How to Be More Productive and Accomplish the Big Things That Really Matter

June 24, 2013

Do you ever open your email in the morning with the intention of spending just an hour or two sifting through messages, and then look up to find you’ve spent your entire day responding to emails?

Or maybe you reach the end of the day and wonder, what the heck did I get done today?

Whenever I find myself feeling this way, I know the reason: I’m being REACTIVE rather than PROACTIVE.

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This is the absolute WRONG way to practice entrepreneurship, yet it’s such an easy trap to fall into, especially when email comes into play. When a task arrives in our inbox, it feels urgent, which means we tend to that before accomplishing the big things that should really be our priorities that day.

(Credit that last idea to Marissa Bracke, who recently talked about how to Limit the Busyness in your Business with coach Charlie Gilkey.)

Being proactive means setting your own goals for the day and sticking to them, rather than letting other people and their priorities dictate what you accomplish.

It doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible with your to-do list; that’s a must, especially if you have clients, because needs will arise during your workday that will truly require your attention. But thinking consciously about what really needs to get done and what can wait — rather than tending to every little thing that comes your way — is the only way to make big things happen.

Because I fail so miserably at this sometimes, letting other people’s priorities override my own and getting distracted by minor tasks, I’ve brainstormed how tweak my workflow and mindset. Here are a few ideas I’m pushing myself to implement:

Only check email at dedicated times

And outside of those windows, close down your email client so you can focus on what’s in front of you. Productivity experts are always shouting this technique from the rooftops, but I find it incredibly difficult to stick to; it requires serious willpower, plus learning to trust that you won’t miss any earth-shattering, life-changing news if you don’t look at your email for two hours.

To push myself toward mindful email use, I now have three separate accounts: my main email account, a business account (that I’m hoping my team will eventually help with) and one account for a popular blog I manage. I used to funnel all of those emails into my main account, so I could easily log into one place and see everything at once. But I was receiving far too much email — a new one every few minutes — which is terribly distracting when you haven’t yet gotten into the habit of tending to email only at dedicated times.

So I separated the accounts, and now have three email inboxes to check. It seems counter-intuitive, but already it has helped me use email more mindfully, because I have to consciously decide to open those other accounts to read and respond to those emails. All urgent tasks are set up to go into my main account, so I know I won’t miss any important requests.

Email is its own beast, a huge challenge in itself. The key is figuring out which processes and systems work for you, and adapting as your life and career change.

Create a to-do list for each day

When you go into a day without a clear idea of your big objectives, you’re more likely to waste time on little things. Making conscious decisions ahead of time about what you’re going to work on each day will help you accomplish tasks that truly put you closer to your overarching goals.

Though I’ve only practiced this intermittently, I like the idea of focusing on your big goal first thing in the morning — whether that’s writing a blog post, creating a sales page for your book or putting effort into landing clients. If you focus on the most important thing at the beginning of your workday, you’ll never find yourself with a pit in your stomach come evening, knowing you didn’t make headway on your priorities.

I’ve actually been thinking about trying this as an experiment, of committing to spending the first hour of every workday for, say, a month, to a project that directly supports my top priorities. For me, that would be working on my guides and courses; turning those into a bigger percentage of my income is my long-term goal, but those projects have taken the back burner lately as I work with new clients and build my team.

If this experiment interests you, let me know (a tweet to @alexisgrant is easiest), and perhaps we can approach this challenge as a community. We’d call it… Project Priority, maybe? That’s a great hashtag: #ProjectPriority.

Keep big goals in the forefront

I’m obsessed with Google Tasks, and on any given day you’ll see a dozen or two little green tasks waiting to be checked off in my Google Calendar.

This helps me keep track of all the things I want to get done, but it also has a downside: sometimes I focus too much on the nitty-gritty and forget about the big picture.

When you look at the big picture on a regular basis — I like to keep my big business and life goals scrawled across one of the white boards in my office — you’re more likely to catch yourself when you’re working on a small task that doesn’t support your true priorities.

That’s when you should ask yourself: Does this task really need to get done? Could I drop it altogether?

Remember: you only have so many hours in one day, and you can’t do everything. Which brings us to…

Practice letting go

I like to tie my work day up with a bow, finishing everything on my to-do list so I can start the next day with a clean slate.

But the truth is, when you work for yourself, there’s always more you could do. You never cross off all the items on your to-do list. This is, at once, both the best and worst part of creating your own career. YOU get to determine your priorities, but you also have to realize that you’ll never finish everything — and that’s OK.

You have to learn to let go. (Click to tweet this idea).

This is something I haven’t yet figured out. Especially when I’m in a busy period (like, ahem, now), it’s so difficult to turn off the work section of my brain to enjoy other parts of life.

So while I want to push myself to be more proactive about my work, I also want to be more praoactive about not working. When you nail that obstacle, you’ve truly found your groove.

How do you keep yourself acting proactively rather than reactively? Share your tips so we can all benefit!

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11 Replies to “How to Be More Productive and Accomplish the Big Things That Really Matter”

  • I’ve started using Google calender (and tasks) as a way to organize what needs to be accomplished. I also tend to break my big goals into little tasks that can easily be accomplished on a day-to-day basis. (Today I start writing an ebook, but only a couple sections, for example.)

    The other tactic I use? I have business development time every Friday afternoon. And I keep a running to do list. So when I get an idea during the week, I write it down and address it on Friday. It’s actually increased my productivity because I’m not getting bogged down by following each idea I have.

  • NOAEfame says:

    I am very proactive when it comes to things like that . I follow half of the things you said. I love getting up, and then making sure things are done. But recently I have become so overwhelmed with all the things in my to do lists. But I haven`t been able to achieve most of them lately because I am still getting used to doing it myself. I need help in running a campaign ad to raise money to publish my poetry. I have started submitting my work to the publisher. I am online advocate for children; half of that poetry will be donated to charity,and library depending if it is good. I am still yet to publish the article that will sets off the campaign. Please, if anyone wants to read it before I publish it. I will be so glad to email it to them. Alexis, you are an inspiration . I listen to whatever you have to say. Thanks for all your work.

  • Alex Sheehan says:

    Love your idea of the #ProjectPriority! I usually start out my day by answering emails, and, like you said, I find that it’s almost time to break for lunch by the time I’ve finished. I’m definitely going to give your idea a try – people can wait an extra hour in the morning for me to respond to their emails. I’m also border-line obsessed with to-do lists, and I usually make them according to the day. If I receive a new project or task, I’ll allocate that to the day(s) it needs to be addressed based on its urgency. It helps me to write it down because I can see it all right in front of me, which helps to organize my time and my week.

  • I think it is SO important to create a to-do list EVERY day!!!

  • I think it was Stephen Covey who used the “first things first” approach? One reason I think that we all fall into the email/business syndrome (sharpening pencils) is that it feels like we are getting things done. Often though, we are procrastinating, avoiding the tougher projects that require decision making or creative energy. I started to think about my hourly rate and how much money I am not making by spending hours on emails, surfing the web, “researching”, desk cleaning, and other avoidance behaviors. Love the Project Priority idea. Count me in.

  • When it comes to organizing, I tend to keep it simple to the point of non-existent. When i get up each day I have one project that I want to make progress on. I put as much time as my son will allow into that project, and when he wakes up, I\’m done for the day. I try to get up at leas 2-3 hours before he usually does and also use naps (when he takes them). If I don\’t finish, then I can continue work on the same project the next day or switch to something else that is a priority or hasn\’t been worked on in a while.I keep a spreadsheet list of projects I have going and what needs to be done for each that I check every few weeks to make sure I\’m not forgetting something important. This largely works because my projects tend to be large and long term with fairly obvious \”Well, I finished this last week, so the next step is that.\” If I were doing lots of little projects I know I\’d be constnatly forgetting things and leave stuff undone if I tried to work this way.

  • I’m all in for #ProjectPriority! I find it’s not so hard to stick to this rule for my own business- I usually am pretty good about tackling my biggest to-do list item first. But when it comes to my day job, sometimes I struggle tackling the toughest thing on my list and find myself doing emails or social media updates because those are quicker items to check off a list.

  • I also used to have huge problems with productivity and spending lot of time on the internet reading news. Now I create my to-do list every day and set deadlines for each activity. It helped me a lot! I loved your post and I will definitely start using Google Calendar. Thanks for providing useful tips!

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