Whether we’re helping students manage competing priorities and deadlines, or supporting ourselves and our colleagues’ efforts to stay on track with current responsibilities and new projects, most career services professionals are drawn to approaches that enable us to accomplish work more efficiently and effectively.
In this post I’ll share a few of my favorite workflow “hacks”—productivity practices that promote action rather than reaction, which can lead to checking items off our to-do lists more smoothly. This is a topic I have long been curious about, but it wasn’t until a few years ago (coinciding with becoming a parent) that I began actively exploring, practicing, and sharing these strategies.
Effective approaches to managing time—or, more precisely, how we focus our energy and effort during that time—will vary by individual, and I suspect many of these ideas will be familiar for readers. Here are my favorite tips:
Break projects into small action steps. With a large-scale undertaking, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the project’s scope, complexity, and how far it is to the finish line, all of which create resistance. Bypass this reaction by deconstructing a project into micro-steps, each of which will bring us a little closer towards our goal and create momentum. Use action verbs to define each step, and strive to make each action one that can be accomplished in a single sitting.
Externalize to-dos. As amazing as our brains are, they are relatively poor at remembering tasks and lists. By offloading the responsibility of remembering to-dos to a reliable, accessible, and external source (paper or digital), we free up cognitive resources for addressing the tasks. Choose a method that is simple to implement and easily accessed virtually anywhere: You want to be able to capture ideas quickly and have your list close at hand for regular review. I recommend using one integrated list rather than separate lists for home, school, work, and so forth.
Do your most complex work when you’re at your best. What time of day do you tend to be most alert and engaged? Each of us differs: for many it is early- to mid-morning, for others it is late at night. To the extent that is practical for you, reserve this time for your most mentally demanding work, those creative, strategic, or problem-solving tasks that benefit the most from your sustained focus.
Minimize “always on” e-mail. Do you find it difficult to resist checking your inbox when you know new messages are waiting? Few people enjoy being interrupted when immersed in a project or conversation, yet we do this to ourselves when e-mail inboxes are kept open throughout our work days, encouraging a state of constant vigilance and dispersed focus dubbed “continuous partial attention” by researcher Linda Stone. Set aside dedicated times throughout your day to review and respond to e-mail messages; outside of those times, close your e-mail client or inbox tab so you can focus on other tasks.
The list of individuals exploring and offering advice on productivity and time management is lengthy. Some I’ve found particularly helpful (and whose work inspired this post) include Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction; time management expert Elizabeth Grace Saunders; writer and researcher Daniel Goleman; David Allen, creator of Getting Things Done; and Scott Belsky, founder of 99U and author of Making Ideas Happen.
What practices or approaches help you stay productive? What’s missing from this list that you’d like others to know about?