In a world where every self-proclaimed guru is pushing productivity tips, it’s hard to know what is actually making you more productive versus just creating more busy work. Have you ever ended a whirlwind of a busy day, only to realize you haven’t moved the needle on any of your areas of focus? You are not alone.

John Wooden, a former basketball coach known for his inspirational messages on success in basketball and life, used the phrase “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.”

It’s easy to get sucked into the trap of being busy all day, only to end the day with absolutely nothing to show for it. Even more so when you are a business owner.

Here are some of the likely reasons this continues to happen to you, and what you can do to combat it:

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#1 – You aren’t making a plan the night before.

If you plan your day and top tasks the night before, you start the next day with more structure and have clear goals to achieve. This level of clarity has helped me make a game plan for my day without wondering where to start.

Taking it a level further, I use The Productivity Planner to help me prioritize the most critical tasks. This sequencing ensures you are not ‘skipping ahead’ until you’ve completed the most important tasks for the day.

What would planning the night before look like for you? How can you build that into your schedule?

 

#2 – You are allowing for distractions.

Turn your notifications off, put your phone on silent, and distance yourself from any outside distractions. If I am in the office, I put my phone in my purse and completely close Outlook and Skype, which are my two biggest distractions.

On the weekends, if my kids are awake I will leave them with my husband and get out of the house. I do best in silence or with focus music playing, so I am writing this post from my car, in my driveway.

The days I work from home, I prevent myself from getting distracted by keeping a dedicated space for work. I also make sure I set hours for the day, so I have a clear start, break, and end time. Avoid turning the television on or taking personal calls and do what you have to do to stay focused.

What do distractions look like for you? How can you proactively plan ahead to minimize them?

 

#3 – You aren’t getting into your zone of focus.

What does it take for you to get into your zone of focus? Energy, environment, and sound are just a few contributors to this. If you need silence to focus, a busy coffee shop or row of chatty cubicle mates will never help you be productive. But, if this environment does help you, invest in some noise-canceling headphones.

More of a music person? Try making a playlist of music that inspires, motivates and empowers you. If songs with vocals are too much for you to handle, try finding instrumental music. I find that a soothing soundtrack uplifts me more than it can distract me. You can even consider tools like brain.fm, an app designed to keep you focused.

If you thrive in natural light but sit in a dark office or cubicle, try repositioning yourself. Is there anywhere nearby that you can can you squat for a bit to soak in the sun while engaging in your work?

Keep in mind that energy levels are also important. I find myself most engaged, energized and creative first thing in the morning. I am fiercely protective of this time and do my best to schedule long meetings for the afternoon.

 

#4 – You are letting your email drive your priorities

How many times have you been in the middle of a project when you see a new email come through; you get distracted by the content, start working on that, end up in email jail and never get back to what you were working on.

Practice checking your email only at certain times of the day or after certain milestones. For me, it’s every hour on the hour I like to open it up to make sure nothing new or critical has come through. If you are really worried about missing something urgent, let your direct reports, colleagues, or manager know this. That way, they can call you if something is urgent.

 

#5- You don’t capture your ideas

Have a method for remembering ideas, actions, or things you don’t want to forget without letting them distract you. I keep a running list of things I don’t want to forget, which I call my ‘parking lot’ items. When they come to mind, I simply pull out the list, jot them down, and then continue what I was doing. This gives you the peace of mind that it won’t be lost, and you can keep working on your current task.

 

 

 

#6 – You are scheduling deadlines, not work

It may seem like a good idea to wait until Wednesday if your deadline is on Thursday, but why not start on Monday? You may be indicating in your calendar when these tasks are due but are you scheduling the time to get them done? Schedule due dates AND working dates for your deliverables to avoid deliverable creep.

 

#7 – You are ineffective at meetings

In an ideal world, we would have far fewer meetings than we do. Since that is usually out of our control, what are you doing to ensure meetings (albeit yours or someone else’s) are as productive and efficient as possible? If you are driving the meeting, have a clear agenda with desired outcomes and if you can, let the participants know in advance. If you are an attendee, as for this or ask what you could have prepared or bring to help the meeting along.

 

#8 – You let other people drive your priorities

This usually comes in the form of saying ‘yes’. Give yourself permission to say no. Push back and always keep an inventory of what is already on your plate and what takes priority.

Now, I understand that in my corporate settings, politics drive priorities, so try this approach: the next time someone in a higher, senior position asks you to do something that you feel is less priority than your current projects, pose this to them:

“I agree this is something that needs to get done. I’m currently working on XYZ which we know is also a high priority. If you agree, I’d like to continue to focus on that and will make the next project my area of focus as soon as that wraps.”

A more direct response that doesn’t ask for permission would be:

“I have to finish XYZ before I can give this the focus it deserves. I’ve scheduled it in my calendar so it will not be missed, and will circle back with you on this as soon as I can get to it.”

 

 

#9 – You are trying to do everything

Think about your time as an investment: what is the best way you can invest your time for the biggest return? Channel your energy into the projects, people, and processes that will yield the biggest impact. Be ruthless about doing things that do not align with one of your priorities.

 

What now?

There is no shortcut to being productive it will take hard work and discipline. You will find yourself falling back to old habits and you need to gently bring yourself back to focus.

I created a one-pager to keep with me at all times that reminds me of my top priorities. When I find myself spending time on something, I’ll shift my eyes to my chart. If it doesn’t align, I’ll pause and refresh my focus. You can grab a free copy of that here. Find what works for you and say goodbye to busy!

 

Actionable next steps:

 

  • Make a plan the night before
  • Be proactive to limit distractions
  • Create your ideal environment to focus
  • Stay out of your inbox
  • Have a system for capturing those ‘someday’ ideas
  • Schedule work time
  • Drive better meetings, or get out of them
  • Say no to things that are not a priority
  • Come up with a way to display your priorities or keep them with you

 

Additional reading:

Essentialism and ReWork are two books I highly recommend for a unique view on how you are spending your time and what you can be doing to be even more effective.

Note: This was originally published on this site in 2017. I’ve since revised and republished.