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There's a problem with a lot of productivity advice out there, and it's this — your "rules" for personal productivity are often going to be different than mine. Sure, sometimes there's overlap. Sure, you can always learn from others.
But if you want to see a dramatic increase in your productivity, spend less time reading and memorizing other people's rules, and more time figuring out what your own rules are. You'll be more productive and in a way that works with who you are.
So I'm sharing a few of my personal productivity rules. Maybe some of them will work for you or inspire you to think of your own.
1. Small Daily Movements Become Big Accomplishments
I tend to think that I must have big blocks of time in order to get any forward movement. So I hesitate and procrastinate, waiting for that "open time" when I can really push and get a lot done on whatever the current project is.
Turns out, that's a waste of time. Small daily movements add up. It's just that the movements or steps themselves are so small, I think they don't count. They do.
I have to constantly remind myself that I don't need a whole day or a whole week to devote to some project. I just need to take the 10 or 20 minutes I have here and there and use them. I need to achieve a little bit of forward movement every day. That adds up, and it builds momentum, and pretty soon there's been quite a lot accomplished.
For more rules, read after the jump.
2. It Helps to Be Ahead of the Game
I learned this one in college, and it's true for my freelance writing as well. In short, I find that writing is a lot more fun when I'm not pushing the deadline. I do a better job. I take my time. I review. I give it a little more polish. I produce better work.
I'm a pretty quick writer, and I can churn out the words when I'm up against a deadline. I operated that way for my first three years of college — procrastinating on each paper until the night before, then working until it was done, giving it a quick once-over, and turning it in.
I've done that with freelance projects as well. It's not all bad, but it turns what could be interesting and fun into something pressure-filled and stressful.
When I give myself a cushion, even if it's only of a day or two, I enjoy the process of writing much, much more. Maybe this is just me, but I bet that some of you folks who think you can only work to deadline would find you enjoy your work more if you didn't wait until the last minute. You should try it, maybe.
There's a productivity aspect to this, of course. When you finish ahead of time, you have the extra time to handle any unexpected thing that may occur. You can find another expert to interview, do more research, find the source for that quote in your notes, reword that awkward paragraph, or rethink the conclusion. You can do better work, and you can surprise your client or editor by handing in your piece ahead of schedule. Trust me, that stands out.
Staying ahead of the game gives me an advantage of being calmer, which makes me capable of seeing my options more clearly, making better choices, and being more creative and more efficient in what I do.
3. Planning Is a (Fun) Time Suck
Most planning is pointless, but I like to plan. I plan in order to procrastinate on doing, because I'm intimidated by some aspect of the project or just because it's tough getting started.
But beyond a very brief plan that gives me some limits on what to do (thus helping me to focus and produce), I really don't need much detail. An editorial calendar, for example, is a huge help in staying on track with my writing.
But a color-coded, alphabetized, überdetailed, cross-referenced editorial calendar is overkill.
Simple plans work because simple plans are flexible. They give me limits and a clear direction without locking me down into details that will inevitably change.
So I remind myself — plan, but just enough. Then do. Earn more planning time by accomplishing some part of the first plan. Planning and doing should be a pendulum. Plan, then do, then plan some more, then do even more, and so on.
4. Do Anything, Just Do Something
This is what I remind myself of when I'm stuck. Just do something.
I get in a rut of trying to figure out what's the most effective use of my time, energy, or day. There are always so many options. So many ideas, so many words, so many projects, so many books, so many lovely ways to procrastinate.
When nothing seems to say "Me! Me!" then I just need to pick something and do it. It might not be the best thing, but it will be something done. Something (anything) done is better than nothing, which is what I'll get if I waste all my time trying to prioritize my task list. It's better to just tackle something on the list.
5. Work Is Satisfying; It's Just Tough to Get Started
I love writing — I do. But I have total amnesia about how much I love writing every time I sit down to write. Suddenly, anything is better than writing.
- Outlines are better.
- Twitter is better.
- Facebook is better.
- Picking that hangnail is better.
- Making more coffee is infinitely better.
- Reading blogs — better. By a mile.
- Cleaning out my Google Reader — better.
- Trying to see how long I can cross my eyes — better.
- Scraping up that Dora the Explorer sticker that's been on the corner of my desk for months. That's better, a worthy endeavor, compared to this — spits, hisses — writing business.
This is what I have to remember, that the work I do is so satisfying, and when I'm in the middle of working, I don't want to be anywhere else. But getting started is always, always a tough thing. So I need to just start.
6. Give It Five Minutes
Getting started is tough, right? At least it is for me, even on projects I love and am excited about. It's just tough to get rolling sometimes. OK, all the time.
Five minutes. That's all it takes to get going on something, really. So that's what I tell myself when I'm stuck, avoiding work, and thinking anything is better than this thing in front of me — give it five minutes. It's a little bribe, really. My brain goes something like this — look, you don't have to do it all. Just give it five minutes, then you can stop. Promise. You don't have to do anymore, and I'll quit bugging you about it — just give it five minutes. Every single time, I'm so into it in five minutes that I don't want to stop.
7. Divide the To-Do List
I should know this by now, but you may recall I have recurring amnesia. In this area, too, I keep forgetting that I'm not actually Superwoman.
So I sit down in my weekly planning session (usually on a Sunday night) and I write out my to-do list for the next day. (I love Mondays, by the way; I'm usually superproductive, high energy, and ready to kick butt, write stuff, and take names. Or something like that.) What I want to do next is write out a to-do list for the day after and the day after and the day after.
Here's what I've learned — I take that "Monday To-Do List" and divide it. By six days. So it becomes my week's to-do list, and I string the tasks out over the Monday through Saturday (I try to leave Sunday free and clear except for my planning session). And when I do that, I end up with a reasonable, realistic, and achievable set of daily lists.
8. Take Notes, Make Notes, and Save Notes
For the GTDers out there, you'll appreciate the concept of getting all your mental stuff on paper. It's a quick and guaranteed way to help clear up your brain space, so you can focus on doing actual work, instead of just remembering all those details like buy milk and call that one guy back about that one thing.
This concept of making, saving, and reviewing notes is priceless in other ways, too: in interviews, conversations, when reading blogs, reading books, listening to a speaker or webinar at a conference, eavesdropping on that conversation next to you in the coffee shop, and so on.
You may remember a lot of what you hear (or think), but writing it down ensures that not only will it be there for you to remember, but your brain can actually be working on taking those thoughts a step further (creating, producing) instead of just focusing on holding those thoughts in safekeeping.
9. Playing With Productivity Apps Is Not the Same as Being Productive
As much as I'd like it to be . . . And we don't really need additional explanation on this one, do we?
10. Get Up Early; You'll Be Glad You Did
I get up early (by which I mean 4 or 5 a.m.) on a fairly regular basis, but I don't hold myself to a daily regimen.
Why? Well, a few reasons. First, I have four kids. The oldest is 5 1/2, and the youngest is 8 months as of this writing. So it's more likely than not that my sleep will be interrupted by at least one kid, at least one time, during those precious hours of sleep.
Second, I have a night-owl husband. Most of the time, I crash when I'm tired and don't worry about keeping him company. But every now and then, we have a date night or watch a couple of movies after the kids are in bed or end up doing our grocery shopping (with all the kids) at 11 p.m.
OK, it's more than every now and then. Late nights like that are frequent in our family. Whatever. Maybe it's terrible, but it is what it is. You can't control everything. So there are times when getting up early isn't something that's going to happen for me.
This rule is just to remind me that I like getting up early more than I like sleeping in. Because that's true. I never regret getting up early, even at 4 or 5 a.m. Even when I didn't go to bed until midnight. Even when I have a full day ahead.
I often regret sleeping in, because I don't always see the benefit (I still need gallons of coffee), and the early morning time is often the only quiet time in my day. So if I can, when I can, which is pretty often, I get up early. And I'm glad I did.
11. Call It Done
I don't remember exactly where I ran across this concept, but it's a good one — the idea is to define what done looks like, so you know when you get there. Which is, I think, a really important thing to do.
I simplify the concept just a bit, because in most cases, at least for me, it's not a problem of defining done. It's just a problem of not wanting to move on. I know it's done or adequate enough to be done. I just don't want to move on. So that's when I need to remember this rule — call it done and move on.
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