Recently, a former coworker, Graham Robertson, posted a wonderful strategy visualization on LinkedIn that suggested that fewer strategies are better than more strategies. The math of this analysis is undeniable: three strategies with three tactics equals nine projects; while seven strategies and seven tactics each equals 49 projects. This simple illustration clearly demonstrates that careful choice is fundamental to good strategy. As I’ve said before, to decide is to kill your other choices.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about questions of productivity and focus. I joined an academic writing group a few months ago. My colleagues in that group have all recently commented on my writing productivity. I started to think about why I am able to produce so much so quickly. What am I doing that helps me get stuff done? Is it a productivity system? Is it a day timer or a todoist list? Nope. I use an old-fashioned pen and paper notebook. Do I keep giant to do lists? Nope.
For me, it comes down to focus. I decided a few years ago to focus my teaching efforts on days that I’m on campus. So this semester, all of my teaching activities are on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Fridays, I focus on what we academics call service, or what people in the real world would call administration – meetings, paperwork, policies, and planning. And on Mondays and Wednesdays (and sometimes Sundays), I concentrate on my research projects. Then, each day, I select up to three “to dos.” I write them down in my book and check them off when they are done. By staying focused on my three “to dos” I don’t get distracted by anything else. Just like Graham’s example three projects with three tactics, my three to dos are: a) doable and b) ensure that I focus on them until I’m finished. Only then do I move on to the next project.
I have to admit that I have a bad case of shiny object syndrome. I’m always coming up with new ideas for research projects that are way more interesting than the project on which I’m currently working. I’ve learned that I can’t start a new project until the current project is completed. But I do keep a list of possible new projects and file away material that relates to it in my “maybe some day file” (MSDF). My reward for completing a current project is the joy of diving into something new in the MSDF.
A second secret to my productivity? I keep track of the time I’m spending on my research and writing activity. It keeps me honest and accountable. It’s right there in black and white. When I share my successes and failures with my writing group, it’s easy to see why I was successful or failed to attain my goals each week.
My third tactic? I avoid distractions. I spend very little time on social media and close all social media when I’m writing. Why? It’s way too tempting to “just check in” for a few minutes and get distracted for two hours. I block off my writing time and don’t accept meetings with students or administrators. I check and respond to email once a day. I don’t write at the office, where I’m always tempted to socialize with my colleagues down the hall, or wander over to the library to find the latest new books.
Finally, taking advice from Jodi Jensen’s book, Write No Matter What, I reserve my most focused, productive time of day for my most important tasks – for me, that time is 7am to 11am. I don’t look at my email until after I’ve completed my writing for the day. I keep those small, administrative tasks that don’t require much thought for the afternoon, when my brain is just a little less sharp.
This past week, I found myself compulsively checking social media. I suddenly realized this morning that I am losing my focus. So, back to my focus strategy:
- No more than three priorities a day
- Track your time and your accomplishments
- Keep a maybe someday file
- Avoid distractions, including social media
- Schedule meetings around your most important tasks
- Check email no more than once a day
- Keep your most productive time for your most important tasks
Those are my secrets to productivity. What are yours?