I closed my eyes and rubbed them for the third time in 60 minutes.
It had happened again.
11:30pm, third night in a row and I’d still not got through my ever-increasing to-do list.
As I began to drift into one of many day dreams about how frustrating it was that I couldn’t just manage my tasks more efficiently, I decided that I really did need to change.
My girlfriend lay asleep in the next room, in fact, she’d been asleep for quite some time by this point.
I opened my training spreadsheet, due into my coach the next day. How was I going to explain the lack of training this week, the limping attempt at calorie management?
All I’d managed this week was 1 of 4 planned sessions and I’d made a dishonest attempt to cram in some protein between chunked periods of procrastinating.
Unless your job is manual or physical in nature I’d imagine that the above story resonates on some level.
More than a few of nights like this inspired an ongoing journey for me into the world of how to get stuff done, faster and with less stress.
“The art of stress free productivity”
My experience of “work” has always been one of an ever expanding window in which you’re supposed to be available, of hugely important, mission critical, LIFE THREATENING…numbers on a spreadsheet.
Since leaving my corporate job and working in the Propane partnership that is Yusef and myself full time, I’ve learned an awful lot about what it actually means to be productive.
While you may believe that you are at the mercy of others, your to do list app and your calendar, it’s a little deeper than that.
Through managing PropaneFitness alongside a full time job, studying for accountancy exams in the evening and training for powerlifting too, I learned via a baptism of fire some simple, non intrusive ways to manage my list of tasks and commitments.
When I attended IPF worlds was the busiest period of my life:
Working 50 hours a week
Revising for my final ACA exams in the evening and weekends
Managing the most intense training I’d dealt with to date
While juggling the rest of life in the other hand.
I’m not saying this to brag, I know a lot of people have had MUCH harder times to manage. Just that this article isn’t coming from some keyboard warrior with no experience or an internet entrepreneur on a beach in Bali.
This toolbox of tricks has really been tested this last year of working for myself
No line manager
No one to tell me when to start and when to stop.
It’s added an extra layer of understanding to what it takes to achieve the important tasks in the least amount of time.
You may be thinking at this point: “Just talk about fitness Jonny”
I’d argue that in reality, you don’t want to hear about a way of counting macros or a way of balancing training with a night on the tiles.
We train because we wan’t to improve ourselves.
We’re in this pursuit to change how we feel, to improve our lives and thoughts.
We want a feeling. Nothing more.
You may argue it’s more complex than that but in reality, all we’re ever looking for is a feeling.
My reason focus on being effective and productive is simple.
If you can manage your responsibilities and time then you can manage your attention and happiness.
As Tony Robbins puts it
Success is being able to do what you want, when you want and with who you want.
While this may be a far flung ideal for many, if we can at least ensure that work comprises a fixed, less intrusive portion of our days and weeks, we have more time to do as we please.
What does that lead to?
- Consistent training
- Time to prepare meals that fit your macros that you actually enjoy
- More sleep
- Time to stretch
You guessed it. I may be talking about to-dos and calendars but really, I’m still all about the gains.
Here are 5 simple tips to get more done in less time and ultimately, take one step closer to living the life you want to:
1) Write it down
This may seem simple but it is SO important to get into this habit. For those familiar with David Allen and Gettting Things Done, you’ll have heard of the idea of “capture”.
Ever find that mid-task, while your driving or at 10pm as your nodding off, you have a panicked thought of – “S*#! I forgot to xyz”? If so, you’ve experienced just how unreliable our brains are at holding and processing information.
When I say write things down, I don’t just mean a to-do list. I mean every little “should” that pops into your head. It could be from a thought, conversation or even a text message.
If you need to do something – your head won’t help you. Get it all out and onto a peice of paper or into an app.
I use Apple Reminders and Todoist for my mac. This allows me to even use Siri while im driving and means I can get things out of my head as quickly as possible.
The main benefit of this is clarity.
Once everything is written down, you have an immediate sense of control – I know that EVERYTHING I need to remember is on this page.
2) Time to sort & process
The problem a lot of us experience is that we have a to-do list that never gets done. Sound familiar? Writing things down and emptying your brain feels good so a lot of us are profilic to-do list makers.
The issue comes with actually deciding what the relevance of each item is.
Each day, I add things to my general list of to dos in Reminders and Todoist – this is while i’m out and about and often don’t have time to think about what something means or when it needs to be done.
Each morning I go down that list one by one and ask the following:
- When does this need to happen?
- How nervous/uncomfortable does it make me feel out of 5?
- Is there one step or more?
Something either needs to happen on / by a certain day or just as soon as possible. If its a certain day, I make an appointment in Ical, if just as soon as possible, I’ll leave it in the to-do list.
Usually If I’m nervous about something, it’s important. Those with ratings 4 or 5 out of 5 are highlighted on my to-do list.
If there is more than one “step” I’ll note the larger task down as a project (so I don’t forget about it) and then write all the smaller steps in the to-do list.
If something is either not time sensitive, doesn’t make me nervous and isn’t immediately important (less than a 4/5), rather it’s a “that would be nice” I stick it on a “defer” list.
This may seem complex so to recap, in Todoist I have:
- “Inbox” list – here’s where all the daily incoming stuff goes. I’ll add anything from apple reminders and Siri into here + any text messages / emails that I need to action so it’s all in one place
- “To-do list” – stuff in here is single actions that I rate as a 4 or 5 out of 5 on the nervous scale.
- “Defer” – things I think I need to do that are neither time sensitive or important
- Calendar – items that a time sensitive – either a deadline or appointment
- Admin – this is where I put non time sensitive tasks that don’t make me nervous (that still need to be done). Think: buy a hole punch, tidy the kitchen etc.
3) Plan your day
With the above framework in place, deciding what to do on a given day changes from total overwhelm to a pretty simple task.
- Are there any deadlines or appointments to work around?
- What, of the to-do list is the most important today.
I then use a tool called “Best Self” journal – it was recommended to me by a client. Cal Newport talks a lot about being intentional with your time and planning your day in advance so, before I start work, I sit and map out what the day looks like.
If you think of the day as a flowing river, I’ll place rocks in the river that water has to flow around:
- immovable meetings or time sensitive things – from my Ical
- things for me – meditation, training, meals etc
- things for relationships – time with family, girlfriend etc
I’ll then try to fit in 2-5 90 minute blocks into the rest of the day as my structure allows. I’ll try to balance this with how I’m feeling but I’ll ensure to get at least 2 90 minute blocks of focussed work in. Here I work on the tasks from my To-Do list.
Crucially – I aim to get 1 big thing cleared each day. I’ll never allow a day where at least 1 thing isn’t done. That would be one 90 minute task. If something takes longer than 90 minutes I’ll try and break it down more on the list.
This article, for example, took 1 work block.
The next 1-3 work blocks, I’ll then try and do 1-3 other tasks from the list that I perceive as slightly less important.
Lastly, I set 1 work block for clearing off as many admin tasks as I can. Of course, this is only things I can manage at a laptop, if I need to run errands I’ll always try and make these calendar appointments instead.
4) 90 minute blocks
I used to sit and work for hours on end.
I’d do really well for 1-2 hours and then my attention would start to wain.
This tip is really simple, try shutting everything down for 90 minutes. Phone on airplane mode, no facebook and close email. Get a drink, open the window, plug some music in and just get engrossed in the task for 90 minutes.
Cal Newport talks about the idea of “Deep Work” and the state of flow is a very popular concept at the moment.
After 90 minutes, get up, talk a break, go for a walk – get out of the room and after 15-30 minutes, return for another 90 minute sprint.
When you work like this, you’ll begin to appreciate what it feels like to actually get meaningful work done.
It’s bloody hard!
You’re no longer pseudo working, you’re no longer spending 2 hours flitting through emails, you’re churning through important, difficult tasks.
If you need time to focus on email or recurring admin – make this a work block in itself if it’s important and check once per day. Don’t let it expand into more of your time.
5) Get more sleep, manage energy not time
Once you’re working in the above way, you’ll start to realise that 3-5 work blocks per day is very difficult to do consistently, it takes a LOT of you.
You’ll start to realise that if you de-prioritise sleep and wake up tired, it’s hard to get even one focussed block done.
You’ll notice that managing your energy is actually more important that managing your time. Without energy you can’t produce and at that point, you aren’t working.
These days will crop up and it’s important to adapt as much as possible, do what you can and use it as a reminder to improve your sleep and energy.
Final, crucial point
Some may look at this and think – if I had onlt 4-5 90 minute blocks of work per day, I’d be so behind. I’d have you consider that any more than 7.5 hours of aggressively focused production is more than most people can achieve consistently. Equally, more than this and you start to encroach on other areas of life:
- Training gets cancelled
- You lose sleep
- You don’t have time for friends and family
Everything, including your focus starts to slip.
If you can’t do what you need to in 5 focussed chunks of 90 minutes, consider being more ruthless with prioritisation, speak to your boss and discuss the issue. After-all, if you are truly producing meangingful, measurable work in these blocks and setting aside focussed time, your output will likely be higher than most.
After 5 blocks, you’re done. Don’t sit and pseudo-work to assuage guilt. Mindlessly staring at a screen won’t make you more productive, if anything it’s damaging tomorrow.
The above methods have helped me focus on being effective (doing the right things) rather than being efficient (doing things quickly). It’s also allowed me to measure my productivity. My todoist app measures how many items I tick off in a day, I know how long I’ve worked. If I want, I can score myself on tasks / time and shoot to get this number as high as possible.
Try these tips and see if you can double your output while doubling your free time.