Some people just get things done. Real things. They know how to move the ball. I talked with some of these guys this week, and we talked about strategies for getting things done. Some of it was personal experience. Some of it came from books they had read. All of it was battle tested. In the end, it is about preparing yourself and your workspace for work, and then getting the work done in a persistent and predictable way. Every person’s tactics for getting these things done are as different as they are from each other, but the strategies are the same.
Prepare Yourself for Work
You are the one who does your work. You do the work with your own body and your own mind. In order to really get work done, you must get your body and mind ready. Our bodies are not machines; we have natural biorhythms that we must respect. Our bodies need sleep and food and oxygen. Here are some ways to prepare your body for work:
Sleep. Your brain needs fuel. A tired brain just can’t perform high levels of thinking. A well rested brain just functions better. Most people need 7-8 hours of consistent nightly sleep to work at peak levels. If you have had less than 7 hours, you are probably better off sleeping one more hour than working one more hour – your remaining work time will be that much more productive.
Know Yourself. Everyone’s biorhythms are a bit different, but we all have them. Some people get their best, most creative work done in the morning. For some, it is the afternoon. Some do not peak until the sun goes down. Figure out when your most productive 2-4 hour stretch is. These are the Golden Hours. You must use them if you can.
For me, my time is from 9:00AM – 1:00PM. That’s when I am really cranking. When I worked in an office, I would get in before 9 and get some coffee and say hello, but at 9 I was at my computer, working. I shut my door and worked until I came up for air at 1. I did not like interruptions (my former co-workers, like Ralph Gleaton and David Wyatt, can attest for this. They called me “Lucifeiffer” in the morning, because of the rough welcome anyone got if they opened my door before lunch time!).
Take a Break. When we are busy, we often cannot see the forest for the trees. We can go into information overload. Our brains can’t focus on anything not directly in front of us. I can tell when this happens to me. I usually can see the long-term effects of a decision, but when my brain is overloaded, I just can’t. I read and the words just slide off my brain. People talk to me and I feel like words are bouncing off me. Time for a break. Brain rest during the day is important, if you want to be productive. Take a walk. Go to lunch. Meditate. Exercise. Don’t take your smart phone. The world will survive for half an hour. The tactics change, but the strategy remains the same. Give your brain time to reset.
Eliminate Open Loops. Our brains are cool. They don’t want us to forget things. In order not to forget what we have left them with, they will loop information in our subconscious. The more loops we have going, the less brain power we have available for work. Worse yet, when our brains have a lot of loops, it let’s us know it may forget something be creating worry. Now we are really in trouble. Eliminating open loops is critical if you are a busy person who wants to be able to actually think.
Eliminate open loops by working on tasks until you are at a natural stopping point, creating and maintaining a task list in a trusted place, and one that you will regularly check, and by simply doing any small task that comes your way right then, and not leaving one more thing for later. Take this test: think of 12 items you need from the grocery store. Then go to the store, without a list, and shop. Later, do the same thing, but with a list. Were the experiences different? It is for me. Way less stress if I close the open loop by writing the list in a trusted place.
Prepare Your Environment for Work
So, you’re well rested and ready to work. When and where we work, however, are also important. We live in an amazingly connected, demanding world. EVERYTHING is competing for our attention – social media, the news, spouses children – co-workers – clients – vendors . . . . The phone beeps and buzzes and shows you angry red numbers next to the apps that are being ignored. Email stacks up. Calendars send alerts and reminders. We only have so much attention to go around, and these things take away a little piece of our brains, a piece that’s then not available to get things done. The good news is that we can reduce these demands and focus for work without moving out the Walden Pond. Here are a few ways:
Divide Your Work Day. Every hour is not golden hour. Our bodies don’t work that way. If you have figured out when golden time is, set that time aside for what’s important, and use the rest of the day for reactive work: e-mails, phone calls, meetings, administration, paying bills, etc.
Decide What’s Important to Do. Setting aside golden time to work on what’s important doesn’t help if you don’t know what is important. First and foremost, for entrepreneurs, what’s important is what is closest to money – what task can I do now that will result as soon as possible in revenue? For me, my mantra is “money in the morning” – morning is my most productive time, and I try to set aside morning to work on things people are paying me to do. Afternoons are for business development, administration, etc.
Avoid the Culture of Done. Our culture is laser focused on “done”. We love to cross things off the to do list. This can lead to spending our golden time doing simple, easily done tasks – respond to email, return a phone call, write a short, simple letter – but those tasks are often unimportant. Important work languishes. Often, the important stuff languishes because it’s too large, it’s too daunting. It won’t be done today. Avoid that culture. Take the big, important task and divide it into smaller, do-able components and only put the next step on your to-do list.
Create a Distraction Free Environment for Golden Time. Golden time requires a distraction-free environment for our best work. What this means to you will vary wildly from what it means to me. Some people need a clean desk; some do not. Some people need a change of scenery to work – a conference room or a different place altogether from the place where the busy work gets done. Most people like to do their best work in the same place every time; some have to change it up from time to time. Some people like music, some want silence. Figure out for yourself what you need and create that environment. Whatever your distraction-free environment is, it does not need interruptions. Interruptions kill productivity. No phone, no Facebook, no email, no staff intrusions. Just work.
Use Your Tech. Limiting interruptions seems nearly impossible these days. We are just too connected to every device, and they are insatiable at demanding our attention. Tech may be the enemy of focus, but we can also use tech to help us. Take time (but not golden time) to learn how to use your tech. Devices these days have a lot of cool features that can help you. Most devices have settings that allow you to turn off, temporarily, these interrupting notifications. These devices even allow you to designate certain people who can interrupt you, and filter everyone else out. Work with your tech to help you create your best environment for work.
Do The Work
You are well rested and ready to work during golden time in a distraction-free environment on important work. How do you get it done?
Do not clear the decks. If you are like me, or like some of the other people I was talking to, your brain will try one last time to trick you into not working. You just need to clear the decks before you get at it, your brain will say. Close the open loops of “I might have a Facebook post I am missing”, or “Let’s just empty the email in-box real quick”. Don’t do it. Once golden time starts, it’s all about the work. Don’t clean. Don’t check. Don’t peek. Just get to it.
Do not multitask. Multitasking is a myth. Or at least a misnomer. When we do two or more things at one, we do each of them less efficiently than if we would have just done them serially. I know – you’re different. Good for you! Take this test:
Write out, longhand, you’re ABC’s. Time yourself. Now, write out, longhand, the numbers 1-26. Time yourself. Not, write out the ABC’s and the numbers 1-26 at the same time, alternating between the lists. A-1-B-2-C-3 etc. Not one jumbled list – two lists done at the same time. Time yourself. Most people take longer to write the combined list than they took to make the first two lists added together. Just focus on one important task at a time.
Be Invictus. Golden time is what separates the do’ers from distracted. It is game time. It is the battle. Be Invictus during golden time. It’s what matters. So schedule golden time regularly – a regular, steady, predictable half hour per day, every day gets more done than a once-per-week binge. Make golden time a high value activity. It’s not the thing you do if nothing else comes up. It is your work, the rest is reacting to other’s priorities. Finally, don’t give in to distractions. Your brain will try to get you back to just eating empty calories. Don’t let it. Be Invictus. Focusing and getting work done will get easier and easier as you do your work on a regular basis.
 This also works in preparing yourself for work. Our devices have blurred or even eliminated the lines between work and home. Our bodies, our minds and out souls need downtime, however. Our families and friends need our attention. We need time not thinking about work. You can use your tech to create down times where interruptions are limited. Next time you go on a date, set your phone so only the kids or the babysitter can interrupt.