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Productivity is such a big subject and there is a lot to learn, with more every day. One of the things I am working on personally, and answering a lot of questions about, is how to incorporate social media into my life. One of the biggest fears I hear, about Twitter especially, is “How do I make the time? How do I incorporate yet ANOTHER communication tool into my life?” It’s a great question. What I’m learning is that the answer is the same for Twitter and other social media as it was for email before that (which most everyone is still struggling with). And as it was for the internet before that, and for the fax machine before that, and for the telephone before that. Many productivity experts have their own “big picture” points about managing the details of their lives. Here are mine.

The first is the most important, although they are all related. The secret to productivity is control. That’s why I call my process the Empowered Productivity System. There are three components to control and if you can master them, managing the details of your life will become much easier and less stressful. You need to learn to master control over information, control over the technology that information comes in on, and control over your own behavior and focus. A couple of brief points about each…

If you, like most people I meet, spend your days in reactive mode, instead of in proactive mode, then information is controlling you, rather than the opposite. If you have your Facebook and LinkedIn pages, and your TweetDeck, or other Twitter stream, open all the time on your desktop, then you are not controlling your technology, it is controlling you. If you have your email client open and messages automatically downloading, plus your notification sounds on your iPhone or Blackberry, then you are not controlling your technology, it is controlling you. Maybe you don’t leave these things open, but you can’t control your urge to check one or all of them every few minutes or less. Or maybe you find yourself almost never looking at your to-do list, or you don’t even have your to-do list out of your head (more on this below).  Then you are not controlling your own behavior and focus. Control is the key. It might not be easy, but it is simple.

Next tip: you hear money “gurus” saying this all the time: pay yourself first. It applies to your time as much as it does to your money.  Spending your time in reactive mode all day means you are prioritizing everyone else’s questions, requests, information, etc., over your own stuff. Presumably you have put things on your to-do list, or they are floating around in your brain, because they have some significance, some importance to you. If you spend little or no time being proactive, checking things off your list…if your list gets longer more often than it gets shorter, then you are not paying yourself first. Here’s the easiest way to implement this: when you start work in the morning, resist the urge to go straight to your email. Go to your to-do list, be proactive and productive for an hour or more, and only then switch to your email messages. Anything you were going to read at 8am can probably keep until 9:30am.

Last thought, and if you know me, you’ve probably heard me say it many times: you can only truly manage things when you can see them, and you can only see them when they are out of your head. Human beings are only capable of holding one conscious, coherent thought in our heads at a time. Everything else is swirling around in that haze that causes stress. Our brains our not designed to manage the banal details of our lives. Our brains are much better at problem solving, big picture, creative-type thinking. If they worked in such a way that we could reach into our mind, and pluck out the exact piece of information, exactly when we needed it, then perhaps we wouldn’t need calendars, planners, to-do lists, contact managers, etc. But we DO need these things. So you should use them, and learn how to use them well. You need a good set of tools, that work well together, and support you in a logical, meaningful way. Having these will allow you to free your mind of the details, allowing you to do the things your brain is good at, and this, in turn, will lower your stress levels.

Just raising your awareness of these three points will put you on the path to improving your personal productivity. As always, I’m happy to hear your comments. And if you’re one of those early adopters who have found a way to work Twitter into your life, please consider following me @mnthomas.