Set your clock earlier if you want to get more done. Photo: Alan Cleaver

You’re busy and don’t have time to read a lengthy intro (especially in a piece about productivity).  So let’s get right to it. Plenty of productivity gurus recommend an entire, complicated system to get yourself organized and working optimally.

And in this series, we’ll get to many of those ideas and best practices.

First, however, give yourself an immediate boost in productivity by adopting one or several of the tactics below.  Starting tomorrow, they can help you get more time back and get more done every day.

1. Get up 30 minutes earlier

Would it really be that hard to get up 30 minutes earlier? This may not be your most productive, awake time. But an extra 30 minutes (when the rest of the house is still sleeping) could be used for reading, exercise, whatever you want. This alone gives you an extra 3.5 hours a week, and that’s a lot of time.  Plus, I bet that extra 30 minutes makes you feel more ahead of the day and in charge of what’s ahead.

2. Do your most important 1-2 tasks/projects FIRST every day (before email and voicemail)

At the beginning of each day, you already know what 1-2 things are most important to accomplish. But most of us, before tackling those projects, check email and voicemail and quickly get distracted by the day’s interruptions and fire-drills. Nine times out of ten, those distractions can wait until your most important tasks are finished. Get them done first, and I guarantee you’ll feel (and be) far more productive every day.

This is more than just a prioritized list of projects or tasks.  Be explicit about the top 1-2 tasks, as they’re likely far more important than what’s farther down the list.  Crossing tasks off makes you feel good, but ignoring the top priority isn’t going to move you forward fast enough.

3. Set a morning “Daily Do” reminder

Matt Heinz

There’s likely a core set of tasks you could execute in 30 minutes or less, every day and probably earlier in the morning, that would accomplish a number of things quickly and help you feel far more on top of things. They’d keep your networking active, ensure proper follow-up on things that happened yesterday, plus ensure you’re completely prepared for the day ahead.

Set a daily meeting with yourself every work day, Monday through Friday, for 30 minutes. Do it early morning (before you get to the office) with a cup of coffee, or begin a habit of starting your daily office routine on your own, free of distraction, and knock these tasks out.

The specific task list will be unique to you, but here’s a sampling of what’s on my “daily do” list every day:

  • Check Facebook for birthdays, and wish people a happy birthday first-thing
  • Check Klout for notifications, and give a handful of people I know “+K” for their expertise
  • Check my online spam filter (via Postini) for anything important I may have missed yesterday
  • Check LinkedIn and Gist for other important updates across my network, and comment back as necessary
  • Scan yesterday’s schedule, and send thank you notes (email or hand-written) as necessary
  • Ensure all to-do’s captured yesterday have been filed and prioritized (either today or for later)
  • Confirm my priorities and to-do list for today, and ensure I have every resource necessary to get them done
  • Confirm today’s meetings (including sending a confirmation email if necessary)
  • Prepare for today’s meetings (including any documents I’ll need there, any homework I needed to complete, etc.)

4. Keep your email offline, all the time

If you use Outlook in particular, right-click on the icon in the lower right-hand corner of your screen and select “Work Offline”. This will “freeze” the email in your inbox currently, and queue up anything in your Outbox to sync when you want to. This helps you focus on what’s at hand, without getting distracted in real-time by new incoming messages. Click the send/receive button when you want to, but otherwise stay more focused and more productive without the constant distractions.

5. Sort emails into 3 folders to focus on what’s most important, right now

I aggressively use Outlook’s email rules to manage my inbox. This automates much of the filing and sorting I’d otherwise have to do manually, especially when Outlook can recognize patterns and help me save certain types of emails for quick scanning or processing later.

For example, I subscribe to several email newsletters, but every one is automatically filed in a “reading” folder (more on that below). I get “watched item” alerts from eBay, which also get filed in a separate folder. There are certain reports I’m copied on, some of which I rarely read but want filed away for future reference. I have an Outlook rule that does all of this filing for me automatically. This tool alone saves me countless clicks and minutes every day.

For short-term processing, I typically sort the rest of my email into three folders: Action, Waiting For, and Reading.

  • · Action: Anything that takes longer than two minutes goes into the Action folder. Very, very few of these requests need immediate response. Putting them together in an “action” folder allows me to tackle them later, and all at once.
  • · Waiting For: I often send an email to a colleague or vendor, and wait for a response. I typically blind-copy myself on these emails, and have an Outlook rule set up so that these emails automatically get sorted into a “Waiting For” folder. This gives me a complete inventory of the outstanding emails I’ve sent for which I haven’t received a response. I’ll quickly scan this folder a few times a week, deleting emails that have been responded to, and occasionally following up with people that haven’t yet taken action.
  • · Reading: I get to this once a day, usually in the morning or evening. None of it is urgent, and I have no problem deleting an unread newsletter if the folder is getting too large, or if more recent emails (especially in the case of news summaries) are piling up.

I file these folders in my Outlook folders with an “@” symbol in front of them, so that they all stack up at the top of my Outlook folders list. This way they’re always in front of me for easy clicking and viewing when I’m ready.

6. Use the two-minute rule

Each time a new email arrives in your inbox, ask yourself: “Can I respond to this in two minutes or less?” If so, then respond right away! Don’t click or open another message just to read it. Be diligent and respond to the message you have open quickly before moving on

7. Carry idea capture tools with you at all times

Mind like water, memory like a sieve.

At least five times in the past week, I’ve had an idea while driving. Thanks to Dial2Do (and hands-free Bluetooth if you’re reading this, highway patrol), I quickly leave myself a message. When I eventually check my email (where my message has been translated and delivered), I realized all five times that I’d already forgotten the idea. My brain had moved onto something else, and that thought was lost in the process.

Without the instant capture, those ideas may have been gone forever.

The best way to allow yourself to be innovative, to free-form new ideas, is to practice “mind like water.” That means, basically, to let your brain improvise. Let it go where it wants. And when it lands on something good, write it down (or record it), so you can stop thinking about it and return your brain to the improvisational stage.

The trick to this, of course, is to write down or otherwise record as many of those “random” ideas and thoughts as possible, as soon as they happen. That means carrying pen and paper as often as possible. Using services such as Dial2Do or a digital voice recorder when driving or exercising. Or AquaNotes in the shower.

Not every idea is brilliant. Most, in, fact, are either mundane or, on second thought, not a priority right now anyway. But you’re not worried about quality, just capture rate.

Matt Heinz is president of Heinz Marketing, a Redmond-based sales & marketing firm. You can connect with Matt via emailTwitterLinkedIn or his blog. He writes occasionally on GeekWire under the column Productivity Porn. Previous columns…An introduction to productivity porn: How to be lazy, productive & successful15 New Year Resolutions for Entrepreneurs.

Comments

  • Dave

    Love the first one on the list… check FB…. that’s the biggest time waster of all.    I want my money back on this seminar.    

    • http://www.heinzmarketing.com Matt Heinz

      Facebook can be a huge time suck, agreed.  But checking birthdays and sending a couple quick “happy birthday” notes back?  Two minutes tops…

      • John Charles Nelson

        I agree, building relationships is a great way to use Facebook,

  • http://twitter.com/bcrimmins Bob Crimmins

    Thanks, Matt.  Good food for thought.  I admire your email discipline; definitely an area I need to work on.  I’m gonna try Dial2do, as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasongrimes Jason Grimes

    Great article – I would add that RescueTime either Free or Pro would be a valuable asset in tracking time spent in front of the computer. Time tracking without manual entry. Holler at me if you guys have any questions jason at rescuetime.

    • http://www.heinzmarketing.com Matt Heinz

       RescueTime is great.  I also like pushing yourself to focus on something for an intense but short period of time, followed by a small reward.   For example, if I hunker down and get this feature coded for the next hour (no email, no distractions), I can get a coffee or have a piece of chocolate or check the baseball scores. 

      Sometimes you just need 15-20 minutes to get in the zone, and you’ll get the work done faster than you think AND are more likely to just keep working beyond your designated time to get it done.  Getting started is sometimes the hardest part.

    • http://www.heinzmarketing.com Matt Heinz

       RescueTime is great.  I also like pushing yourself to focus on something for an intense but short period of time, followed by a small reward.   For example, if I hunker down and get this feature coded for the next hour (no email, no distractions), I can get a coffee or have a piece of chocolate or check the baseball scores. 

      Sometimes you just need 15-20 minutes to get in the zone, and you’ll get the work done faster than you think AND are more likely to just keep working beyond your designated time to get it done.  Getting started is sometimes the hardest part.

  • Innovate 2012

    Love the tip for Dial2Do for driving and AquaNotes for the shower.  I believe my innovation productivity rate will be on an upward climb.  

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