Yesterday I talked about how automated tools like RescueTime and Todoist can be manipulated to create a false sense of ‘productivity security’.

My goal is not to be productive in the conventional way. You see, many people equate productivity with simply doing lots of stuff.

The term I prefer is ‘effective’ which you’ll notice is the category I use on this site — not ‘productive’.

Being effective means not just staying on task and accomplishing the things on your list, but it also means taking things off your list that you simply shouldn’t be doing. And I don’t mean delegating tasks — I mean saying no to tasks that shouldn’t be anywhere near your task list.

If you missed my post yesterday, I made the point that you may have been immersed in your writing application for 3 hours in the morning — technically ‘productive’ time — but if that 3 hours should have been spent on client work, your time investment was not effective.

Today I want to share with you some of the habits I’ve adopted, and provide you some tips on working to be more effective.

1. Define your ‘ideal week’.

I’ve written about defining your ideal week before, so if you haven’t read that post, go read the questions I posed to you about defining your ideal week.

The goal here is to construct blocks of time on the calendar each week for the broader categories of tasks you want or need to do. When do you have the flexibility to write without compromising client work, or when does client work need to be the priority?

When will you do your marketing, or catch up on administrative tasks?

Give each category a block of time on your weekly calendar, then do your best to stick to the calendar each week.

2. Write down your next actions for the following morning.

The last thing I do before I leave the office is write down the first few tasks that need to be done the following morning. That means after I spend my hour writing in the morning, I’ve already assigned myself the next tasks to be done.

No expending brain power at all — I just do the 2 things I wrote down on paper the day before.

Sure, I have a full day of work scheduled in Todoist, but those 2 tasks are the first things that get my attention.

The 2 (sometimes 3 things) I write down are the top-priority tasks in Todoist for the day, but by separating them out, I don’t have to open up Todoist right away, and therefore I’m not distracted by all the other outstanding tasks listed there.

It’s all about reducing distraction and cognitive load.

3. Review on Fridays.

I’m a big fan of GTD and the weekly review is a big component of a successful GTD system.

Even if GTD never really worked for you though, the practice of spending an hour each Friday looking ahead to the following week is going to be very helpful.

Look at all the tasks you have on your plate in each area of your life. Look at your projects and when they are due. Look at your ideal week and put due dates on tasks for the days of the week.

Then write down your first tasks on Monday morning so you don’t start your week by digging through your list to know where to start.

Way too many people waste hours each week simply because they didn’t take 1 hour the week before to plan ahead.

Of course, it’s not realistic to think we can control every hour of every day, all the time. Sometimes life happens. We all have those days when external factors, such as a family emergency, keep us from getting to all the tasks we’d planned. In this case, don’t worry about the task list. Next Friday, start over, review your task list and set some realistic goals for the next week.

Your weekly task list is not a place to be aspirational. That’s for your yearly and monthly goals. The things you want to do each week should be concrete and realistic, given the time you have.

4. Remove distractions.

It’s way too easy to leave Twitter or Slack turned on and watch what’s going by instead of doing what you really should be doing.

We’ve all heard that before, right.

That is, of course, very good advice but when I write, go even further. As I write this, the only applications I currently have open are Scrivener, Chrome (for getting links), Pomodoro Timer, and iTunes.

I don’t need anything else open, so everything else is closed. By eliminating distractions, I can focus on the single task at hand — writing my 1,000 words (at least) for the day that I’m planning to publish.

Get in the habit of closing out everything you don’t need. If you don’t need your code editor, terminal, or Photoshop, don’t leave them open while working on tasks at hand. Turn it all off and stay focused.

Struggling with Twitter any given day? Uninstall the application. I used to have Twitter on my iPad but I found that if I was reading on my Kindle app, I would find myself flipping between the Kindle and Twitter all the time instead of just reading. So I removed all social networks from my iPad.

I also put my phone in my bag when I get home so I don’t get bored and decide to quickly check Twitter. When I’m at home, my focus should be on my home and my family.

What can you take off your desktop to reduce the clutter? Any applications that are a consistent distraction? Just delete them.

Need to take it a step further? RescueTime has a premium feature that allows you to block distracting sites. This means you can delete Twitter and then use their ‘focus’ feature to block the Twitter site.

5. Take a break.

You’ve heard this before I’m sure, but it’s just as true today. Your brain is a muscle and it simply can’t be ‘on’ all the time. It needs rest.

I use Pomodoro Timer (try this site for a web app) to put some structure in my day by giving myself 25-minute blocks of work and 5 minutes of rest. Sure, some advice working in blocks of 90-120 minutes, but the general agreement is that you shouldn’t be sitting down for 4 hours straight, working at your computer. Your brain just isn’t built for that.

Not to even mention the health effects of sitting too long.

But what about this semi-elusive concept of ‘flow’ — you know, that state where you’re 100% focused and doing your best work? Won’t stopping every 25 minutes shut down your flow?

No. At least for me it doesn’t, but it used to. In the past, during my 5-minute breaks I’d do something that took more mental energy, like check Twitter or try to process my RSS feed.

Both of those things required me to switch contexts and make decisions about something totally different than the task I was currently working on. That almost always ensured I would fail to hit the ground running when I got back to my desk.

Now, during my 5-minute breaks, I get up and stretch for 2 minutes. Then I typically use the remaining 3 minutes to look out my office window at the mountains, usually with a cup of coffee in hand, and really just think about nothing much at all.

Another habit I adopted was to leave myself a quick note when when my timer signaled time for my short break. For example, as I was writing this article and was about to write about RescueTime and the focus feature, my timer rang and I should have stopped. Before I stopped, I jotted down 2 words — ‘ResueTime’ and ‘focus’ — to help me pick back up when I returned.

Once I returned to work, I was able to look at the 2 words and quickly pick up where I left off.

In addition to my 5-minute breaks every 25 minutes, I take an hour lunch. I don’t sit at my desk, but move to another place (sometimes looking out my window in my office) and eat lunch. I don’t usually process my RSS feed or check Twitter; instead, I read fiction or a magazine. Something mostly unrelated to work.

I even start my day with a break. On a typical day, I arrive at my office, start my morning coffee and then change out of my cycling stuff, by which time the water is boiled and I can start drinking coffee.

I spend the first 10-15 minutes of my day in silence. I don’t even plug in my computer or turn anything on. I stand by my window (boy, this window gets a lot of use, doesn’t it?) or sit in my chair with my feet up on the edge of the window and just look out.

I start my day in a calm, measured way, because the way you start your day plays a big role in how your day is going to turn out.

6. Plan your calls.

Remember when you used your phone to make calls? Yeah, I barely remember it either. My kid has never seen a land line because we haven’t had one since she was 3 months old and none of our friends have one.

That means I carry the means for anyone to get in touch with me at any second of the day. I carry a way for you to interrupt me, but only if I let it.

You know I advise you don’t take that call with a client, and when you should take that call but only after they’ve answered your initial questions.

I don’t answer my phone for pretty much anyone but my wife. I don’t answer Slack notifications or Twitter DMs until it’s time to open those apps for the day. The only person that has an emergency that I’d need to pick up for is my wife, and she knows to only call if it’s something that she actually needs me for.

Not just a random call to chat during the work day.

Nothing interrupts a productive work session like a phone call. It involves a total context switch and getting your brain up to speed on whatever the caller thinks is important for you.

When that happens, you have to stop and make any notes pertinent to the call, then a total context switch back to whatever you were working on. But really, since you answered your phone while you were working, you were probably in a rush and didn’t make any notes about what you were doing.

When I calculate the cost, I figure a random 20-minute call costs me closer to an hour of effective work time in the day. It’s also likely that I didn’t provide the best information possible to the customer because I didn’t have any time to prepare for the call.

So, to be more effective in both my work and my calls, I book all calls through Calendly, and only during times that work for me. This approach is better for everyone.

When you build your ideal week, pick your call times and don’t answer the phone outside of them. That’s the only time I answer random calls in the week.

7. Plan your times to check distractions.

I’ve already talked about cutting out distractions. Eliminating distractions is important, but you also need to schedule some distractions into your day.

For a while, I’d check my Buffer stats on tweets daily, and then add ones I liked back to my Buffer stream. That’s a highly ineffective use of my time, so now I treat Buffer like a weekly review spot.

On Fridays only, I look through the week of content on Buffer and add some of the content back to the top of the Buffer stream.

I only check my WordPress stats twice a day because a good day is like crack (you just have to keep coming back to see how good it is) and any other day is like hoping for crack. You just want another hit; another good day.

I typically check stats just before I head out for lunch, and again before the end of the day. Checking my stats will only add bandwidth to the stats host server. It will have no effect on how much traffic I get in a day.

So I don’t waste any additional time doing it.

In Conclusion: Lots of Structure

Those are the 7 big things I do with my days to try and make sure I stay effective. Do I fail some days? Of course I do. I’m not a robot, despite all the structure I’ve built into my days.

Some may bristle at all this structure. My friends tell me I’m one of the most disciplined people they know.

The thing is, inside all this structure there is freedom. When it’s writing time, I don’t have to think about the client work not getting done because I’ve already planned my week built in the poper time for client work. All the tasks I need to get done are fit into the ideal week I planned.

When it’s time to write, I don’t worry about client work. I know I have time to do it all and the best thing I can do at that moment is focus on writing.

When it’s client work time, I don’t worry about content for the site because I know I can focus on that during my writing time.

When the phone rings and it’s not my wife’s special ring, I can just totally ignore it or hit mute without looking.

Having structure provides lots of freedom to be focused where I should be focused instead of jumping around all the time.

So what item do you think you’re going to adopt?

photo credit: kwl cc