You want to be productive. You want to get more done. But you seem to be falling into a never-ending spiral of tasks, emails, projects and so on. You don’t feel like you’re ever going to get on top of everything you need to do. Obviously, this causes stress. And one of the main drivers of stress is the feeling of overwhelm, that you’re drowning in a sea of tasks that never seem to stop flowing.
So you work like crazy but feel like a hamster running on a treadmill that just seems to get faster and faster. And your only option is to keep going because, if you take a break, you’re only going to have an even longer “to do” list when you get back.
I get it. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re never going to get on top of things.
You end up compromising. After all, you’ve actually been told NOT to strive for perfection, otherwise you’ll never complete any tasks. You’ve learnt that you just need to get your projects to “good enough” because that’s better than not getting them done it all.
But each little compromise is like a little paper cut. No one can see it – but you know it’s there. You can feel it. And as you continue to compromise on various aspects of your life, all of those little paper cuts can become excruciating. You end up in a world of pain.
I know, because that’s been me.
Then I got sick to death of the paper cuts, tired of feeling overwhelmed all the time, and I simply wanted a better … life.
I was constantly under pressure (although I was the only person to blame for this), I looked tired, and rarely had enough time to nurture my creative side. Not ideal.
So what did I do about it?
I realised that I had to do two things:
1. Work smarter – that is, use my time more effectively, become more productive and streamline the way I worked. When you’re pulled in so many directions it’s easy to become reactionary. And while stuff does get done, it’s rarely done in the most effective or efficient way.
2. Prioritise my to-do list – that includes striking off certain tasks and projects. This was a tough one for me because I always espoused that you can do anything – and achieve anything – if you put your mind to it. I still believe that from the bottom of my heart. However, I’ve now realised that you can achieve anything in the world but sometimes this comes at a cost. That cost is different for everyone. For some it’s your health, for others it’s relationships, and yet others will let their mental health suffer.
So while I truly believe that you can achieve anything you want, I’ve also realised that you don’t have to achieve everything. Because, quite simply, some things are just not worth the return on investment. And it’s important to prioritise and delete certain tasks and projects in order to maintain your sanity, health and/or relationships.
While there are numerous work hacks I can share with you about productivity, I now work with two underlying philosophies …
The big rocks
You’ve probably heard of Steven Covey’s “Big Rocks” story:
One of our associates shared this experience.
I attended a seminar once where the instructor was lecturing on time. At one point, he said, “Okay, it’s time for a quiz.” He reached under the table and pulled out a wide-mouth gallon jar. He set it on the table next to a platter with some fist-sized rocks on it. “How many of these rocks do you think we can get in the jar?” he asked.
After we made our guess, he said, “Okay. Let’s find out.” He set one rock in the jar . . . then another . . . then another. I don’t remember how many he got in, but he got the jar full. Then he asked, “Is that jar full?”
Everybody looked at the rocks and said, “Yes.”
Then he said, “Ahhh.” He reached under the table and pulled out a bucket of gravel. Then he dumped some gravel in and shook the jar and the gravel went in all the little spaces left by the big rocks. Then he grinned and said once more, “Is the jar full?”
By this time we were on to him. “Probably not,” we said.
“Good!” he replied. And he reached under the table and brought out a bucket of sand. He started dumping the sand in and it went in all the little spaces left by the rocks and the gravel. Once more he looked at us and said,”Is the jar full?”
“No!” we all roared.
He said, “Good!” and he grabbed a pitcher of water and began to pour it in. He got something like a quart of water in that jar. Then he said, “Well, what’s the point?”
Somebody said, “Well, there are gaps, and if you really work at it, you can always fit more into your life.”
“No,” he said, “that’s not the point. The point is this: if you hadn’t put these big rocks in first, would you ever have gotten any of them in?”
The reality is that you need to prioritise your major projects – or the most important projects – first. We are often tempted to cross off the easy tasks on our “to do” list first, but then we end up getting distracted by a whole range of errands and administrative tasks. The day ends up going by without us tackling the bigger projects. The very fact that they are big projects makes them seem daunting, and so we procrastinate. We convince ourselves that we’re being productive because were actually crossing other items off our list.
However, it’s important not to confuse activity with achievement. Put your big rocks in first.
The 80/20 rule
You’re probably familiar with the 80/20 rule. Known as Pareto’s principle, it refers to the idea that 20 per cent of your actions is usually responsible for 80 per cent of your results. And that means you need to focus on the 20 per cent that matters.
If you want a printout to remind you of this, download this PDF and stick it on your wall.
So at the start of my week, I schedule in my “big rocks”, but then I assess all of my activities using the 80/20 rule. This helps the eliminate the tasks and projects that I shouldn’t be spending my time on.
Start your week by scheduling your time based on the above principles and you’ll feel more in control. Assess your options using the 80/20 rule and you’ll soon realise that you don’t have to achieve everything on your list in order to make an impact. You just need to know WHICH tasks and projects to focus on.
What has worked for you when it comes to streamlining and prioritising your productivity?