Looking for ways to improve your productivity? Read on to discover a productivity tip that can change your life.
Late last year I went to lunch with one of my closest mentors – a back-end programming consultant. As a freelancer, he has earned anywhere from $800,000 – $1.3 million in annual revenue over the past four years.
We were halfway through lunch when the topic of productivity re-emerged. It’s a topic that him and I, both being extremely busy, frequently discuss. In between bites of his thyme roasted cod, he told me about an extremely simple productivity hack. He felt it had made a difference in his life since he started doing it.
When I heard the idea, I was immediately intrigued. “Wow, that’s so simple, why didn’t I think of that?” I exclaimed. Agreeing, he added that it’s something everybody should be doing.
We continued the meal, but the “hack” was still on my mind. I was excited and couldn’t wait to get home and start doing it. Lunch left me energized and I knew this tip would make a difference.
How This Productivity Hack Is Necessary
Just think about having a visual time machine of your days to see what you accomplished and where you’ve been slacking. Imagine the iterative progress you could make if you could look at patterns in your day and learn where you could be taking more action and realigning focus.
The average person gets 3 hours of actual work done each day. In the UK for example, this average has been recorded as being 2 hours and 53-minutes. When you think about it, this is a shockingly low amount.
Put a different way, the average person spends only 12.5% of his day being productive.
Of course, there are many reasons for this. However, one of the major ones is that most people don’t make efforts to be reflective. Most people don’t look at why what they’re doing may be misguided, especially where they’re making mistakes.
This productivity hack changes that. It forces the user to address his weaknesses and his faults. The tip will also make him see where there’s not just a little, but massive room for improvement.
Best of all, it’s free, quick, and easy.
The Actual Productivity Hack
Open up a spreadsheet. Any of them will work: Microsoft Excel, Apple Numbers, Google Sheets, etc. Next, simply create 4 columns.
Title the first column, “Date.” Make this column a different color from the rest. I prefer a light grey.
Name the second column, “Task.”
Give the third column the title “Classification.” The items in this column will be color-coded general categories for sorting where your focus is going.
Finally, title the last column, “Notes on time (minutes).”
You: “Wow that’s shockingly simple, this seems unsophisticated.”
Me: “Yes, and yes. Bet let’s let the results be the judge of whether or not it’s worth it.”
The results will be the ultimate judge of whether or not this is a worthwhile time and energy investment for you.
If you were being productive for only 4 hours each day and you could increase that number to an average of 7 (without getting burned out, of course), would this be a worthwhile investment? For example, if you could add 15 extra hours of productivity to your life each week, 60 in a month, 870 in a year, would it be worth it?
What if your productivity didn’t increase? Instead, you saw that you were misaligning your focus. If you could shift your focus to tasks that make you more money and more align with your long-term goals, would that be worth it?
Yes. It would definitely be worth it.
Let’s look at when I started my list to see how it helped me. Then, we can see how it made a difference in my work life.
Here are my first two days:
What I learned from the raw data
I had lunch with my mentor friend on Friday, the 27th. Excitedly, I started this list the very next day.
Like I do every day, I studied Spanish, which I’ve been teaching myself with Duolingo. I sent out a press building e-mail using the service, Help A Reporter (a great tool for SEO and expert development; totally worth checking out), and I did a lot of general correspondence via e-mail.
In terms of tasks I do each day, my next day looked roughly the same: ~50 minutes spent on habits, ~2 hours spent on correspondence, and other time dedicated to other tasks.
I waited two days to look at this list because I wanted to have a larger sample size for analysis and optimization than just one day. When I took an extended look and thought about what I had done (or more accurately, what I hadn’t), I was astonished and disappointed.
I had meant to follow up with some sales leads who had been inquiring about search engine optimization. Over the course of these two days, I didn’t do this, despite it being a priority.
Emails are a productivity trap
Instead, I spent way too much time on e-mails. Way too much.
In addition to following up with SEO leads, I also wanted to start on this short article. However, I didn’t even touch that on my first day. On the second, when I did, I hardly gave it any time. I should have researched it and produced the first draft. Yet, that was not what I did.
I looked at my behaviors and reflected on them. Like most other people, I had been spending too much time answering e-mails. My behavior with my friend, Nate, whose half-feature-length video I’m an associate producer on, was good. The time I was spending on my daily habits was good. Everything else, however, was lacking.
Taking my new productivity knowledge and implementing change
The next day I was resolved to make a change:
Bam! That’s results right there. I saw a problem and I fixed it immediately.
I followed up with my immediate leads, and I minimized time spent on e-mail, something most people need to do.
While my actual productivity time decreased, the value I was creating was way more than the first two days. I confronted a serious issue and was realigning my focus.
What did my sheet look like after a few months? How much did my focus increase? Was I spending more time being productive? Did I resort back to my old ways? Let’s find out.
Here’s a random day in March:
The magic happens when you reflect on what you learned
After having a month worth of days to look at, I was able to notice a lot of habits. I needed to cut back on e-mail, and I needed to spend more time on the tasks that were directly making me money. Too much of my time was spent on long-term vision tasks and neglecting the immediate future.
I was averaging 3-4 hours of actual productivity/day, and I was unsatisfied with that amount. Upon reflecting, I realized that I got more done when I start my day with habits, save e-mails for last, take a day off each week, and take more efficient breaks (effective relaxation is a whole other subject!).
As you can see in the above screenshot, my focus became sharper and I wasn’t wasting as much time with e-mail. I’ve successfully been keeping up my daily habits and, most importantly, my productive time has increased greatly, from an average of 220-minutes (3.6 hours) in November to 365-minutes (6.1 hours) in March.
What Not to Include
“Wow this is great, I’m going to start immediately! Do I record everything productive or just certain tasks?”
Great question. My general rule of thumb is to not include relaxation-oriented activities. All work and no play make Jack a dull boy, but Jack shouldn’t include his play activities in his productivity list.
I meditate and go to the gym every day. Doing these activities adds to my bottom line by improving my focus, health, and happiness. However, these are activities that I do for their positive mental effects. They’re relaxation-oriented and not as much action/output-oriented. I don’t include them.
“How about learning? If I begin reading a book in order to become better in my field, should I count that?” Absolutely- reading or watching videos to improve your craft isn’t only a mental/physical/relaxation exercise.
When to Record
“When do I record my tasks?” Right after you do them. There’s no better way. It also helps general positivity to space out work and to switch tasks in your mind. Going immediately from task to task or focusing on several at once can be very ineffective.
What Do I Do with the Results?
Look at them every few days. Think about them. Reflect on them deeply.
I’m going to restate this, because without this final step, this productivity hack won’t be very effective. Reflect on your results.
Look for patterns. Confront yourself when it comes to work you’re not doing. Be honest with yourself about how you’re not spending enough time working and how you’re spending too much time browsing Instagram. Consider if your focus needs to be realigned. Be like Steve Jobs and go for a walk to rewire your brain.
Go for a quiet walk and reflect.
By frequently confronting yourself and making an effort to slowly make change, you’ll be a lot more productive. Beyond that, you’ll be productive in the areas that count.
Will you try this productivity hack?
As I left lunch with my mentor, belly full of fine Manhattan fare, I felt invigorated. Not just because this particular mentor is among the greatest people I know, but because I knew what I was going to accomplish over the next few months. The potential I could see from this productivity hack was going to help me achieve more than I had in the previous months.
I was dedicated to changing my ways. This meant becoming more focused and productive than most people would dream to be.
Since starting this spreadsheet, I’ve put a great effort into both working hard and relaxing effectively. I spend a lot of time reflecting on what I’m doing. When necessary, I’m willing to confront myself about hard truths. A lot of my current success is because of this habit, and listing the tasks that I complete each day.
I very much hope you’ll try it!
Do you have any questions for me? Anything about this productivity hack that you need answered? Do you want to talk to me about anything else? I’d love to hear from you! Speak your mind in the comments below, and we can start an awesome conversation.