Every achievement in life is the sum of a thousand little tasks. Completing each of those tiny tasks leads to success. If you want to accomplish much, you have to first accomplish little - and then repeat those steps over and over and over. Everybody wants to be awesome, but few want to work to make that happen. If you want awesomeness, hard work is in your future!

Let's start with a verse.

Whatever you do, work at it wholeheartedly as though you were doing it for the Lord and not merely for people.
— Colossians 3.23

This verse is awesome. Paul is saying, "Take your to-do list and do it for the Lord. Embrace excellence." This is incredibly inspirational. Even more so when you realize who Paul is speaking to in this passage. Look at the earlier verse for the context:

…Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve.…

That puts a perspective on what you are facing today, right? Paul is speaking to slaves, who had no choice in their work, yet he's encouraging them, "Guys, make a choice - work hard!" So no matter what you face today - big or small - make a choice to work hard .

A.J. and I love to work. We genuinely find joy in working hard. Over the years, we've been asked how we get stuff done. We gave some thought to that question and here's what we came up with. Here are seven practical things you can do to help boost your productivity.

 

1. Work in Chunks of Time

Most people approach a list of tasks and attack them with time. The thinking is that if we just throw enough time at a task, it will eventually get done. The problem with this line of thinking is that when faced with large tasks, the time needed to complete them seems overwhelming. Instead of working on tasks, work in chunks of time. The ideal length of time that I've found to work for is 20 minutes. I learnt a long time ago that the best time for me to stop working is just when I am getting into a task, which seems counterintuitive. Leaving the task for a quick break, while on a productivity high motivates me to get back to work.

 
 

Here's why working in 20 minute chunks of time is sheer genius. My crudely drawn graph above has two axis. The Y-axis is your attention (or interest) level in a task, the X-axis is time. The more time passes, the less interest you have in something. To be sure we all start with energy and interest, but unfortunately our interest level wanes, only to pick up once again with the thought of finishing said task.

 
 

We can take advantage of this phenomenon, by shortening the amount of time we plan on working for and then repeating that block of time. So instead of working straight through for 60 minutes, work for 20 minutes and then take a short break. Work for another 20 minutes and enjoy another break. Lastly, work for a final 20 minutes. This way, your attention level stays at a higher level over that 60 minute period than it would've if you just kept working for 60 minutes (the difference between the green and blue line in the graph above). Those tiny breaks ensure you are constantly refreshed and alert.

IGNORE THIS FOR CREATIVE WORK

This 20 minute rule is great for stuff that just needs to get done. Set a timer for 20 minutes and get down to work. But anything that's creative in nature: writing an article, creating a sermon, song writing, painting, etc needs something different. Stuff that needs to be created does not lend itself well to 20 minute chunks of time. The greatest gift you can give your creative self is uninterrupted time.

John Cleese is a genius. He's easily one of the great comic minds of my lifetime. He's known for being one of the writers behind Monty Python, he created Fawlty Towers, has written some amazing movies and is a brilliant comic. I came across a talk he gave talking about creativity and the need for uninterrupted time that explains his approach brilliantly. It's well worth a watch.

Video thumbnail courtesy Luc Van Braekel under this license.

So here's how to attack stuff with hard work:

  1. Decide on the task to be done
  2. Set a timer for 20 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings
  4. Take a short break (3-5 minutes)
  5. After three 20 minute chunks take a longer break (15 minutes)
  6. Ignore above for creative tasks

 

2. Live in Day Tight Compartments

Dale Carnegie coined this phrase, "Live in day tight compartments" but what does it mean? Like most wisdom, Dale borrowed his phrase from someone smarter than him. In this case, Jesus.

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
— Matthew 6.34

Every day will have responsibilities that you need to tend to. Don't waste today's energy on tomorrow's responsibility. You get grace to deal with today. Tomorrow's commitments will come with tomorrow's grace.

On any given day, I am usually booked out for three or four weeks worth of appointments. That means when I look at my calendar I am already committed to things for at least the next three weeks. Each day I meet with people who are looking for advice, input or direction. Then there are days when I meet with others for confrontation. Everyday I make decisions that affect the school, our staff and the church. I’m often pulled into situations that are really messed up in order to help bring balance or find a solution.

In that sort of environment - how do I find joy in the midst of sometimes overwhelming demands? Well, AJ and I have learnt to live in day tight compartments. I concern myself with today and not tomorrow.

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
— Matthew 6.27

Jesus is essentially saying, "Don’t borrow trouble - neither live with worry about tomorrow, nor regret of yesterday." If I am doing what He’s called me to do, He will help me do what needs to be done. We've got to develop the skill of living in the trust of God. The Father will grace you for what you are in, if you will accept and outwork the responsibility He’s placed on you. I love my job! But the reason I can love it, is there's grace on me to do it.

Living in day tight compartments means I am only concerned with what I have going on today. AJ and I look over our week every Monday and mentally budget time and energy for the week’s responsibilities. Then we live out each day, fulfilling that days’ commitment, and preparing for the next.

 

3. Write Stuff Down

This step seems so low tech that it's easy to dismiss what I say next as trivial. However, with the volume of stuff that you need to remember on a daily basis, getting in the habit of writing stuff down is invaluable. It's important that you get a system for recording things that works for you.

If you're a tech person like me, and you are never without your phone, use that. If you prefer pen and paper, get a notebook that you'll never leave behind and use that. Whatever your preference, just make sure you get in the habit of writing stuff down. Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.

Any time I'm given an important date it goes in my calendar. Things I need to remember to do, I write down in my task manager. Data that has yet to be classified goes in my notes app. When I meet someone and need to remember something about them, it gets logged in my "names of people" file.

Here’s the good news, if you have an iPhone, all the apps you need come preinstalled on the device. Even better, if you have another Apple device (like a MacBook, iMac or an iPad) all your data will sync to your other devices. While Apple's Notes, Reminder and Calendar apps are great to get you started, there's a wealth of awesome replacements in the App store. Currently I am using Evernote for notes, Things for my to-do items and Fantastical as my calendar.

Whatever you end up using, my point is that you need a way to write things down so you can free up your mind for more important things. Trivial information is treated exactly the same way as important information in our brains. Don't waste valuable brain cycles remembering to buy milk - tell Siri to remind you later and free up your brain for something better.

Sherlock explains why he deletes useless information from his brain to ensure there is space for important information.

4. Review Your Calendar & To-do Lists

Writing stuff down isn’t enough. It's a great start, but it's not the whole solution. To be truly efficient you must review that which you've written. I do a daily review and a weekly review of my calendar and to-do list.

I look at my calendar each morning to get an overview of the days events. I check my to-do list at idle moments of the day and I know I have access to anything I wrote down at any moment thanks to Evernote.

 

5. Get an Inbox For Everything

You are constantly inundated with information every hour of the day. Email, tasks, invitations, paper mail, bills, bank statements, etc. Create an inbox for different sources of data and then funnel information into them to process later.

Let me explain with some examples. Hanging on the wall as we come in our house is a place to dump mail. Any mail that's been delivered to our house gets put there. I don't process it until Friday, but I have a place for it to go so it doesn't get lost during the week. 

My email comes to an inbox (d'uh). But I use my inbox as a holding cell. I process my email into three other folders, REPLY, STORE and ACTION. If  I can reply to an email in less than a minute I'll just reply to it; if replying will take longer I move the email to the REPLY folder. If it's an email with stuff I will need for later, I file it in the STORE folder. If it's something I need to do yet I don't have time to do it right there, I file in the ACTION folder for when I have time and energy to act on it.

Our kids have inboxes in the closet at home. All the stuff (and there's a TON of stuff) that comes home from school gets filed there. Our keys have an inbox - when we get home, we hang them on the key holder (again by the door) so that we know where they are. 

Do yourself a favor and create inboxes for everything.

 

6. It’s Not About Time Management

Contrary to popular belief, time management isn't what you need to focus on. Energy management is. I will run out of energy way before I will run out of time. Start thinking in terms of energy allotment and find ways to preserve your mental and emotional resources. 

Part of the reason I approach email using the method described above, is that email is constantly flowing toward me. If I try and respond to every email the moment I see it, I will rapidly reach exhaustion. So instead of responding instantly to my email, I choose to process it. Email is either deleted, or filed into one of three folders: RESPOND, STORE, ACTION. Then when I have a free moment I will revisit these folders. Depending on the energy available to me, I may work through the ACTION folder. If I feel like thinking and not doing, I can respond to emails that demand a more a thoughtful response than I may be able to supply in only one minute. 

I read an article in Vanity Fair about President Obama. The author, Michael Lewis spent six months following the President as he went around his daily life. There was one particular question that caught my eye in the interview. He asked President Obama,

“Assume that in thirty minutes you will stop being president. I will take your place. Prepare me. Teach me how to be president.”

The president replied, "You need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

I love this! The leader of the free world has outsourced small decisions to make room for much more important ones.

Making too many decisions about mundane details is a waste of a limited resource: your mental energy.
— R. Pozen - Senior Lecturer Harvard Business School

Making decisions - even minor ones, wears down mental energy which makes you less effective at making major decisions.

A.J. and I try to pre-think decisions and often opt out of decisions so we're free to make more important ones. As an example, we have an Amazon Subscribe and Save account so that the majority of our home supplies are scheduled to arrive automatically. Every month, we receive packages shipped straight to our door. Things like snacks for the kids packed lunches, gluten-free flour, ghee, mac & cheese, etc.

Every two months we receive a shipment of paper towel, toilet paper, dishwasher powder, AC filters, shampoo, conditioner and deodorant. Not having to worry about running out of these things saves a lot of mental juggling. It drastically reduces the number of things we are shopping for each week which in turn diminishes stress.

We tend to eat at the same restaurants so we don’t have to decide where to eat. Similarly, because we are eating at familiar restaurants we already know what we are going to eat when we arrive there. These are simple steps at reducing decision fatigue.

Minimize Friction

What we are trying to do in these examples is minimize the things that cause friction in our lives. Friction saps your mental, physical and emotional energy. The trouble is, most of the things that cause friction in our daily life seem too trivial to fix. We convince ourselves, "It would take too much time and money to "fix" this tiny little problem". Yet we experience that tiny little problem over and over. This kind of friction will wear you out!

The best $40 we spent as a family was for a shoe basket. All our shoes go in this basket by our entryway. When we leave, everyone knows where their shoes are. That $40 could've been spent on food or utility bills, but the sanity and rewards it brings me ON A DAILY BASIS is a life saver.

In all honesty, this is why I use Apple products. I’m well aware that I could do almost everything I do on my Mac using a Windows machine, but my experience using Microsoft products was one of constant friction. Most people think that Apple employees spend time working on how their products look. That's a shallow perspective; they spend countless hours thinking about how their products work.

Automation

If I had my way, I'd automate everything I could in life! I've made small steps toward this and have already reaped tremendous benefits. The lights in my house come on at dusk and turn off when I go to bed. In the morning, the lights in our bedrooms slowly turn on to wake us up. When I leave the house, our lights turn themselves off. It sounds ridiculous to say this, but not having to think, "Did I turn the lights off? Did I lock the front door?" while lying in bed is wonderful (yes, our doors lock automatically).

While the whole home automation market is still in its infancy, I love the changes we've made to our live already with minimal cost.

 

7. Self-care is Not Selfish

An important part of getting things done is resting. It's not about resting when things are done, for there will always be things that need your attention. It's about resting to retain balance. You are a human being, not a human doing. Of course there is a thrill in getting things done, but your accomplishments are not you. You are more than a list of achievements. Resting gives you focus and perspective. One of the dangers of doing is that we focus on the immediate, often at the expense of the important.

It's vital therefore that we establish self-care as part of our life. A.J. and I are pretty diligent about taking Friday off. We work Sunday - Thursday and take Friday for ourselves and Saturday for our kids. We place a high value on rest. If you're interested in reading more about the importance of rest we wrote another article on that topic.

Budget in time to rest when you budget your tasks for the week.

Recap

  1. Work in chunks of time
  2. Live in day tight compartments
  3. Write stuff down
  4. Review your calendar and to-do lists
  5. Get an inbox for everything
  6. It's energy management, not time management
  7. Self-care is not selfish

 

Further Reading

Precious little in this article is original. I've borrowed liberally from these excellent sources. You'd do well to read them for yourselves.



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