Truth be told, investing is just one ingredient for financial success. In fact, one of the best routes to financial security is also one of the most obvious: to increase one’s income. In the middle of a pandemic, though, this might seem like a tall order. After all, most people’s work lives—not to mention home lives—have been turned upside down this year. But it’s for precisely that reason that I wanted to pull together the following set of time-tested strategies for increasing work productivity. Especially if your house looks anything like mine—with parents and/or children gearing up for another school year working from home—you might find these strategies helpful for getting more done with less stress:
Step 1: Clearing the decks
1. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, emphasizes one key point: Don’t try keeping things in your head. Why? Even if you have an excellent memory, you’ll unnecessarily consume mental energy trying to remember everything on your to-do list. So the first step to greater productivity is perhaps the simplest: to offload as much as you can from your head onto a list. It doesn’t matter what form that list takes; it could be on paper or electronic. It just needs to be written down somewhere. In Allen’s view, this is the single best way to clear your mind so you can focus on the task at hand.
2. Author Merlin Mann coined the term “Inbox Zero.” The idea, as you might guess, is to manage your inbox, rather than letting it manage you. Most importantly, don’t let unread emails pile up. In the same way that to-do list items in your head consume valuable mental space, unread emails can cause stress and even anxiety. Mann’s advice: To do your best work, develop a discipline to avoid letting emails linger. He explains how in this video.
3. Neuroscientists talk about the novelty bias. In simple terms, the human brain is drawn to new things. That’s why the modern smartphone is, in many ways, the enemy of productivity. It is literally a distraction machine, ringing and buzzing all day. The simplest solution: Many people put their phones in another room when they need to concentrate. That may work, but if you need to be reachable for important calls, both Apple and Android offer built-in tools to silence social media and other distracting apps while still allowing important calls through. On iPhones, it’s called Do Not Disturb, and on Android it’s called Focus Mode. A similar tool, called Freedom, accomplishes the same thing when you’re working at your computer.
Step 2: Getting to work
1. Public companies in the U.S. are required to issue financial reports every three months. In a lot of ways, this is onerous, but one benefit is that it does ensure focus. That’s why many productivity gurus recommend taking a similar approach. In The ONE Thing, for example, author Garry Keller suggests starting with your biggest long-term goal, then asking yourself “What can I do this year to reach that goal?” Then work backward from there: “What can I do this quarter, and this month, and this week—and ultimately today—to move toward that goal?” In other words, be strategic with your time. Is this common sense? Yes, but as noted above, today’s world is full of distractions so it’s more important than ever to think strategically about time use.
2. Once you’ve decided something is important, what’s the best way to ensure that it gets done? Tony Robbins often says: “If you talk about it, it’s a dream. If you envision it, it’s possible. But if you schedule it, it’s real.” What he’s talking about is the distinction between a to-do list and a calendar. There’s a key difference. We all have long lists of things we’d like to do, and that’s fine. But Robbins’s advice is to regularly comb through those lists and to move the most important items off the list and onto your calendar. That’s when they’ll actually get done.
3. Robbins makes a good point about using a calendar. But how exactly should you structure your time? To the extent that you have control over your work schedule, I recommend the methodology laid out in Daniel Pink’s book When. In short, the idea is that humans all have biological clocks—but they differ from person to person. Pink’s recommendation: Conduct a self-audit of your own biology, then structure your schedule so you’re doing your most important work when you’ll be most effective.
4. Bill Gates and Elon Musk take this a step further. Both credit at least part of their success to “task batching.” The idea here is to minimize the number of times you have to change gears during the day. Many people’s work days are consumed by an unpredictable assortment of meetings, emails, phone calls and interruptions from co-workers. The solution: Try to set aside a specific time for each type of activity. Instead of peppering your schedule with meetings, for example, schedule them all during one part of your day, or on specific days of the week. That will leave other parts of your calendar clear for undivided attention to other types of tasks. The result: When you spend less time transitioning back and forth between tasks, you’ll get everything done more quickly.
Step 3: Maintaining efficiency
1. Bob Pozen, a former president of Fidelity Investments, has written a number of books on finance. But his bestselling book is called Extreme Productivity. If you were to read one book on this topic, this would be it. His best advice: the mantra of OHIO—Only Handle It Once. Whether it’s an email or a request from a co-worker, Pozen’s advice is to deal with things on the spot, rather than leaving them for later. This is similar to Inbox Zero but goes further, boosting efficiency in an important way: If you take care of something from beginning to end, all at once, you’ll get it done more quickly than if you did some of it today and some of it tomorrow. That’s because, when you put something aside, then pick it up later, it takes time to figure out where you left off and get back into it. This won’t work for everything, but for small things, think OHIO.
2. A related concept is what Pozen calls “Good Enough.” The idea here is to avoid wasting time trying to dot every i when you’re working on a low-priority task. For Type A personalities, this can be difficult, but Pozen sees a big advantage to “overcoming perfectionism.” As he explains, “It may take you one day to do B+ work, but it may take you the rest of the week to bump it up to an A.” Pozen is careful to point out, though, that the Good Enough rule applies only to items of low importance. You should, of course, do A work when it matters.
3. Suppose it’s late in the afternoon, and you feel your motivation flagging. Daniel Pink, the author of When, has a great tip he calls Just Five More. Whether it’s a mountain of email to read or messages to return, tell yourself, “Just five more.” The advantage: This strategy can often jump start motivation, with the result that “just five more” ends up being ten or fifteen more. “But even when that doesn’t happen,” Pink says, by doing five more, “you’ve still accomplished something.”