“My day is packed, I have a 9 o’clock, a 10 o’clock, an 11 o’clock…”. How many times have you heard this when trying to follow up with someone? I remember one colleague in particular who packed his days so full that he had no time to do anything else. I recall asking, “Well, when do you have time to think and deal with issues that come up?” and he answered, “Oh, I don’t.” His reasoning? Since you can’t plan for the unexpected, why dedicate time to deal with unexpected things? Needless to say, he didn’t last long in that role.
When I think about the most productive and successful people I know, they’re not necessarily the busiest people with the craziest calendars. They’re the ones who think through what the end game is and make sure their time is spent accomplishing that specific goal. Do they take a meeting just because someone asked? Absolutely not.
Thoughtful work is strategic and carefully planned in order to generate value and advance a goal. Too many of us plan meeting after meeting and leave no time to process the work that actually needs to be done. You might find yourself being very “active” during your work days, but rarely are you actually being productive if you have no time to process or think.
There are countless strategies out there to help someone plan their day effectively, but in my experience, 7 of them truly stand out. These techniques harness the laws of human nature — they have stood the test of time and have been used by the most successful entrepreneurs for decades (by the way, if you only have time for one, scroll down to number six).
1. The Multitasking Myth
It’s commonplace in our world to multitask every part of our day. However, studies have shown that multitasking is only effective when applied to basic, low-brainpower tasks (think doing chores while watching a movie). Many of us are checking our emails or Slack messages during meetings only to realize we haven’t retained any information from the meeting. Leading researchers from around the world have said it over and over — multitasking is not effective, and in many cases, not even possible. When you try to accomplish multiple, complex tasks that each require specific needs and attention, your productivity is reduced up to an astonishing 40%, and it may even damage your brain.
How to avoid it: Start each day listing your tasks in order of priority. Plan intelligently so you can focus your whole attention on the task at hand and ignore distractions. Set yourself up for success by staying organized, and limit the temptation to hop around to other tasks. This goes hand in hand with the next tip, MIT.
2. Most Important Task (MIT)
The Most Important Task is a critical task that will make the most significant impact. These are the tasks that make the biggest difference if you get them done immediately. Creating a list of 2-3 MITs each day and keeping it separate from your other to-do lists will allow you to keep the MITs “critical”.
How to use it: Focus on getting your MITs done as quickly as possible—by 10am, for example—and you’ll have your most important tasks out of the way early in the day. Combining this technique with Pareto’s Principle and Parkinson’s Law below will make it even more effective.
3. Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 law
This powerful principle states that 80% of our results are generated by 20% of our efforts. For instance, 80% of overall production comes from about 20% of companies. There may be 20 sales representatives in a given company, but it’s likely only 4 are generating 80% of the sales. Similarly, 20% of all software bugs account for 80% of software crashes. It may not always be an exact 80/20, but overall the theory is surprisingly consistent across all industries and areas of our lives.
How to use it: Concentrate your efforts on what will bring in the most return. Double down on your winners instead of spending too much time fixing what’s not performing. As an entrepreneur, focus your time and money on the 20% of your clients that are generating 80% of your profits, then go find similar ones.
4. The Law of Diminishing Returns, or Illich’s Law
According to Ivan Illich, productivity tends to decrease or reach negative values over time. Meaning if you work for 8 hours straight, you will become less and less productive over this time, potentially even damaging the progress you previously made. To combat this, it is essential to take regular breaks throughout your day to maintain peak productivity. Through his studies, Illich found that even after just a couple hours of work, productivity starts to decrease.
How to use it: Regardless of the amount of work you need to do, you will only hurt your productivity by trying to power through. Schedule short but effective breaks throughout your day in order to allow your brain to reset, thus allowing you to pick back up at full speed. Personally, I take some time to work early in the morning, then follow it with some kind of exercise. This allows me to take a break while I process and think through the work from the morning. I continue the same process throughout my day––I plan strategic breaks (dinner with family, an evening walk, etc.) to help me unwind and allow my brain to rest and reset. Start small if you need to––something as simple as taking an actual lunch break (i.e. not eating at your desk) can make a huge impact.
5. Parkinson’s Law
This law states that the more time given to a task, the more the task will grow in complexity to fill the time. If you’re given a week to write an article, even if it would really only take you a day or so, your brain will find ways to fill the week. In business, many managers will hire more workers to try to increase production instead of trying to streamline the working process of the existing employees. It’s been proven that more workers do not always equal more production and can end up slowing down the process instead of improving it.
How to use it: As a business leader, it is your responsibility to set up optimal deadlines and workflows for your employees. Always allocate the least time necessary for tasks and organize them into subtasks. Optimizing working conditions and processes will go much further than hiring and training more people.
Limits of applicability: Some complex tasks may not work well with this law, as they may not be able to be assessed effectively enough to be broken down into smaller, timed tasks. Also, some employees and managers may feel that the less something is worked on, the lower the quality may be––this is a hard mentality to override.
6. Corollary: Timeboxing
Timeboxing is a great way to harness both Parkinson’s Law and The Law of Diminishing Returns. Instead of cramming all of your tasks on a to-do list, block out time for specific tasks on your calendar (like 45 minutes to complete task “X”). Use a “timebox” to not only plan the time you need, but to also hold yourself accountable.
How to use it: You could spend your entire day answering emails, so make sure to time bound this activity or you won’t get anything else done. For example, if you have a deliverable due Friday and you need 72 hours to make the appropriate changes, you now know exactly how much time to block (or timebox) on your calendar. Also, using a shared, timeboxed calendar with teammates allows for even better collaboration. Timeboxing also works well with your internal “productivity” clock. Are you more focused in the early afternoon? Schedule your most complex tasks for those hours and watch your productivity spike.
7. The 2-Minute Rule
As productivity coach David Allen puts it, if it can be done in 2 minutes, do it now. His theory helps you avoid accumulating tasks and instead quickly knock things off your list. If you have something important to do that will take you a short time (i.e. 2 minutes), do it immediately.
How to use it: A colleague asks you to send them a document. You could add this to your list and send it later in the day (or the next day, or the next, etc.), or you can send the document right away. Out of sight, out of mind, and not on your list anymore. Very quickly, you’ll build the habit of ridding yourself of small tasks that you would have otherwise procrastinated. The LIFO (Last In, First Out) method also works well here: if someone calls you and you can take the call, then take it instead of adding “call her back” to the list.
One or a combination of these techniques may prove useful to you at any given time, depending on where you are in your business journey. For instance, as an investor helping entrepreneurs scale their businesses, I only plan out about half of my day. That way, I can process things as they happen, such as an unplanned call from a portfolio CEO who needs guidance with their strategy.
Always plan your day intelligently—make time to do thoughtful work, schedule only strategic meetings, and don’t forget to have a little downtime to regroup.