birthday card to her aunt. Then she spends time with her family and friends.
When the work-week comes, Allison feels refreshed and rejuvenated. She is able to focus on helping her team members feel the same way.
Take a Step Every Day Toward a Significant Result
Every day this week, Allison has made time to take at least one step toward lowering the stress of her team members. On Monday, she created and distributed communication guidelines, so that team members can feel comfortable disconnecting on evenings and weekends, knowing that if there is an emergency, they will receive a phone call instead of an email.
Allison spent other time during the week sourcing “do not disturb” signals, encouraging her team to take control of their environment and their technology so they can have undistracted work time, and practicing this behavior herself.
Two weeks later, during Allison’s check-ins with her team members, she sees the average of her “how do you feel about your work” scale trending upward. She is energized by her progress.
Learn to Manage Your Attention
To fight back against constant distraction, you need to manage your attention. Learning attention management is a critical skill, since the technology we happily embrace is specifically designed to steal our attention. This leads us to a life of reaction and distraction, taking us farther from our significant results. Attention management empowers us to live a life of choice and intention, increasing our productivity in both life and work.
Take the First Step to a More Productive Life
If you’re interested in getting on the path to attention management, take my Attention Management Assessment. It should take around 5 minutes to complete the assessment and receive specific advice to increase your productivity with attention management. Another option to learn both the Attention Management and Action Management components of my Empowered Productivity System is my online, on-demand training at empoweredproductivitytraining.com.
Maura’s Top Take-Aways
If you want to know how to be more productive in life, start by really thinking through these points:
- Productivity is a measurement of progress toward your most significant results.
- To increase productivity, automate and outsource low-importance tasks.
- Move tasks that are really more of a “wish” than a “goal” to a “someday/maybe” portion of your task list. Review this quarterly or twice per year.
- Learn attention management and action management skills to help you focus on the tasks that move you toward achieving your most significant results.
Strategies to Increase Productivity in Your Life
Check out my books to learn more about using attention management to increase your productivity:
- “Personal Productivity Secrets“
- “Work Without Walls” (recommended for workplace leaders)
- “Attention Management“
Contact me to talk about specific issues in your organization and the solutions I can offer to meet your organization’s professional development objectives.