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ATD Blog

4 Things to Stop and Start Doing to Be More Productive in 2021

Friday, January 15, 2021
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It’s 5 p.m. and despite working furiously all day, you didn’t finish a single key task you intended to finish. This productivity “letdown” is common—and it’s depressing.

Often, our response is to work longer hours and burn ourselves out or to blame others for giving us too much to do. But what if I told you your stress and overwhelm is not a result of the lack of time or volume of stuff but how you manage it all?

I’m not saying it’s all in your head. What I’m actually saying is that it’s all in your habits. To succeed in this busy world, we must find a way to manage (not do, manage) all the stuff in our lives. Here are four things to stop doing and start doing, respectively, that will help you avoid the daily productivity letdown.

Stop Doing #1: Looking at your email first thing in the morning.
When you start your day looking at email, your ever-changing, ever-populating inbox becomes the lens through which you view the rest of your day. Every new alert seems important and overrides more strategic plans.

Start Doing #1: Begin your day by looking at your calendar and lists.
Reviewing your calendar should be your priority in the morning. These are the tasks you’ve committed to accomplishing and provide the best data for how much time you have during the day to do other work. After reviewing your calendar, look at your to-do lists. And that’s it. Quickly reviewing your calendar and lists before your email increases your likelihood of doing the “right” stuff.



Stop Doing #2: Don’t plan to do 10 things every day.
Most of us pretend that somehow, with six meetings, lunch, dozens of emails to plow through, and driving the kids to school, we will accomplish 10 key tasks. It’s unlikely. When we give ourselves unrealistic daily goals, we set ourselves up for failure and frustration.

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Start Doing #2: Plan to accomplish three things.
I’ve found you can usually only accomplish three important tasks each day. And I’m not talking about mundane or routine ones. I’m talking about three tasks that will move important projects forward. If you have extra time, great. But anything beyond three is dangerously ambitious.



Stop Doing #3: Stop saying yes to everything.
Too often, we think the word “yes” comes with magical powers and that by agreeing to every task, we’ll somehow defy the odds and get it all done. But that’s an illusion. There is always more that could be done than you can actually do. Stop saying “yes” and telling yourself you’ll figure out the details later.

Start Doing #3: Tactfully say no or renegotiate commitments.
When someone makes a request, find out the due date and what the request entails. If you can’t do it, either say, “I’m sorry, but I will need to decline so I can focus on other priorities,” or renegotiate in terms of how much you can do, such as “I can’t commit to finishing it by Friday, but I could start now and have it done by Tuesday. Would that work?”

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Stop Doing #4: Working while you process emails and processing emails while you work.
The volume of your email is less important than how you manage it. How often do you start reading through your emails then take a twenty-minute detour to address a project only to have to start reading your emails again? While you’ll have to do that project sooner or later, doing it in the moment is inefficient.

Start Doing #4: Work in modes for greater focus and efficiency.
There are three key modes you need to work in throughout the day:

  • Define work: email inbox and other new inputs
  • Defined work: work from calendars or lists
  • Surprises: work that shows up unplanned

You are already working in these modes, but you’re likely doing them all at once, which is incredibly inefficient. When you spend 45 minutes only processing your inbox, you get through more items, which populates your calendar and lists, which allows you to do more of the right tasks.

Life is unlikely to slow down any time soon. Follow these four tips to reclaim your time, attention, and energy. Stress-free productivity is possible but only if you control your incoming requests and existing projects rather than let them control you.

Get more great tips like these from the VitalSmarts Crucial Skills Weekly Newsletter. Sign up here.

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About the Author

Justin Hale is a speaker, training designer, and master trainer at VitalSmarts. He has been a lead engineer in designing training courses and facilitated classes and delivered keynote speeches on the skills and principles to 300+ clients and audiences around the world.

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