How to get started
and stay focused
First, I want to say that I don’t think productivity is the most important thing in life. The most productive people are not necessarily the happiest or the most fulfilled. However, most of us would like to be productive on most days.
So what gets in the way of your productivity? Procrastination? Wasting time trying to find the best possible solution? As you search for the easiest or fastest or most noble way to do something, you may find yourself at a standstill. Unconsciously, you may even do this on purpose to keep from having to make a decision.
Thankfully, there’s a work-around: heuristics. Heuristics are rules that allow a solution to be found more quickly. With a heuristic, a resolution can be found even when the entire path isn’t clear from the onset. Heuristics don’t necessarily result in the optimal solution, but they provide a way to get started and avoid procrastination and time-wasting.
Here’s a definition and examples from BusinessDictionary.com:
“Trial-and-error procedure for solving problems (or reaching an unclear goal) through incremental exploration, and by employing a known criteria to unknown factors. For example, trying to climb a fog shrouded hill by making every step an upward-step. In journalism, a well known heuristic is asking Who? What? When? Where? Why? in investigating a news story. A heuristic employs independent discovery, and relies heavily on common sense, creativity, and learning from experience. Unlike an algorithm, however, it offers no guaranty of solving any problem. From Greek ‘heuriskein,’ to discover.”
You can employ behavioral heuristics to increase your productivity. Below are 12 heuristics you can use in combination or alone:
- Choose the right time. Nearly everyone has times of the day when they are most effective and times when they tend to drag. It’s smart to schedule the most critical tasks for your most effective time of the day. I say I’m not a morning person or a night owl—I’m a middle of the day person. As a result, I know I need to schedule the most important tasks between noon and 6p.m.
- Toss it. If a task isn’t necessary, quit wasting time on it. Ge rid of it.
- Get the bad stuff out of the way. Do unpleasant items quickly and as early in the day as possible.
- Set a goal each day (or night). Decide what you want to accomplish and write it down. This is especially effective when done the night before. Once you have a sense of direction, you can sleep well and spend the next day getting things done!
- Eliminate all communication. While you’re working, turn off the phone, silence your mobile devices, don’t check your email, and log out of social media. If you work from home, consider hanging a Do Not Disturb sign. You may not want to take these steps all the time, but do it for the critical tasks that require full concentration.
- Batch routine tasks. Do all your emailing at one time. Make all your phone calls at another. Open your snail mail during a set block of time. If you plan times each day for these tasks, you won’t waste time fretting about getting them done, and you won’t interrupt more important tasks to take care of routine tasks.
- Set a timer. Break your work into chunks. Set a timer and work continuously for 30 minutes to an hour and then take a break. A time limit may help you concentrate and work better.
- Set targets. For example, set a target to write a certain number of words or to process a certain number of orders. Regardless of what happens, refuse to stop until you hit your target (or your timer goes off).
- Use the Pareto Principle. BusinessDictionary.com defines the Pareto Principle as the “observation that where a large number of factors or agents contribute to a result, the majority (about 80 percent) of the result is due to the contributions of a minority (about 20 percent) of factors or agents. Investigations suggest, for example, that some 80 percent of the sales of a firm are generated by 20 percent of its customers, 80 percent of the inventory value is tied up in 20 percent of the items, 80 percent of problems are caused by 20 percent of reasons. It is however a heuristics principle, and has not been proved as a scientific law.” In a nutshell, 20% of your tasks provide you with 80% of the benefits. Focus on the tasks that will accomplish the most. You might be surprised how little you really have to do if you focus on the critical 20%.
- Delegate some of your work. Is there anyone who can help you? Maybe it’s time to delegate, hire, or contract out. When appropriate, use the time and skills of other talented professionals to get things done.
- Set a deadline. An endpoint helps focus your time and energy. You know the task won’t go on forever, so you won’t waste time procrastinating.
- Make time for self-care. It may sound indulgent, but this may be the most important tip. If you are tired and unfocused, your productivity will suffer. Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re more prone to make errors when we’re tired or stressed. Fixing those errors costs time. Worrying about being tired and error-prone wastes time. Boost your productivity by taking care of yourself.
Implement some or all of these heuristics, and you’ll find yourself getting more done in less time. The key is to avoid procrastination, stay on task, and not waste time.