One of the things I pride myself on at work is my productivity and organisational skills.  Its not something that comes naturally as I have a tendency to become distracted by the latest new thing.  I've tried various methods of organising my workload and over time, I've adapted a system that works for me.  I thought I'd share some of my thoughts in the hope that it might help others.

What are you hoping to achieve?

There are many benefits to becoming more organised.  Perhaps you're fed up of spending all your time fire-fighting at work?  Maybe there's some problems with your life/work balance?  Is your boss or team mates always seem to be chasing you for things?  Bored of feeling guilty when someone reminds you of something you promised to do but forgot about?  Have you inadvertently built a reputation for generally being a bit flaky?

Any of these are great reasons to get yourself organised.  At the heart of good productivity is self discipline, and just like a diet or trying to quit a habit, you need to always remember why you wanted to make a change the first case.  Without getting too deep and meaningful, try to imagine what it would be like if you felt on top of things, had time to do some of those other things you've been thinking about and everyone regarded you as being 'switched on' and a hard worker.

"I haven't got time."

Stop saying that.  No, seriously, just stop.  We all get the exact same 168 hours every week;  the difference is how we choose to spend them.  How we choose to prioritise our time.  Wall Street Journal writer Laura Vanderkam explains:

Instead of saying "I don't have time" try saying "it's not a priority," and see how that feels. Often, that's a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don't want to. But other things are harder. Try it: "I'm not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it's not a priority." "I don't go to the doctor because my health is not a priority." If these phrases don't sit well, that's the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don't like how we're spending an hour, we can choose differently.

From my perspective, there's two really important lessons in there.  The first is that we use language to excuse ourselves from not getting something done and to help us believe that nothing is going to change.  The second is the importance of balance;  It's much harder to tell your kids that playing with them isn't a priority!

So, what are my priorities?

Some people keep their personal lives and their working life completely separate.  I'm the opposite.  My Outlook calendar has always contained the usual mix of tele-conferences, meetings and deadlines right next to reminders to go shopping or attend a kids' birthday party at the weekend.  For me, I view my life as single thing that I must manage.  I want to be good husband, a great father and successful at my job.  If I want to achieve those, then I need to make sure they're all dealt with fairly.  You've no doubt heard the story about the jar full of rocks, pebbles and sand.  If not, the take home lesson is that before you go worrying about your todo list, have a good think about what kind of person you want to be.  No, seriously, do it now - it'll take 30 seconds and will ultimately help guide you on determining your priorities.  Merlin Mann over 43Folders has a touching story of the importance of deciding what's important to you.

You need a system, not a tool!

If you work in IT or like technology then your first thought might be to run off and find a tool to make you more productive.  Don't!  Trust me, you'll spend more time researching tools and tinkering with their configuration than actually getting anything done.  Fundamentally, all you need to achieve is a better way of capturing and prioritising your commitments.  Sure, tools might help - but some of the best approaches to productivity can work just fine with a notepad and a pen!

The first problem for many people is just the sheer volume of requests they get in.  You've got a constant stream of emails coming in, some of them relevant, most of them not.  You've got tele-conferences to attend and no doubt more meetings than you would care for - often to discuss either something that we're going to do, or my personal favourite, to discuss the lack of progress on a project.  And, when you finally get back to your desk, there's someone waiting for you who "just needs a minute".  The key thing here is that we have commitments coming in from a variety of sources and we often don't feel like we can control those streams.

So, first things first - lets try and manage those input streams a little.  Why not change your email client to only check for new emails every 30 minutes?  Do you really need to go to that meeting?  Why not explain that you have other priorities and instead you'll happily review the minutes via email and carry out any agreed actions.  Perhaps they could give you a call if they need a question answered urgently?  Likewise, if someone tries to grab "just a minute" then just explain you're right in the middle of something and perhaps they could drop you an email or arrange 15 minutes in your calendar?

The key thing is to try to reduce the number of places you might record an action.  Personally, I try to guide all incoming requests through email.  So, if someone asks me to do something, I'll ask them to email me or I'll take notes and then send an email to myself with the actions.  It's vital that you get all your commitments into one place otherwise you'll inevitably miss something.  One top tip is to always book an extra 5-10 minutes after every meeting in your calendar to capture the actions (and ideally complete any easy ones right there and then).

What's the action here?

The biggest thing I learned from Getting Things Done by the mighty David Allen was that my to-do list was terrible!  It was full of high level objectives that I was trying to complete, rather than discretely defining the concrete next step that I must take.  For example, I'd write "Get Car Serviced", rather than "Phone garage to arrange date for car servicing".  That might seem like a small change, but when you've got a hundred of tasks just like that one, it can make a huge difference.  Firstly, I've removed all the cognitive effort - so if I've got a spare minute and a phone nearby, then I'm much more likely to make the call.

So, the next time you get a request coming in, try to identify the real action - the next step you're going to take to make something happen.  Is it a phone call? An email?  A meeting to arrange?  Something you need to read?  Something you need to research online?

Later we'll talk about some of the clever things you can start to do when your to-do list consists of simple discrete actions.

Commit!

How often do you collect an action, but you're not sure when it must be delivered by?  Whenever you get asked to do something, one of your first questions should be "when does this need completed by?".  How can you possibly manage priorities without knowing the order in which things must be completed?  The problem is that often the person requesting your help hasn't actually thought about the date or might be a little "conservative" because they're worried that you'll deliver late.  If the person struggles to give you a date or, as often happens, tries to turn the question around and ask when you can complete it by, then take a deep breath and try to help them work out what their realistic "drop dead date" is.  If you absolutely must, just give them a date that you'll commit to.  The important thing here is that you're making a commitment.  Whether it must be done by then or not, you've now got a deadline that you're going to deliver to.  Don't worry if that feels odd to begin with - its important to give yourself clear goals.  And, the more you set yourself target dates for everything, the quicker you'll feel in control of your to-do list.  For example, if another request comes in but you've committed to delivering something else, you know to schedule the new request appropriately.  Whereas, I'm willing to guess that without making that initial commitment, then the new request would have probably got done first and that other action would just hang around your to-do list like a bad smell until the requester started jumping up and down because all of a sudden they do have a drop dead date - and its today!

What Next?

This post has all been about some the softer side of productivity, aimed at getting you thinking about why you're so busy, what actually needs done and the important of prioritisation.  In subsequent posts, I'll talk more specifically about the challenges of managing your emails; keeping track of what's what; techniques for getting stuff done and cover some useful tips on avoiding some of the common problems like procrastination or "do-ers" block!