Everyone wants to get more done. And we all have long to do lists. If you’re a student, it’s filled with papers and exams. In the workplace, you have presentations, reports, and deadlines. And even at home, you have personal goals and creative projects you’ve been trying to accomplish.
When I was mentoring undergraduate students a few years ago, we worked on goal setting all the time. And I found that so much of the advice they were being given was open ended – learn to manage your stress better, or get better at keeping a planner. This wasn’t helpful to them, and I had a hard time giving them direction with this advice.
So by exploring a ton of productivity resources, I developed a seven step procedure to getting things done. The most important things to me were to ensure these steps were actionable and cyclical. This means that the steps were specific, and that the system you develop should be revisited every so often.
So, without further ado:
7 Steps to Mastering Productivity
Step One: Optimize Your Environment
Before you can start getting down to work, you need to ensure that you’re set up for success. This means preparing both internally and externally.
Before starting, consider:
The environment. Ask yourself:
- am in in a place I can concentrate?
- Is it too loud or too quiet here?
- Am I going to be interrupted, or should I take care of something pressing (like family duties) first?
- Am I comfortable enough to focus (temperature, seating)?
The tools. Ask yourself:
- Do I have the right materials on hand? Office supplies, tools, technology, etc.
- Do I know people who can help me or mentor me?
- Do I know how to access any resources I might need?
The motivation. Ask yourself:
- Why do I want to do this?
- Will I feel proud of myself after this?
- Is this project or task going to contribute to my life plan?
- Will this goal open up desirable doors for me?
Your confidence. Ask yourself:
- Do I believe in my ability to do this?
- Do I feel confident in my qualifications?
- Is there a network of people supporting me?
By the way, if you’re having some issues with confidence and suffering from impostor syndrome, you can always check out my guide to destroying impostor syndrome in its tracks.
Once you’ve prepared yourself, both externally (in your space with your tools) and internally (with your motivations and confidence), and can get started.
Step Two: Create Your Goals
To start with this step, I recommend using a sheet of paper to write. You can use your computer if you insist.
Start by thinking about your long term goals. Long term might mean something different to everyone, depending on their situation. It might be a year, five years, or longer.
If your goal is, for example, to graduate from a university program, then you have a set timeline already. But maybe you want to get a job in a specific industry, or start a business. Any big dream can be a long term goal.
Next, you need to develop short term goals. These often relate to your longer term goals – passing a chemistry class might be a short term goal towards the longer term goal of graduating. Or it can be completely unrelated, like “volunteer with animals” or “get a part time job”.
The important thing to consider when making these goals is whether they are SMART. You’ll find this acronym in a lot of productivity lit. It stands for:
Specific: The goal of “get a degree” is less useful than “get an honours degree in history”. Or “be a better parent” is better narrowed down to “spend more time with my kids”.
Measured: how do you know when you’ve achieved your goal? With an academic goal, there’s a clear finish line at graduation. But with personal goals, the end might not be so clear. Consider if your success will be indicated tangibly, or if you’ll have to use emotional judgement to decide.
Attainable: do you have everything that you need to achieve your goals? Do you have the right tools or finances? If not, you might need to put another goal ahead of this one.
Relevant: how does achieving this goal fit into the big picture for you? And is it a good fit to start with? If your goal is to make more friends, but you hate sports, a goal of “join a soccer team” makes no sense; “join a book club” is much better.
Timely: can you make a timeline for this goal? And is this a good time to start on it? If you can’t define a timeline for your goal, it will be hard to follow the next steps.
Once you’ve developed a couple of SMART goals for yourself, you’re ready to move on to step three.
Step Three: Break Down Goals Into Tasks
Work on your goals one at a time. Picking one to start with, determine what smaller steps go into achieving that goal.
For example, imagine your long term goal is to be an English teacher. So before that, you’ll need an English degree. And in order to get that, you have to pass English Lit 101.
In order to pass that class, you have a number of tasks to accomplish. They might include:
- Read “Pride and Prejudice”
- Read “A tale of two cities”
- Write a paper on Charles dickens
- Pass midterm
- Pass final exam
Now you might need to break these down even further, depending on what seems overwhelming or reasonable to you. Pass a midterm could reduce to reviewing 5 chapters, take a practice test, and organize a study group.
Once your goals are broken down into small, manageable tasks, you can move on to the next step.
Step Four: Schedule Your Work
There are so many types of scheduling systems. Day planners, wall calendars, desktop calendars. Decide what works for you.
For this exercise, it’s ideal to have a weekly planner with space for hourly planning.
Now, you start inserting events.
These are events that you simply can’t change. Your work schedule, or class times, for instance. Holidays can fall into this category too. Doctors appointments and the like might also be non negotiable, depending on the urgency or difficulty in getting an appointment.
#2. Goal-achieving tasks.
Book in times to work on the tasks that you identified in the previous step. Determine how many hours it will take to do each, and distribute accordingly. *Remember: SMART goals are timely. They should have a defined timeline and you should have enough time to accomplish them.
Remember not to schedule away every hour of your week. This takes us to step five.
Step Five: Schedule Your Downtime
This is one of the great secrets of successful people.
Scheduling your downtime has so many advantages. First of all, we all know that taking breaks is important because nobody can continue on the grind indefinitely. Breaks and fun are important elements of your productivity plan. Even when you’re relaxing, you can know that you’re contributing to your success.
If you don’t schedule this time in, it becomes very easy to feel guilty when relaxing. You start thinking that you could be working, or you could be using that time to get something else important done. But if you treat downtime as an event, and as something important, you’ll feel better and produce better quality work.
Ensure that at least a few hours every day are put aside to spend doing things you enjoy. These could be self-care activities, socializing, or just watching TV.
Step Six: Modify Behaviour to Stick to the Plan
If you have the willpower to start sticking to your new schedule without any aids, then that’s amazing, and keep doing what you’re doing.
If you’re like most people, you’ll need a little bit of help.
Develop some sort of incentive program for yourself to get yourself to follow the plan. You can start by identifying what it is that tempts you off schedule – spending time on your phone? Playing with your dog? Getting snacks?
Decide on some rules for yourself. For example:
- “If I write for 30 minutes, I can take a five minute break away from the computer.”
- “After I answer all my emails, I can have a healthy snack.”
- “If I take the time to cook a healthy dinner, I can eat it while watching my favourite show.”
Make sure that your incentives are healthy and not counterproductive to your overall goals. Eventually, try and wean yourself off them so that following a daily schedule is more instinctual.
Step Seven: Constantly Review Your Steps
The best part of this strategy for achieving goals and managing productivity is that you should review it frequently. This way, you don’t worry too much about getting it right the first time. There’s always a chance to see what works, what doesn’t, and make changes.
Maybe you decide you need a new strategy (new tasks) to achieve a goal. Or perhaps you change your mind about the importance of a particular goal, and want to work on it later. All of this is fine!
Set a review period into your week. Even if it’s just 15 minutes to look over your weekly calendar, and prepare for the next week. Look back through these seven steps and consider if you need to improve anything.