TL;DR: A productive day doesn’t just happen on its own – you have to make it happen. The rest of the world will be trying to have you focus on solving their problems, when what you really need to be doing is focusing on the problems that are most impactful for you. These simple practices will ensure that’s the case. Apply them daily to drive your success over the long term!
Coach John Wooden, of UCLA basketball fame, started each season with a lesson on how to put your socks on. This was a seemingly trivial, almost ridiculous thing to teach college basketball players, but Coach Wooden believed in the importance of getting the basics right. He knew that if players didn’t put their socks on properly, the socks might start bunching, which over a long season would result in blisters. To remedy this, he taught his players to ‘roll their socks on’. This ensured no bunching, and was just one small contributor to individual and team success.
In the same way, there are a number of tactical things we can do daily to help ensure success for us and people we work with. It’s important to do the little things right on a daily basis, to provide a solid foundation for success.
Set daily goals
I firmly believe that if you can tackle 2-3 important items in a day, you should consider that a success. To make sure you do that everyday, start it with a clear plan of the most important things you need to deliver on, and manage your schedule and time to make them happen. This doesn’t mean you need a laundry list of everything you need to do in a day, instead, it’s about prioritizing those few super-important deliverables. Ideally get them done first thing in the morning, then you have the rest of the day as ‘upside’.
Eat that frog
Often, the things we want to do least are the things we need to do most. Big tasks can be daunting. We are great at finding reasons to push the hard or unpleasant tasks off to our future selves. Unfortunately this exactly the opposite of what we need to do to. The advice given is to ‘eat that frog’ early in the day – i.e. tackle the unpleasant tasks first and you’ll feel much better and be more productive with the rest of your day. It’s a great analogy. For some added help, you can check out some books on procrastination to help with this – but really I believe the most important thing is to remind yourself why a particular task is important. If you are able to connect to the importance of the task, I find the motivation solves for itself. Also, more generally, it will help to condition yourself to enjoy tackling the big, challenging problems. Remind yourself of the great benefits from tackling those problems and start associating undesirable tasks with desirable feelings and outcomes – it will help you find that energy to take the first step, and that first step is always the hardest one!
Control your calendar
When it comes to your calendar, you need to manage it consciously, or else it will manage you. If your schedule is crazy and full of meetings, you have nobody to blame but yourself. ‘Too busy’ is a choice you make. At the end of the day, you’re responsible to results, and doing the important things that are needed to get those results. If you don’t control your calendar and prioritize the important things, I guarantee that trivial unimportant things will fill your days. Anyone can schedule a meeting and invite you to it. Having you join their one hour meeting has zero incremental cost to them, but a huge cost to you. Make sure your calendar is completely reflective of your goals for any given day. If it’s not, don’t be afraid to disappoint some people. If it’s really important, they’ll find a way to help you see that, and if it’s not, then they’ll get along without you.
‘Makers time’, protect it
Paul Graham’s essay on makers time pretty much sums this up. Hard problems require longer blocks of time to get deep into the problem, get your mind in state and really make some forward progress. You need to find the time when you’re most productive solving the big problems, then block that time in advance. Own it as your makers time. Don’t let others encroach on it. It’s the time you need to really do your job well, and make real progress.
Scheduling and managing meetings
Meetings are an important part of getting in synch, communicating ideas and making decisions. They’re also a very expensive form of interaction, and should be used wisely and run effectively. The first principle is that you should avoid using a meeting unless it’s really necessary and the most effective means toward your end. Once you decide a meeting is needed, then you should run it with clarity and purpose. All meetings should have a(n):
- Meeting owner
- List of necessary and optional attendees
- Objective / goal
The meeting owner is responsible for driving the discussion, sticking to the agenda and ensuring the objective is achieved. As a final thought, it’s nice to start meetings on time, but it’s a reality that folks will sometimes be late – starting five minutes after the scheduled beginning isn’t the end of the world, but one shouldn’t wait much longer. Lastly, don’t be afraid to end a meeting early, use the time needed, not the time allotted. People will thank you.
Control your email
This is the same idea as the calendar. It has been said that email is a todo list for you, created by others. If you spend your day in the inbox, you’ll get plenty of urgent, unimportant things done for other people. But you’ll completely miss delivering on the things that really matter to you and your success – the important and sometimes less-urgent projects. Limit the amount of time you spend in the inbox. When you do allocate time for the inbox, go down the list and if you can answer the email in less than 60 seconds, do it. Otherwise, turn the email into a potential deliverable in your backlog of things to do, and figure out where it most appropriately sits.
Good email hygiene is important for effective communication. You can’t control the emails others will send you, but you can try to set the tone with how you communicate to other:
- Write less: Nobody has time to read a novella disguised as an email. Use simple language and limit the length of your emails. Don’t try to compact too many issues or ideas into one email – it will be more effective to keep it focused. Once you’ve written your note, scan it over and cut out the fat. Then do it again. Now it might be ready to send.
- Limit subtlety and humor: Email is not a medium that captures things like sarcasm, subtlety or humor very well. Generally speaking, avoid it completely.
- Be clear about intent: People reading your email should easily understand the intent of the communication. Usually it is either an ‘FYI’ to share relevant information, or it is a direct request to get someone to take an action or help you in some way. If it’s an ‘FYI’, then call that out at the beginning. If it’s a request, make sure you’re clear about who and what you need (see below).
- Call out action items: We all get too many emails. If you want the key actions from your emails to ‘pop’ for the people receiving them, then call out the action items in bold. Better to have people skim an email and understand the main takeaway rather than having them ignore the entire note itself.
- Call out key actors: Much like action items, it’s also important to call out folks you need action from. A bold version of someone’s name in an email is like hearing your name at a dinner party, it cuts through the noise and captures your attention. Use this to make sure the key people get the message.
- Summarize the context: When emails get forwarded or responded to, the thread can get long. If you’re looping someone new into a thread, you need to summarize what has transpired so far. Simply adding them in ‘cc’ and asking them ‘what do you think?’ is unfair and won’t get to a great outcome. At the best, they must read a nested email thread to get context. At the worst, they just won’t respond.
- Know when to get out of the inbox: Lastly, sometimes you need to pull an email thread out of the inbox and into a meeting room. Know when a five minute conversation will short-circuit any ‘back-and-forth’ by email, and use other mediums of communication when needed.
Another nice resource on the subject of effective email is the ‘email charter’ from Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings: http://www.emailcharter.org/
Try to internalize and use these practices daily. You’ll come across as someone who has their shit together, and people will appreciate working with you. You’ll also become way more effective, and happier, as you take control and responsibility for the use of your time. These small daily actions will compound over time to help you achieve great results.
To your success!