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Five years ago I bet you were busy. Working long hours. Answering emails in what used to be your evening.

When 2014 rolled around, guess what – you were even busier! Things had got worse. Where would it end?

And how about in 2016 – has it notched up again? How are you going to get all the stuff done that needs to get done?

If that’s your experience then you’re not alone. I myself have fallen into the spiraling ‘stuff to do’ work trap. It’s not a good to place to be.

It’s because of technology

Technology has meant that everything happens faster. We don’t wait for office hours to call someone, we send an email instead. We often expect an instant response.

Our computers are vast library-sized repositories of data, reports and documents. They’re connected to the Internet, to Google. So we can often answer those questions ourselves without referring to experts.

Although you might be getting through your inbox, you seem to get less actual ‘work’ done. There are fewer tangible achievements that have added value to your business.

I want to tell you about how I managed to break the cycle of spiraling work. It has helped me get more stuff done. And it leaves time for other things too.

Don't be a slave to technology

Don’t be a slave to technology

Technology can help solve the problem – but not on its own

I started trying to tackle it back in 2014. Blogging about ‘productivity hacks’ was becoming popular. There were new types of software claiming to boost your output whilst giving you back your day.

Having read about many time saving techniques, I was lucky enough to see Scott Hanselman speak. His overarching approach to productivity was a refreshing change from the tiny ‘hacks’ that everyone else was pedaling.

To crack productivity I needed to borrow from both Hanselman and the ‘hacking’ advice, and set about the problem in three different ways.

1) Have a strategic approach to work

2) Use Microsoft Outlook as a tool and not a taskmaster

3) Try other software tools to simplify your life

Here’s what I learned. I hope it helps you address your mountain too.

1) A strategic approach to work

The key here is to understand whether you are just doing lots of stuff or whether it’s the right stuff, and if the stuff you’re doing takes you where you need to get to.

Or as Hanselman puts it, understanding the difference between effectiveness and efficiency.

“Effectiveness is goal orientation. This is picking something to do. This is doing right things – picking a goal and doing that goal,” Hanselman says. “Efficiency is doing things in an economical way, process-oriented.”

In other words, “effectiveness is picking a direction and efficiency is running really fast in that direction”

Hanselman approaches his tasks by using the 4Ds of David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

These are:

Do it, defer it, delegate it, drop it.

He then applies Stephen Covey’s four quadrants to this concept.

 

A slide from Hanselman's presentation

A slide from Hanselman’s presentation

If something is really important and urgent then do it now. At the other end of the scale, if it’s not important or urgent then drop it.

The other choices are to defer the task to a specific later time, or to give it to someone who has time, or can do it sooner or better than you can.

I followed Hanselman’s advice and looked through my list of stuff I needed to get done.

My list encompassed macro tasks, some of which would take most of the year. Things like sales targets, or campaigns to promote particular launches.

And it went all the way down to the things that had arrived in my inbox that morning. Small tasks, some of which appeared urgent simply because the deadline was near, and someone was imploring me get it done.

I made a list on Trello (more of that later) and divided every task into these four quadrants.

I booked time in my diary for my deferred list. I mailed the delegated tasks off to others. And I deleted the drop it list (boy that felt great).

I was left with the do it list. This was the stuff I really needed to focus on.

2) Use Outlook as a tool not a task master

Many of us spend a big chunk of our day looking at our inbox. It has replaced the in-tray and you can kid yourself into thinking that this is the stuff that needs to get done.

A full inbox gives the illusion of work. But it’s not actual work itself.

The stuff on your do it list is the stuff that needs to get done. The inbox is for stuff you haven’t yet passed through your 4Ds triage.

Here’s how you can use Outlook to keep focused on the do it list.

1. Limit your email checks
Unless your customers require almost instant responses, don’t look at email more than three times a day. And when you do, limit it to a block of just 45 minutes each time. That should be more than enough to give your inbox the 4Ds.

Remember that if you’re super-responsive on email, you’re building a future expectation. If you answer an email in the middle of the night, don’t be surprised when someone sends you something to do in the middle of the night, and expects it to be done straight away.

I’m not calling for you to be unresponsive. If your role requires rapid response on email then this should be part of your do it list. But in reality most email doesn’t need instant answers.

2. Create two inboxes
Create one inbox for emails you’re sent directly, your priority box. And one for emails you’re cc’d on.

The ones that you get sent directly should be tackled first. The sender meant it for you.

For the ones you’re cc’d on, read them when you have the time, after your direct inbox. If they were meant for you to take action on, you’d have been sent them directly.

If you are daunted by a bulging inbox this is a huge lifesaver. No longer will you get that sense of overwhelming immensity when you switch your computer on.

3. Write short emails
Even if you’re a fast typer, you’re probably only going to hit around 70 word per minutes. No matter who you are, writing is slower than talking.

So when it comes to email, take note from the master of brevity, Hemingway. If he can write a story in 6 words I bet you can say all you need to in four sentences max. If it’s an unnecessary word or sentence, ruthlessly cut it.

Your recipients will appreciate that your emails are simple to understand, and quick to read.

4. Book 30-minute meetings
Just because Outlook defaults to 1-hour meeting blocks, you don’t need to play that game. Meetings often fill an hour because people are late, unprepared; they lack a clear agenda and are full of conversational padding.

Try scheduling all your meetings for 30 minutes instead and you’ll be amazed at the urgency it instills. And I bet you don’t end up with anything left unsaid.

Of course 30 minute meetings don’t work in isolation. You still need your meetings to follow the rules. These are mine:

-Don’t be late. It sets the wrong tone from the start
-Have an agenda. Be clear on the stuff you need to get through, and circulate it beforehand
-Have a chair. Make sure someone is driving the points through and is responsible for noting the actions
-Have an outcome. Don’t decide to ‘meet again to discuss some more’. Make sure you’re time has been well spent by handing out some action points.

5. Turn off notifications
Multitasking is pretty much a myth. There are some things that you can do simultaneously. Like chewing gum and listening to music.

But anything more complex usually means both tasks are done slower, to a lower standard.

It takes time shifting your attention from one subject to another. To get your head into the place where you’re thinking clearly on a topic.

One thing I know for sure. You can’t get stuff done whilst your email is flashing up in the corner of your screen. No-one can resist the lure of checking the message. Doing so means you lose your flow.

So turn off notifications and concentrate on one thing at a time. You’ll think more clearly, more deeply. The work will be of higher quality and it will take less time in the end.

3) Try other software tools to simplify your life

There are a million blogs out there talking about productivity tools. I’m a big fan of using apps and tricks to ‘hack’ more time into my day. Here are a few of my favorites and how I use them.

They’ve made a big difference to my life. They could make a big one to yours too.

Trello
Have you read any Oliver Burkeman? He writes about how to be satisfied and happy.

For me, his advice can be boiled down to this:

1) List the stuff you want to do
2) Do the list
3) Cross them off as you go

Aside from satisfaction, they can really help you boost productivity too. Seeing your tasks laid out and then knocked off helps you appreciate how much you’ve done, and how much more there is still to go.

Trello is the ultimate tool for list lovers. It’s like a noticeboard where you can pin to-do jobs.

There’s no rule about how to best use Trello, but most use it by dividing what they have to do into 3: To do, doing, and done.

Trello in action

Trello in action

On each task or ‘card’ you can add everything you need to complete it: Your notes, photos, or links to any websites.

You can also add checklists and deadlines to keep you on track.

If the tasks involve help from others you can also add them to the cards as ‘members’ and get them to contribute their own materials. It saves any emailing back and forth.

As you start work on a task you can move it from ‘To do’ to ‘doing’ and then finally ‘done’.

Personally I use Trello to keep track of unfinished topics with my team. It prevents all those ‘what happened to that thing we were talking about’ conversations when you both lose track of where you are.

I have a list for each member of my team, and each card is a topic that we’re discussing. The next time we meet I know exactly what we need to pick up, and where.

Try Trello. Lists will never be the same again.

Buffer
It’s not unusual to use software tools to simplify your use of social media. It’s a booming industry, forecast to hit $37bn by 2019.

You’ve got customers, industry and competitors to keep on top of; content to find and share; results to track and learn from.

The first thing I’d say is that you won’t find one tool that will help you do everything, so don’t bother. Some are great at analytics, whilst others can simplify your timeline.

I find Tweetdeck great for a general view on what’s happening with people I follow, and what’s been said about our brands and our competitors. And Twitter & Facebook analytics have really made it easy to understand more about your performance.

But my absolute favorite sharing tool is Buffer. No other comes close for consistent, frictionless sharing.

With Buffer you can predefine days and times that you want to share. If you’re not sure what the best time to share is, then Buffer can tell you when you should get maximum engagement.

When you read something you want to share, just clicking the share buttons will fire up a dialogue box allowing you to share some text, a shortened link, and any images in the post. You can then add the content to your ‘queue’ where it automatically fills the next available timeslot.

buffer

Buffer will also tell you how each post performed in terms of impressions and engagement, allowing you to learn as you go.

And if you install the Buffer Chrome extension you can share any image you find in one click, choosing whether to do so now or to add to your queue.

Try Buffer – you’ll never spend less time sharing, whilst sharing more content than ever before.

If This Then That (IFTTT)
If This Then That (IFTTT) is a productivity fan’s dream. It connects applications like Gmail, Twitter, Facebook and Dropbox.

It allows users to create conditional statements called ‘recipes’ which ask one application to perform a task, if another application does something.

For example, If I post to Instagram, Then save the photo to Dropbox.

iftt

IFTTT can save you countless hours by automating repetitive daily tasks.

Although there are thousands of potential recipes out there, one I find most useful helps me keep abreast of changes that competitors make to their website. I need to instantly know what they’re up to in case I can learn something new, or find out why the market is changing.

By using another great tool Visualping.io I can see when there are any changes to any of my competitor homepages.

viping

With IFTTT I can create a recipe that means whenever I receive an email from Visualping.io I get an SMS telling me their site has changed, along with a link. One click and I can see what’s afoot, no matter where I am.

That’s about it for now

By using a strategic approach to work, making good use of Outlook, and trying some free productivity tools I am able to get more done whilst focusing on the important stuff.

It’s essential to keep all the plates spinning. Without these I couldn’t create the headspace necessary to think about the bigger challenges, and be effective.

Do you have any productivity ‘hacks’ you can share? Leave me a comment or a tweet.

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