Welcome to guest writer, Charles Bordet.
Over the years, I have tried tons of different methods, systems, tools and habits to improve my productivity.
My goal was to be the most efficient possible, to finish my work earlier and enjoy my free time by going out with my friends or making progress on my other personal side projects.
I realize that I was more motivated to finish work than I was to actually work. However, that motivation was, in fact, what pushed me to develop the powerful habits that have allowed me to increase the quality of my work while decreasing the amount of time I spend on it.
Today, I want to show you the four most essential habits that helped me and can help you as well.
First Habit: Work on your most important project first thing in the morning
The way you start your workday is predictive of how productive you will be for your entire workday.
What is the first thing everybody does when they start working?
Check emails! Every day, you receive tons of emails: from your current clients, from potential clients, from blogs you are subscribed to, from your friends, etc.
So, you already have a lot of work to deal with, and you have no idea of how much time it will take.
Before you realize it, you’ve spent two or three hours, sometimes the entire day, managing and responding to your clients, reading blogs, and not making any progress on your most important projects.
I know, had the same problem.
Block off non-negotiable time in the morning.
To solve it, I scheduled 2 hours of non-negotiable time in the morning to work on my most important projects without interruption. I have been doing it for months, and I’ve never missed a day.
Consistency leads to success.
When I say non-negotiable, it means that whatever happens, you won’t do anything else during that time. It’s as if you had an appointment with your doctor every morning. You’re not available. Make this clear to your clients as well.
I suggest scheduling this time first thing in the morning rather than later in the day. Otherwise, you take the risk that something urgent could take you away from what you intended to do.
Additionally, your willpower and discipline will be higher in the morning. If you have a rough and busy day and still need to do two hours of hard creative work, it’s much more likely that you simply won’t do it. While if you try to do it at first in the morning when you’re fresh, you will do it.
How will it help you to finish your workday earlier?
This most important project you will work on in the morning is the activity that takes the most time, energy and focus during your day.
What you would achieve on this project in four hours in the afternoon, after you have already spent so much energy on less important tasks, is nothing in comparison to what you can accomplish in two hours in the morning with a calm, fresh, and undistracted mind.
Do it for a week, and let me know how it goes.
Action Step (less than 5 minutes):
Schedule 30 minutes on your calendar to work on your most important project every morning. Make it non-negotiable.
Second Habit: Batch emails and social media.
In the previous section, you were shown why checking your emails or a social network first thing in the morning is not a good idea.
Then, when should you check emails?
The most common approach is to check emails constantly. Your email client or Gmail tab is always opened, and you may even have notifications every time you receive an email. This is also the worst approach.
You will continuously be distracted, which will significantly lessen your productivity. Additionally, studies suggest that checking emails too often is correlated with higher levels of stress.
Check emails a limited number of times per day.
Instead of checking your inbox throughout the day, schedule a limited number of times for emails and social media.
How many times a day? It depends. Do the people who write you expect an answer in the next two hours or can they wait a day?
Also, if you’re used to going to your email inbox every 5 minutes, don’t try to check them only once a day. Start small. Start easy.
For me, social media is not part of my business, and people who email me can usually wait a day before getting an answer. So, I check them only once a day, at the end of my workday.
The first time I tried to reduce my email and social media consumption, I failed miserably. It’s not an easy habit to stick with. We don’t like to admit it, but we are emails and social media addicts.
What I learned is that I can’t rely only on myself, I can’t pretend that I have enough self-discipline to respect my own rules. I need assistance.
Do not rely on discipline, use this amazing app.
My recommendation? Use an app that will prevent you from checking emails or social media while you’re working: StayFocusd for Chrome users, LeechBlock for Firefox users, SelfControl for Mac users, etc. There are a lot of these applications.
These apps will block the websites you choose during the hours you choose. This is simple to use. Oh, and because sometimes you really need this information from an email you received yesterday, you can allow a limited amount of time every day.
For instance, you can allow 20 minutes a day for your emails and social media sites to be sure you’re not missing anything that may be critical.
Another cool app, if you’re a Gmail user, is to use BatchedInbox. It will hold your emails, so that they don’t appear in your inbox and send them all at the time you decide. For instance, you could choose to receive your emails only once a day at 5pm. Or you could set three times a day. Again, decide what makes sense for your situation.
How will it help you finish your workday earlier?
Instead of getting distracted throughout the day by the constant flow of your emails and social networks, you will have focused periods of time to work, and then you will receive all of your messages at once.
By doing so, you will spend less time on your emails, and also increase the efficiency of your work, thus finishing earlier.
Action Steps (less than 5 minutes):
1) Schedule specific times for emails and social media every day.
2) Install StayFocusd (Chrome) or LeechBlog (Firefox) and limit your email and social media consumption to 60 minutes during your work hours.
Third Habit: Take fully disengaged periods of rest.
So far, we’ve talked about habits to improve efficiency and our way of working.
However resting is also important to increase your productivity, as counterintuitive as it may sound. If you’re working hard and focused on your task, your energy will be depleted quickly.
This is a major problem if you want to keep working steadily throughout the day. You need to find a way to replenish your energy, and this is done by taking regular and effective breaks.
Interruptions are not breaks.
Now, be careful. Taking a break is not stopping your work. This is a specific activity with a specific goal and should be treated accordingly.
First, getting distracted is not a break. Some people think they don’t need to take breaks because they’re already constantly interrupted during their work. These people are inefficient all day long and don’t even notice it. Interruptions are not breaks.
The goal of a break is to give you the energy you need to keep working productively all day long. It will make your work more enjoyable, enhance your creativity, and even reduce your stress.
Get up and go out.
Here is a very simple break that I take every day that achieve these goals: I get up and get out of my workplace. This step is fundamental. Then, I go outside and take a walk. Breathing fresh air is incredibly rejuvenating, I always feel completely renewed when I’m back from my break.
This is so important to me that even in winter, when it’s -20°C (and it often happens where I live), when I need to change shoes and grab my big winter coat, I still do it.
If you think walking is boring, you can also meditate (use calm.com), exercise, or do a mundane task like doing the dishes. If you want more ideas and guidelines to improve your breaks, check my guide on howtotakeeffectivebreaks.
How will it help you finish your workday earlier?
By taking regular and effective breaks, you will be able to be much more productive at your work not only in the morning, but the afternoon, when you usually start to feel tired, sluggish, and unmotivated.
Instead of feeling burnt-out because you haven’t had a break, you’ll be able to keep working, and eventually finishing your work earlier!
Action Step: At least once a day, get up and go out for at least 10 minutes. You’ll immediately notice the benefits of this break.
Fourth Habit: Manage tasks, not time.
What will your client say if you finish their project in five hours instead of the ten hours you expected to? Nothing. They won’t say anything because they don’t care how much time it takes.
Your client cares about two things: If the work is done well, and if it is done before the deadline.
“More hours = More work completed” is a fallacy.
So, why are we counting time and trying to put in as many hours as possible?
Actually, the response is simple: Time is easily measurable, and we believe that more hours = more work done = more money.
But that’s not true. Working 120 hours a week, feeling tired, exhausted, and unhappy, won’t make you more productive.
I have learned to stop worrying about time. Instead, I worry about tasks. I don’t tell myself “Work from 9 to 5″ but “Achieve this list of tasks.”
The benefit of this approach? No more days spent procrastinating and feeling busy working on unimportant stuff with a false feeling of accomplishment and nothing to show for it.
Every evening, I prepare a limited list of tasks for the next day . There is no specific number of tasks, and since I always try to break them down into tiny pieces, I often find myself with 10 to 20 tasks.
Breaking them down helps me have more clarity while working on them, and not wasting time thinking about what to do.
The most important part of this method is to not add any tasks during the day. That’s fundamental. Otherwise, you fall back into the counting time approach with an infinite to-do list.
The good news is that once you’re done with your list, you’re free to go. Enjoy the rest of the day guilt-free. You’ve done all the work you planned for yourself, so pat yourself on the back.
Tasks are not as easily measurable as time. So, it can be hard to evaluate how many you can accomplish each day. My recommendation is to look at what you completed last week and use that as a starting point.
How will it help you to finish your day earlier?
A benefit you’ll immediately notice is that you will complete your work much faster. Instead of thinking, “Oh well, I still need to work for two hours”, you’ll think, “Oh good, I have those two tasks to do, and then I’m free to go!”
With the second mindset, you’ll be much more enthusiastic about finishing your work.
Of the four habits I’ve presented; this is the one that helped me shorten my workday the most. Try it for a week, you’ll see a difference the very first day.
Action Steps: Take 15 to 30 minutes at the end of your workday to plan the exact tasks you will do the day after.
Then, do these tasks, but do not add anything else.
What to do now?
Changing your work habits will not happen in one day. Again, start small and easy.
Pick only one habit, the one you prefer, or the one you struggle the most with, and ask yourself:
What can I do today to improve my work habits?
Take 5 minutes to answer this question and don’t wait to take action.
Charles Bordet is the founder of BecomeATopPerformer.com, a blog that helps creative freelancers to grow their business by being more productive and more organized, and the author of an Ebook where he shares the exact strategies that helped him save more than 4 hours everyday.