Photos by Sarah Lovrien
Today’s post was written by Kate Matsudaira, founder of Popforms. In addition to building tools to help you be better at your job, she also just launched a Kickstarter for The Spark Notebook: a notebook that combines the function of a big life-planner into a beautifully designed, professional notebook. She came up with the great ideas and I took care of the design work. Check it out here!
I am lazy.
If there is a shortcut I will take it.
I love feeling accomplished, but I don’t always love the hard work it takes to get there. And my inertia used to be a big hurdle, but over the years I transformed into a high bandwidth entrepreneur (aka, doing the work of a whole team of people) and this article describes my process.
What my life was like…
When I started working out of college it was a rough transition. Every task was brand new and the fear of the unknown paralyzed me.
Each day I would head into the office gung-ho about all the work I was going to complete, and inevitably I would find myself searching the internet Googling things like “stop procrastination” and “be more productive."
When the weekend came around, I would sit on my couch contemplating everything I should be doing. I had developed akrasia, which is worse than procrastination because you aren’t really relaxing because your mind is occupied by the things you should be doing.
At some point fear would set in and the adrenaline would get me going and I would start work furiously. This sprint mentality worked well and 90% of the time I would get all the work completed on time. However, every single time I would end up with the haunting thought:
“If I could work like this all the time I would be unstoppable.”
And that became my quest: to be productive all the time, not just right before the deadline.
How I get things done
The key to being productive is to have a plan. The first part of a plan is getting started. And getting started means dealing with your mind and emotions.
It is really hard to get things done if you aren’t motivated to do the work.
One of the reasons I was so productive was I had extrinsic motivation — I would never get promoted if I didn’t complete my projects. I am also naturally a people pleaser so I would hate to disappoint my manager. Some work (like writing this blog post) you may do because of intrinsic motivation; you enjoy the process.
Therefore, the first part of any task is to figure out the why behind it. What is the inspiration behind it?
Finding your work rewarding is really a whole other post in and of itself — you can check out this post on How to Forever Cure to Your Lack of Motivation.
You are emotional and your brain is emotional, so you need to find a connection and a “why” for your work (even if it is just the bliss of marking something complete).
Once you know why you are doing the work, then you need to understand why you aren’t doing the work.
In my case, each task was about one week long. And these big bites were hard for me to get my head around, and the fear of the unknown would increase my inertia. The less I knew about the work, the harder the inertia would be to overcome.
One of the best tips I ever got was to break up my projects. And I don’t mean just breaking them into the logical pieces of work. After all, if you knew all the logical pieces of work then it wouldn’t be so scary and unknown right? Literally the powerful realization was to break up the work into the pieces of how I would start the work. What would I search for on Google? Who would I ask about the project?
All you really need is the next action, so just focus on the next thing needed to move that project forward.
Those are the items I put on my list, I start with those small things and make sure I make progress each day. One small item at a time.
It sounds cliché, but if you aren’t organized, you end up wasting time. Whether it is creating a pile of receipts on your desk or searching for your keys, if you don’t have a system then you will be losing time where you could otherwise making progress.
At a minimum, I think you need the following caches for your stuff:
- A task list for your day-to-day work
- A someday list for all the things you might do in the future
- A contact list for people, along with a place for notes about them — things like where you met and the names of their children
- A place for your ideas and insights (ideally one you can use on the go too)
- A way to organize your bookmarks (I used to use a browser but moved to Evernote to keep notes about them too and organize them more logically)
- A place for receipts (I keep 3 folders — one for tax-deductible receipts, one for business expenses, and one for everything else. Expensify is also a great app for staying on top of work receipts.)
- A calendar to organize your time and your day
- A method to organize your electronic documents on your hard drive
These systems are important because they will save you time looking for things, but they also will help you get started much faster when you sit down to do your work.
I use Things for my task list (although I probably would use a free one now, but when there weren’t a lot of good options — I would just make sure it syncs to mobile and your computer). And I use Evernote for all sorts of things — for example, I keep blog post ideas in a note and then when I sit to write, like tonight, I can just pull one off the top.
Managing your mail
Email in many ways is someone else’s priorities or requests, not your own. And I think checking email and the gratification you get from “finishing it” causes an addition-like behavior. This article summed it up well:
“You may not like spending long amounts of time in your inbox, but you probably think about checking it pretty often. When you hear that ding (or vibrate), you know there’s something waiting for you. To make things worse, because you do not receive email at set intervals and you don’t know if that email is going to be something you want, your curiosity is piqued the moment the ding occurs just so you can find out if you’ve received something you want or if it’s a waste of your time.”
When I have a lot of “thought work,” such as writing code or articles like this one, I limit the frequency of email checking. Since I started working on my startup, popforms, I even put up an auto-responder so people don’t expect a prompt response. I schedule time to “do email,” and if I don’t finish it then I won’t tackle it until my next email slot.
I use Text Expander and anything I find myself typing more than once I create a template for it. You can also used canned responses in Gmail for common email responses which won’t work everywhere, but it is free, and email is where I use them most (I know people who also use signatures in outlook for similar purposes).
To give you an idea of how useful these are here is a small set of the snippets I use:
- Recruiter thanks, but no thanks response
- Vendor thanks, but no thanks response
- Introduction templates
- My address (one for home, and I used to have one for work when I worked outside of my house)
- Directions to my house
- My websites
- My bio
- Response to people wanting to advertise on my website
- Offer letters
- Setting up interviews
The sky is the limit here, just make sure you have a smart naming system, because once you have them the trick is training yourself to use them.
Now get to work
Your systems and infrastructure may be optimum to do the work, but the real work is putting the rubber on the road. And for me that was an exercise in discipline and prioritization.
Each week I establish my 2-3 themes for the week. These are the major things I really want to get done. I will check my goals each week and make sure that the work I am doing fits into my big picture.
Then daily I take a moment to plan my day. I try to do this before anything else — including getting caught in my inbox. Need some inspiration to take charge of your mornings? Read this post: What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast.
When I created the Spark Notebook, I took this philosophy into the core design of the notebook. The notebook has weekly goal pages so you can set your intentions for every week, and then daily time organizers so you can priorities tasks throughout the day. It’s easy to get swept up in the many things other people ask you to do, so by laying out your priorities in front of you, you can make the best decisions about when and where to spend your time.
And if you need more time, make it a habit to start getting up earlier. This didn’t work for me (I don’t think I will ever be a morning person) but I know a lot of people who swear by it.
Make the most of your time
I use my calendar to set aside time for important tasks. I block it off so I don’t get distracted or pulled into meetings. This technique is great for email, because you know when you “do email," and for me it reduces the desire to check email and allows me to get more work done.
Batch similar tasks together whenever you can.
This is a great article on batching tasks and doing work that shares the same context. Errands are an extreme example, but I also batch things like reading the news and curating articles for a weekly newsletter I used to do.
Make the most of small slices
It used to be that if I only had 15 minutes, I would write it off as lost time and spend those minutes on Twitter or shopping online. Now I keep a list of items that are less than 15 minutes. And a lot of these can be done on my iPhone; like responding to some emails or reading articles I have set aside to read later. I fill in the cracks with productive work.
When I drive in the car I always do conference calls or listen to audiobooks. It is like a university in the car. I stay on top of new business books, and I think that listening to them makes me a better driver (well, at least a less aggressive driver). After I get out of the car I try to write my top 3 takeaways from the reading session so I can remember and retain what I heard.
The key to really good retention is writing things down and then revisiting those notes regularly to make sure the information sticks. Make sure you’re keeping your notes somewhere you’ll be able to return to them easily (no disorganized piles of sticky notes) and make connections between things you’ve learn.
Willpower is like a muscle and the more you exercise it, the stronger it will get. One technique I swear by is to set a timer and just start working (this is also called the Pomodoro technique). I will tell myself if I don’t feel like working when the timer is up in 10 minutes, then I will do the task later. However, I usually get into a groove and work as originally planned.
You have to build your willpower muscle, and this ultimately is one of the biggest factors in my super-charged productivity. I have spent years building up my willpower and discipline to just start working and making progress.
When you need a break, take a break
I don’t adhere to a 9-5 schedule, since that isn’t my rhythm. I do certain tasks in the morning when my head is foggy (like I said earlier, I am not a morning person), but I save the more focused smart thinking work for later in the day when I am at my best.
I also make a point to unplug for a bit to spend some quality time with the family. Then I will often pick back up since I get productive later at night.
Set up an environment for success
Distraction can be a problem; however, it was ultimately not one of the ones that really interfered with me. I found that once I set to do something, I would finish it. However, if you have a problem with distraction I thought this was a great post on the topic: Defeat Distraction: Refocusing with Purpose.
I do think it helps to have good tools (computer, keyboard, mouse, pens, paper, etc.) and a comfortable environment. Put yourself in a place where it is easy to be successful (I get distracted if there are dirty dishes in the sink, so I always have to wash them before I can work — it is just one of those things I suppose).
The hard reality
There aren’t any shortcuts to make work take less time. All of the work to being more productive is learning to be more disciplined and organized (making you more efficient). The good news is that you get better at it with more practice and effort.
I created a Kickstarter project based around my philosophies on productivity and success, where I am building “the perfect notebook." It combines all the awesome organization and productivity tools of a big life-planner, but it’s all tucked inside a beautiful, professional exterior.
It’s the notebook I always wished I had when I was designing my own productivity systems, and it combines all the function I know we all love with a sleek exterior you would be proud to carry into an important meeting.
You can check it out at https://popforms.com/notebooks — I hope you will. Let’s make becoming amazing at your job just a little bit more beautiful.
Have other tips and tricks for being more productive?
Leave them in the comments, I am sure others would love to know!