Do you feel overwhelmed by the volume of tasks you need to accomplish? Discover how to tackle tasks, improve efficiency, and complete projects more efficiently.
Everything seemed so easy at school- they told you what to do and defined your tasks clearly. Now that you’re in the work world, it’s very different. You don’t even want to look at your email inbox, your task list gets longer every day, and you can’t see the end in sight. You know you need to sit down for an hour so you can catch up on everything, but it just doesn’t happen.
For me, the comfort I felt in high school vanished when I started my university degree. I was swept away by a seemingly unending amount of information and homework. It was a real challenge to track all my subjects and stay organized.
One day, I realized I had to learn to structure my time, to be far more productive, or I’d fail. I decided to study how to organise myself efficiently, and how to prioritise tasks wisely, and complete them faster and more thoroughly. My efforts paid off. I am grateful for every new strategy that makes my professional life easier. Here’s what I learned.
1. Track Your Tasks
For starters, I suggest you track all of your tasks. These are all the things you need to complete. This is the foundation of improving efficiency. Writings things down frees your mind and you exclude all the other things that normally buzz around in your head.
Remember, all these tasks occupy your mind, even if they’re not work-related. They elevate your stress level and in the end distract you. You use energy to keep them in your short time memory. A good example is you wake up in the middle of the night and remember an appointment or deadline. Of course, this is a problem since you’re in bed and you’re unable to act accordingly. Consequently, your stress level increases and this unattended task preoccupies you.
As soon as you write a task down, it satisfies the brain and you feel more relaxed, which improves concentration. Later, all you need to do is review your list, so you do not forget anything. This method is “Getting Things Done”, the core of the book “How I Get Things Fixed”, by David Allen.
The solution is to record it on paper, or if you work paperless like me – put it in an app.
2. Set priorities
After you have a list of your daily tasks, you need to set priorities. The best tool to achieve this is a time management matrix “urgent versus important” developed by Stephen Covey. This matrix consists of 4 quadrants to determine the task’s level of urgency and importance.
In quadrant 1 (top left) you list all important and urgent tasks that you need to do NOW.
In quadrant 2 you list important, but not urgent tasks. You don’t need to do these tasks immediately – rather you need to plan for them.
In quadrant 3 are the urgent, but unimportant tasks. These are the tasks that normally eat up your day, such as answering emails, or resolving other people’s problems.
In quadrant 4 are the unimportant and not urgent tasks. These are the tasks you should eliminate or outsource.
A great app I use is Week Plan. Week Plan is an online task manager based on some of the principles of “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. It is a simple, yet effective weekly planner that has a built-in 4 quadrants time management matrix like the one described above. It doesn’t have many fancy functions. However, it does prioritize better than any other program on the market, and that’s why I love it.
I also employ the app Wrike, an online project management program. With this I manage my team related projects. It is very simple and user-friendly compared to TeamworkPM for example.
3. Focus on ONE task at a time
After you set your priorities, you focus on quadrant one – the tasks that require attention now. Within these tasks, you determine the sequence of your tasks. With Week Plan, this step takes seconds. Then you start working on your first task, and you focus on this task only.
If you try to do several things simultaneously, your brain jumps back and forth between tasks quickly. It demands plenty of strength and concentration and does not necessarily make you more productive. By focusing on each task one at a time, you are more involved and work much more efficiently.
Don’t get carried away with distractions; switch off your phone, hide your email, and ensure everything on your screen is 100% task-related.
4. Set time limits
I spent quite a bit time searching and testing different tools and techniques to improve my productivity. I used to drag out tasks, because I wanted to make everything 100% perfect. Sure, mostly I achieved 100% but at what cost? For most entrepreneurs, time is the most valuable resource they have and it makes a huge difference if you can finalize a task in 20 minutes instead of 120 minutes.
If you are in a similar situation and you can’t find an end to your tasks or projects, or if you tend to procrastinate, then the Pomodoro technique created by Francesco Cirillo may be useful to you. It is a time management philosophy with an emphasis of maximising focus and creativity to achieve maximum results in a set time.
The principle is quite simple. You allocate time in small sequences of 25 minutes for each task, and then take a 5 minute break. After you complete 4 of these sequences, you’ve worked 100 minutes on your tasks. You then take a longer break, let’s say 20 minutes.
The advantage of this technique is quite obvious. First, you focus on what you want to achieve in one sequence. Second, the frequent breaks let you get up and move a bit, before you start the next 25 minutes. Lastly, this method keeps your mind focused and relaxed.
If you have a larger project with subtasks, this can help you to stay on track. It improves planning, as you need to slice your project in manageable sessions for each subtask. After you finish one subtask, you simply move on to the next, which relieves stress. You’re more likely to finish large tasks promptly.
Try it out and play with it and you’ll find you’ll increase your productivity significantly.
5. Start with the difficult task first
Now, assuming you’ve set your first quadrant tasks for the morning, look at them again and put the unpleasant or difficult tasks first. I am talking about tasks that continually nag you, tasks you tend to put off until the afternoon, or even the next day. The secret is to make them your priority at the start of the day. Your mind works the best in the morning, and getting these tasks out of the way provides a positive motivational effect after you’ve finished.
I promise, it feels good to get these suckers out of the way first.
6. Keep your body happy
No discussion – your productivity depends on your energy and health.
It is extremely important you pay attention to your body if you want to improve focus and productivity. We all know sleep is everything and only those who get sufficient sleep avoid headaches and maintain concentration.
I have always underestimated snacks, but if you work for a long time you do not notice rising hunger. A banana in between sessions or a handful of nuts are a real energy boost. Please stay away from sweets – refined sugar causes mean blood sugar spikes and lows.
And don’t forget to drink fresh water regularly. Busy people tend to forget to drink, and end up dehydrated and tired after a couple of hours.
I hope these tips improve your productivity. Maybe you have your own proven ways, and I’d love to hear about your secrets. Simply leave them in the comments area. I am always happy to hear about new ideas.